The Universe of Discourse

Thu, 14 Jul 2016

Surprising reasons to use a syntax-coloring editor

[ Danielle Sucher reminded me of this article I wrote in 1998, before I had a blog, and I thought I'd repatriate it here. It should be interesting as a historical artifact, if nothing else. Thanks Danielle! ]

I avoided syntax coloring for years, because it seemed like a pretty stupid idea, and when I tried it, I didn't see any benefit. But recently I gave it another try, with Ilya Zakharevich's `cperl-mode' for Emacs. I discovered that I liked it a lot, but for surprising reasons that I wasn't expecting.

I'm not trying to start an argument about whether syntax coloring is good or bad. I've heard those arguments already and they bore me to death. Also, I agree with most of the arguments about why syntax coloring is a bad idea. So I'm not trying to argue one way or the other; I'm just relating my experiences with syntax coloring. I used to be someone who didn't like it, but I changed my mind.

When people argue about whether syntax coloring is a good idea or not, they tend to pull out the same old arguments and dust them off. The reasons I found for using syntax coloring were new to me; I'd never seen anyone mention them before. So I thought maybe I'd post them here.

Syntax coloring is when the editor understands something about the syntax of your program and displays different language constructs in different fonts. For example, cperl-mode displays strings in reddish brown, comments in a sort of brick color, declared variables (in my) in gold, builtin function names (defined) in green, subroutine names in blue, labels in teal, and keywords (like my and foreach) in purple.

The first thing that I noticed about this was that it was easier to recognize what part of my program I was looking at, because each screenful of the program had its own color signature. I found that I was having an easier time remembering where I was or finding that parts I was looking for when I scrolled around in the file. I wasn't doing this consciously; I couldn't describe the color scheme any particular part of the program was, but having red, gold, and purple blotches all over made it easier to tell parts of the program apart.

The other surprise I got was that I was having more fun programming. I felt better about my programs, and at the end of the day, I felt better about the work I had done, just because I'd spent the day looking at a scoop of rainbow sherbet instead of black and white. It was just more cheerful to work with varicolored text than monochrome text. The reason I had never noticed this before was that the other coloring editors I used had ugly, drab color schemes. Ilya's scheme won here by using many different hues.

I haven't found many of the other benefits that people say they get from syntax coloring. For example, I can tell at a glance whether or not I failed to close a string properly—unless the editor has screwed up the syntax coloring, which it does often enough to ruin the benefit for me. And the coloring also slows down the editor. But the two benefits I've described more than outweigh the drawbacks for me. Syntax coloring isn't a huge win, but it's definitely a win.

If there's a lesson to learn from this, I guess it's that it can be valuable to revisit tools that you rejected, to see if you've changed your mind. Nothing anyone said about it was persuasive to me, but when I tried it I found that there were reasons to do it that nobody had mentioned. Of course, these reasons might not be compelling for anyone else.

Addenda 2016

Looking back on this from a distance of 18 years, I am struck by the following thoughts:

  1. Syntax highlighting used to make the editor really slow. You had to make a real commitment to using it or not. I had forgotten about that. Another victory for Moore’s law!

  2. Programmers used to argue about it. Apparently programmers will argue about anything, no matter how ridiculous. Well okay, this is not a new observation. Anyway, this argument is now finished. Whether people use it or not, they no longer find the need to argue about it. This is a nice example that sometimes these ridiculous arguments eventually go away.

  3. I don't remember why I said that syntax highlighting “seemed like a pretty stupid idea”, but I suspect that I was thinking that the wrong things get highlighted. Highlighters usually highlight the language keywords, because they're easy to recognize. But this is like highlighting all the generic filler words in a natural language text. The words you want to see are exactly the opposite of what is typically highlighted.

    Syntax highlighters should be highlighting the semantic content like expression boundaries, implied parentheses, boolean subexpressions, interpolated variables and other non-apparent semantic features. I think there is probably a lot of interesting work to be done here. Often you hear programmers say things like “Oh, I didn't see the that the trailing comma was actually a period.” That, in my opinion, is the kind of thing the syntax highlighter should call out. How often have you heard someone say “Oh, I didn't see that while there”?

  4. I have been misspelling “arguments” as “argmuents” for at least 18 years.

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