Daniel Duan

How To Omit Needless Words

A typical experience in adopting Swift 3 may look like this:

The last step is particularly challenging in a team environment because it involves naming things. Luckily we have (IMHO) the best “features” in Swift 3 for help: the API Design Guidelines.

Omit needless words is one of the most differentiating guideline for function names between Swift 2 and 3. In Swift 2 we used to name things like so…

func doStuffWithThing(thing: Thing) { … }

… and use it like …


That’s a lot of “thing”s, have you noticed?

Since the word “Thing” is merely repeating the type information, we can omit it in Swift 3:

// declare
func doStuff(with thing: Thing) { … }

// use
doStuff(with: someThing)

It’s clear at both declaration and use site what we are doing stuff to.

So … you should go through you code base and make this change! In the next section, we’ll discuss one way to make it happen.

Step 1: Automate

A good indicator of “merely repeating type information” is repetition of words. If you have been disciplined about naming your functions in Swift 2, finding such repetition should take no more than one or two good regular expressions. After the migrator, your code may contain a mixture of these:

func doStuffWithX(_: X) {  }
func doStuff(forY y: Y) {  }

In other words, the repeating word (X or Y) is preceded by a preposition.

Finding these in a large code base is quite fun. If you don’t feel like writing the scripts yourself, I’ve made a little tool for it here.

(Sometimes the repeating words aren’t a exact match because of prefixes such as “CG” in CGSize. That’s covered by the tool as well.)

Step 2: Update

You can further rearrange the pieces in function name mechanically to:

func doStuff(preposition originalArgName: Type) {  }

The tool I wrote can suggest alternatives like this. Applying them is technically automatable. But I find manually doing tasks such as fixing up indentation for multi-line functions or updating their use site to be easier. Your conclusion may depend the size of your code base and your patience.

Step 3: Audit

The main goal for the API Design Guidelines is “clarity at the point of use”. Our automated process will yield some undesirable results. I’ll list a few scenarios here.

Poorly named function name becomes poorer. Example: alertForScreenSize(_ size CGRize) becomes alert(forScreen size: CGSize). Obviously, “for screen” is misleading since a CGSize is not a screen. The problem here is the “alert” is not for a “size” to begin with. We as human intuitively pick up that it’s for a “screen with a certain size”. So the correct renaming here should be alertForScreen(with size: CGSize).

Awkward literal values results in ungrammatical phrases. Imagine our argument is a enum:

enum Mode {
  case add
  case edit

… and we renamed a function updateUIForMode(mode: Mode) to update(for mode: Mode). The call site, therefore, becomes update(for: .add).

What makes it feels wrong? Well, a preposition followed by a verb (“for add”) is not very grammatical. Normally we would say “update UI for adding”. So here we need to update the literals in that enum to “adding” and “editing”.

Type information becomes too weak. This can happen very often with enum literals. We often name enum values with an adjective to qualify its name:

enum UIControlState {
    case automatic // which state? the *automatic* state!

After renaming, we’ll have functions that simply becomes too generic and mysterious at call site:

update(for: .automatic) // automatic what? 😂

This is where we need to be flexible and use our own good judgement. Perhaps it’s simply better to keep the qualifying postfix:

update(forControlState: .automatic) // better

In the guideline’s parlance, this is compensate for weak type information.

Other argument labels needs updates too. A function at call site should read like a sentence as much as possible. We removed words at beginning of the “sentence”, it’s important to take a look at labels for the rest of the sentence and ensure the whole thing fits together.

There are many, many other fallouts from mechanically omitting needless words that I didn’t cover in this post. There are many many other things in the API Design Guidelines that are worth conforming to. There will be much much bike shedding among your team members.

Just remember, the API guidelines don’t provide an answer to every naming decision. Following it means your code base will fit in with the rest of the community and APIs from Foundation/Swift standard library. But find what feels right for your team is the most important thing. In the end, you should be glad that everyone cares so much about your code base’s “Swiftness” and it’ll be all worth it!