Coding Standards and Orthography

Coding Standards and Orthography

Sometimes when I bring up the subject of coding standards, I get an eye-rolling, aren't-we-all-adults-here kind of reaction from my fellow programmers -- or a fearful look anticipating endless debates about where the braces should go. Of course, "coding standards" can cover a gamut of subjects -- from techniques to avoid shooting yourself in the foot to parenthesis placement -- but even the little stuff matters, because writing code is largely about communicating with humans.

The adage says, "code is read more than it is written." If this isn't completely obvious, try this experiment:

  1. Turn off your monitor
  2. Write some code

It's pretty hard to write code without at least reading it once, so if you ever read it again you've satisfied the adage's assertion. Chances are that you or someone else will read the code many more times.

Flippancy aside, a survey of software maintenance cost studies shows that greater than 90% of the cost of software is in maintaining and enhancing it, and "Studies of software maintainers have shown that approximately 50% of their time is spent in the process of understanding the code that they are to maintain."

If you accept the premise that code is a form of written communication with people as a primary audience, then it makes sense to draw from the ideas of similar systems with hundreds of years of experience behind them, like say, written English.

Orthography (literally "correct writing") are the rules of writing a language, with special emphasis on standardized spelling. There was an argument and rebuttal a little while back in Wired Magazine for doing away with standardized spelling, which was also covered on NPR.

In the NPR interview, Anne Trubek says:

So my basic argument is that if you look at the history of the English language, a lot of people think there are sort of immutable laws that are, you know, God-given or laws of nature. But actually, it's a bunch of manmade prescriptions and guidelines that change over time.

In other words, Trubek is saying that correctness is somewhat arbitrary, but as something becomes standardized, people start to treat right and wrong in an almost moral sense that isn't justifiable.

Lee Simmons, a copy editor for Wired, who has the job of making sure words are spelled correctly, responds with:

I would say spelling rules, for what they are, they're all about making communication easier. If I could use an analogy, the Internet itself is essentially a set of standards - hardware and software standards - that make it possible for people with different devices to communicate. It creates a universal platform. And I would argue that our English spelling system, for all its flaws, provides just such a universal platform.... We can argue about whether we ought to reform the standards, make the system more logical, but I would argue that the standards themselves are something that we need to preserve.

Simply put, it's easier to read words that are spelled how we expect.

English also developed standard punctuation and good style, again with the objective of writing to be understood, but we sometimes forget things like that when writing code. We laugh at "The Department of Redundancy Department", but many programmers don't see anything wrong with code like:

// find the customer with the id
var customer = Customers.Find(customerId);

or

return (a == b) ? true : false;

Does it matter where braces and parentheses go? Certainly not in any moral sense, but there are standards that are more logical than others. If you're reading an English sentence with parentheses (like this one) and suddenly things get a little weird( like this )then it interrupts the communication. Or what (if I) just start) throwing unnecessary( parentheses in?

return (theResult);

Communication is actually kind of hard. Consider the fact that professional writers, who presumably have some talent for communication, almost never publish the first thing that shows up in the word processor. They revise, rework, rewrite until their ideas are expressed well. Then someone else comes along to fix the places where the writer still didn't get it quite right.

Do people even notice if you make a similar effort to make your code easy to read? Or do they just say, "Oh, that's easy," compared to looking at some complicated mess and say, "Wow, that guy's smart"?

Coding standards are a tool, one of many available to programmers to facilitate communication. Why not take advantage of it? Your future self will thank you.