This article was contributed by David A. Black, Lead Developer at Cyrus Innovation. David is a long-time Ruby developer, author, trainer, speaker, and community event organizer. He is the author of The Well-Grounded Rubyist (Manning Publications, 2009).

A lot has been written and said about the Law of Demeter. I’d read and heard a lot about the law before I ever went back and looked at the seminal, original papers that described it. In spite of how much I thought I knew about the law, I found those original papers quite enlightening and absorbing.

I’ve been particularly absorbed in two articles: the 1988 OOPSLA paper “Object-Oriented Programming: An Objective Sense of Style” by Karl J. Lieberherr, Ian M. Holland, and Arthur J.Riel, and the 1989 article “Assuring Good Style for Object-Oriented Programs” by Lieberherr and Holland. The two papers are of course closely related. But what I’ve found interesting, aside from just the process of studying and absorbing information about the Law of Demeter at its source, is considering the ways in which they differ.

Both papers posit that there are different versions of the Law of Demeter. But the taxonomies they construct for the law differ considerably from each other. A lot of further thought and work, evidently, went into the law between 1988 and 1989.

I’m going to put the two taxonomies, and the differences between them, under a microscope – at least, a medium-powered microscope. I won’t recapitulate everything in the two articles, but I’ll go into enough detail to set the stage for some reflective and interpretive observations about why the law might have evolved in the ways it did in a relatively short time.

I’ll then conclude with a couple of speculative, open-ended thoughts about the Law of Demeter as it relates to general problems of code organization and best practices in programming – a probably small-scale but hopefully interesting perspective that I’ve dubbed “Metademeter”.

THE 1988 TAXONOMY

Note: In addition to the type and object versions of the law described here, the 1988 article talks about the strong and weak versions of the law. That distinction has to do with whether or not it’s considered permissible to send messages to inherited instance variables. The strong version says no; the weak version says yes. I’m not going to go into detail about that aspect of the 1988 taxonomy, but it’s certainly worth a look at the original article.

In 1988, the three authors state the Law of Demeter, initially, in the following terms:

For all classes C, and for all methods M attached to C, all objects to which M sends a message must be instances of classes associated with the following classes:

  1. The argument classes of M (including C).
  2. The instance variable classes of C.

  (Objects created by M, or by functions or methods which M calls, and objects
  in global variables are considered as arguments of M.) 

  (pg. 325)

There follows an extensive treatment of the motivation for and implications of the law. Included in this treatment is consideration of a case where strict adherence to the law nonetheless runs contrary to its intended effect. Consider a case where there’s a kind of circular structure to the instance variable types of a set of classes. The following example is adapted from the article, and while Ruby doesn’t enforce instance variable classes, the code illustrates the basic difficulty the authors identify:

  class A
    def initialize
      @b, @c, @d, @e = B.new, C.new, D.new, E.new
    end

    def bad_style
      b.d.e
    end

    attr_reader :b, :c, :d, :e
  end

  class B
    def initialize
      @c, @d = C.new, D.new
    end

    attr_reader :c, :d
  end

  class C; end

  class D
    def initialize
      @e = E.new
    end

    attr_reader :e
  end

  class E; end

  a = A.new
  a.bad_style

The bad_style instance method in class A, called at the end of the example, triggers a series of calls. The first, a call to the reader method b, returns a’s instance variable @b, which is an instance of class B. Then the message d is sent to that B instance; the result is an instance of D, namely the instance held in the instance variable @d of the B instance. Sending d to a B instance is legal, Demeter-wise, because one of a’s instance variables is of class B. Then the D instance gets the message e; this is also OK for the same reason.

So you’ve only “talked to” objects belonging to classes corresponding to instance variables of your instance of A, but, as the article states, “the method looks two levels deep into the structure of instance variable first, violating the ideals of information-hiding and maintainability.”

The authors propose a second formulation of the law as a way around this problem. Note that here the law is stated in terms of objects, not classes:

  For all classes C, and for all methods M attached to C, all objects to which M
  sends a message must be:

    * M's argument objects, including the self object or...
    * The instance variable objects of C. 

  (Objects created by M, or by functions or methods which M calls, and objects
  in global variables are considered as arguments of M.) 

  (327)

The downside to this object version of the Law of Demeter is that it makes it hard to do compile-time checking. The conclusion of the authors is that “to retain easy compile-time checking we require the Law’s formulation in terms of types. We feel that such path[o]logical cases as the one above will not occur often enough to cause problems” (327).

Still, the object version of the law serves as an important guide for programmers. Toward the end of the article, the authors provide formulations of the law for several specific object-oriented languages, using the law’s object version. Of the languages for which they offer such formulations, the closest to Ruby is Smalltalk-80. In that language, the authors state that message-sending should be restricted to:

  • an argument object of [the method] M including objects in pseudo variables “self” and “super” or
  • an instance variable object of the class to which M is attached. (332)

As before, newly-created objects and objects in global variables count as argument objects.

The object version of the law casts a somewhat wider net, as far as languages are concerned, than the first, class version. Certainly for a dynamic language like Ruby, where static code analysis can do relatively little for you and compile-time checking doesn’t exist, the object version makes sense. It also makes sense in languages where there’s no such thing as the type of an instance variable; Ruby instance variables, for example, can be assigned any object and even different objects at different times. The object version of the law of Demeter, as laid out in 1988, doesn’t specifically address the matter of reassigning to instance variables but might provide enough structure and discipline to give you pause if you find yourself doing that.

Let’s move a year forward.

THE 1989 TAXONOMY

Like the 1988 article, the 1989 article presents the Law of Demeter in two major versions: the class version and the object version. Here, though, the definitions of the two versions have changed in interesting ways, and the class version, in turn, is broken down into the minimization version and the strict version.

The 1989 taxonomy of the law rests on the notion of clients and suppliers. Clients are methods; suppliers are classes. If method M calls method N on an instance of class C (or on class C itself), then M is a client of both the method N and the class C. In turn, C is a supplier to M. (There are some further subtleties but this is the thrust of how clients and suppliers relate to each other.)

In the client/supplier relationship, the supplier class may be an acquaintance class (what’s often paraphrased as a “stranger”), or it may be a preferred supplier (sometimes called a “friend”). Preferred suppliers, in brief, include:

  • the subcategory preferred acquaintance, consisting of:
    • the class(es) of object(s) instantiated inside the client method
    • the class(es) of global object(s)
  • the class of an instance variable (or a superclass)
  • the class of an argument to the method (or a superclass)

The article summarizes the two sub-versions of the class version of the law as follows:

  Minimization version: Minimize the number of acquaintance classes of all
  methods.

  Strict version: All methods may have only preferred-supplier classes. 
  (40-41)

As you can see, the 1989 taxonomy involves more terms and definitions than the 1988 taxonomy. It’s a denser account of the law. But there’s something gained for the added complexity. Everything is organized from the root of the structure upward. The categories of newly created objects and global variables, both of which were literally added via parenthetical addenda to the 1988 versions of the law, are more smoothly integrated into the model in 1989. Every imaginable object that might be sent a message falls somewhere on one consistent spectrum, ranging from mere acquaintance (to be avoided) to preferred acquaintance (acceptable but still flagged as not quite a full friend) to preferred supplier (the real friends). I have found that the 1989 taxonomy requires longer and deeper study than the 1988 taxonomy, but that it repays careful reading.

And that’s just the class version of the law. As before, there’s also an object version, summarized as follows:

  All methods may have only preferred-supplier objects. 

Note the shift, subtle but important, from classes to objects, as compared with the strict version of the class version of the law. Focusing on objects allows for inclusion of such constructs as self and super. Moreover, the authors make the following interesting point about the object version of the law:

    While the object version of the law expresses what is really wanted, it cannot
    be enforced at compile time. The object version serves as an additional guide
    in addition to the class version of the law (42).

There’s a kind of “bend before you break” principle at work here. The Law of Demeter is not all-or-nothing, as regards the ability to do compile-time checking. It’s also something that you can, and in some cases must, bake into your programming habits as you go along.

As in 1988, the 1989 authors present a kind of checklist of how to enforce the law in the cases of several specific languages (C++, CLOS, Eiffel, Flavors, and Smalltalk-80). Interestingly, the 1989 account of how to apply the language to C++ recommends the strict version of the class form of the law – whereas in 1988, the C++ guidelines suggested the object version. For the other languages, the 1989 guidelines refer to the object version, though there’s some explanatory text suggesting that in any statically-typed language (including Eiffel), “the class form is most useful because it can be checked by a modified compiler” (47).

Once again, the Smalltalk-80 criteria come the closest to what we might formulate for Ruby:

  Smalltalk-80, object form. In all message expressions inside method M the
  receiver must be one of the following objects:
    * an argument object of M, including objects in the pseudovariables Self and
      Super,
    * an immediate part of Self, or
    * an object that is either an object created directly by M or an object in a
      global variable (47).

(An “immediate part of Self” can be an instance variable. It is not explicitly stated in the article whether or not the concept of “immediate part” can also include collection elements.)

The salient point here is that the framers of the Law of Demeter were at pains to welcome dynamic languages to the fold. This is directly related to the complexity of the taxonomy of the law. Exploding the law into several versions and sub-versions allows for close, reasoned analysis of what can and cannot be checked at compile time, as well as other details and underpinnings of the law’s rationale and logic. In the end, though, everything converges back on the original purpose: providing programmers using object-oriented languages with a set of principles that reduce inter-class dependencies.

METADEMETER

The Law of Demeter is engineered to help programmers using object-oriented languages gain a lot of clarity of code for a relatively small price. Of course, there’s a whole world of refactoring out there; the Law of Demeter is not the only guideline, or set of guidelines, for making code better, clearer, and more maintainable. It would be a mistake to lump all refactorings as “Demeter-ish”; that does justice neither to the Law of Demeter nor to the other refactorings.

And yet… I’m intrigued by the possibility that recognizable aspects of the Law of Demeter might surface in contexts other than those for which the law was originally formulated. I’m not going to push this point very far. I’ve got one example that I find suggestive, and I’ll leave it at that. See what you think.

The 1989 article describes a programming technique that the authors call lifting. To illustrate lifting, here’s an example of an acquaintance class, and a Demeter violation:

  class Plane
    attr_accessor :name
  end

  class Flight
    attr_accessor :plane
  end

  class Person
    def itinerary_for(flight)
      "Flight on #{flight.plane.name}"
    end
  end

Here, Plane is an acquaintance class of Person. Flight isn’t; Flight is a preferred supplier class, because it’s the class of an argument. Flight is a friend; Plane isn’t, and by calling name on a plane object we’re operating outside of the Law of Demeter.

You can fix this Demeter violation by “lifting” the method that provides the information into the external class:

  class Plane
    attr_accessor :name
  end

  class Flight
    attr_accessor :plane
    def plane_name
      plane.name
    end
  end

  class Person
    def itinerary_for(flight)
      "Flight on #{flight.plane_name}"
    end
  end

Note that this code is longer than the original. It’s not uncommon for Demeter-compliant code to have more methods than non-compliant code. The gain, on the other hand, lies in the way the code is organized, and the ease with which the code can be maintained and changed. If you change the way Plane#name works, and you want to make sure it’s still used consistently in all your code, you only need to hunt for classes that use Plane objects as arguments or instance variables, and make sure the code is still correct. In the first version of the plane code, you’d have to dig deep into every class in the program, since you have no guidelines for figuring out where Plane#name is likely to be called or not called.

Now for the part about aspects of Demeter cropping up outside the original context. I’m thinking specifically of programming controllers and view templates in Rails. Templates are already a bit of an oddity, in terms of object-oriented programming, because of the way they share instance variables with controller actions: assign something to @buyer in the controller, and you can use @buyer in the view. Instance variables always belong to self, and self in the controller is different from self in the view – yet the instance variables resurface.

In case you’ve ever wondered, this is brought about by an explicit assignment mechanism: when a view object is created, it copies over the controller’s instance variables one by one into instance variables of its own. So we’ve got a domain-specific and kind of hybrid situation: two self objects sharing, or appearing to share, instance variables.

So where does lifting come in, in any sense reminiscent of the Law of Demeter?

Consider a view snippet like this:

  <% @user.friends.each do |friend| %>
    <% friend.items.each do |iitem| %>
      <%= friend.name %> has a(n) <%= item.description %>
    <% end %>
  <% end %>

I don’t want to get into a whole debate here about whether or not it’s ever acceptable to hit the database from the views. My philosophy has always been that you should be allowed to send a message to any object that the controller shares with the view. By that reckoning, @user.friends would be acceptable, and it’s up to the controller to eager-load the friends if it wants to.

But what about friend.items? Here we’re wandering out on a limb; we’re an extra level of remove from the original object. I can’t claim that this is exactly the situation envisioned by the framers of the Law of Demeter – but it reminds me strongly of Demeter-ish situations. And I would propose a Demeter-ish solution, based on the lifting technique: “lift” one of the method calls back into the controller. Here’s a simple version:

  def show
    @user = current_user
    @friends = @user.friends
  end

And then in the view:

  <% @friends.each do |friend| %>
    <% friend.items.each do |item| %>
      <%= friend.name %> has a(n) <%= item.description %>
    <% end %>
  <% end %>

In “metademeter” terms, we’re talking only to the immediate parts of the @friends object – in this case, the elements of a collection. I believe there’s room for debate, within discussions of the law itself, on whether or not collection elements count as immediate parts of an object. But here it seems a good fit. Again, keep in mind that this is just an observation of what I would call a Demeter-ish way of thinking about code. The Rails controller/view relation is not the same as the relation between and among classes and methods that the Law of Demeter directly addresses. And the object whose immediate parts I’m restricting myself to is not the self object; it is, itself, an instance variable object. Still, I think we could do worse in a situation like this than to be inspired to think of a motto like “talk only to your friends”, understanding “friends” to be objects that lie one method call away from the original ActiveRecord objects handed off by the controller.

That’s the extent of my metademeter musings. Meanwhile I hope you’ll continue to study and contemplate the Law of Demeter, and explore the many writings and discussions and debates that you’ll find surrounding it. I’ve presented no more than a subset of what has been or can be said; but I hope that this trip back to the original statements on the law has been engaging and worthwhile.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING