Comment Only What the Code Cannot Say

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The difference between theory and practice is greater in practice than it is in theory — an observation that certainly applies to comments. In theory, the general idea of commenting code sounds like a worthy one: Offer the reader detail, an explanation of what's going on. What could be more helpful than being helpful? In practice, however, comments often become a blight. As with any other form of writing, there is a skill to writing good comments. Much of the skill is in knowing when not to write them.

When code is ill-formed, compilers, interpreters, and other tools will be sure to object. If the code is in some way functionally incorrect, reviews, static analysis, tests, and day-to-day use in a production environment will flush most bugs out. But what about comments? In The Elements of Programming Style Kernighan and Plauger noted that "a comment is of zero (or negative) value if it is wrong." And yet such comments often litter and survive in a code base in a way that coding errors never could. They provide a constant source of distraction and misinformation, a subtle but constant drag on a programmer's thinking.

What of comments that are not technically wrong, but add no value to the code? Such comments are noise. Comments that parrot the code offer nothing extra to the reader — stating something once in code and again in natural language does not make it any truer or more real. Commented-out code is not executable code, so it has no useful effect for either reader or runtime. It also becomes stale very quickly. Version-related comments and commented-out code try to address questions of versioning and history. These questions have already been answered (far more effectively) by version control tools.

A prevalence of noisy comments and incorrect comments in a code base encourage programmers to ignore all comments, either by skipping past them or by taking active measures to hide them. Programmers are resourceful and will route around anything perceived to be damage: folding comments up; switching coloring scheme so that comments and the background are the same color; scripting to filter out comments. To save a code base from such misapplications of programmer ingenuity, and to reduce the risk of overlooking any comments of genuine value, comments should be treated as if they were code. Each comment should add some value for the reader, otherwise it is waste that should be removed or rewritten.

What then qualifies as value? Comments should say something code does not and cannot say. A comment explaining what a piece of code should already say is an invitation to change code structure or coding conventions so the code speaks for itself. Instead of compensating for poor method or class names, rename them. Instead of commenting sections in long functions, extract smaller functions whose names capture the former sections' intent. Try to express as much as possible through code. Any shortfall between what you can express in code and what you would like to express in total becomes a plausible candidate for a useful comment. Comment what the code cannot say, not simply what it does not say.

By Kevlin Henney

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3

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