Learning from Linguistics

Don’t worry about the title, this is a post about software design. This week I started following a Coursera course, Think Again: How to Reason and Argue. In it, the cooperative principle and its constituting maxims are presented which describe how people ideally should interact with each other. I realized the maxims apply to software design as well; after all, programming is a cooperative process, at least if you want your code to be usable by others. At the very minimum all of the maxims apply to the comments and documentation, them being language. Sometimes a direct relation to the existing design principles we follow can be drawn.

Maxim of Quantity

  1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current
    purposes of the exchange).
  2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Point 1 boils down to stating everything relevant to the current situation without leaving out any important details.

public class Machine
	bool _enabled;
	public void Enable() { _enabled = true; }
	public void Disable() { _enabled = false; }

This code leaves out important information, namely the state of the machine. This should be publicly visible.

public class Machine
	public bool Enabled { get; private set; }
	public void Enable() { _enabled = true; }
	public void Disable() { _enabled = false; }

Point 2 states you should only show the relevant information. This reflects the concept of information hiding which states internal logic should be encapsulated and only a stable interface should be exposed.

Maxim of Quality

  1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
  2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Point 1 simply states, “do not lie”. Now you might wonder how to lie when programming, but the following is an all too common example.

catch ( Exception ) {}

Obviously this exception hasn’t been handled. Testing your software gives you the necessary evidence that your code works for the provided use cases, addressing point 2.

Maxim of Relation

  • Be relevant!

Within linguistics, being irrelevant can for example mean changing the subject when answering a question. Although possibly a long stretch, the Seperation of Concerns principle states a computer program should be separated into distinct features overlapping as little as possible. The notion of cohesion refers to the degree to which elements of a module belong together. High cohesion relates to being relevant, letting a module only perform those tasks related to each other.

Maxim of Manner

  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  2. Avoid ambiguity.
  3. Be brief.
  4. Be orderly.

Being brief means conveying something as concise as possible. Well, for starters don’t repeat yourself! Your interfaces/APIs should be unambiguous and as clear as possible. There are many examples of this, but here’s two.

class Controller { ... }        // Obscure.
public int GetWeight() { ... }  // Ambiguous.

Lastly, be orderly. Don’t place everything in one namespace, and code consistently. Follow the conventions in your current work environment, as this will lead to the least surprises.

Programming is very much a linguistic act and thus we could probably learn a thing or two from linguistics and social sciences in general.

Programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute. – Abelson & Sussman, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs

Author: Steven Jeuris

I have a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction and am currently working both as a software engineer at iMotions and as a postdoc at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). This blend of research and development is the type of work which motivates and excites me the most. Currently, I am working on a distributed platform which enables researchers to conduct biometric research 'in the wild' (outside of the lab environment). I have almost 10 years of professional software development experience. Prior to academia, I worked for several years as a professional full-stack software developer at a game development company in Belgium: AIM Productions. I liked the work and colleagues at the company too much to give up entirely for further studies, so I decided to combine the two. In 2009 I started studying for my master in Game and Media Technology at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, from which I graduated in 2012.

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