How to point in code

In my previous post, I explored why deixis is helpful, how it shows up in our language, and how its use in source code is hampered by limitations in our current programming ecosystems.

I promised I’d explain how we could remedy this problem to increase the expressiveness of our code… That’s what this post is all about.

It starts with names

The magic that makes the web “hyper” is not really in tags. Sure, we use ... to point at something–but there are other ways to point. As I said in my previous post, line numbers point. Method names in source code point at their decl or their impl. Statements like using namespace std point. Names of build-time dependencies in maven pom.xml files point.

The real magic is that the web has so many things to point to. It has names (notice where “name” appears in the previous paragraph). Every resource–even ones that are dynamically generated–has a URL. Individual paragraphs or tables or images inside a resource can have names, which lets us point to them, too.

We value names.

image credit: xkcd.com

So, if names are so valuable, part of how we make code more “hyper” is to increase the availability of names. Here are some ways to do that.

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Exploring the Power of Deixis

The other day my daughter was in the backseat as I pulled out of the driveway, and she instructed me to “turn that mirror over here.”

“Which mirror?” I asked.

“That one,” she said, without any clarification.

Image credit: fofie57 (Flickr)

Which one?” I said again. “I don’t know what you mean when you say ‘that’…”

Eventually I cracked the teenage code and tilted the center rearview mirror toward her so she could check her makeup. :-) But it was harder than it should have been.

A lot of frustration could have been avoided if I could have turned around to face her to see which direction her eyes were pointing–or if she’d just stretched out her finger.

Deixis

In linguistics, deixis is a sort of pointing—the juxtaposition of something against a reference context to provide meaning. Although we can define words like “here” and “there” in the abstract, their specific meaning always depends on the physical or metaphorical location of the speaker when they’re used. Likewise, “now” and “then” are deictic with respect to the time of an utterance; pronouns like “we” and “you” use deixis that relies on interpersonal context; honorifics are deictic with respect to cultural relationships.

Since the web now permeates our collective experience, think of deixis as a kind of hyperlink. Imagine if I had written my daughter’s sentence like this: “Turn that mirror over here.” It sorta fits, doesn’t it?

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