“Hints on Programming Language Design” by C.A.R Hoare: Quick Summary

Hoare’s “Hints on Programming Language Design” was written in December, 1973 and the first few pages on general principles are still very pertinent. Here’s a summary.

  • A programming language should support the three most difficult tasks in programming:

    • Program Design – “A good programming language should give assistance in expressing not only how the program is to run, but what it is intended to accomplish”.
    • Programming Documentation: “A good programming language will encourage and assist the programmer to write clear self-documenting code, and even perhaps to develop and display a pleasant style of writing. The readability of programs is immeasurably more important their writeability.
    • Program Debugging: Various aspects of the language help reduce confusion, also compiler should be fast.
  • Because programmers are reluctant to learn new languages, simplicity must be a priority if converts are to be gained. (Note: This is sad but true.)

  • Principles:

    • Simplicity: “Some language designers have replaced the objective of simplicity by that of modularity”. But what happens if a bug arises and the programmer doesn’t fully understand what’s going on? “Another replacement of simplicity as an objective has been orthogonality of design”. e.g. complex numbers … as with modularity, a good goal, but no substitute for simplicity.
    • Security: Shouldn’t have to remove security features when going into production. “What would we think of a sailing enthusiast who wears his lifejacket when training on dry land, but takes it off as soon as he goes to sea?”. (Note: Good argument for run-time assertions.)
    • Fast Translation.
    • Efficient object code. Don’t ignore performance and assume it can be optimised later on. (Note: are languages a reasonable exception to the optimise-on-the-fly school, or is this statement just obsolete?)
    • Readability: “In practice, experience shows that it is very unlikely that the output of a computer will ever be more readable than its input”. (Note: Sad but true again. We’re on the verge of more powerful visualisations, but still not there 32 years after this paper was written.)
  • On reflection (LISP-like programming etc): “The introduction of program structures into a language not only helps the programmer, but does not injure the efficiency of an implementation.”

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