First understand the structure of a standard, then read it

Extracting useful information from the text in an ISO programming language standard first requires an understanding of the stylized English in which it is written.

I regularly encounter people who cite wording from the C Standard to back up their interpretation of a particular language construct. My first thought when this happens is: Do I want to spend the time explaining how the standard ‘works’ to get to the point of dealing with the topic being discussed?

I am not aware of any “How to read the C Standard” guide, or such a guide for any language.

Explaining enough detail to have a sensible conversation about the text takes, maybe, 10-30 minutes. The interpretation of text in any standard can depend on the section in which it occurs, and particular phrases can be specified to have different interpretations in different contexts. For instance, in the C Standard, a source code construct that violates a “shall” requirement specified in a “Constraints” section is about as serious as things get (i.e., it’s a mandatory compile time error), while violating a “shall” requirement specified outside a “Constraints” is undefined behavior (i.e., the compiler can do what it likes, including nothing).

New readers also get hung up on footnotes, which are a great source of confusion. Footnotes have no normative meaning; technically, they are classified as informative (their real use is providing the committee a means to include wording in the document to satisfy some interested party, without the risk of breaking the standard {because this text has no normative status}).

Sometimes a person familiar with the C++ Standard applies the interpretation rules they have learned to the C Standard. This can work in limited cases, but the fundamental differences between how the two documents are structured requires a reorientation of thinking. For instance, the C Standard specifies the behavior of source code (from which the behavior of implementations has to be inferred), while the C++ Standard specifies the behavior of implementations (from which the behavior of source code constructs has to be inferred), and the C++ Standard does not contain “Constraints” sections.

The general committee response, at least in WG14, to complaints that the language standard requires effort to understand, is that the standard is not intended as a tutorial. At least there is a prose document to read, there are forms of language specification that don’t provide this luxury. At a minimum, a language standard first needs to be read two or three times before trying to answer detailed questions.

In general, once somebody has learned to interpret one ISO Standard, the know-how does not transfer to other ISO language standards, but they have an appreciation of the need for such an understanding.

In theory, know-how is supposed to be transferable; part 2 of the ISO directives, Principles and rules for the structure and drafting of ISO and IEC documents, “… stipulates certain rules to be applied in order to ensure that they are clear, precise and unambiguous.” There are also the technical reports: Guidelines for the Preparation of Conformity Clauses in Programming Language Standards (published in 1990), which I suspect few people have read, even within the standards’ programming language community, and Guidelines for the preparation of programming language standards (unchanged since the fourth edition in 2003).

In practice: The Fortran and Cobol standards were written before people had any idea which rules might be appropriate; I think the Pascal standard appeared just before the rules were formalised. Also, all three standards were created by National bodies (US, US, and UK respectively) as National standards, and then ‘promoted’ as-is to be ISO standards. ADA was a DoD standard that got ‘promoted’, and very much did its own thing with regard to stylized English.

The post-1990 language standards visually look as if they follow the ISO rules in force at the time they were first written (Directives, part 2 is on its ninth edition), i.e., the titles of clauses match the clause numbering scheme specified by ISO rules, e.g., clause 3 specifies “Terms and definitions”. However, readers are going to need some cultural background on the use of the language by its community, to figure out the intent of the text. For instance, the 1990 revision of the Pascal Standard contains extensive use of “shall”, but it is not clear how this is to be interpreted; I used Pascal extensively for 10-years, but never studied its ISO standard, and reading it now with my C Standard expertise is a strange experience, e.g., familiar language “constraints” do not appear to be specified in the text, and the compiler does not appear to be required to flag anything.

Two of the pre-1990 language standards, Fortran and Cobol, were initially written in the 1960s, and read like they are from another age (probably because of the way they are laid out, and the fonts used). The differences are so obvious that any readers with prior experience are likely to understand that they are going to have to figure out the structure from scratch. The formatting of post-1990 Fortran Standards lacks the 1960s vibe.

Enthusiasm on the Fortran standards committee

The Fortran language standards committee, SC22/WG5, has an unusual situation on its hands. Two people have put themselves forward to chair the committee, when the current chairman’s three year term ends. What is unusual is that it is often difficult to find anybody willing to do the job.

The two candidates are the outgoing chair (the person who invariably does the job, until they decide they have had enough, or can arm wrestle someone else to do it), and a scientist at Los Alamos; I don’t know either person.

SC22 (the ISO committee responsible for language standards), and INCITS (the US Standards body; the US is the Fortran committee secretariate) will work something out.

I had heard that the new guy was ruffling some feathers, and I thought good for him (committees could do with having their feathers ruffled every now and again). Then I read the running for convenor announcement; oh dear. Every committee has a way of working: the objectives listed in this announcement would go down really well with the C++ committee (which already does many of the points listed), but the Fortran committee don’t operate this way.

The language standards world appears to be very similar to the open source world, in that they are both driven by the people who do the work. One person can have a big impact in the open source world, simply by doing the work, but in the language standards world there is voting (people can vote in the open source world by using software or not). One person can write papers and propose lots of additions to a standard, but the agreement of committee members is needed before any wording is added to a draft standard, which eventually goes out for a round of voting by national bodies.

Over the years I have seen several people on a standards committee starting out very enthusiastic, writing proposals and expounding them at meetings; then after a year or two becoming despondent because nothing has happened. If committee members don’t like your proposal (or choose to spend their time on other proposals), they do nothing. A majority doing nothing is enough to stop something happening.

Once a language has become established, many of its users want the committee to move slowly. Compiler vendors don’t want to spend all their time keeping up with language updates (which rarely help sell more product), and commercial users don’t want the hassle of having to spend time working out how a new standard might impact them (having zero impact on existing is a common aim of language committees).

The young, the enthusiastic, and magazines looking to sell clicks are excited by change. An ISO language committee is generally not the place to find it.

PCTE: a vestige of a bygone era of ISO standards

The letters PCTE (Portable Common Tool Environment) might stir vague memories, for some readers. Don’t bother checking Wikipedia, there is no article covering this PCTE (although it is listed on the PCTE acronym page).

The ISO/IEC Standard 13719 Information technology — Portable common tool environment (PCTE) —, along with its three parts, has reached its 5-yearly renewal time.

The PCTE standard, in itself, is not interesting; as far as I know it was dead on arrival. What is interesting is the mindset, from a bygone era, that thought such a standard was a good idea; and, the continuing survival of a dead on arrival standard sheds an interesting light on ISO standards in the 21st century.

PCTE came out of the European Union’s first ESPRIT project, which ran from 1984 to 1989. Dedicated workstations for software developers were all the rage (no, not those toy microprocessor-based thingies, but big beefy machines with 15inch displays, and over a megabyte of memory), and computer-aided software engineering (CASE) tools were going to provide a huge productivity boost.

PCTE is a specification for a tool interface, i.e., an interface whereby competing CASE tools could provide data interoperability. The promise of CASE tools never materialized, and they faded away, removing the need for an interface standard.

CASE tools and PCTE are from an era where lots of managers still thought that factory production methods could be applied to software development.

PCTE was a European funded project coordinated by a (at the time) mainframe manufacturer. Big is beautiful, and specifications with clout are ISO standards (ECMA was used to fast track the document).

At the time Ada was the language that everybody was going to be writing in the future; so, of course, there is an Ada binding (there is also a C one, cannot ignore reality too much).

Why is there still an ISO standard for PCTE? All standards are reviewed every 5-years, countries have to vote to keep them, or not, or abstain. How has this standard managed to ‘live’ so long?

One explanation is that by being dead on arrival, PCTE never got the chance to annoy anybody, and nobody got to know anything about it. Standard’s committees tend to be content to leave things as they are; it would be impolite to vote to remove a document from the list of approved standards, without knowing anything about the subject area covered.

The members of IST/5, the British Standards committee responsible (yes, it falls within programming languages), know they know nothing about PCTE (and that its usage is likely to be rare to non-existent) could vote ABSTAIN. However, some member countries of SC22 might vote YES, because while they know they know nothing about PCTE, they probably know nothing about most of the documents, and a YES vote does not require any explanation (no, I am not suggesting some countries have joined SC22 to create a reason for flunkies to spend government money on international travel).

Prior to the Internet, ISO standards were only available in printed form. National standards bodies were required to hold printed copies of ISO standards, ready for when an order to arrive. When a standard having zero sales in the last 5-years, came up for review a pleasant person might show up at the IST/5 meeting (or have a quiet word with the chairman beforehand); did we really want to vote to keep this document as a standard? Just think of the shelf space (I never heard them mention the children dead trees). Now they have pdfs occupying rotating rust.