Which mainstream programming language has the ugliest syntax?

ben profile image Ben Halpern ・1 min read

Regardless of the language's usefulness, which language fails the beauty contest the worst?


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Oldschool-wise, I can never forgive Pascal it's := operator.


Can you tell me more about the := operator?


In Pascal, a:=33 would assign the value 33 to variable a. The is-equal operator was just =. It was less error prone than what finally stuck, thanks to C and Java ---> = to assign values, == to compare them.

You should note that this := operator is available in Golang, and it means "declaration and assignation"

which is really awesome because it forces you to show where you're declaring the value, and where you're just reassigning it via =. Absolutely love this syntax.

Yeah, but if I recall, the syntax made it redundant anyway, since Pascal wouldn't accept assignments in the middle of a logic evaluation, for instance, would it?

I've no idea, I've never done any Pascal.

Correct, Pascal didn't allow assignments in expressions as an assignment was a statement and not an expression.

In C an assignment is an expression and thus it is allowed to be included into other expressions.

In Pascal though you never had trouble with this:

if (x = "command") {
   std::cout << x << std::end;

I strongly disagree, with the Pascal remark, but I'm a Pascal lover, so I'm probably biased the other way. I'd say := vs. = is much better and a lot less error prone and ugly than = vs. == let alone === in some languages.

Also := was not even a Pascal invention, but much older. It comes from ALGOL actually, IIRC.


=== and !== look rad in Fira Code


And there was me thinking it was from ADA ... it's like archaeology, this, just stripping layers away.

Historical linguistics is a real discipline in natural languages. I love the analogies between natural languages and computer languages.

Yes, and there's definitely a "thing" with code quality being correlated to natural readability too.

I come from an ORACLE background originally, and it would drive me insane to see people uppercasing their SQL, like it was an act of kindness to the compiler, and us humans have to suck up the inconvenience. I used to send people photos of major highway direction signs and ask "WHY DO YOU THINK WE DO NOT PUT INFORMATION THAT HAS TO BE QUICKLY ABSORBED IN UPPER CASE? Which do you find easier to read?".

I was also once instructed that all text in a BI system's reports should be in fixed pitch uppercase – got out of it by showing how wide that made every text-heavy report.

TL;DR; People are sometimes quite dumb.


All very fair points. I never minded Pascal as a language. Just that assignment operator.

I had forgotten it came from ALGOL.

But you agree PHP is hideous?


I believe there's worse than PHP, but that alone doesn't make any PHP better for sure. :)

BTW, I always think about replacing : with be and = with equal in my mind when reading Pascal code. So a:=1; is let a be equal 1. Same works with colon elsewhere, for example type definitions like var x: integer; can be read as let var x be integer; ... It makes the whole syntax quite readable for me.

But I'm not a native English speaker, so sorry if this just makes it even worse. :P

No, it's a nice thought. It does work, as far as I can remember. Maybe it's what Pascal's creators were thinking.


PHP: it’s not a bad syntax, it’s just not what some people like, and they’ve formed opinionated debates over it.


Especially if you look at more modern PHP. I really like Laravel's code style.

For non-PHP developers, a few syntax niceties:

  1. All variables have a $ prefix. So $post = getPost($id).
  2. Accessing class properties (non-static) is done via an arrow: $request->has('name')
  3. Accessing static properties is done via :: (by far my favorite). Route::get('/api/posts', function() {});

I also like PHP namespacing:

namespace Vendor\Lib\Class;

and accessing the namespace:

use Vendor\Lib\Class;

As someone who's used PHP in the past, all of your niceties are among the many reasons I don't care for the language 😆 to each their own though! 🤷🏻‍♂️

Haha, I can understand that. I actually liked the namespacing so much, I wrote a babel plugin that rewrites import paths in JS to work similarly. Not EXACTLY the same, but it's very similar.

I really dislike PHP namespacing.


I agree. There's nothing bad about the syntax. True, the language could be better. There are 99 reasons to dislike PHP but syntax is definitely not one of them.

PHP has been my main language for 10 years.

-> instead of . is rather unfortunate. Much harder to type :/

$var instead of var is also not idea if you ask me, though at least not as silly as needing to hit 3 keys.

That does not make the syntax as a whole ugly though.


True enough. The syntax isn't bad as in defective or overly verbose. It does look inelegant to me, though.


You might have to blame ADA for that.

PL/SQL also uses it – it is very closely related to ADA.


Does BASH count? :|

if [! -d './directory']; then
  echo 'nope'
  echo 'yep'



Sorry but it's ugly only because it's wrong (there should have been additional spaces before and after square brackets) ;)

The BASH is powerful and its syntax allows to write easy to read code. It just needs some rules to follow. For instance, there can be found a quite good Shell Style Guide from Google

In this particular example, it could be written even simpler

[[ -d directory ]] && echo yep || echo nope

that is even harder to read

That's the funny thing about these questions (and variations of them can be found in developer forums going back to the early 80's and usenet groups) they are highly subjective.

This should not be surprising as language to large degree encapsulates methods of thinking and psychologists and linguists will tell you quickly that there are vastly many different ways of thinking.

The fluidity of spoken languages ability to relay information comes not from their terseness it comes from their interpretability.

Programming languages are syntactically terse means of conveying information about how to shift bits in low level computer memory cores which in their abstractions from that low level task must necessarily replicate the possible interpretability of the syntax and that will vary with the mode of thinking of the reader. It's a paradox of information transfer between beings with vastly different ways of thinking about the particular ingredients of language revealing itself.

To me, a person who prefers syntax that is explicit over implicit the first version looks more interpretable than the second (my main criteria for this are two fold, a) my personal preference and b) how I think most other engineers would think about it and in particular to ensure that as many as possible would have as little effort as possible in capturing the meaning of the code )

Everything beyond that is subjective bickering....


That is going to be very helpful! Thank you.


IMHO the worst bash quirk is not being able to put whitespace around the assignment operator, ie.:

foo = bar # syntax error
foo=bar # works as expected


*cough* set -o to turn an option on and set +o to turn it off *cough*


That would be Bourne Shell's fault, not BASH.


Objetive-C have a special place in the darkness places of my heart.


"Wait, how many [ do I have? [[[[[ fuck this shit!"


And yet there are people who insist Objective-C is somehow a great language, ahead of its time. Like Javascript and C++. LOL


[[[alloc Shit] init] intercourseWith:Penguin]]]

Reminds me of ClojureScript.


A C++ variadic template, with move operations, lambdas, and static conditions, is essentially unreadable.


All of C++ is a syntactical morass.


True, but filled with little hidden gems, thus we continue to slog through it.


We need a simpler syntax for C++ :)


Some recent addition to the language help with that. Things like "if constexpr" permit to get rid of some SFINAE, and lambdas are generally helpfull into simplifying some code.

Well, even if the syntax for lambdas is...

[&](const std::string& some_adjective){std::cout << "... a bit " << some_adjective << " sometimes ...\n";}("laborious");

(this is just an useless example of code that nobody should ever write)


Indeed. +1 for using \n instead of std::eol.

Indeed! (You probably mean std::endl ;-))

And yes, this thing is the devil and should not be used. I'm sad so much books and courses about C++ use this thing as a "new line" character, it is not. It happens to print one before flushing.

std::cin and std::cout will synchronize themselves, you don't need to flush by hand, you just makes your program slower that it should be, and this tend to make me angry ;-)

Oh yeah, I meant std::endl... haha I have read too much about LF and CRLF eol's these days

Remark, I wouldn't be a bad thing to have a global called "eol" or "lf" in std that doesn't flush the output. :-)

But it's really a shame that they called this thing "endl"...


Ada 95 or Lisp.

I actually enjoyed Lisp's parentheses art, but still ugly.


Writing LISP with a simple editor that didn't "match" opening and closing parentheses automatically. That was fun!


LOL I learned Ada in college, just before 95. I thought it was very elegant. Then Ada 95 tacked on OOP and ruined it.


Java's verbosity gets old pretty fast. Especially after seeing what's possible with other JVM languages.

Kotlin is a joy to use, in part because of how expressive yet succinct it is. Going back and forth between the two makes Java's flaws much more visible, unfortunately.


Java Syntax has the weird ability to direct the attention to the less important parts of the code first.


To each his own haha, I love Java for how verbose it is and really dislike Kotlin. Operator overrides are a really neat idea but I can't get over the fun/func craze of using it instead of just saying function. Swift, Go, Rust, they all do it.


What's the benefit of typing out function?

There is none, it just adds more characters

Then we should use f because "un" would just add a few more characters 🤔.

I think there's a fine line between short and too short.

There's a reason why we don't all prefer our Shakespeare or our technical documentation in SMS/text speak :).

Writing code Shakespeare style would be awful.

f already stands for function in mathematics:

y = f(x)

it's just what you start with, the next one would be g(x)


Rust goes like: Fn... And I don't think there's anything wrong with writing instead of function, with good syntax highlighting there's barely a difference. I don't think code becomes any more readable by writing longer words. And Java's verbosity doesn't increase the readability at all. "final public static void" Btw you don't even have a function keyword in Java and nobody tends to make a problem of it.

the modifiers are necessary to differentiate non-final private/protected non-static methods with a return type ... it makes total sense 😅


I agree with you on the fun part. I've been getting more into JavaScript recently and I can see the use of the full word (function) being better for beginners overall.

"fun is short for function"

"Oh ok"

Yeah, but I still haven't seen the first person who doesn't question what fun is the first time they see it.

Sometimes being clear and short don't go hand to hand.

there's a readability factor that I feel is added when you use the whole function. Especially for compiled languages, the "less characters" argument has no weight at all.

It’s actually a “fewer characters” argument.

Actually in javascript es6 you don't have to type any word to create a function just () => {} which is the best notation IMHO


Objective C
Or should I say
[[[[[[[[[objective c]]]]]]]]]]


I personally find JavaScript to be absolutely hideous.


Javascript is very close to start looking like a bunch of emojis:
()=> :}


()=> :} isn't a valid span of JS in any non-string context, but there is bound to be a Haskell library that introduces a ()=>:} binary operator/infix function.

(This is a joke, all of ():} are reserved characters)


It's right behind Java, IMHO. It's much easier to read obfusticated C than JS.


Right, I mean... so many parentheses. I know that's not an aesthetic issue but trying to figure out where everything begins and ends makes my brain cry.

Sounds like you need Bracket Pair Colorizer

This is by far the most useful comment I've read here, thanks Mihail


Definitely, but there are some small signs to become more handleable.


I always hate dealing with our VB code base. You thought parenthesis and curly braces were bad, what about a whole statement to terminate a block: End If End Case End For.

Then there is having to continue a multi-line statement with an ending underscore _.

If condition1 And condition2 _
   And condition3 Then

End If

Then there's Sub vs Func keywords. If I use Sub then later decide I need to return a value, I have to change the keyword to Func in order to do so or it will not compile.

There are probably more I'm not thinking of.


VB.net was my first language, and I have a special hatred of it. (What sort of lunatic thought Dim made even the SLIGHTEST bit of sense for initializing a variable???)


HAHAHAHA That's literally the first thing all VB.net developers, who generally tend to hate VB.net, say.

Even I was like "Hey what's this Dim.. oh wait, that's a variable being declared."

I believe Dim is short for dimension. Not sure why the syntax is so array-focused.

Technically a scalar value is just a special case where an array only has one dimension and one element... I remember it from QBasic in the 90s and apparently it goes back to Fortran.

True point. Although. technically declaring a value is also called instantiation, but that doesn't make Instant a good keyword for declaring a variable. :-P

Dim goes back to VB's BASIC roots. You didn't have to declare most scalar variables, but you had to use 'Dim' to 'Dim'ension arrays.

In some dialects, strings were treated as scalars and didn't require declaration, but other dialects required you to 'Dim' them as arrays.

As was mentioned, it may even go further back to FORTRAN, but that's a bit before my time.

/grognard hat off.


Be glad ReDim Preserve isn't a thing any more :P


DIM was short for dimension. In early BASIC forms, it was to declare an array by indicating its size. Later it was repurposed to do any sort of declaration.


I suddenly remembered my very first programming language back in 1989 (?). GW-BASIC. And line numbers.



GW-BASIC was my very first language, too! :D


Back in the day, I worked on a VB Embedded program but didn't have the devices yet so worked in VB 6. All well before .NET.

When I started to port it over, I found that VB differed. Like, VBe and VB6 had incompatible for loops. Or maybe while. I didn't like VB much either way, but it worked. It's the incompatibility that's ugly to me.

.NET ftw

private static final OpinionAboutJava opinionAboutJava = OpinionAboutJavaFactory.getOpinionAboutJava("ugh...")

Explicit is better than implicit, right? Doesn't get more explicit than that :D


this is terrifying yet taught as the "standard" for the first two years of every university that starts with java (the beginner language not the uni name LOL) ;_;

val opinionAboutKotlin = getOpinionAboutKotlin("Aha!")

Basically every language that's actually paid my bills (which means I can't hate them too much:

so much boilerplate private static final void getter arghh
Ever had<to const<try to > parse> this nonesense const?
my $head has @had enough of this %_#&
Did no one [get theMessage:message] that sometimes you have to actually @Read code?


Obj-C: what if C++ but everything is different just because


...and then there's Objective-C++

I want to tell whoever made it: "What did source code ever do to you?!?"


I like this game.

Ugly syntax:

  • C++
  • Perl
  • PHP
  • Intel assembly
  • Erlang
  • Eiffel

Verbose, unwieldly, and/or awkward syntax... but not what I'd quite call truly ugly:

  • Java
  • C#
  • JavaScript
  • TypeScript
  • Scala
  • Objective-C

I just don't like it syntax:

  • Pascal (Object Pascal, Delphi, Oxygene)
  • SQL
  • Ruby
  • Haskell
  • LISP

Nice syntax:

  • CoffeeScript
  • C
  • Python
  • D (...basically redoes C++ syntax so it doesn't suck)
  • OCaml or F#
  • Lua
  • 6502 assembly
  • 68000 assembly
  • Prolog (... the syntax is nice; the language is painful)

Syntax that I'm not sufficiently familiar with to find the flaws, but I bet I'd find it nice, or at least not ugly:

  • Swift
  • Go
  • Kotlin
  • Groovy
  • Boo
  • Ada

You put OCaml in "nice syntax" and Haskell in "don't like". I've learned programming mostly with OCaml so I love it but I've been considering also learning Haskell, since I believe it is more popular. Would you say your view why you don't like Haskell? :)


I think plain OCaml and Haskell are probably about tied for popularity.

If you include F# as a kind of OCaml (since it is pretty much OCaml for .NET, as a first-class supported citizen by Microsoft), then OCaml wins the popularity contest in a landslide.

If you are deciding between Haskell versus Scala or Clojure ... well, I think either Scala or Clojure have Haskell beat.

Haskell is a pure FP.

Clojure is Lisp with FP added. (Normally targeting JVM, but can target .NET or transpile to JavaScript. Probably a bother to target .NET or JS.)

Scala is OO, with FP; targeting JVM. (In contrast to F# which is FP, with OO added in order to support .NET requirements.)

I find it fascinating that you think that Haskell uglier than OCaml! As a new hobby/amateur programmer, I find that your description of the two languages is the exact opposite. I know nothing of OCaml but just looking at comparisons of code and it seems that both languages are similar but Haskell is cleaner and has some nicer syntax options, especially when it comes to function composition.


I find OCaml's syntax to be very, very clean, and Haskell's syntax to be unnecessary awkward and clumsy. YMMV.

Well I like the globally unambiguous (except for variants with parameters arguably) and above all unforgiving syntax of ocaml so I will surely agree :)

I am an amateur and seeking what to learn. It seems that Haskell is the holy grail of functional programming. I think OCaml only has success because it caught on in certain European Universities (especially in France).

In terms of popularity though, it seems that its reputation fro being too difficult has held it back. However, there are enough people that tell you that Scala sucks as a functional programming language. I tried starting it, and it's just ugly and tedious.

Anyway, as you are an OCaml expert maybe something like this will help you

Thank you for you interest.

Since you are seeking what to learn, and you are enjoying Haskell, I would say stick with Haskell.

Programming languages are tools. If Haskell can handle the kinds of problems that you are working on, then that's a good tool for the job.

If you discover a programming challenge that Haskell is not the right tool for the job, then that would be a good time to consider alternative languages.

Regardless, Haskell will teach you a lot of good programming habits. And those good habits will be applicable to any other programming language you learn in the future.


Wish I got to write in 6502 assembly... My OS professor made us write the machine code direct... and those 16 bit words were virtual, but the chip was designed so that the least significant byte was first... so you have to invert your variables HEX notation...

I still have nightmares.


Go: can confirm at least not ugly.
Potential conflict of interest: am in love with Go.


Intel's assembly syntax is really gorgeous when compared to AT&T's syntax


It's not the Intel vs AT&T syntax that is the problem, it's the 80x86, Itanium and AMD64 syntax that is the problem.

I'd add that RISC syntax of DEC Alpha and PowerPC assembly is likewise ugly, but for different reasons than Intel's syntax.

Ops, my bad there.

Pretty much any CISC ISA is kinda ugly when compared to most RISC ones.
MIPS, RISC-V (and even ARM to some extent) are way better to read and write, even if that means more lines of code in the end.

I'd put 6502 or 68000 up against any RISC assembly, any day. 68000 was especially enjoyable. 6502 was small enough to hold in your head. Both were great fun. And, alas, both have utterly gone by the wayside.


I loved 6500 family assembler. So simple, direct.


I think you’d put Ada under the verbose category. Definitely a lot of typing


Bad syntax: Erlang
Nice syntax: Coffeescript

... Really?


What do you find particularly bad about Erlang's syntax?

I love Erlang already dude, that guy just says CoffeeScript is better than Erlang's syntax. That's dumb

Oh... I didn't say Erlang had bad syntax. I said Erlang has ugly syntax.

I thought you were saying Erlang had bad syntax.

If I were targeting the Erlang VM, I'd probably use Elixir.


Unpopular opinion but Python.

Personally find it difficult to read. It's like supposed to be really easy to learn and write but in the process lost any structure in longer file. Other languages based on whitespace like Ruby or Lua have clear endings to blocks. Python just drops out the block without a clear indication.


We're not alone!
I think Python is deceptively ugly, because at first you expect it to be sensible but when you actually try to understand it you find the ugliness in it's whitespace.

At least stuff like Lisp and Objective-C have the courage to show their ugliness loud and proud. (and oh goodness! those are ugly!)


I grew up on 6500-family and Z-80 assembler, and I find those very easy to read, despite some of the cramping from the mnemonics and addressing modes.

I wrote a lot RPG for IBM systems during the 80's and 90's. RPG is still (IMHO) the best business language in terms of clean syntax. It's essentially a hopped-up macro assembler language.

Java's syntax has always made my head hurt. It has wayy too many rules and doesn't trust that devs have the capacity for making the right decision.

Python's syntax doesn't cure all of Java's sins, but it has the decided benefit of its syntax not getting in the way of problem solving.

If you follow the guidelines in PEP-008, make good decisions, discuss those decisions openly, respect the analytical capacity of the Programmer of the Future, you can write not just good syntactically clean and readable Python, but code that's maintainable.

These are all big if's I grant you, but I'd rather solve problems and get work done than try to make Java happy.

I see the opposite problem. The lack of syntax is a bigger annoyance than how verbose Java is. This is why there are so many different languages; everyone has different opinions on how to solve problems. :)

As someone who has never worked with Python professionally it felt like I was fighting the formatter any time I wanted to quickly jot down temporary code while working through a problem.


The WHITESPACE is exactly the problem.


Lisp, "ugly"? best oxymoron ever.


Absolutely. My pet peeves with it are:

  1. Python lacks punctuation, in the logical sense of the word. If punctuation was an unnecessary lexical tool, people wouldn't use it in English. It helps convey meaning.

  2. Abbreviations. What the hell does "t", "p", "x", "y", "pd", "plt" and "sns" stand for? The community has a horrible notion for naming conventions. The most popular Stack Overflow posts have this style of naming and it's making the language hard to learn.

  3. Underscores. Who decided that this "init" with two sets of double undescores should be one of the things developers write most often? It's not readable.

All of these things make Python hard to understand.


I'm personally a big fan of Python, but I still totally agree with #3. Even though I write python pretty regularly, 95% of the time I just copy and paste the whole:

if __name__ == "__main__":

(copy & pasted)

Oh yeah, despite complaining so much I still like it overall as a language.


I hate python too. Lack of {} make it difficult to read, debug, write and whitespaces are a nightmare. It is also a nightmare to copy and paste snippets.


The greatness of Python is proportional to its ugliness


Does PERL still count as mainstream?

Because PERL.


Totally PERL. Except maybe it doesn't count, as it is, afterall, a write-once language.

If you need to read it, you're better off rewriting it, it'll be faster and easier.


I don't understand why Perl is so low down in this list. It should have been dead first. I mean, I used to adore Perl, because of what you could do with it--it was the first of the "scripting" languages that felt really capable, and for a while I wrote everything in it.

But go back and try to read it, even if you wrote it yourself...gah...


I haven't found any of the C style/family languages that bad, but Perl would probably get my vote. In the code I looked at and wrote there were too many squiggles and not enough words. In worst cases looks like hieroglyphics to me.


For as many under-the-hood advancements they have when I first came across Go and Rust I denounced them at first because of how ugly they are.


Yeah, Rust is awful in my opinion! I mean, if you value some of the compiler guarantees it offers, I guess that's fair enough, but it seems more like an academic exercise to me than a usable programming language. One should not have to struggle with a language just to get frequently-used and standard types of logic working.


With Rust's lifetimes and it's type system you sometimes end up with pretty crazy type signatures. RefCell<Rc<'a &Mutex>>> mostly that's if you are trying to write concurrent code though.


Go? I like it but the error checking and the way it simulates objects oriented programming via struct and receiver is disgusting to look at


idk what's wrong with that, it has one of the best syntax and structs are good when you adapt yourself to it


"one of the best syntax" according to which parameters? It is personal preference after all, isn't it?
The error management is horrible to read, for example, I find more readibletl try catches, rather than checking all the time if error not nil.

i guess you just don't like new things.

I do like plenty of new things, is just go syntax that makes me puke.
Why are you taking this so personally? lol
It's just a personal opinion

are you in the golang core developer team?


mine is just a personal preference that I expressed.

i wish i were... lol im not im just a fellow gopher


I'm pretty sure you're alone with that xD


Seriously? Ruby is syntax is poetry compared to other languages.

Try debugging poetry. The syntactic vocabulary is far too large for it to be elegant (imo, obviously).

Totally agree with you on debugging. It may not be as practical, but I don't find it ugly. Actually, I think these properties are mutually exclusive.

It guess it depends on whether you think inelegance is ugly, and then whether a far too large vocabulary is inelegant or not.


I like semicolons, parenthesis, and curly braces. Very unambiguous stuff. I don't get a thrill out of optional syntax that allows a language to double as a DSL for something else. Slight verbosity isn't the critical problem in engineering.


I get put off by the parenthetical soup that Lisp can sometimes become, but I've never encountered a syntax I hated more than Objective-C. Had to dig in some old iOS code in Obj-C at a previous job for an app we were planning to build, it made me want to tear my eyes out


JS has the most ugliest syntax . No offence great language . But do we still need semi colons, braces, old style loop declaration etc.. ??


Well, js is an old language and is c-like, so blame that ig

But you can leave out semicolons in most places and use functional loops