Why informal specs usually win

Paul Prescod paul at prescod.net
Mon Jan 25 09:16:45 GMT 1999

david at megginson.com wrote:
> I disagree, however, that the
> W3C can rely on educating the public to understand a higher degree of
> formalisms, if only because people will not accept spending the time
> learning the formalisms until they are already interested enough in
> the specs.

But people usually become interested in standards before they read the
specs (if they ever do). Consider SQL. How many people have ever read a
SQL spec? People get interested in standards based on what they are told
the standard will do for them, not what the spec. looks like.

I'm sure it will annoy some people to hear it, but specs are for
implementors and very sophisticated users. Joe Average will never read a
spec., no matter how "friendly" it is. Specifications are more like laws
than they are like novels. The move to informal specs has not decreased
the need for "language lawyers" -- it has just made their job harder. It
has also made implementors jobs harder, which works AGAINST the popularity
of the language.

> Or, more succinctly, people won't always bother to learn -- this is
> simply an environmental fact in the industry, like the fact the ships
> often have to sail on rough seas: figure out where your spec will be
> sailing and design it appropriately, rather than trying to change the
> weather.

It is demonstrably the case that the "weather" can be changed. John Backus
and Peter Naur chose to invent BNF. In doing so they fundamentally changed
the standardization "climate." Thank God they didn't rely on prose and
wait for someone else to figure out the formalism later.

"To be precise, most of BNF was introduced by Backus in a report presented
at an earlier UNESCO conference on ALGOL 58. Few read the report, but when
Peter Naur read it he was surprised at some of the differences he found
between his and Backus's interpretation of ALGOL 58. He decided that for
the successor to ALGOL, all participants of the first design had come to
recognize some weaknesses, should be given in a similar form so that all
participants should be aware of what they were agreeing to."

"Since then, almost every author of books on new programming languages
used it to specify the syntax rules of the language."


 Paul Prescod  - ISOGEN Consulting Engineer speaking for only himself

To me programming is more than an important practical art. It is
also a gigantic undertaking in the foundations of knowledge.
	- Grace Hopper

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