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2010-03-22 01:53:53

[Joe Marshall sent this to me in private mail, and I am posting it here with his consent.]

My personal preference is the leading colon. There are several sound (but minor) technical arguments for this.

The first (and best) argument is that nearly every token in Scheme can be discriminated by the leftmost character or character pair. Even aggregate objects like lists and vectors can be discriminated by looking looking at the leftmost character. The syntax of the language was modified to fit a left to right parsing scheme: Scheme traditionally used the "if it's not a number it's a symbol" rule, but in R3RS (I think), they changed it to the more common `begins with a letter' rule and added exceptions for "-1+" and "1+". This change was to allow for deterministic left-to-right parsing. If you've written a few parsers, you begin to realize how wonderful it is to be able to select the right parsing rule without having to consider various magic characters strewn all over the input stream (especially the characters you haven't received yet!) (Come to think of it, Unicode has this problem because there is no end-of-char marker. You cannot determine if you have read an entire character [base + diacritics] until you at least see the beginning of the next.) Putting a discrimination marker at the trailing end of a token just throws this entire property out the window.

I believe this to be a sound, compelling argument. However, I think it is a minor one. It will complicate parsing, but not by an awful lot. I could see arguments in favor of trailing colons trumping this, but I can see no technical one, just an aesthetic one.

The second technical argument is that as a long-time programmer, I find it easier to scan and read code if I can easily determine the syntactic class of the token. (Well, let's face it, your brain is parsing the code and unidirectional parsing is easier whether it is your brain or your computer.) Again, minor point.

In the examples given for trailing colon, they look cool:

(tcltk-frame relief: 'ridge borderwidth: 4 height: "50px" width: "100px")

But let's take a real world example (from some code I have written in Common Lisp) first with trailing colons:

(call-with-repository-transaction repository: repository transaction-type: (vm-transaction-type->core-transaction-type transaction-type) user-id-specifier: user-id-specifier reason: reason meta-cid-set-specifier: metaversion-cid-set-specifier cid-set-specifier: (lambda () (compute-cid-set-specifier repository metaversion-cid-set-specifier version-specifier vpb-cid-dids-to-add vpb-cid-dids-to-remove)) aux-meta-cid-set-specifier: aux-metaversion-cid-set-specifier aux-cid-set-specifier: (lambda () (and aux-metaversion (compute-cid-set-specifier repository aux-metaversion-cid-set-specifier aux-version-specifier aux-vpb-cid-dids-to-add aux-vpb-cid-dids-to-remove))) receiver: (lambda (core-txn) (let ((vm-txn (make-instance 'vm-transaction underlying-transaction: core-txn))) (case transaction-type ((read-write: read-cons:) (call-creating-change-set vm-txn change-set-type receiver)) (t (funcall receiver vm-txn))))))

and again with leading colons:

(call-with-repository-transaction :repository repository :transaction-type (vm-transaction-type->core-transaction-type transaction-type) :user-id-specifier user-id-specifier :reason reason :meta-cid-set-specifier metaversion-cid-set-specifier :cid-set-specifier (lambda () (compute-cid-set-specifier repository metaversion-cid-set-specifier version-specifier vpb-cid-dids-to-add vpb-cid-dids-to-remove)) :aux-meta-cid-set-specifier aux-metaversion-cid-set-specifier :aux-cid-set-specifier (lambda () (and aux-metaversion (compute-cid-set-specifier repository aux-metaversion-cid-set-specifier aux-version-specifier aux-vpb-cid-dids-to-add aux-vpb-cid-dids-to-remove))) :receiver (lambda (core-txn) (let ((vm-txn (make-instance 'vm-transaction :underlying-transaction core-txn))) (case transaction-type ((:read-write :read-cons) (call-creating-change-set vm-txn change-set-type receiver)) (t (funcall receiver vm-txn))))))

The keyword/value pairs are important as a unit. In the first example, the colon indicating the keyword object is embedded somewhere in the middle of the pair. In the second, it is the very first non-whitespace on the line. So as a human reader of the code I see right away that I have a column of keywords on the left. As I'm parsing this in my mind, the leading colon is doing double duty. It marks that the next token is a keyword, but it also marks that we are at the beginning of a keyword/value pair. That neat little vertical dotted line that is made up of the colons tells me that we're going to call something with a complex API.

This is similar in effect to `bulleted' or numbered lists. Compare this:

Professor Fassbinder and his daughter have been kidnapped. - 1 Someone has kidnapped them. - 2 My hand is on fire. - 3

To this:

  1. Lather
  2. Rinse
  3. Repeat

To sum it all up, the argument for trailing colons is simply that is jarring, at first glance, to see the colon at the front end because we've been used to seeing it at the other end. In light of the fact that we're using lisp, that is not a very persuasive argument. The technical arguments are quite minor, admittedly, but I prefer them to the "inconvenience" of weird-looking keywords. (and you can get used to the looks, it never gets easier to parse over time).

In any case, having keywords is far more important than what they look like. It would be odd to have a standard that says "you should support keywords, but whether you support leading or trailing colons is implementation dependent". But that might actually be worth doing. All major implementations support keywords, so they ought to be mentioned as a "standard" semantic object, it is just the syntax that differs. At least standardize the semantics.