Archives / 2004 / May
  • My Transition from Fixed to Proportional Width Fonts for Editing Source Code

    I always find it interesting to look at source code I wrote years ago. Old dot-matrix printouts (BASIC and Z80 Assembly code from the 80's...) found in a drawer while searching for something else. Or source files in some remote "OldStuff" folder on my storage hard drive.

    These old sources bring back lots of memories and it's nice to see the evolution of my personal style, which shows several cycles of first changing only gradually for some time, then suddenly getting a visible boost after being exposed to new concepts and ideas.

    One thing that really amazes me in my source files back from the 90's is the amount of time wasted on formatting and indentation (sometimes up to the point of thinking "wow, did I do that?"). I'm speaking of things like comment headers for methods:

    * Method: CreateItem
    * Purpose: Creates a new foobar item using the
    * specified ID
    * Parameter: id = ID of the item
    * Returns: created item

    Or end-of-line comments. Often I can literally see code statements and comments fighting for space, with the comments eventually losing and being split to two or more lines:

    splurbyUpdateBits=noobahFlags & pizkwatMask; // a comment explaining what
    // this line is all about,
    // spanning several lines

    And another waste of time: lining up variable names and comments in declarations:

    int      n=0;     // A comment
    SomeType theItem; // Another comment

    A few years ago I started experimenting with proportional fonts for the source code editor, being inspired by screenshots of Smalltalk and Oberon systems I saw in magazines. After finding out that Verdana (unlike Arial) is well-suited as a developer's font, displaying the uppercase I, the lowercase L and the pipe symbol differently, I forced myself to use this font for a while.

    The increase in readability was amazing (especially for long identifiers), but my exisiting source code was a mess when viewed in the editor - all elaborate formatting using tabs and spaces was gone. Not wanting to go back, I had to adjust my commenting and formatting style:

    • I chose a less elaborate design for comments headers (which I won't reproduce here as it was C/C++ specific; now using C# with its XML documentation comments I never felt the need for exactly lining up anything)
    • Wrapping end-of-line comments was no longer an option. Sure, you can line up the comments in your editor using tabs, but in other people's editors (using a different font) the result is unpredictable. So I reduced the need for EOL comments
      • by moving some information to section comments that explain the intention of several code lines, and
      • by writing better code (yeah I know, d'oh!), as long EOL-comments usually are an indicator for bad/complicated parts
      The remaining few EOL comments are short and fit into a single line.
    • I simply stopped formatting variable declarations. Maybe it was a nice thing to do in plain C, but in C++, Java and C# long lists of variable declarations are much less common anyway. What benefited most from lining up were the end-of-line comments behind variable names. But with the switch to a proportional editor font (supported by the Intellisense feature) the length of my variable names grew considerably, and with more expressive names, most comments were no longer required. Now, the few remaining comments don't need to be lined up.

    I'm now using a proportional editor font (Verdana 8pt) for quite some time and I wouldn't voluntarily change back to a fixed-width font. At the same time it must be noted that the transition may not be without problems, depending on your current personal style. But I can definitely recommend giving it a try.