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The more you know, the more you don’t know

This content is a little crusty, having been with me through 3 separate platform changes. Formatting may be rough, and I am slightly less stupid today than when I wrote it.
21 Apr 2008

Writing Modular Code - Make it Legible!

In the first post of my modular code series, we talked about overrides and how they are an important, and often overlooked, feature to consider in any code project. Today we will discuss an equally even more important concept: Ensure that others can quickly and easily read and understand your code. What? Seriously? Yes. Writing clean code is much like any other type of writing exercise, but with slightly different rules. Periods go at the end of a sentence, while semicolons go at the end of a line of code. You get the idea. We don’t have to browse far in order to find that a lot of projects place a lot of importance on good syntax: Mambo, Drupal, PEAR, phpBB (a lot of projects, including Zen Cart, are based on this one), C++ (the big daddy), plus countless others. The commonality between all writing formats is that you need to maintain discipline and consistency in your vocabulary. The establishment of consistent writing behavior allows your audience to focus on comprehending your message, and not waste time and brain power on first deciphering the words of that message. Again, the same rules apply to all readers, whether they be blog readers (hi there!) or fellow developers. Even if you’re one of those coders who does his work from a dark basement, code by its very nature is supposed to be a shared. Unless you code only for yourself, your code will be viewed by other people at some point. Your work takes on an instant professional look when it’s well-formatted. Professional look means professional jobs, means professional-level fees, means 2009 Mustang GT (I’m working on that last one). The only way you gain that ease of reading in your code is to practice and stay militant about sticking to your accepted conventions. The exact conventions you adopt are not as important as acting to own them in your coding. The idea is much like the chores that Mr. Miyagi gave to Daniel LaRusso in Karate Kid (“wax on, wax off,” remember?). Miyagi made Daniel do the chores because they helped him develop specific muscle memories, which he applied directly to his technique training. Stick to your guns, and even when you adjust conventions, your code will still read nicely. Want some good starting points? Listen up, Daniel-san. **Indent using spaces, not tabs.

**I see tab indentation a lot in both young projects, and older, established ones, and there are several problems that come with them. Tabs display differently at different screen resolutions, on different displays, on different systems, in different programs. It may look alright on your screen, and horrendous on another. In general, a tab pushes a ton of whitespace in front of the start of your code; in the worst cases there’s more whitespace on the line than actual code! Your uber 1900x1200 screen running Eclipse with tab stylizing enabled has no problem with 10 levels nested for loops and switches, but take pity on the 1024x768 guy, especially since he’s still holding the lion’s share of screen res on the web. I use two spaces per level in my code. This is plenty using a fixed width font for display, though some projects do prefer four. **Keep nested logic in line with code at the same level.

**All that talk about spaces over tabs means nothing if you don’t actually do it. Any code editor worth its salt will have auto-indent, which pushes the cursor to match the indentation of the previous line when a newline is created. Start there, and make sure you keep track of your nesting levels (e.g. for loop, inside an if statement, inside a switch). **Place a header comment block at the very top of every code file.

**I’m talking about those blocks of code you find at the top of most files in an established project. Mambo has a very good layout description. These are important for one reason: they let people know that you made this. You should put them in every file because never know which file a person will open first. A newbie will start high, naturally, somewhere like the index. But if they’re debugging, chances are they’ll go right to the class or function that’s throwing the error. Plus, you never where your code may end up. If someone borrows your code, most are nice enough to give you the credit. But even if they grab the whole file, someone else may eventually wander into it. And you always hope the person who does see your stuff appreciates work, and is willing/able to pay for something custom. I want that person to know how to reach me. Bottom line: there’s nothing wrong doing everything you can to get credit, however small, for your efforts. *Avoid inline comments ( // or # ) in favor of comment blocks ( / */ ).

It just looks better, reads easier, and is way easier to use when you have more than one line of comments at a time. I find it useful in isolated cases to make short inline comments, however most of the time I use full-on blocks, with the opening / on one line, the closing / on another, and the comments in between. Starting out go for comment blocks. It sets a good precedent and will avoid the bad habit of using single line syntax for multi-line commenting. You also must use this syntax if you intend to use a documentor with your project, such as phpDocumentor.** **Use camel case or underscores, but not both.

This one deals with how you assign multi-word variables and elements. With camel case you capitalize the first letter of a new word, usually with the first word lowercase (e.g. “$myVariable”). This is the standard adopted by JavaScript. Otherwise you can break apart words with an underscore character (e.g. “$my_variable”). The choice is completely personal, neither is better than the other. Camel case saves an extra character between each word, making your total variable shorter, while underscores are typically easier to read.

** Again the case can be made for both in different situations; some developers use underscores in the database tables / fields, and camel case in variables. However establishing standards is hard enough without using different ones in different circumstances. Pick one and go.**** **Stay standard with spacing and newlines around parentheses ( ), brackets [ ], and braces { }.

**This is the biggie, which is why I saved it for last. What you decide to do with the wrapper symbols will have the most impact on your code’s overall legibility. Parentheses go around evaluation statements (e.g. “( (1 + 2) * (9 / 3) )"), function calls (e.g. “myFunction($argument)"), and control structures (e.g. “if ((condition1) || (condition2)) “). Brackets get used most often in arrays (e.g. “$myArray[$key1][$key2] = $value;"). Braces are the walls of your logic nesting, wrapping classes, functions, and nearly every control structure. Personally, I use spaces around parentheses and braces, because they often contain complex logic. Brackets often hold nothing more than a key, so they’re not as necessary. The opening brace of a class/function/whatever stays on the same line as the starting code (e.g. “myFunction() {"), while the closing one will get its own line and match indentation with up with the opening brace (see tabs and nested logic above). The goal here is to use whitespace to adequately pad your code for easy reading, while not making it overly elongated. I avoid placing the opening brace on its own line because the code just gets crazy long, making for lots of scrolling. phpBB elected this style, but as their own standards state, “This one is a bit of a holy war.” The basics of this rule can be expanded to include all spacing around everything, such as equal signs, commas, and mathematical symbols. That should be more than enough to get you started. For more ideas, refer to the project links I provided at the start, and just poke around other people’s code.

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