Type qualifiers and method params

Sunday, September 18, 2011
So I'm not terribly happy with the current syntax for specifying readonly function arguments.

I'm finding that in practice, a large percentage of all function arguments are readonly. This is no surprise - many functions take arguments that they don't modify. Unfortunately, this means that if you add the readonly qualifier to all of the places where it should go, the word "readonly" then appears in dozens if not hundreds of times in a typical source file. It makes function signatures considerably longer. It also violates one of my design principles, which is that the things that "stand out" visually in the code should be the things that are most important to the reader. In the case of a function declaration, the most important thing is the parameter type, and I find that adding readonly(Type) everywhere makes the parameter type less visually pronounced.

I have two ideas for solving this. The first idea is to make all function parameters readonly by default. That is, if you plan on mutating a function parameter, you'll have to explicitly declare it mutable. It turns out that if you do this, there's only a very few functions which require the mutable qualifier. This is good, because it really brings to your attention the fact that the parameter is somehow different from other parameters.

(I should clarify something - we're not talking about mutating the parameter, but rather the thing the parameter points to. So a parameter like "dst:mutable(char[])" means that you're allowed to set elements in the array. The parameters themselves are always mutable, although Tart will notice if the parameter is never assigned to, and will enable certain optimizations if that is the case.)

A different idea is to make a shortcut syntax for readonly. To fit within Tart's conventions, it should be a suffix. I was thinking something along the lines of "Type|r". I know that looks kind of weird - but then I was thinking, what if the "|" operator really meant "filter"? After all, that's kind of what "readonly" does - given an interface, it filters out (makes unavailable) all of the methods that would mutate the object. What if there were other kinds of filters? Not that I have any specific ideas for such.

My meta-theme here is that syntax should follow Claude Shannon's law of information, which in this case I interpret as "the more unexpected an event is, the more information it contains". The most common case contains the least information, and the notation for expressing that case should be terse. OTOH cases which are rare contain more information, and therefore should take up more space on the page.

This is part of the justification for having a shortcut syntax for array types (foo[]) and array literals ([1, 2, 3]). The three most commonly used containers are arrays, linked lists, and maps. These three account for something like 95% of all collections used in programs. I think that all three of those should have shortcut syntax, for the simple reason that they are so common.


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