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Incorrect spelling

January 11th, 2009

While even a mediocre identifier name can provide useful information to a reader of the source a poorly chosen name can create confusion and require extra effort to remember. An author’s good intent can be spoiled by spelling mistakes, which are likely to be common if the developer is not a native speaker of the English (or whatever natural language is applicable).

Identifiers have characteristics which make them difficult targets for traditional spell checking algorithms; they often contain specialized words, dictionary words may be abbreviated in some way (making phonetic techniques impossible) and there is unlikely to be any reliable surrounding context.

Identifiers share many of the characteristics of search engine queries, they contain a small number of words that don’t fit together into a syntactically correct sentence and any surrounding context (e.g., previous queries or other identifiers) cannot be trusted. However, search engines have their logs of millions of previous search queries to fall back on, enabling them to suggest (often remarkably accurate) alternatives to non-dictionary words, specialist domains and recently coined terms. Because developers don’t receive any feedback on their spelling mistakes revision control systems are unlikely to contain any relevant information that can be mined.

One solution is for source code editors to require authors to fully specify all of the words used in an identifier when it is declared; spell checking and suitable abbreviation rules being applied at this point. Subsequent uses of the identifier can be input using the abbreviated form. This approach could considerably improve consistency of identifier usage across a project’s source code (it could also flag attempts to use both orderings of a word pair, e.g., number count and count number). The word abbreviation mapping could be stored (perhaps in a comment at the end of the source) for use by other tools and personalized developer preferences stored in a local configuration file. It is time for source code editors to start taking a more active role in helping developers write readable code.

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