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bug#8682: 24.0.50; doc strings of `isearch-mode', `isearch-forward', etc

From: Drew Adams
Subject: bug#8682: 24.0.50; doc strings of `isearch-mode', `isearch-forward', etc.
Date: Fri, 15 Jul 2011 11:30:33 -0700

> > "Internal" functions too deserve doc strings, in general.
> >
> > And nothing in Emacs is truly "internal".  Emacs 
> > purposefully documents itself, at all levels.  That documentation
> > is available to all users interactively.
> Of course there are internal elisp functions. Many of them even use a
> convention of having two consecutive dashes in the name to mark that
> they are internal, but not all.
> And what makes them internal is that they are an implementation detail
> and could be removed, or changed beyond all recognition, at any
> moment. Documenting them past the simple "This is an internal
> function" leads the user-developer to falsely believe that they are
> part of the interface, but they are not. Otherwise, nothing could ever
> be changed but painstakingly and with lot of ugly compatibility code.
> Which is fine for the advertised interfaces, but not for every single
> function in every single package in lisp/**/*.el.
> First someone asks to document them all, then s/he will use them in
> some package, and finally s/he will complain harshly when they are
> deleted in some future release. Better to say clearly: don't do that,
> or do it under you own responsability, after looking at the code, and
> knowing full well that if you do you'll likely need to workaround
> changes in the future.

I actually agree with most of what you wrote, Juanma.  And well put.

I nevertheless maintain that nothing in Emacs is "_truly_" internal.
And that even "internal" functions deserve doc strings, in general.

Nothing is truly internal because Emacs is open.  More than that - it is
intentionally, proudly, exceptionally, emphatically, in-your-face open.  Emacs
_wants_ to expose itself, at all levels, to _anyone_ interested.  It is the
self-documenting editor.  There is no rigid developer/user dichotomy.

This is the essential contribution of Emacs (and GNU).  We say "self-documenting
AND customizable/modifiable", but the former - more generally open source code,
implies the latter (modifiable).  This is to be contrasted with non-free
software, where everything that is not advertised via an external API _is_ truly

That nothing is truly internal in Emacs does not preclude those responsible for
the Emacs mainline development from wanting to let users know that function XYZ
is "internal" in the sense that it is better for them not to count on the
current behavior, or the implementation, remaining the same in the future.

That is orthogonal to doc, in general (and please note when I say "in general",
like "truly").  It is not because we want to convey the message that a function
or variable is internal in the sense that it might easily be changed, that we
should not, in general, document that function or variable.

Emacs code is open.  Doc strings are like easy-to-get-to code comments - and
intentionally so.  Instead of digging into the source code to see what a
function's parameters and purpose/effect/use are, you can just hit `C-h f'.

But not all code comments, of course.  Only those comments that describe what a
thing is for and what its interface (e.g. signature) is.  Information about
implementation, which can be found in some code comments, is generally not
appropriate for doc strings.  That is another part of the raison d'etre of doc
strings: describe just the API and purpose/effect/use, not the implementation.

And not documenting some internal function does _not_ obviate the potential
problem you cite, of users using it and unwisely expecting it not to change etc.
On the contrary, documentation can, in addition to describing the parameters and
purpose, explicitly point out that the function is likely to be changed easily.
Or as you put it:

> Better to say clearly: don't do that, or do it under you own
> responsability, after looking at the code, and knowing full
> well that if you do you'll likely need to workaround
> changes in the future.

Almost right, but it is not either/or.  What's wrong is your "Better to".
Better to document the function AND say that it might well change ("internal").
This is open software - we don't win by trying to hide things or get people to
not notice them.

Ignorance or misunderstanding about a function or variable is no Chinese wall
against misuse of it.  Quite the contrary.

> (I'm not talking about the specific changes in this bug thread

Which is what we should get back to - specifics about _these_ doc strings.

Still, the general discussion can be useful, since "internal" seems to be the
excuse more and more for not documenting things correctly.  No sense fixing an
incorrect statement, since a function is "internal".  No sense documenting a
function at all, since it is "internal".

There are a wide range of "internal" functions and variables.  In general, we
should improve their doc and, in some cases, the code comments.

An excuse such as `no user should care about this unless they are hacking the
Isearch code' ("if you're not an isearch hacker, you'll never see it") is
misguided.  _Any_ user potentially hacks Isearch code.  Not in the distributed
Emacs sources (isearch.el) perhaps, but in user code.

The goal should not be to discourage Emacs users from borrowing, adapting,
hacking the Isearch code or any other Emacs source code.  Quite the contrary.
This is what Emacs is about.  It is the self-documenting, customizable editor.
It is fine to let users know that a given function might change.  It is not fine
to try to discourage its use or reuse by obfuscating it or not helping to make
clear what it does.  It's just code, and code wants to be copied, changed, and

Isearch should make itself clear to users of all stripes, facilitating their
use, reuse, adaptation, and (who knows?) improvement or extension.  Just as we
should make the code clear to facilitate the job of Emacs Dev maintainers, so we
should make it clear for Emacs users.  And users are a larger and more varied
group than Emacs Dev.  They deserve clear, well commented, well documented code.

This is regardless of the internal needs of Emacs Dev itself.  It's not about
the bureaucracy (volunteer or not, and I include myself here) that serves the
people - it's about serving the people.  It's not (only or mainly) about making
life easier for Emacs Dev.  That's only a subsidiary requirement/goal.

Yes, there are reasons for some functions to be more or less internal, subject
to unplanned implementation/interface change, etc.  There are not often reasons
to not document what a function does and what its parameters are.

Emacs source code is for everyone.  When writing it, including its doc, the
target should be Emacs users, not just the code author or the relatively small
group of Emacs Dev maintainers.  Yes, this is a radically different perspective
from non-free software development.  We have met the user, and s?he is us - and

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