Home > Articles > Programming > Java

Languages, Verbosity, and Java

With the new spate of programming languages emerging for the Java virtual machine and other platforms, it's more important than ever that the rules of a language make code clear and concise. But clarity and conciseness don't exactly go hand in hand. Dhanji R. Prasanna compares some of these new languages with a popular mainstay, Java, contrasts their expressiveness, and explains why Java is verbose for a reason.
Like this article? We recommend

Like this article? We recommend

I learned Java in a short summer course right after graduating from high school. Since then, I have programmed with Java off and on for nearly 12 years, most recently at Google (which I represented on several Java expert groups) and a short consulting stint at the payments startup Square. I enjoy programming in Java. I'm not one of those engineers who bemoans Java's various idiosyncrasies around the coffee machine (although I occasionally enjoy doing that). I have an unabashed love for the language and platform and all the engineering power it represents.

Java is verbose—full of seemingly unnecessary repetitions; lengthy, overwrought conventions; and general syntax excessiveness. This isn't really news; Java was conceived as a subset of C++, which itself derives from C, a language that's over 30 years old and not particularly known for being concise.

As a platform, however, Java is modern and genuinely competitive. The combination of a robust garbage collector, blazing fast virtual machine, and a battery of libraries for just about every task has made it the perfect launchpad for a plethora of products and new hosted languages. (Interestingly, Google's V8 is following a similar pattern.)


"ProducerConstructorFactoryFactory" jokes notwithstanding, there is little doubt that the Java language suffers from a poor character-to-instruction ratio. I call this property "expressiveness"—in other words, the number of keys you must press in order to accomplish a simple task. This number is pretty large in Java. It repeatedly violates the "don't repeat yourself" (DRY) principle, and many of its modern features (such as Generics) feel lumbering and unwieldy, making reading and understanding source code a tedious task.

Comprehending unfamiliar source code—perhaps including your own source code after a few weeks of neglect—is probably the most important thing a professional engineer does. So tedium in this task is genuinely painful, and it generally describes an unhealthy state of affairs. As a result, many new languages are designed with the problem of expressiveness in mind. Ruby and Python led this trend in relation to C, and Scala, Fantom, Mirah, Groovy, and so on continue it on the Java virtual machine. They have achieved remarkable results, as you can see by comparing Listing 1 with Listing 2.

Listing 1—Java code for determining whether a string contains numeric characters.

    boolean numeric = false;
    for (int i = 0; i < string.length(); ++i) {
      if (Character.isDigit(string.charAt(i))) {
        numeric = true;

Listing 2—Equivalent Scala code is much more expressive.

val numeric = string.exists(_.isDigit)

This simplicity is wonderful news for all those insurance companies processing claims for repetitive stress injury (RSI) from programmers. We can do the same thing in far fewer lines of code, and in some cases the savings are over an order of magnitude! So have we solved the verbosity problem? Well, yes and no.


Something that Josh Bloch once said has always stuck with me:

A little redundancy in a language is a good thing. It's important for readability.

Josh is Google's Chief Java Architect, but before that he spent years maintaining Java, was responsible for Java 5 language features, and created wonderful little tools like java.util.Collection and family. (He's also great at quotable little one-liners.)

As I surveyed the landscape of modern programming languages, I was struck by the wisdom of this statement. Many have made incredible strides in expressiveness, but fewer words to read doesn't always mean improved readability. In fact, in some cases expressiveness can be downright bad for readability. Consider the example in Listing 3.

Listing 3—Scala code to sum a list, using the fold operator.

val ls = List(1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
(0 /: ls) {_+_}

This code is gibberish if you don't understand that /: is a symbol that stands for the foldLeft operation, among other things. While it's difficult to read, it's still extremely powerful. This is the most compact way to sum a list (that I can think of) without custom functions. There certainly isn't anything like it in Java. However, even if you understand the symbols, it's not exactly a breeze to read, and this is only a simple example.

The problem is that when you're reading code like this, you must mentally substitute the expanded construction for every compressed symbol (/: -> foldLeft). This requirement has the unintended effect of slowing down your reading speed—especially if Scala isn't your primary day-to-day language.

If you have to go through a lot of code that looks like this, things can get tedious rather quickly. Some people refer to this phenomenon as language density.

Of course, for Scala experts, this is probably quite natural and not at all tedious. My intent is not to criticize Scala, but rather to illustrate the spectrum of syntax—from the very verbose to the very terse—and its concomitant effects on readability.

What's interesting is that these languages are solving the verbosity problem, but they're attacking it by improving writability, not necessarily readability.

Grammar and Syntax

Another effect of concise syntax is increasing complexity of the grammar. Java's grammar has an interesting property: Nearly any expression can be matched to a specific production (roughly, parsing rule), free of its surrounding context:

happy happy(happy happy) {

Anyone familiar with Java will have no trouble identifying each production in this code. It's obviously a method that returns type happy, taking an argument named happy of the same type, and so on. Even the potential ambiguity of the dot-syntax is a non-issue:


is an incomplete production and thus a syntax error—you don't even need to invoke the compiler.

The neat thing is that a single statement doesn't require any surrounding context to identify which rule it matches, if any. For example:


is obviously a method invocation on a dereferenced variable. Similarly, referring to a package name and class is clear:

h = happy.happy.class;

Here the leftmost happy is obviously a package, and the rightmost is a class. [1] This preciseness is a remarkable property of the language, and it's still more remarkable that this feature has been preserved across so many versions of Java. It may not be immediately apparent, but this strict adherence to grammatical rigor has many benefits to readability.

Of course, Java also benefits from being syntactically similar to C++, which is buried deep within the collective consciousness of most programmers. Even so, Java has readily jettisoned syntax where potential ambiguity was a danger; operator overloading is a good example.


Consider the same dimension in modern (and decidedly more expressive) languages. Many of them fall woefully short, as shown in Listing 4:

Listing 4—Ruby code illustrating syntax ambiguity.


Does this code represent variables being dereferenced? Methods being called? Or something else? It's impossible to tell without the surrounding context. I don't mean to pick on Ruby; this is just a symptom of trading keystrokes for expressive power. In Python, the first happy could even refer to a module (analogous to a Java package). Similar syntactic ambiguities exist in statically typed languages, too.

At face value, this problem isn't really awful. What's so bad about looking around a statement to see what it's about? Nobody reads single statements in isolation, anyway. Yes, down to each individual case it's not a problem. But taken in aggregate, these decisions lead to a nontrivial increase in reading complexity. Throw in the optional mixture of infix and postfix operators, and things start to get messy.

A bias toward writability also engenders subtle pains. Consider these two code snippets in the popular language CoffeeScript:

http.createServer (request, response) ->

http.createServer(request, response) ->

The only difference is a space, but the option to invoke methods without parentheses creates a subtle bug with rather large consequences. Both forms are valid, but only the first one creates a server. The space tells CoffeeScript, that rather than being a function call with two arguments, it's a function call with a closure that takes two arguments.

Now look at these two examples when compiled into JavaScript:

http.createServer(function(request, response) {

http.createServer(request, response) (function() {

Despite being slightly more verbose, this example is much clearer to the untrained eye. Even to the trained one, I imagine spotting problems with the latter format is significantly easier. Remember Josh Bloch's words: A little redundancy in a language is a good thing.


I love CoffeeScript. I like Ruby. I really enjoy reading about the intricacies of Scala's type system and learning about its dazzling array of brilliant, expressive features. Scala brings many of Haskell's powerful and sometimes obscure features to the mainstream in an accessible, pragmatic fashion. I believe that every one of these languages is an important, bold, and laudable attempt at pushing forward the edge of software engineering.

So what does this mean for verbosity? Are we always going to be stuck with it? Or do we have to trade expressiveness for readability? I'm not nearly so pessimistic. One of my favorite languages, Scheme, is incredibly expressive and readable. As a dialect of Lisp, it has a context-free grammar that's very simple—everything is a list of symbols, called S-Expressions. This approach is concise, and it requires fewer lines than Java does to achieve similar results. Of course, being more than 50 years old, the syntax shows some signs of age; it doesn't really work with object-oriented constructions, and there are those parentheses.

But on the whole it's instructive. If Lisp managed such dexterity decades ago, I'm optimistic for the future.

No one should walk away from this article thinking that the modern language diaspora is a bad thing. The evolution-by-degrees we're seeing now is thrilling and exciting. Perhaps one of these languages will gain enough of a foothold that we'll become used to its syntactic idiosyncrasies, reading it with natural ease. Or perhaps there will always be an evolving, frothing frontier to challenge and provoke us—to read better, write better, and create better languages to express ourselves.


[1] This example could also refer to an inner and outer class combination, but that serves effectively the same purpose (namespacing) as described.

Read Dhanji R. Prasanna at http://rethrick.com/about or find him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/dhanji.

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020