Cet article est un retour d'expérience d'un développeur qui a passé quelques mois à utiliser CoffeeScript. Il nous fait part de ses impressions au travers de son blog.

I’ve used CoffeeScript for a few months now. Coming from Python, I felt that CoffeeScript was more concise than Javascript, so I decided to use it for a few small projects. Initially, it was a nice experience, but then I gradually realized that, while writing CoffeeScript code was very pleasant, reading it wasn’t so. I started to notice that it was hard to read my own code a few months later. It was even harder to read other people’s code. I often found my self reading the translated JavaScript code to understand a line or two of CoffeeScript. I concluded that CoffeeScript was a language designed for writability at the cost of readability, easier to write, but harder to read.

The roots of CoffeeScript readability problems are two principles applied to the design of the language:

  • Implicit is better than explicit
  • There is more than one way to do it

1. Implicit is better than explicit.

Implicit or optional tokens in a programming language usually bring readability problems. For example, in C-like languages, you can omit curly brackets after a conditional expression if you only have one statement:

if (condition)
    action();

But what happens if we add a new statement:

if (condition)
    action();
    action2();

Now let’s take a look at a classic problem associated with implicit semicolon insertion in Javascript:

function foo() {
  return
    {
      foo: 1
    }
}

Both examples show cases where, at first glance, the code looks like it’s doing something, but after looking more carefully it’s doing something completely different. Even if you know the rules, it’s easy to fall into this trap if you’re an unwary reader. That’s a readability problem.

CoffeeScript introduces multiple implicit or optional tokens that create a lot of situations like these ones. And that’s something you can easily see in real code. For example, take this statement:

action(true, {
   option1: 1,
   option2: 2
})

In CoffeeScript, you can omit the parenthesis, the curly brackets and the commas. They’re optional. So you can rewrite the statement above as this:

action true
   option1: 1
   option2: 2

Problems with optional parenthesis

Take a look at these two snippets. Next to the CoffeeScript code is the resulting JavaScript:

doSomething () ->  'hello'
doSomething(function() {
  return 'hello';
});
doSomething() ->  'hello'
doSomething()(function() {
  return 'hello';
});

Both statements do completely different different things, although they look very similar. The first one takes the space after the function name and applies implicit parenthesis to the function call, taking the function as a single parameter. The second one interprets the parenthesis as a function call with no arguments and applies implicit parenthesis on that result. Note that in CoffeeScript parenthesis are also optional in function definitions with no arguments. That means that the following two statements have exactly the same meaning:

x = -> 'result'
x = () -> 'result'

Something curious about the rules used by CoffeeScript for implicit parenthesis is that the case for function calling is exactly the opposite of the case for function definition. In function calling you can omit parenthesis except when the function takes no arguments, whereas in function definition you can omit parenthesis only when the function has no arguments.

Now let’s take a look at some interesting case of how implicit parenthesis make things harder to read. This a small snippet taken directly from the CoffeeScript source code:

action = (token, i) ->
      @tokens.splice i, 0, @generate 'CALL_END', ')', token[2]

The @tokens.splice function call has five elements separated by commas. At first glance you can think that the function is taking five arguments, but if you read carefully, you will notice that there is another function call as an argument: @generate. The last two arguments are for @generate not for @token.splice.  A more readable way of writing this would have been:

action = (token, i) ->
      @tokens.splice i, 0, @generate('CALL_END', ')', token[2])

Problems with optional commas

In CoffeeScript you can omit commas for separating function arguments if you put them in a new line. For example the following two statements are equivalent:

moveTo 10, 20, 10
moveTo 10,
  20
  10

The comma after the first argument is mandatory, except if the next argument is an object definition:

moveTo(10, {key: value})

moveTo 10
  key: value

Also, if you’re not using explicit parenthesis, indentation is important, but not alignment, take a look at these examples with the resulting JavaScript next to them:

doSomething 1,
  2
  3
  4
doSomething(1, 2, 3, 4);
doSomething 1,
2
3
4
doSomething(1, 2);
3;
4;
doSomething 1,
  2
    3
   4
doSomething(1, 2, 3, 4);
doSomething(1,
2
3
4)
doSomething(1, 2, 3, 4);

You’re not safe from indentation problems if you use parenthesis, for example:

doSomething (->
'hello'), 1
doSomething((function() {}, 'hello'), 1);
doSomething (->
  'hello'), 1
doSomething((function() {
  return 'hello';
}), 1);

In the first case, the line break after the function definition is replaced by an implicit comma, the parenthesis seem to be ignored.

Problems with optional curly brackets

Suppose that you have a function that takes two objects as arguments:

action({key: value}, {option: value}, otherValue)

If you omit the curly brackets, you might think you get the same result:

action(key: value, option: value, otherValue)

However, in this case CoffeeScript will take the first comma as a separator for object properties instead of a separator for arguments. The second comma however, it is taken as argument separator because it’s not an explicit key-value pair. The code will be translated to the following Javascript:

action({key: value, option: value}, otherValue);

Something curious here is that in CoffeeScript, explicit key-value pairs are optional in object definitions, but only if you use explicit curly brackets. That means that you can write something like this:

x = {
  key1
  key2
  key3: value3
}
x = {
  key1: key1,
  key2: key2,
  key3: value3
};

2. There is more than one way to do it (TIMTOWTDI)

In CoffeeScript TIMTOWTDI is a strong principle. For example, instead of just having true and false keywords for boolean values, you can also have yes and no, off and on.

Also, you can write a simple conditional statement in multiple ways:

x = 1 if y != 0;

if y != 0
  x = 1

x = 1 unless y == 0

unless y == 0
  x = 1

All the four statements above do exactly the same thing.

The problem with having multiple ways of doing one thing, is that the language end up with too many idioms. This makes code harder to read because a programmer trying to understand a piece of code must be familiar with all those idioms.

When we combine multiple idioms with implicit stuff and the fact that everything is an expression, the result is a bomb for readability. Here are a few examples taken directly from CoffeeScript’s source code.

Fancy for loop

  break for [tag], i in @tokens when tag isnt 'TERMINATOR'
  @tokens.splice 0, i if i

This code deletes leading newlines from the list of tokens. The for loop is
just a “cool” one liner to write this:

  for [tag], i in @tokens
    if tag is 'TERMINATOR'
      break

Tricky while

i += block.call this, token, i, tokens while token = tokens[i]

In CoffeeScript everything is an expression. In the code above, is the while
expresion an argument of block.call? or is it acting as while for the
whole statement? When we translate it to Javascript, this is what we get:

while (token = tokens[i]) {
  i += block.call(this, token, i, tokens);
}

Much easier to read in my opinion. Also, note that the while expression is
using an assignment operator instead of a comparision one. That adds 10 points
to the readability bomb.

Tricky if

@detectEnd i + 1, condition, action if token[0] is 'CALL_START'

Here is a similar example, but this time, we’re using an if statement. As in
the previous example, the if here is acting over the whole statement:

if (token[0] === 'CALL_START') {
  this.detectEnd(i + 1, condition, action);
}

But what happens if we add an else to the if?

@detectEnd i + 1, condition, action if token[0] is 'CALL_START' else false

Now the if is assumed as an expression argument for the @detectEnd function:

this.detectEnd(i + 1, condition, action(token[0] === 'CALL_START' ? void 0 : false));

Fancy redefinition

mainModule.moduleCache and= {}

This code clears the module cache only if the value is not null (or something
falsy). This could have been writen this way:

if mainModule.moduleCache
  moduleCache = {}

But short and original code is much cooler. This is a good example of how TIMTOWTDI kills readability.

Nested made flat

js = (parser.parse lexer.tokenize code).compile options

In this example we see how a nested chain of calls looks flat thanks to the
magic of implicit parenthesis. The code translates to the following Javascript:

js = (parser.parse(lexer.tokenize(code))).compile(options);

When the nested calls are explicit, the code becomes easier to read.

Conclusion

Of course readability is a very subjective topic. The problems described here might not apply to you if you come from a different background. I come from Python, C# and C++. But if you come from Ruby or Perl, you might think these are not problems but actually cool features.

I think that readability is more important than writability for a programming language. Code is usually written once, but read many times. Given that CoffeeScript doesn’t fix any of the fundamental problems of JavaScript, but damages readability, I decided not to use it anymore.

Update:

Another interesting post with some other readability problems in CoffeeScript: http://ryanflorence.com/2011/case-against-coffeescript/

Commentaires

Pas tout lu, j'ai trouvé quelques remarques pertinentes. Mon avis c'est que si on fait l'effort d'avoir un code propre CS est plus avntageux que JS. N'importe quel langage peut faire des trucs dégueulasses de toutes façons.

Il y a plus de 5 ans

Oui je suis d'accord avec toi.
L'auteur précise dans sa conclusion qu'il exprime son opinion et que le billet est subjectif. Il y a des éléments à prendre et d'autres à laisser, le plus important est de rester critique et se faire son propre avis.

Il y a plus de 5 ans
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