Programming Style: Language Specific Domains

My Beginner and C Days

The visual presentation of the code has mattered to me, from the first days I wrote C code in Microsoft editor. In those days, it was a Microsoft C 5.0 IDE on either DOS or OS/2.

#include "stdio.h"

	int rows,columns,ROW, COLUMN;
	scanf("%d %d",&ROW,&COLUMN);
	rows = 0;
	columns = 0;
	while(columns++ < COLUMN)
	rows += 1;
	while(rows++ < (ROW - 2)){
		columns = 0;
		while(columns++ < (COLUMN - 2)){
			printf(" ");
	columns = 0;
	while(columns++ < COLUMN) {


Ok, not *that* far back, but I did have strong opinions about C from the early days of my being paid to program in it:

  • TABS, not spaces
  • 3 (in Microsoft land) spaces per tab (eventually switched to 4)
  • always include braces for if clauses
  • generally no parentheses for return values
  • ternary operator GOOD

That made the code look like this (except that tabs are tabs in pre blocks).

int compare(const void *a, const void *b)
	return(strcmp(*(char **)a, *(char **)b));

int checkDictionary(char *word)
	if(bsearch((void *)&word, (void*)dictionary, wordCount, sizeof(char *), compare))
		return 1;
	return 0;

But I remember so much variation in coding style preferences, as evidenced by the Indent Style article on Wikipedia. Everyone had their own preferred style, and everyone had their own preference for how much everyone else should adhere to a common style. On one team I worked, they eventually developed code reviews which were nothing more than berating people for not adhering to an arbitrary style guide: an in-house version Hungarian Notation, exactly one return per function, etc.

Java and Perl days

In Java land, my preference for camelCasing was reaffirmed. Working with Perl and Java, I eventually started putting the opening brace on the same line as if statements and function declarations.

if(iAmAChangedProgrammer) {

I think the brace thing was a result of a block that evaluated differently in awk or perl if it didn't hug the clause. I don't remember, but from that point on, I was convinced of that way being the only way.


Coming into ruby has been interesting. Multiple returns (which never bothered me) are common. Implicit returns are the norm as well. There's a style guide which, for the most part, experienced rubyists adhere to (even if there are slight variations in practice). I find some disagreement with some of the style recommendations (I think I have found legit use for and over &&, etc...), but I'm happy to fall in line with the style recommendations and help enforce them.

Some of the styles have obvious purpose, but some seem rather arbitrary. Why are guard clauses so accepted in Ruby when C was so scared of them, etc...


In reading Smalltalk Best Practice Patterns, it all came together.

As part of the style guide near the end of the book, the author talks about using the line-wrapping of the browser window to naturally wrap argument lists instead of taking up vertical space with them. That's when it dawned on me how much preferences in code styles also come from the languages that influenced the current language.

Ruby's heritage from Smalltalk means that it carried forward that aversion to deep nesting that performs poorly in small code browser windows (even in Squeak and Pharo, the code windows can get pretty tiny.)

C coders may have come from GOSUB type languages where there truly was only one return (unless an IF clause buried another) and there could be multiple entry points. Multiple entry and exit point aversion came from languages in which you could GOSUB to anywhere before a RETURN statement, and a nested RETURN could be harder to detect than one on the main logic level.


Early language coding styles likely came from specific pain points experienced by a prior guru and then arbitrarily passed along because "We've always done it that way." At some point, tasks and readable code become hindered by following rules that we don't have a rationale behind.

Community style guides hopefully have the benefit of thousands of years of cumulative experience in challenges and best practices collaborating on equal footing, but that assumes that we're not just agreeing with our technical elders because that's the way it's always been done.

Try to understand the problem domain of coding in a specific language as it relates to coding style. Maybe your coding style thinks its still programming in COBOL or BASIC.

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