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Christian Vasquez
Christian Vasquez

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It's Just Syntactic Sugar

I've read/heard people express themselves like this many times when talking about certain languages or language's features.

"It's just syntactic sugar." - Someone Somewhere.

But I wonder if they really know what does it mean.

Syntactic sugar is syntax within a programming language that is designed to make things easier to read or to express. It makes the language "sweeter" for human use: things can be expressed more clearly, more concisely, or in an alternative style that some may prefer.

I was listening to a podcast episode (I think it was from one of the Kotlin episodes from Fragmented) a few months ago where they discussed this same topic and one of the speakers said something along the lines:

"Many people say 'oh this is syntactic sugar over this other thing or language', but if you really think about it... Every programming language is syntactic sugar over all the 1's and 0's that the computer actually understands. It doesn't know keywords and operators, it's all just 1's and 0's."

Which brings me to another topic:

Who do you code for?

  • Users
  • Manager
  • Boss
  • Quality Assurance
  • Yourself
  • Browsers
  • Mobile devices
  • Desktops
  • Aliens

If you picked any of those options, then you probably are in the wrong neighborhood.

We should code for other programmers, including our future self.

Sure, you want your code to be compiled/interpreted correctly and run smoothly without bugs, but your code can be so much more powerful if it can be read like a book.

It's good and all if you can type as fast as lighting, but at the end of the day developers get paid for solving problems, not the amount of keys they press per minute.

Top comments (12)

alexgwartney profile image
Alex Gwartney

You make a good point. About how when things are made with this "syntactic sugar its put there to make things easier". Which I agree with at the same time I feel like there are times where that syntactic sugar can lead people down the wrong road.

I would say the most common example of this would have to be with javascript Class method in ES6. Its syntactic sugar to make it as you said easier for others to come into the language. As well as making it easier to write inheritance in javascript. But at the same time, I feel like this syntactic sugar can complicate learning the language as for one javascript isn't a class-based language.

So I feel like if this syntactic sugar is going to be placed for one it should at least match what the language is actually doing. Not trying to make it look like something it's not.

Lastly, I also don't think its always bad to understand the things going on behind the syntactic sugar because it can actually help understand the reasoning behind the black box. But as you mentioned at the same time we write the code for each other and our future self. So while understanding the black box is good it's important to still make sure to choose whether or not using the syntactic sugar is a better solution than writing out the entire solution.

tiffany profile image
Tiffany White

Ruby and Rails are beautiful examples of syntactic sugar. The whole language is easy to read. Rails does some magical things that has tripped me up a couple times. Digging into that black box is something I always want to do. Sometimes it's necessary. Other times it just slows you down. While learning I think it is useful to understand things.

mortoray profile image
edA‑qa mort‑ora‑y

As a compiler writer I have a different opinion of what "syntactic sugar" actually is. To me, it's something that I can implement in the parsing and syntax tree generation phase.

That is, consider the stages Leaf uses to compile code:

  1. Parse
  2. Convert parse-tree into syntax-tree
  3. Add types to syntax-tree
  4. Lower to Leaf-IR
  5. Lower to LLVM-IR
  6. Emit target code

Anything I can implement in phases 1-2 is definitely syntactic sugar. It didn't require any changes in the langauge's abstract machine, or typing rules.

Some things in Step 3 I'd also consider syntactic sugar if they are plain rewriting rules. These are almost like parsing rules, but required a higher level of logic than the syntax tree conversion could do.

At a user level this would imply a feature that can be completely described in reference to other features or already existing concepts. It doens't add any new power or flexibility to the language. It certainly can make it nicer to use though.

qm3ster profile image
Mihail Malo

As a not compiler writer in the slightest (or a compiler reader for that matter) this made perfect sense. Thank you.

hjfitz profile image
Harry • Edited

I really love this article - especially this quote:

but your code can be so much more powerful if it can be read like a book

Of course, it's best to avoid making code less efficient for the sake of readability!


jenc profile image
Jen Chan

Oh man I have heard JSX described as syntax sugar like three times the past year. If so handlebars, liquid tags, directives, markup, markdown is also syntax sugar?
I for one am more inclined to adapt a language/framework that has the path of least resistance...

isaacdlyman profile image
Isaac Lyman

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the difference here is that JSX is always converted to vanilla JavaScript before it ever reaches the browser or a compiler (see: Whereas markup like HTML can be read as-is. I don't know what happens to handlebars before it reaches the browser, but the infamous Flash Of Unstyled Content issue leads me to think that it's special syntax that handlebars parses and replaces, not syntactic sugar for something else.

jenc profile image
Jen Chan

I read this about 3 times:

Thanks for the added info re: converted to vanilla JS before reaching browser. I hadn't thought of that at all. The vibe I was agreeing with is that OP feels "syntactic sugar" may be a poor metaphor for something syntactically hybrid (aka writing JS in your HTML).

Markup is parsed as dom tree first I thought, then style sheets + JS are read, but in the case of react, the taskrunner decides what is compiled and rendered first...?

lol at "flash of unstyled content". I only just thought about what kind of mechanism that could be.

devcamilla profile image
Camilla Santiago

I was excited to code for the aliens before you ruined the fun.

Anyway, I am with you there. The fact Someone Somewhere said just syntactic sugar already makes me wince. It was said to me before and felt like I was the dumbest to not know what that syntactic sugar is. It being a syntactic sugar doesn't make it any less easier with other syntax. I have to learn it nonetheless.

idanarye profile image
Idan Arye

Several years ago I encountered a StackOverflow answer about C++ virtual functions - a seemingly unrelated subject, but one paragraph has changed my view about these things:

However, also keep in mind that replacing virtual function calls with other means of branching (if .. else, switch, function pointers, etc.) won't solve the fundamental issue -- it may very well be slower. The problem (if it exists at all) isn't virtual functions but (unnecessary) indirection.

I believe this wisdom can be applied to many things - not just virtual functions and not just performance. Many facilities and practices are shunned for reasons like "reducing performance", "introducing complexity" or "increasing the risk of bugs". But when they explain why that thing has these harmful effects, they usually ignore their purpose.

In the case of virtual functions, for example, the purpose is polymorphism - but the comparisons don't use polymorphism. So you run polymorphism code for nothing - of course it would be slower. If you used a benchmark where runtime polymorphism is actually needed, you would have had to implement it in some other fashion - which would have probably reduced performance as much as virtual functions.

Back to the subject

A syntactic sugar usually replaces a more complex code. Removing the sugar does not mean removing it's complexity - it means trading it for the complexity of the desugared code, and I fail to see the gain in that...

joshua profile image
Joshua Nelson ✨

Lots of interesting thoughts here! I'll add one of my own in response to this:

We should code for other programmers, including our future self.

This is definitely true in the way you described it here, when it comes to what syntax to use.

Regarding what to write – that might end up being for users, or possibly aliens :P

Syntax and what to write don't really have much of a tradeoff though, so I think it makes sense to write for other programmers, as you say :)

aleksikauppila profile image
Aleksi Kauppila

Whatever server your reader best. It would however be strange NOT to use language features because they are not implemented in other languages or are just not well known features. I'm not surprised you picked this in a context of Kotlin because it seems to have lots of ways to achieve the same effect and may produce very dense code.