Coding Horror

programming and human factors

Properties vs. Public Variables

I occasionally see code with properties like this:

private int name;

public int Name
get { return name; }
set { name = value; }

As I see it, there are three things to consider here.

  1. When is a property not a property? When it's a glorified public variable.

    Why waste everyone's time with a bunch of meaningless just-in-case wrapper code? Start with the simplest thing that works-- a public variable. You can always refactor this later into a property if it turns out additional work needs to be done when the name value is set. If you truly need a property, then use a property. Otherwise, KISS!

    Update: As many commenters have pointed out, there are valid reasons to make a trivial property, exactly as depicted above:

    • Reflection works differently on variables vs. properties, so if you rely on reflection, it's easier to use all properties.
    • You can't databind against a variable.
    • Changing a variable to a property is a breaking change.

    It's a shame there's so much meaningless friction between variables and properties; most of the time they do the exact same thing. Kevin Dente proposed a bit of new syntax that would give us the best of both worlds:

    public property int Name;

    However, if the distinction between variable and property is such an ongoing problem, I wonder if a more radical solution is in order. Couldn't we ditch variables entirely in favor of properties? Don't properties do exactly the same thing as variables, but with better granular control over visibility?

  2. Distinguishing public and private using only case is an accident waiting to happen.

    The difference between name and Name is subtle at best. I don't want to reopen the whole case sensitivity debate, but using case to distinguish between variables is borderline irresponsible programming. Use a distinction that looks and reads different: m_name, _name. Or maybe eschew prefixes altogether and use fully qualified references: I don't really care. But please, for the love of all that's holy, don't abuse us with even more meaningless case sensitivity.

  3. Is it a property or a method?

    In this case, we barely have a property. But if you are executing code in a property, make sure you've written a property and not a method. A property should do less work-- a lot less work-- than a method. Properties should be lightweight. If your property incurs significant effort, it should be refactored into an explicit method. Otherwise it's going to feel like an annoying side-effect of setting a property. And if there's any chance at all that code could spawn an hourglass, it definitely should be a method. Conversely, if you have a lot of simple, lightweight methods, maybe they ought to be expressed as properties. Just something to think about.

The really important thing to take away here is to avoid writing code that doesn't matter. And property wrappers around public variables are the very essence of meaningless code.

As for the rest, I've learned to take a "live and let live" approach to code formatting, at least for cosmetic stuff like variable names. When in doubt, try to follow the Microsoft internal coding guidelines unless you have a compelling reason not to.

But a few things still get under my skin. I've even seen .NET constants expressed in the old school all-caps way:

static const int TRIGGER_COUNT = 100;

All style guidelines aside, you know that ain't right.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Overflow and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: