Dependence on Programming Experts

John Vokey vokey at
Thu Jul 13 01:55:14 EDT 2006

A bit late in the debate (but I am at my cottage with at best  
primitive dial-up):

On 11-Jul-06, at 8:29 PM, Dan wrote:

> I for one wish Rev had never compromised and begun using the equal  
> sign as
> an assignment operator. Many (perhaps most) other languages  
> disambiguate the
> confusing uses by some artificial construct. In Pascal, e.g.,  
> assignment is
> :=. In C/C++ as I recall, equality is testred with == and some  
> special type
> of equality is ===. Just syntactical crap.
> As Richard says, if this is an optional addition to the language, I  
> guess
> I'd grudgingly -- VERY darned grudgingly -- look the other way. But  
> I'd hold
> my nose at the same time.

I can't but disagree.  I have yet to find anyone with more than a few  
minutes of experience who is confused by a statement such as `x=1'  
*in context*.  Indeed, I would go so far as to advocate further that  
even the logical variants of `x=1' have a numerical value (e.g., 0  
for false, 1 for true) as in many languages (especially BASICs), so  
that the logical value can be used directly in algebraic (and string)  
expressions without having to work through a lengthy series of  
logical conversions.  For example:

x = (z=x)*y # if z=x then x=y, else x=0; what could be simpler?

A good example of the silliness of over-emphasising the acontextual  
distinction between assignment and logical statements is seen in the  
programming/statistical system/language R (GNU's S): for years the  
most common operation of assignment required the clumsy syntax

x<-1 # assign the value of 1 to x, almost as stupid as Pascal's x:=1

two-keystrokes (including a shift-key for one of the characters) for  
the most common statement!  The usual comments were trotted out in  
defence: ``but a statement such as x=1 is ambiguous, and confusing to  
the user!''  Eventually, the keepers of R (all wonderful people of  
surpassing brilliance and humanity) relented, and

x=1 # assign the value of 1 to x

was allowed as an *optional* variant of x<-1.  The average, or even  
novice R user has no more problem interpreting such statements than  
does the R parser/interpreter (which is never confused over this  
issue).  And, in R the x<-1 syntax is even less arbitrary than in RR/ 
MC, because a reversal of the assignment arrow, x->y, also has a  
unique meaning in R.  (One does note, though, that most R books still  
use the x<-1 form, probably because they are written by my fellow  
professorial colleagues who never miss an opportunity to evince  

Many other languages have at least recognised that lengthening the  
assignment statement is inefficient, so instead have lengthened the  
logical form, using such constructions as `x==1' for a test of  
equality.  Again, though, as this is the most common form of the  
logical test (i.e., equality is tested more often than most other  
logical statements), it is inefficient, and, again, as it is always  
clear from the context (and, note, therefore as simple to write the  
interpreter for one form as the other), such requirements amount to  
no more than pedantry and fussiness.

As noted, the solution is not to force a given syntax, but to offer  
efficient shortcuts as options.  So, use put 1 into x if you want,  
but allow for x=1 as an equivalent, but more efficient syntax.  After  
all, RR/MC allows for regex expressions, and they are hardly  
transparent or non-ambiguous to the novice (or even experienced!) user!

Please avoid sending me Word or PowerPoint attachments.
See <>

-Dr. John R. Vokey

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