What is syntax? Why does it matter? What is it composed of?
Before continuing, you should already know what a programming language is, alongside the basics of coding and development. There are some more advanced concepts to explore, which we’re going to do here and now.
One of the most common misconceptions is that the term syntax refers to all written code or content. That is not necessarily true. When you write code, you use a variety of terms and keywords, which form the basis of commands you issue the compiler, or rather the computer. That is syntax.
What is Syntax?
Instead of looking at syntax as a bunch of written code, start thinking about it as a series of rules or commands, which are used to shape languages into a usable format. Syntax accounts for the structure, form, and application of various rules.
For example, when someone says you have messy syntax, they’re not just stating that your code looks messy, they’re also saying that you’re doing a poor job of following the known structure of a language. It may look messy, yes, but you’re probably not formatting the code properly. You may be leaving out important keywords or functions, and so on.
Tied to syntax is another concept: Semantics.
What is Semantics?
Semantics directly refers to the logic of a rule, command, or code. It relates to the way that the code is presented, whether through numbers, symbols, characters, and words.
Techopedia explains it best. “Semantics is a linguistic concept separate from the concept of syntax, which is also often related to attributes of computer programming languages.”
As you can infer, it deals with the logic and function of code, rather than the appearance.
“The idea of semantics is that the linguistic representations or symbols support logical outcomes, as a set of words and phrases signify ideas to both humans and machines.”
Exploring Syntax: What’s in it?
While syntax refers to an overhead level of code and its structure, it has many core components. Before you can begin working with a language like Python, C++, or even HTML, you must understand the core components, and why they’re used.
Keywords – Keywords are dedicated and pre-defined words to complete a specific action, similar to a command. For example, “print” means to display or show the result. Another great example is “def” which defines a function.
Identifiers – Identifiers are essentially a label, or a name. They are used to differentiate between entities within a program or batch of code. They are not the same as variables, but they can refer to certain values. Identifiers are also given to structures, functions, constants, and more.
Variables – Variables store values or declare data. They can contain names, words, phrases, numbers, symbols, and so on.
Data Types – There are several data types. Each one tells the computer (compiler or interpreter) what to do with correlating data. There are 4 primary types, including Integers, Boolean, Lists, and Strings. Integers, for instance, contain whole number values without decimals. Lists store a string of values, or an entire list, as the name implies.
More Core Components of Syntax
Operators – Used to define functions, usually mathematical, operators tell a compiler or interpreter what to do with related data. That could include adding, subtracting, multiplying, assigning values, and so on.
Conditionals – A conditional statement is triggered by a specific variable or action. IE) If this happens then do that. There are many ways to define conditional statements, and most incorporate operators, keywords, variables, or more.
Functions – A function is a defined action. You tell the compiler or interpreter what to do, and what information it needs to do it, using parameters.
Loops – A loop is a snippet of code or function that is designed to continue indefinitely. Loops can be defined with conditional statements, or other core components. They may end once a certain task has completed or a trigger is enabled.
Working code always includes these core components. User inputs, tied to user entry fields, are stored as variables, and may or may not be converted to use with the other components.
Why Does Syntax Matter?
With some of the older languages, and older programming technologies, in general, syntax could make or break a piece of code. If you forgot to include closing statements or left out an important keyword, compilers would fail.
While syntax is still just as important today, the ‘make or break’ scenario is no longer always true. There are coding tools that will help you fix some of the more common problems, and there are even no-code tools that allow inexperienced developers to create without deploying advanced programming concepts. What’s more, most development environments will return specific errors that help you detect when there are problems with your syntax, declarations, and logic.
Syntax does matter. How much depends on the language. Some languages are more sensitive to syntax errors than others. Common grammatical issues, like missing a comma, or ignoring case sensitivity, can cause serious problems in one language. Yet, those same errors may cause few to no problems in another.
The Human Element
There’s another element of proper syntax that isn’t always discussed. That is the human element. By following standard syntax practices, it ensures that other developers can read and interpret your code. That’s especially true when the code is “clean” and error-free. Including comments may explain what you are doing and why, but they aren’t necessary if your code is written well.
Some languages incorporate syntactic sugar, a practice that makes code much easier to read and express, for humans. COBOL employs the concept, and a lot of its keywords can be omitted to achieve the same results. They’re only added to make the code easier to read and interpret.
Where Can I Learn More About Syntax?
The best way to learn programming language syntax is to use it regularly. In other words, you need direct experience and repetition working with a language to better understand, memorize, and deploy the required syntax.
Choose a language, preferably one tailored to beginners, and then get to work!
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