The Semicolon Wars

The Semicolon Wars
Brian Hayes

A laypeople's introduction to the world of programming languages from American Scientist. Includes some history, a high-level overview of different programming paradigms, some guesses at which differences make a difference, some Dijkstra, and some cheap shots at zealots.

Regular LtU readers won't find anything new here, but it's a good article, and it's always nice to see something like this for the general reading public.

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Good read

If I hadn't known anything about programming languages (or not much) going into this article, I would have come out a lot more educated, but... the piece seems to trivialize the influence of Dijkstra, portraying him as a closed-minded curmudgeon picking on COBOL and PL/I (which, I think we all can agree, deserve a little picking on). Other than that, I would use this piece to explain some PL concepts to my programming-illiterate girlfriend, if that illustrates how good of a primer I felt it was.

Did anybody else get the same vibe from the Dijkstra paragraph?

How do we tell truths...

Did anybody else get the same vibe from the Dijkstra paragraph?

I got that vibe from much of the piece. It seemed superficial and random to me. I thought it was particularly weird that after haranguing about trivial syntax wars and overzealous proselytizing, the author goes on to proselytize Lisp. I wouldn't recommend this article to anyone looking for insight into the subject, at any level, except maybe the brief part which gives a classification of languages — but that's not useful enough on its own.

[Edit: BTW, I'm not criticizing the posting of the article here; it's always interesting to see this kind of thing in more mainstream media. But I think programming languages need better PR than this!]


The thing really missing from this piece is any indication of why this all matters. When someone asks me why I do programming language tools as a hobby, I usually quip something like "Because if no one does, somewhere around 2037 the majority of human systems will collapse under the weight of cascading bugs. Such programmers as survive will not be looked kindly upon." It's a joke, but in the immortal words of Homer Simpson "It's funny because it's true"

Some indication of the stakes involved, if only in terms of productivity and costs of mistakes, would have be welcome. An outsider could easily conclude that there's nothing going on in languages work beyond fashion.


Speaking of Cobol, I read Stop Bashing Cobol last night, and I was mightily suprised and horrified.

Cobol == Co(b)ol == Cool

Maybe this could happen only in the Netherlands. Accepting the socio-technical facts instead of falling in utopian hysterie ( "Please lets do the ultimate language..." ) which is ubiquious among programmers and having fun with refactoring and improving legacy systems/languages. I'm not planning to learn Cobol but those researchers are really my guys.

This reminds me...

Talking of popularization, I am reminded of Doug Hofstadter's Metamagical Themas three-part introduction to Scheme. It was rather good as far as I remember.

Third Option

He missed the third option. The semicolon is neither a separator nor a terminator but rather the sequencing operator...