Language for the ages

Jules Richardson julesrichardsonuk at
Thu Oct 20 12:52:56 CDT 2005

a.carlini at wrote:
> Jules Richardson wrote:
>>That was such a scary thought I had to share it, although I suppose it
>>does point out that comments are only useful if you speak the language
>>they're written in, and there's no real substitute for decent code
>>which goes a long way toward explaining itself... :-)
> I presume that you realise that "decent code which goes 
> a long way toward explaining itself" is subject to the
> same restriction, i.e. you need to understand the human
> language in which the implementor chose to write the
> variable and function names.

Yes, but it does really just boil down to variable and function names - 
and it's a lot easier to look those up using a dictionary than it is to 
understand the full language needed to read comments.

I've been there before with both Spanish and German code (neither a 
language that I know) and if the code's written well it's just a few 
minutes extra armed with a dictionary before it all makes sense, without 
really the need for the comments.

Actually, I've seen a lot of pretty meaningless English comments over 
the years which only serve to mask bad code - I guess there's no 
substitute for programmers actually understanding the (coding) language 
which they're writing in (which seems to be a rarer thing as time goes one)

> Or do you believe that
> running decent code through a "shrouding" program
> will have no effect on your ability to understand it?

I'm not saying yes you your question, but interesting observation:

Personally I find that the layout and use of whitespace in higher-level 
langauges goes a long way toward making it understandable. It's still 
possible to quickly parse code with meaningless variable / function 
names providing it's well laid out.

Of course, that's subject to the app/driver/whatever being sufficiently 
modular and of good design in the first place. I've seen some really 
nasty stuff over the years where it's next to impossible to understand :-)

Actually, bad memories flooding back here! One of the worst situations I 
came across was a function of several thousand lines of code, doing many 
different jobs, and without a single comment. This in a high level 
language too. Variable names were human-readable (not just 'i' or 
whatever), but only valid contextually once within the several thousand 
lines of code (and not necessarily the first time they were used, 
either). Various statements never even got reached for all possible 
valid inputs, *and* the function was recursive for certain input states. 
Picking that apart was something of a challenge...



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