Tags: naming

“Naming is hard” considered harmful

Is good naming inherently hard - or is it a design smell?
Does good design beget good naming?

Let’s start by taking as given that good naming is important. Many people smarter than I have already covered this, and this article is not about persuading the unconvinced.

Next—I was inspired to actually sit down and commit my thoughts to text after watching Kate Gregory’s excellent “Naming is Hard: Let’s Do Better” talk from CppCon 2019. I highly recommend it.

Good naming should be easy. We should be able to name a thing—a variable, function, class, module, etc.—just by describing what it is or what it does, right? So when does naming become hard?

  1. When we don’t know what the thing is or does.
  2. When the thing is or does too much.

Both of these problems are bigger than naming. As important as naming is—and it is important—ensuring that each piece of code has a single, well understood responsibility is more important. Good architecture reduces bugs, improves maintainability and testability, and (as a free side-effect) makes choosing names easier.

Just to clarify, I’m not talking about naming conventions. If you need to write a predicate that indicates whether or not an invoice has been paid, you might call it paidp in Common Lisp, paid? in Scheme or isPaid in Haskell. The decoration of the word “paid” is part of your coding convention—and the only advice I’ll give regarding that is (1) Have a convention, and (2) Follow it! What we’re talking about here is the choice of the word “paid” itself.

Looking at the first problem, when you don’t know what real-world concept a class models, or what a function is supposed to do, naming it will be difficult—but writing and testing it effectively will be impossible. This might sound blindingly obvious (at least, I hope it does), but too often we see developers diving into code before understanding its requirements, or how to meet those requirements, all in the name of “exploratory programming”. They confuse “I know what I need to do, but not yet how to do it,” with “I don’t yet know what I need to do.”

Once you understand what a code artefact is supposed to do, you can evaluate the scope of its work. Does this class model one, and only one, real-world object from my business domain? Does this function perform exactly one complete task or subtask? These questions are basically the “S” in SOLID, i.e. the single responsibility principle—but don’t be fooled. This principle is not limited to class design in OOP—it applies to all your code (for my generation: All your (code)base are belong to it.)

Once a “thing” in your code performs one, and only one, role—and once you understand that role—it should be easy to find a business-domain term for that role. Et voilà! There’s your name.

Next time you find yourself struggling to name something in your code, rather than just excusing yourself with "naming is hard" and rushing on full-steam, first ask *why* it's hard. Is there some deficit in your design that makes selecting a good name difficult? Could some remodelling or refactoring make the naming easier? And, would that work improve the code beyond just issues of naming?