Tabs vs Spaces

Languages Accesibility

After the post about tests on dynamic languages, I thought it was time for something a bit more relaxed. Alas, there it pops a tweet that makes me think.

The Setup

On Thursday, this tweet appeared in the wild: One “real” reason to use tabs instead of spaces. I recommend you to read the reddit OP. You can skip the rest of the waffle in the thread. That is why you are here, to read my waffle.

The basic premise is that tabs allow people with impairments to modify the display to their needs.

Some Precedents

Tab vs Spaces is one of those religious wars, like the position of curly brackets (I use whatever is common on the language) or Vim vs Emacs (the solution for this last one is the Evil mode for Emacs, of course).

Probably the main arguments for each are: spaces are consistent all across environments, IDEs, or any other software, which means you can keep alignment more easily; tabs give that individual flexibility that allows people to use the spacing more appropriate for them.

I kind of assumed that spaces won, because that is what I use everywhere. Also because GitHub took the decision of using 8 spaces for tabs without allowing you to change the value (sigh, UX).

There is a distinction that we have to do between indentation and alignment. We use the first one to group code within the same scope (ok not necessary unless you are using a language like Python or F#, but your co-workers and future-you will appreciate it). We use the second one to group somehow syntatic elements that have some relation (proximity, repetition, …) While you can do indentation with both spaces and tabs, you can’t do alignment with tabs.

Steve McConnell argued against trying to keep alignment in his seminal book Code Complete. If you change names, the alignment dissapears and then you have to realign all manually. Furthermore, it means also that there are changes on your source control that were not really wanted. We will be coming later into revising his recommendation (Code Complete is not a new book, although still a great book that you should read).

Which One Looks Better?

Which code example do you prefer?









1, 3 and 4 pass what Sandi Metz calls the squint test (don’t know if she is the first one that came with the term, but is the first one I heard using it, and anyhow you should listen to her). 3 and 4 make it clear that is a multi-step process. 4 provides a nice pattern that your brain can easily recognize.

And here?


const x = 1
const roverYPosition = 3
const roverSpeed = 2


const x              = 1
const roverYPosition = 3
const roverSpeed     = 2

I am very much used to A (McConnell dixit), but isn’t more clear the second version? Your brain will recognize the pattern, so it requires less effort to interpret the code.

The Emacs Experience

When I started using Emacs I was confounded by TAB, which is not tabbing. Well, depends on the mode, but for most programming modes TAB actually calls tab-for-indent-command, which will indent based on some logic setup on the mode. The indentation is based on rules for the language. And I think this is important, indentation is based on context. It did blow my mind: An editor can do this?

The Smart Whitespace Indicator

No system is created perfect. Most are based on previous systems. The way that our keyboards and text editors work is based on the typewriter. Furthermore, on the typewriter that was being used at the time that computers started to get devised (look for images of early typewriters). The slanted keys on the keyboard. The key distribution. And the use of the tab. And this applies as well as to the recommendation made by McConnell, recommendations based on the technology available at the time.

But why we should be constrained by it? Cannot we do better? Some keyboard manufacturers have been moving away from the “traditional” format to new styles (ortholinears, relocation of special keys, …). Terraform has a formatter tool that follows the style B above. Most editors can apply formatting on save (Emacs while you write, aggressive indentation FTW). We moved away from blinking lights to hi-dpi screens (oh, hi Linux). And we moved from the original 128 ASCII characters to UTF-8 and Unicode.

Why are we still using tab? Imagine a smart whitespace character. Hitting this smart whitespace indicator at the beginning of a line circles between current indentation location, next indentation location, previous indentantion and no indentation. Maybe hitting it in the middle of a line of code within a group of variable declarations will align the assignment operator. And if you are chaining calls, it will align those calls. Then your editor should give you the option to treat the smart whitespace indicator at the beginning of a line as fixed sized tabs (of whatever size you like) and single spaces within a line. And now context can be preserved, indentation and alignment will look great for most people, and for people which have impairments, it will provide a style that is usable.

Why can’t someone do this?

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