Save the Semicolon
Posted on 12/09/2015 by Dr. Benjamin Hummel
These days, it seems that a modern programming language is required to not use semicolons at all, or at least make them optional. While this might be a good trend from the perspective of a keyboard vendor (less stress on the single semicolon key), from a code quality perspective, this does not look like progress at all.
Looking at the programming languages we encounter these days, it seems that you can estimate the age of a language by looking at its statement separator. Slightly aged languages (some would call them business standards), such as C/C++, Java, C#, require you to put a semicolon at the end of every statement. Very old languages, such as COBOL or ABAP, even require something different, such as a dot.
Interestingly, many new languages tend to follow the optional semicolon road. Apple’s language Swift makes the semicolon optional. And the language Kotlin presents at its front page as one of the prime features of the language: »Semicolons are optional«.
Semicolon, why not?
Actually, I do not see how adding a semicolon to the end of every statement can be harmful. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned here, but I like to communicate to the compiler, that I expect the statement to end here. If the compiler thinks differently, it can tell me very clearly and I can fix it. In some of the languages, these misunderstandings can only be found by testing, which should actually focus on functionality and not language constructs.
But I’m also a bit biased, developing code analysis solutions. When building a parser for a language, that also has to deal with multiple versions of a language and should be robust enough to not choke on the first piece of non-compiling code, the semicolon is a blessing. Any time your parser is stuck, just find the next semicolon and continue from there. True, when building a compiler you are stuck in any case. But for all the tools we rely on so much these days, such as syntax-aware editors, refactoring tools, and quality analysis tools, being able to easily build a robust parser is a blessing.
Regarding code quality, I also strongly believe that the semicolon (or any other explicit statement separator) helps with readability, as it clearly communicates the end of the statement. Without it, I have to think about the implicit separation rules of the language, which becomes more involved, when switching between languages a lot in your projects. The typical answer is to rely on nice formatting (ideally provided by your IDE), but if you require nice formatting, why not also require the semicolon (or let your IDE insert it, so that readers with simple editors can benefit from it)?
Semicolon, oh yes!
Given all these issues, and seeing no drawbacks of inserting explicit statement separators, I strongly prefer languages to require the trusty old semicolon. But of course this is also a matter of personal taste, so I’m interested in hearing your voice in the comments.