17 Jan 2001 ModernRonin   » (Observer)

I recently took a job in which the primary language of the development group is C++. This has not been a terribly happy thing for me because while I can code and read C++ decently enough, I do not like the language very much. C++ has a lot of good ideas underlying it, but it's just terribly implemented. The syntax is god-awful, the rules for inheritance of code and data members are convoluted as hell, and the compiler does things behind your back that can easily cause fits for even an experienced programmer.

I much prefer C. As someone said in a discussion post on Kuro5hin said, "If you must use the wrong language for the job, I'd rather see you use C than C++. It's true that C gives you enough rope to hang yourself. But so does C++, and it also comes with a premade gallows and a book on knot tying." That said, though, C ain't perfect either...

Another thing that catalyzed my thinking about the faults of various programming languages is that I've been reading Writing Compilers and Interpreters (second ed): An Applied Approach using C++. I've been trying to come up with a simplified C-esque language I could write a compiler and/or interpreter for that would attempt to eliminate some of the more glaring flaws of C.

What are some of those flaws? Well, just off the top of my head:

  • Assignment vs. comparison. Hasn't this tripped up many a novice and even occsionally an experienced programmer? We need to differentiate between assignment and equality. Using the same or similiar symbols for both operations is a just asking for headaches.

  • Pointers. Pointers get programmers in a lot of trouble. And not just in obvious ways, either. Ever assigned one struct to another that had a string pointer inside? How long did it take you to realize what was really going on? (C++ has this problem even worse, thanks to its amazingly over-wrought object architecture.)

  • Memory managementMalloc() and free() cause a lot of trouble, even for experienced programmers. C has the honor of having its memory allocation scheme so badly designed that a whole company (Pure Software) makes a very comfortable living selling a third-party library (Purify) to help us track down our memory leaks. This is ridiculous.

  • Keystroke Efficiency On a more general note, I find that many programming language these days require the use of the shift key and special symbols more often that I'd like. My idea of a good identifier is one that you don't have to hit the shift key for. Parenthesis, curly brackets, asterisks and ampersands should be infrequently used characters, not the mainstays of the language syntax.

How do we address these weaknesses? Well, to quote the Perl programmer's motto, "There's more than one way to do it." However, here are some of my proposed solutions to the items mentioned above: (Please, pick on these and tear 'em up! I'm submitting this precisely so people will tell me what's wrong with my ideas...)

  • Assignment vs. Comparison. Assignment gets a new symbol: "<-", as in "A <- B + C". Read as: "A gets B plus C." Comparison continues to use "=". In pratice, "<-" is a real pain in the ass to type. So either a macro will need to be made or another symbol will need to be substituted. Perhaps ":", in the tradition of Pascal.

  • Pointers. Most of the problem with pointers comes from a pointer not pointing at what it should, either because it was never pointed there in the first place, or because it got re-pointed (perhaps set to NULL). So I propose that a pointer can only be set once, and is immutable once set. This will get rid of a lot of ugly crap, not the least of which is the horrible practice of casting between different pointer types. Also, before a pointer is set, it is in a "non-initialized" state, and dereferencing a non-initialized pointer will be prohibited. I believe both these conditions can be enforced at compile time. Those conditions said, however, altering the thing pointed to by a pointer is still allowed. Without this functionality, there'd be no point! (If you'll pardon the pun. ;])

  • Memory mamagement This is the 21st century, folks. We have gigahertz CPUs and hundreds or thousands of megabytes of memory. Almost no task that a modern PC's main CPU undertakes is hard realtime critical. (If someone has such a task, I recommend they not use my little theoretical language here.) Garbage collection algorithms have come a long way and no longer require unbounded time to operate. We've already tossed the bad features of pointers out the door, let's continue in the spirit of keeping what we like and having the machine deal with the ugly stuff and specify that a well-optimized, bounded-run-time garbage collector be part of the language.

  • Keystroke Efficiency The first obvious one to me is to substitute "[" and "]" for "{" and "}". Assuming an otherwise C-like syntax, this change should take all of 30 seconds for C programmers to get used to. (What we do about arrays, I don't know - maybe my little toy lanague here won't have them.) Function calls can have a new syntax, funcName:arg1,arg2, etc... This eliminates having to type parenthesis every time you want to call a function, a wrist killer if there ever was one. Strings will get Pascal-style '' delimiters, 'like so', though the backslash notation for escaping characters can stay. We'll keep ; for the end of a statement too, that's actually one I like.

Now, a quickie example of the last point...

Original C:

int main(void)
  printf("Hello, world!");

New style whatever it is:

int main.void
  printf.'Hello, world!';

Try typing these two and see which one feels quicker. I think the new function syntax is a real win, anyway.

That's all I have at the moment. So... Questions? Comments? Additions? Flaming rants about my shoe-size IQ? ;]

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