Sunday, September 19, 2021

Generalize Snarf Tool: How The General Can Be Simpler Than The Specific

Generalize Snarf Tool: How The General Can Be Simpler Than The Specific

1 Executive Summary

The previous article detailed the implementation of a simple function that lets you snarf the contents within a pair of delimiters. That version handled a set of generic delimiters, and errored out if point was not on one of the pre-defined delimiters.

This article shows how that solution can be generalized to cases where point is not on a pre-defined delimiter; in the process, it weighs the pros and cons of usability vs over-generality and shows an implementation that attempts to strike a good balance.

2 The Updated Implementation

(defun snarf-sexp (&optional delete)
  "Snarf the contents between delimiters at point.
Optional interactive prefix arg deletes it."
  (interactive "P")
  (let ((orig (point))
        (pair nil)
        (pairs ;;; We keep predefined pairs for usability:
         '((?< ?>)
           (?\[ ?\])
           (?\( ?\))
           (?{ ?})
           (?\" ?\")
           (?' ?')
           (?` ?')
           (?| ?|)
           (?* ?*)
           (?/ ?/)
           (?- ?-)
           (?_ ?_)
           (?~ ?~)))
        (char (char-after))
        (stab nil))
    (setq pair ;;; But we read a close delimiter  for the general case
          (or (assq char pairs) ;;; Predefined delimiter
              (list char (read-char "Close Delimiter: ")))) ;;; Generality!
    (setq stab (copy-syntax-table))
    (with-syntax-table stab
       ((= (cl-first pair) (cl-second pair))
        (modify-syntax-entry (cl-first pair) "\"" ) 
        (modify-syntax-entry (cl-second pair) "\"" ))
        (modify-syntax-entry (cl-first pair) "(")
        (modify-syntax-entry (cl-second pair) ")")))
          (kill-region (1+ orig) (1- (point))))
         (t (kill-ring-save (1+ orig) (1- (point)))))))))

3 Key Takeaways

  1. The generalized implementation no longer throws an error if point is not on a pre-defined delimiter.
  2. Instead, it generalizes the implementation to read the close delimiter from the keyboard if char at point is not in the pre-defined list.
  3. We could generalize further by entirely dropping the pre-defined delimiters, but that would hurt usability in the common case where the user would always have to specify the close delimiter.
  4. Note that usability here is not merely to reduce a keystroke; it's more to reduce the cognitive load on the user with respect to having to think about the close delimiter in the common case.