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Joe Mayo

I almost tweeted a reply to Capar Kleijne's question about comments on Twitter, but realized that my opinion exceeded 140 characters. The following is based upon my experience with extremes and approaches that I find useful in code comments.

There are a couple extremes that I've seen and reasons why people go the distance in each approach. The most common extreme is no comments in the code at all.  A few bad reasons why this happens is because a developer is in a hurry, sloppy, or is interested in job preservation. The unfortunate result is that the code is difficult to understand and hard to maintain. The drawbacks to no comments in code are a primary reason why teachers drill the need for commenting code into our heads.  This viewpoint assumes the lack of comments are bad because the code is bad, but there is another reason for not commenting that is gaining more popularity.

I've heard/and read that code should be self documenting. Following this thought pattern, if code is well written with meaningful names, there should not be a reason for comments.  An addendum to this argument is that comments are often neglected and get out-of-date, but the code is what is kept up-to-date. Presumably, if code contained very good naming, it would be easy to maintain.  This is a noble perspective and I like the practice of meaningful naming of identifiers. However, I think it's also an extreme approach that doesn't cover important cases.  i.e. If an identifier is named badly (subjective differences in opinion) or not changed appropriately during maintenance, then the badly named identifier is no more useful than a stale comment. These were the two no-comment extremes, so let's look at the too many comments extreme.

On a regular basis, I'll see cases where the code is over-commented; not nearly as often as the no-comment scenarios, but still prevalent.  These are examples of where every single line in the code is commented.  These comments make the code harder to read because they get in the way of the algorithm.  In most cases, the comments parrot what each line of code does.  If a developer understands the language, then most statements are immediately intuitive.  i.e. what use is it to say that I'm assigning foo to bar when it's clear what the code is doing. I think that over-commenting code is a waste of time that slows down initial development and maintenance.  Understandably, the developer's intentions are admirable because they've had it beaten into their heads that they must comment. However, I think it's an extreme and prefer a more moderate approach.

I don't think the extremes do justice to code because each can make maintenance harder.  No comments on bad code is obviously a problem, but the other two extremes are subtle and require qualification to address properly. The problem I see with the code-as-documentation approach is that it doesn't lift the developer out of the algorithm to identify dependencies, intentions, and hacks. Any developer can read code and follow an algorithm, but they still need to know where it fits into the big picture of the application. Because of indirections with language features like interfaces, delegates, and virtual members, code can become complex.  Occasionally, it's useful to point out a nuance or reason why a piece of code is there. i.e. If you've building an app that communicates via HTTP, you'll have certain headers to include for the endpoint, and it could be useful to point out why the code for setting those header values is there and how they affect the application. An argument against this could be that you should extract that code into a separate method with a meaningful name to describe the scenario.  My problem with such an approach would be that your code base becomes even more difficult to navigate and work with because you have all of this extra code just to make the code more meaningful. My opinion is that a simple and well-stated comment stating the reasons and intention for the code is more natural and convenient to the initial developer and maintainer.  I just don't agree with the approach of going out of the way to avoid making a comment.  I'm also concerned that some developers would take this approach as an excuse to not comment their bad code. Another area where I like comments is on documentation comments.  Java has it and so does C# and VB.  It's convenient because we can build automated tools that extract these comments.  These extracted comments are often much better than no documentation at all.  The "go read the code" answer always doesn't fulfill the need for a quick summary of an API.

To summarize, I think that the extremes of no comments and too many comments are less than desirable approaches. I prefer documentation comments to explain each class and member (API level) and code comments as necessary to supplement well-written code.

Joe

Posted on Thursday, April 1, 2010 11:17 AM | Back to top

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