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python-peps / pep-0216.txt

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PEP: 216
Title: Docstring Format
Version: $Revision$
Last-Modified: $Date$
Author: moshez@zadka.site.co.il (Moshe Zadka)
Status: Rejected
Type: Informational
Created: 31-Jul-2000
Post-History:
Superseded-By: 287

Notice

    This PEP is rejected by the author.  It has been superseded by PEP
    287.

Abstract

    Named Python objects, such as modules, classes and functions, have a
    string attribute called __doc__. If the first expression inside
    the definition is a literal string, that string is assigned
    to the __doc__ attribute.

    The __doc__ attribute is called a documentation string, or docstring.
    It is often used to summarize the interface of the module, class or
    function. However, since there is no common format for documentation
    string, tools for extracting docstrings and transforming those into
    documentation in a standard format (e.g., DocBook) have not sprang
    up in abundance, and those that do exist are for the most part
    unmaintained and unused.

Perl Documentation

    In Perl, most modules are documented in a format called POD -- Plain
    Old Documentation. This is an easy-to-type, very low level format
    which integrates well with the Perl parser. Many tools exist to turn
    POD documentation into other formats: info, HTML and man pages, among
    others. However, in Perl, the information is not available at run-time.

Java Documentation

    In Java, special comments before classes and functions function to
    document the code. A program to extract these, and turn them into
    HTML documentation is called javadoc, and is part of the standard
    Java distribution. However, the only output format that is supported
    is HTML, and JavaDoc has a very intimate relationship with HTML.

Python Docstring Goals

    Python documentation string are easy to spot during parsing, and are
    also available to the runtime interpreter. This double purpose is
    a bit problematic, sometimes: for example, some are reluctant to have
    too long docstrings, because they do not want to take much space in
    the runtime. In addition, because of the current lack of tools, people
    read objects' docstrings by "print"ing them, so a tendancy to make them
    brief and free of markups has sprung up. This tendancy hinders writing
    better documentation-extraction tools, since it causes docstrings to
    contain little information, which is hard to parse.

High Level Solutions

    To counter the objection that the strings take up place in the running
    program, it is suggested that documentation extraction tools will 
    concatenate a maximum prefix of string literals which appear in the
    beginning of a definition. The first of these will also be available
    in the interactive interpreter, so it should contain a few summary
    lines. 

Docstring Format Goals

    These are the goals for the docstring format, as discussed ad neasum
    in the doc-sig.

    1. It must be easy to type with any standard text editor.
    2. It must be readable to the casual observer.
    3. It must not contain information which can be deduced from parsing 
       the module.
    4. It must contain sufficient information so it can be converted
       to any reasonable markup format.
    5. It must be possible to write a module's entire documentation in
       docstrings, without feeling hampered by the markup language.

Docstring Contents

    For requirement 5. above, it is needed to specify what must be
    in docstrings.

    At least the following must be available:

    a. A tag that means "this is a Python ``something'', guess what"

    Example: In the sentence "The POP3 class", we need to markup "POP3"
    so. The parser will be able to guess it is a class from the contents
    of the poplib module, but we need to make it guess.

    b. Tags that mean "this is a Python class/module/class var/instance var..."

    Example: The usual Python idiom for singleton class A is to have _A
    as the class, and A a function which returns _A objects. It's usual
    to document the class, nonetheless, as being A. This requires the
    strength to say "The class A" and have A hyperlinked and marked-up
    as a class.

    c. An easy way to include Python source code/Python interactive sessions
    d. Emphasis/bold
    e. List/tables

Docstring Basic Structure

    The documentation strings will be in StructuredTextNG
    (http://www.zope.org/Members/jim/StructuredTextWiki/StructuredTextNG)
    Since StructuredText is not yet strong enough to handle (a) and (b)
    above, we will need to extend it. I suggest using 
    '[<optional description>:python identifier]'. 
    E.g.: [class:POP3], [:POP3.list], etc. If the description is missing,
    a guess will be made from the text.

Unresolved Issues
      
    Is there a way to escape characters in ST? If so, how? 
    (example: * at the beginning of a line without being bullet symbol)

    Is my suggestion above for Python symbols compatible with ST-NG?
    How hard would it be to extend ST-NG to support it?

    How do we describe input and output types of functions?

    What additional constraint do we enforce on each docstring? 
    (module/class/function)?

    What are the guesser rules?

Rejected Suggestions

    XML -- it's very hard to type, and too cluttered to read it 
           comfortably.



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