Why informal specs usually win

Paul Prescod paul at prescod.net
Sun Jan 24 17:41:09 GMT 1999

david at megginson.com wrote:
> Informal specs fit into the Worse-is-Better pattern [1]: a less formal
> spec that many people can understand easily will generally be adopted
> and implemented much more successfully than a more formal spec that
> fewer people can understand, despite the disadvantage that the less
> formal spec probably contains ambiguities, inconsistencies and
> omissions.

This is all true, but it isn't complete:

formal + hard-to-understand = low adoption, few bugs
informal + easy-to-understand = high adoption, many bugs

What about:

formal + easy-to-understand?

Let's not forget that formalisms are educational tools. They help us to
understand things. Nobody argues that XML should throw out its BNF or that
XML-based languages should throw away their DTDs (or other schemas). In
other words, formalisms help you to understand *if you know the
formalism*. Prose would be easier to understand than BNF for someone who
didn't know BNF, at first, but over the long term, it would be harder to

This implies that the responsibility of the W3C is not to avoid formality,
but to educate people on a few, well-designed, easy-to-learn formalisms
which can serve to increase understanding. In other words, this is one of
those short-term/long-term decisions that drive everything.

 Paul Prescod  - ISOGEN Consulting Engineer speaking for only himself

"You have the wrong number."
"Eh? Isn't that the Odeon?"
"No, this is the Great Theater of Life. Admission is free, but the 
taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The 
show is continuous. Good-night." -- Robertson Davies, "The Cunning Man"

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