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THE COMMENTO
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CHARACTERS: THRASYMACHUS A green, theoretical purist who believes everything he reads CALLICLES A battle-hardened veteran from the old school a real programmer GLAUCON A young, confident, hot-shot computer jock
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32. Self-Documenting Code
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ISMENE A senior programmer tired of big promises, just looking for a few practices that work SOCRATES The wise old programmer
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SETTING: The Weekly Team Meeting
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I want to suggest a commenting standard for our projects, Thrasymachus said. Some of our programmers barely comment their code, and everyone knows that code without comments is unreadable. You must be fresher out of college than I thought, Callicles responded. Comments are an academic panacea, but everyone who s done any real programming knows that comments make the code harder to read, not easier. English is less precise than Java or Visual Basic and makes for a lot of excess verbiage. Programming-language statements are short and to the point. If you can t make the code clear, how can you make the comments clear Plus, comments get out of date as the code changes. If you believe an out-of-date comment, you re sunk. I agree with that, Glaucon joined in. Heavily commented code is harder to read because it means more to read. I already have to read the code; why should I have to read a lot of comments too Wait a minute, Ismene said, putting down her coffee mug to put in her two drachmas worth. I know that commenting can be abused, but good comments are worth their weight in gold. I ve had to maintain code that had comments and code that didn t, and I d rather maintain code with comments. I don t think we should have a standard that says use one comment for every x lines of code, but we should encourage everyone to comment. If comments are a waste of time, why does anyone use them, Callicles Socrates asked. Either because they re required to or because they read somewhere that they re useful. No one who s thought about it could ever decide they re useful. Ismene thinks they re useful. She s been here three years, maintaining your code without comments and other code with comments, and she prefers the code with comments. What do you make of that Comments are useless because they just repeat the code in a more verbose
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KEY POINT
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32. Self-Documenting Code
Page 7
Wait right there, Thrasymachus interrupted. Good comments don t repeat the code or explain it. They clarify its intent. Comments should explain, at a higher level of abstraction than the code, what you re trying to do. Right, Ismene said. I scan the comments to find the section that does what I need to change or fix. You re right that comments that repeat the code don t help at all because the code says everything already. When I read comments, I want it to be like reading headings in a book, or a table of contents. Comments help me find the right section, and then I start reading the code. It s a lot faster to read one sentence in English than it is to parse 20 lines of code in a programming language. Ismene poured herself another cup of coffee. I think that people who refuse to write comments (1) think their code is clearer than it could possibly be; (2) think that other programmers are far more interested in their code than they really are; (3) think other programmers are smarter than they really are; (4) are lazy; or (5) are afraid someone else might figure out how their code works. Code reviews would be a big help here, Socrates, Ismene continued. If someone claims they don t need to write comments and are bombarded by questions in a review several peers start saying, What the heck are you trying to do in this piece of code then they ll start putting in comments. If they don t do it on their own, at least their manager will have the ammo to make them do it. I m not accusing you of being lazy or afraid that people will figure out your code, Callicles. I ve worked on your code and you re one of the best programmers in the company. But have a heart, huh Your code would be easier for me to work on if you used comments. But they re a waste of resources, Callicles countered. A good programmer s code should be self-documenting; everything you need to know should be in the code. No way! Thrasymachus was out of his chair. Everything the compiler needs to know is in the code! You might as well argue that everything you need to know is in the binary executable file! If you were smart enough to read it! What is meant to happen is not in the code. Thrasymachus realized he was standing up and sat down. Socrates, this is ridiculous. Why do we have to argue about whether or not comments are valuable Everything I ve ever read says they re valuable and should be used liberally. We re wasting our time.
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