Murukesh Mohanan

Notes on Programming

  1. Programming

I’ve always had a love of writing programs, maybe because I like to create things. Different languages have different methods of punctuation; there are different styles of indentation; there are different grammar styles, and so on. Since at present I’m studying C/C++, I’ll be sticking to it in this monologue.

I have often observed that students often use incorrect practices while writing programs. Maybe ‘incorrect’ is too strong a word; I suppose ‘improper’ would be proper. I believe that students fall into such practices due to some misconceptions or maybe when one particular instance needed it, and they have stuck to it ever since. And if these practices work later on, or rather, fail to hinder work, they never abandon it.

The most common example I can think of, is the use of this declaration:

void main (void)

Now, I don’t know what they gain from using this form. I mean, how difficult can it be include a

return 0;

or whichever form they have been taught to use at the end of the definition. After all, the line is, what, 9 characters long? How difficult could it be? Agreed, the program will compile (in C), it will execute, and probably you have set your compiler to ignore this malpractice, or disabled warnings altogether.

There is a reason why what we’re taught is called ANSI C/C++ or ISO C/C++. It’s because the languages have been standardised, initially by ANSI (the American National Standards Institute), and later on by the ISO (the International Organization for Standardization). You may ask, so what? Some bunch of geeks went and said, okay, you have to do this in this particular way and that in that particular way; and nobody bothered to say no, so we’ve to follow them? That is not so. We’ve been following rules made by others all our lives, and it’s not as if all these rules are made for making life better. When conventions and standards are set, it’s to make life easier. It may be not while doing the actual work, but maybe while communicating our works or our results to others. SI units make our life easier, by cutting across borders and languages when it comes to units. In mathematics, when different people use different symbols, all it does is create confusion. So too, in programming.

If you’ll bother to read the ISO standards on C++, you’ll see that the convention for main() function lists:

int main (void)
int main (int, char* [])

as the two possible types of main() declarations. An empty parameter list is assumed to be have a void parameter. Admittedly, the ISO C standard does allow other forms of declaration, including a return type of void.

There is no reason why a return value may not be provided. Indeed, providing a return statement would indicate that the program has terminated. This would prevent programs from falling of the end, when the end brace is reached without a return statement. This could happen, accidentally, like when an incomplete program is being tested, or when a goto statement wreaks havoc. So too, this could help in finding unreachable portions of code, created possibly by incorrect control statements. The last case has actually happened to me, when an if statement had an always-true condition.

To a student of Computer Science and software engineering, to avoid returning values is positively a crime. These values would be invaluable when testing software, and you could call upon the system or other programs to execute, depending upon the returned value. This could be useful in clean-up, or in storing system details at the time of exit (which most OSes do in case of abnormal termination of an application). And this data would help in improving your understanding of what actually happens in your program, as opposed to what you think is happening. That last statement is quite important: it is often the case that what you think is happening is quite different from what is actually happening, especially in a language like C++, where most of the book-keeping and memory management is done by you.

You may think (and quite rightly, too) that I’m harping on this point. But the reason I harp is that writing illegible code is a serious problem in today’s open-source era. .You’ll probably say that you’re no hot-shot programmer, and that you don’t intend to publish any of your programs. However, you must remember that even if you are only a beginner, your code could help someone else in understanding the language. This especially applies to teachers and textbooks. To use non-standard forms is to create confusion. And while

void main (void)

may not be illegible, it could lead to confusion when the terminating statements are reached. And further, it is by breaking such minor rules of conventions that bigger breaks are made, and the very purpose of conventions and standards defeated.

There are other such malpractices which I’ve observed, and upon these I’ll comment in later posts. For now, goodbye!