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Extreme Syntax

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In his book Let Over Lambda, Doug Hoyte says

Lisp is the result of taking syntax away, Perl is the result of taking syntax all the way.

Lisp practically has no syntax. It simply has parenthesized expressions. This makes it very easy to start using the language. And above all, it makes it easy to treat code as data. Lisp macros are very powerful, and these macros are made possible by the fact that the language is simple to parse.

Perl has complex syntax. Some people say it looks like line noise because its liberal use of non-alphanumeric characters as operators. Perl is not easy to parse — there’s a saying that only Perl can parse Perl — nor is it easy to start using. But the language was designed for regular users, not beginners, because you spend more time using a language than learning it.

There are reasons I no longer use Perl, but I don’t object to the rich syntax. Saying Perl is hard to use because of its symbols is like saying Greek is hard to learn because it has a different alphabet. It takes years to master Greek, but you can learn the alphabet in a day. The alphabet is not the hard part.

Symbols can make text more expressive. If you’ve ever tried to read mathematics from the 18th or 19th century, you’ll see what I mean. Before the 20th century, math publications were very verbose. It might take a paragraph to say what would now be said in a single equation. In part this is because notation has developed and standardized over time. Also, it is now much easier to typeset the symbols someone would use in handwriting. Perl’s repertoire of symbols is parsimonious compared to mathematics.

I imagine that programming languages will gradually expand their range of symbols.

People joke about how unreadable Perl code is, but I think a page of well-written Perl is easier to read than a page of well-written Lisp.  At least the Perl is easier to scan: Lisp’s typographical monotony makes it hard to skim for landmarks. One might argue that a page of Lisp can accomplish more than a page of Perl, and that may be true, but that’s another topic.

***

Any discussion of symbols and programming languages must mention APL. This language introduced a large number of new symbols and never gained wide acceptance. I don’t know that much about APL, but I’ll give my impression of why I don’t think APL’s failure is not proof that programmers won’t use more symbols.

APL required a special keyboard to input. That would no longer be necessary. APL also introduced a new programming model; the language would have been hard to adopt even without the special symbols. Finally, APL’s symbols were completely unfamiliar and introduced all at once, unlike math notation that developed world-wide over centuries.

***

What if programming notation were more like music notation? Music notation is predominately non-verbal, but people learn to read it fluently with a little training. And it expresses concurrency very easily. Or maybe programs could look more like choral music, a mixture of symbols and prose.

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Published at DZone with permission of John Cook, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

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