My R naming nemesis

December 17, 2012

(This article was first published on The Shape of Code » R, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

When learning a new language I try to make an effort to write it like a native developer. R has one language feature that has been severely testing my desire to write like a native and this afternoon I realized that most of the people reading my code will also experience the same jarring sensation on encountering this construct, so I am not going to use it any more.

What is this language feature that induces a Stroop effect in my mind? It is the use of the period character as part of an identifier’s name (e.g., In almost all of the hundreds of thousands of lines of code I have read over the years this character is used as an operator, it selects a member/field of a struct/record. I’m sure that if I tried long enough and hard enough I could get used to using this character being part of an identifier; after a year or so writing Cobol I got used to the arithmetic minus character being permitted within identifiers (e.g., foo-bar), but that was 20 years ago and my neurons will probably take much longer to adapt this time around.

Most of the R I am writing will be distributed with my book Empirical software engineering with R and I think readers will experience the same jarring sensation I do (apart from those who have not yet been exposed to large amounts of non-R code). I have convinced myself that this is a good enough reason to give up trying to figure out how to use . in identifier name (I have been concocting all sorts of rules involving . being used to separate the primary part of the name and _ the secondary parts, e.g., total.red_light [yes, I should get out more often]; the underscore vs. camel case debate still erupts every now and again, let’s avoid creating more debate by introducing more choice).

Those R functions that include a . in their name will stand out from the crowd, [arm waving on] perhaps this will help differentiate them as ‘statistics stuff’[arm waving off]. There is always plan B if my unilateral naming decision looks too unilateral, a global renaming script.

Perhaps the use of periods in identifiers can be used as a test for being a native R developer. A simple timing test involving a sequence of characters appears on a screen with the developer having to respond as quickly as possible on the number of identifiers being displayed; I’m sure I would be much slower to give a ’1′ response to total.count than to total_count, displaying total count and total.count on twp separate lines and asking me to quickly specify which line contained the most identifiers would turn me into a nervous wreck. Responses from a dozen or so different sequences ought to be enough be able to distinguish Jonny foreigner from the natives.

I don’t have a problem with $, which R uses as the column/list item selection operator, a character permitted by some compilers for commonly used languages as part of an identifier. This is because I have not read lots of code containing this identifier naming usage.

For my previous book I did a survey of the linguistic and cognitive psychology issues involved in identifier naming. This did a good job of debunking existing ideas about what constitutes good naming practices, but did not come up with any concrete recommendations to replace them (nature abhors a vacuum and the existing pop psychology naming ideas remained).

These days people write PhDs on identifier naming issues (method names, (not yet completed) correlation with quality and code comprehension to name a few); there is even a subfield within this field, how best to split an identifier into its component parts (e.g., refPtr is probably an abbreviation of reference pointer).

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