Name before type: why ‘age int’ is better than ‘int age’

August 2023

Summary: A variable’s name is more important than its type, so the name should be more prominent and come first in declarations.

In many popular programming languages, including C, C++, Java, and C#, when you define a field or variable, you write the type before the name. For example (in C++):

// Struct definition
struct person {
    std::string name;
    std::string email;
    int age;

// Stand-alone variables
std::vector<person> people = get_people();
int min_age = find_minimum_age(people);
std::string domain = parse_email_domain(people[0].email);

In other languages, including Go, Rust, TypeScript, and Python (with type hints), you write the name before the type. For example (in Go):

// Struct definition
type Person struct {
    Name  string
    Email string
    Age   int

// Stand-alone variables
var people []Person = getPeople()
var minAge int = findMinimumAge(people)
var domain string = parseEmailDomain(people[0].Email)

// Though it's more typical in Go to use := (short variable declarations)
people := getPeople()
minAge := findMinimumAge(people)
domain := parseEmailDomain(people[0].Email)

There’s a nice answer in the Go FAQ about why Go chose this order: “Why are declarations backwards?”. It starts with “they’re only backwards if you’re used to C”, which is a good point – name-before-type has a long history in languages like Pascal. In fact, Go’s type declaration syntax (and packages) were directly inspired by Pascal.

The FAQ goes on to point out that parsing is simpler with name-before-type, and declaring multiple variables is less error-prone than in C. In C, the following declares x to be a pointer, but (surprisingly at first!) y to be a normal integer:

int* x, y;

Whereas the equivalent in Go does what you’d expect, declaring both to be pointers:

var x, y *int

The Go blog even has an in-depth article by Rob Pike on Go’s Declaration Syntax, which describes more of the advantages of Go’s syntax over C’s, particularly with arrays and function pointers.

Oddly, the article only hints at what I think is the more important reason to prefer name-before-type for everyday programming: it’s clearer.

A variable’s name is more important than its type, so the name should be more prominent and come first in declarations.

I believe this is easy to prove in a few different ways:

  1. By the popularity of type inference in variable declarations, a feature that’s included in most languages now: var in C# and Java, := in Go, auto in C++, and so on.
  2. By the existence of dynamically-typed languages (like Python and Ruby), which don’t need types at all – you only have the name!
  3. The name holds more semantic meaning. In the example above, minAge clearly means the minimum age value, and knowing that it’s an int doesn’t add much information. It’s useful for type checking, of course, but even when the type is inferred, the code is clear. (English uses type inference too: you’d never say “Person Ben Hoyt wrote this text article.”)

I’ve held this view for a while, but what triggered me to write it down was the recent release of Cap’n Proto 1.0, which reminded me of the difference in schema syntax between Protocol Buffers and Cap’n Proto.

In which example below is it easier to spot the field names? This Protocol Buffers schema:

message SearchResponse {
  repeated Result results = 1;

message Result {
  string url = 1;
  string title = 2;
  repeated string snippets = 3;

Or this Cap’n Proto one:

struct SearchResponse {
  results @1 :List(Result);

struct Result {
  url @1 :Text;
  title @2 :String;
  snippets @3 :List(Text);

I don’t know about you, but I think the most important part (the field names) get a bit lost in the Protocol Buffers version. In the Cap’n Proto version they’re easily visible due to the left-alignment.

I think the takeaway is this: we can’t change the past, but if you’re creating a new language, please put names before types!

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