[erlang-questions] Erlang Syntax - again

Richard A. O'Keefe ok@REDACTED
Wed Mar 12 05:56:40 CET 2008

On 12 Mar 2008, at 1:58 pm, Robert Virding wrote:

> Very few of the misfeatures of Erlang syntax are new, though this  
> doesn't make them less important. Some are be fixable.
> I was probably a little unclear but I was interested in the question  
> of a whole new syntax, which at least Ulf understood. And the follow- 
> up question of whether this would satisfy people?

It seems to me that a new syntax for Erlang should do one of three  
and ideally should do them all.

(1) Reduce the labour of creating Erlang.
     I have a proposal for 'HaskErl' -- a Haskell-inspired syntax for  
     which has not kept up with developments in the bit syntax.  I  
found that
     this can reduce the SLOC count by a factor of 1.6.  That is, for  
     8 lines of Erlang, there would be 5 lines of HaskErl.

     In code which is heavily commented, of course, the total effect  
would be
     much reduced, because the comments would not change.

(2) Reduce the error rate when creating Erlang.
     That is, it should lead you into making fewer mistakes.  One can  
have ideas
     about what _ought_ to be error prone, but really, empirical  
measurement is
     called for.  HaskErl requires explicit 'let' for binding  
identifiers (or
     equally explicit comprehensions), reducing some errors, but the  
     reduction in parentheses and commas presumably increases others.

(3) Reduce the labout of editing Erlang.
     This, of course, invites (NOT "begs") the question "by what  
     Arguably, Lisp is about as good as it gets here, and LFE is a very
     worthwhile experiment.

I don't list "familiarity" as a criterion, for two reasons.
- The kind of programmer who is likely to be interested in Erlang is  
   to already be familiar with at least one language that didn't steal  
   syntax from C.
- Too much similarity can lead to mistakes when things aren't  
_exactly_ the
   same.  When I was taught French at school, I was warned about "faux  
   words that looked exactly like English words, but didn't mean the  

> I suppose the question really gets back to where the *real* problem  
> is. Is it really the syntax, or is it actually the semantics but  
> people see it a syntax problem because that is what they see first,  
> the syntax? If a new syntax really solved new users problems then it  
> might be worth doing, otherwise not. What do people think?

Does anyone remember a story by John Brunner about "stardroppers"?  It  
as a serial in Analog, but was also published as a book.  The hero was a
government agent.  One of the nice little gimmicks in the book was  
that he
communicated with his superiors in a unique language specially  
designed for
him, based on his person and personality.  When he reported to them,  
he never
knew what he said, but it felt really really comfortable saying it.

My point is that syntax isn't *the* problem, but it is *a* problem in  
the sense
that practically everyone has a language in them, and Erlang isn't it,  
and the
mismatch will be a source of discomfort.

Does anyone remember the wave of PL/I-like languages?
Or the wave of Algol 68-inspired languages?
Or the later wave of Pascal-like languages?
Heck, I've even seen a language that borrowed the control structures  
PL/I is pretty much gone; Pascal is pretty much gone; SNOBOL is gone;
but Lisp is still with us.

Oh yeah, so are Fortran, Basic, and COBOL.  Should we make Erlang look
like COBOL?

If Erlang got a Java-inspired syntax, we'd still get grief from people
who wanted it to look like C# instead.

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