Plain-Language Programming – Mean What You Write

Back in 1995, I took a class in Pascal programming – much of which I have forgotten at this point in time. But the instructor taught us a programming concept that he called “pseudo programming” which basically boiled down to regular sentence statements for what was going to be done. For instance, if we were going to write a loop, we would create pseudo code that looked like this:

Check variable [x] for [y] value
As long as [x] does not equal [y] do the following
(long string of functions to be performed on data and stored)

Later on in my professional career – which admittedly looks like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney – I learned that this process is sometimes referred to as “Plain Language Programming” which is just a fancy way of saying that you are talking about stuff in a manner that non-programmers (for your language) can understand what is taking place in the block of code that you are commenting upon. This is typically done so that some other meathead programmer can come along and comprehend what was going on in that garbled mess that I call a brain, without me being there. Or as I pointed out to my students when I taught – if I stepped off the curb in Sundance Square in Fort Worth, hit by a speeding city bus, and thus turned into a pile of mushed meat that could fit into a can of KalKan – someone else could pick up where I left off. Yeah, it got a few giggles and some startled looks, but it kept the students awake. But that’s a deer trod that we will ignore for this post.

Plain Language Programming is wonderful stuff. Its just easy, plain, to-the-point descriptives of what’s taking place. But its not as easy as you think. You have to be precise with what you state. Saying that a block of code “processes some stuff here, and spits out data in the magic format required” is not nearly as meaningful as “the process performs calculations on the data to determine a player’s batting average, on-base percent, and slugging percentage. Once completed, the output is put into a comma-separated value format as specified by the required upload format at”. Precision in the language matters, particularly where description is concerned.

All of this comes back to Starhawk’s presentation “Crossing Stony Ground” at Pantheacon this year. The point made was “Watch what you say or repeat…” Next to that, I wrote “PLP” for Plain-Language Programming. When we read or hear something – particularly in these overly sensitive times in our online environments, we can sometimes misread what is being said – totally missing the point of what is being said. I know I have that issue, just as anyone else does. Rather than reading through the entire message for context, we leap to our conclusions or answers based on a small amount of information. Sometimes, its because we are in a rush to provide a response or opinion. An appropriate example came this morning when I was playing Jeopardy on my Amazon Echo. The question was “What number is the last Constitutional Amendment…” (I had my answer here) “…to the Bill of Rights?” I fired back with “What is 27?” That would be right, except that there’s the extra added part of “the Bill of Rights” which makes the answer “10”. Instead of waiting for the rest of the question – I had the answer. And it was wrong. See, words have meaning…and not enough words gives you only a partial picture.

…and its interesting to watch all of this take place, particularly within the online in-fighting we see among the Pagan community. We bicker, we fight, we posture, we threaten, we defend….and most of the time, we haven’t even gotten into the “Bill of Rights” part of the statement, which allows for context. We find our conclusions, form our stances, build our defenses, populate the ramparts with archers – for a single rabbit on the path to the main gates. Granted it could be a killer rabbit…with fangs! So perhaps, we’ve done the right thing by sliding into DefCon one from DefCon five.

No, words have meaning. And when you work without the full context of those words, misunderstandings take place. And from those misunderstandings, we draw battle lines. And from those battle lines…..well, you get the picture. Much like plain-language programming needs to be as descriptive as possible without being overly complicated, we need to be careful about what we invest into what we read or hear, until we know the context of everything. Online communication, being rather binary in its nature, is easily misunderstood. There’s no depth or dimension that is carried by tonal inflection. No additional context added by physical aspects. No smiles. No hand gestures. No standing or sitting postures. No hint of laughter in a voice. No sternness portrayed by narrowed eyes, or surprise by widened ones. As such, we need to be careful with what we say, but also in what we repeat. We need to be sure to hear the latter part of the statement, so that we know that the last numbered amendment refers to only the Bill of Rights, not the entire stack of amendments. And really, the only way to accomplish this – is to learn to slow down and listen. Not an easy task in today’s lightning paced, online driven social environment.


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