re: Why Programming Languages Are Hard VIEW POST


Everyone starts out as a beginner.

Yes, we do--and many of us have managed to progress as programmers despite the challenges of learning a new skill in an unfamiliar domain. If someone quits programming because they see an error message they don't understand, it may be that programming isn't there bag. I generate errors I don't understand every day and I've been doing this for years. Of course, I have the mental tools now to deal with difficult errors better than when when I was starting, but I didn't give up.

And you didn't give up either, and neither do a lot of people.

I think my biggest issue with this post is that it doesn't recognize how difficult the problem programming languages are trying to solve is: moving from transistors and logic gates to provide a framework for describing data and processes of arbitrary complexity. Programming languages aren't hard because programmers are elitist (a rather cowardly accusation), they are hard because they need enough firepower to solve arbitrarily hard problems in a way that reduces them to machine instructions. It's a wonder, the kinds of things computers are able to do today.

If you think it can be done better, prove it. Build us a language that is at once friendly and suitable for dealing with really hard problems. I don't think it's impossible, I just think it's easier to take potshots in a blog post.

“The housecat may mock the tiger,” said the master, “but doing so will not make his purr into a roar.”


If someone quits programming because they see an error message they don't understand, it may be that programming isn't there bag.

The existance of unhelpful error messages isn't a meaningful way to find out if programming is right for you. It's just an arbitrary barrier to entry.

Programming languages aren't hard because programmers are elitist

The elitism isn't in making programming languages hard. The elitism is in the act of saying it's fine that they're hard and that beginners should just deal with it or get out. I don't agree with that.


So I agree with what you're saying now: unhelpful error messages are bad. I think Python's syntax errors don't qualify, however. In addition to printing the text you gave, SyntaxError: invalid syntax, they also display the line and indicate to token at which the parser detected the error. I don't know what more you could ask for in the case of a syntax error. Of course, linters can sometimes use more robust static analysis to provide a more specific error messages, like "unmatched parenthesis", but that kind of analysis is non-trivial to implement, if I understand correctly--I've implemented some simple parsers, but never a complete static analysis tool.

The only so-called problem I can see is that the word "syntax" is sort of a jargon term--but even then, that's what it's called. Programmers have to learn new terms and concepts and if the instructional material doesn't prepare them to encounter syntax error messages, that's a failure of instruction, not language tooling.

But I agree, in principle, that error messages should be as helpful as possible given the constraints of the compiler/runtime to diagnose and accurately report the problem. If the compiler/runtime. The programmer should be given the best information available with in the form of a precise, readable message.

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