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Originally taken from here:
(Headings inserted by Allefant.)
date: 2003 - 01 - 06
Draft 2 for discussion of API style.
Written by Grzegorz Adam Hankiewicz.
The concepts/reasons contained here are proposed to be included in the future Allegro documentation, like chapter `2.3 GL Command Syntax' of OpenGL, to let programmers know why the API uses this or that style convention. Maybe appended to the ahack guide?


The current API of Allegro is quite bad. Through the years it has been extended without a set of rules, and now it's inconsistent, more difficult to learn that it could be, and starts to give problems if you want to mix it with other libraries. For this reason, the next big version of Allegro (5) will feature a complete API rewrite.

The problem is, of course, which set of rules will be used to define the API. Here many people jump in with strange unreasoned requests, and this kind of discussions quickly degenerates in flame wars. IMHO most of this happens because we programmers are stubborn people, and always think that we are right.

Having worked more than five years with C/C++, and written code in practically all the proposed styles because of job constraints, I would like to give my opinion on why this or that style is good or not, trying to reason it farther than "I like it". Please do not consider my opinion like something set in stone, I can change my mind, but it will depend on the quality of your arguments, which you can send to

API naming schemes

Anyway, let's start with the immediate outlook of the API. The current API looks `something_like_this', all lower case with underscores separating each word, similar to Glib (g_print, g_list_append, g_malloc, g_signal_connect) or GTK (gtk_init, gtk_window_new, gtk_container_set_border_width, gtk_widget_show). GTK also features names like GtkWidget, they are only used to `objects'. This is the same OO terminology you see in C++, and that's why they borrowed their style for data types' names.

At the moment of writing this, shows that the other favored proposition is one variant of the MixedCaseWithoutSeparation style, very similar to DirectX (IDirectDrawSurface2_BltFast, IDirectDrawSurface2_GetDC, IDirectSoundCapture_Release, IDirectInputDevice_SetProperty), SDL (SDL_Init, SDL_InitSubSystem, SDL_QuitSubSystem, SDL_WasInit), or OpenGL (GetConvultionParameter, DrawRangeElements, CopyTexSubImage3D).

Hungarian notation

Before I begin ranting, let me sound patronizing and remember that machines only understand bits, machine code, and programing languages were created for human use to make programing easier. While obvious in hindsight, many programmers like to favor styles which seem to enforce the contrary. I don't, and that's why you will see that I prefer styles which look closer to natural language rather than machine code, I prefer not having to learn mnemonics to remember what's the correct name of a function, I prefer not having to learn exotic rules when common sense is enough.

Let's analyze where does the Hungarian notation come from, it isn't featured in any of the examples I've brought so far, but it's the root of all evil which has lead to the current state of poor API designs. Hungarian notation was created by Charles Simony, working for Microsoft (, search Google for more documentation), with the purpose of embedding extra information in function names.

Note that this was somewhere around 1972, when compilers weren't that good at type checking of variables. So, this notation was invented to embed in function names the required knowledge to avoid passing by mistake for example a short instead of an int, making the binary crash, or behave wildly. This helped building better code... at that time. Nowadays your compiler is simply not worth it if it can't check your code against a function prototype and point out if you are using incorrect types.

Names look like lpszFile, rdParam or hwndItem, each lowercase prefix meant something different ( The problem with this style is that it is weak in terms of forward compatibility. If the API is changed to use another type of parameter, you have to change the function name too. You can avoid this by using opaque types, but you end up casting everything.

An API which exposes this problem is the windows API with it's wParam, a variable which changed from a 16-bit value (w stands for word), to a 32-bit value (which should have been dwParam). Many names are old and most importantly, give wrong information about the type. Useless, just like outdated comments in source code.

The only reason why you would choose this style today is because you have written a C API which has multiple functions doing the same operations on/with different kinds of parameters. The OpenGL API shows this, with names like Vertex3f, Vertex2sv, Normal3f, Normal3d, etc, showing a variation of Hungarian notation, used as suffix for parameter types. In fact, C++ wrappers hide the embedded type information of the API through function overloading. Here's an excerpt of the OpenGL 1.2 documentation, chapter `GL command syntax':

"A common declaration has the form

rtype Name{e1234}{e b s i f d ub us ui}{ev}([args] T arg1, ... T argN);

rtype is the return type of the function. The braces enclose a series
of characters (or character pairs) of which one is selected. e
indicates no character. The N arguments arg1 through argN have
type T, which corresponds to one of the type letters or letter
pairs as indicated in table 2.1 (b=byte, s=short, i=int, f=float,
d=double, ub=ubyte, us=ushort, ui=uint). If the final character is
not v, then..."

The Allegro API has few places where functions representing the concept use different types of parameters (draw_sprite, draw_rle_sprite, draw_compiled_sprite, draw_gouraud_sprite), but it would be a shame to over complicate function names only because a little percent of the library would benefit. In fact, if you shorten names like OpenGL, you would end up with something like drawNSprite, drawRsprite, drawCsprite, drawGsprite, much less readable and meaningful.

Mixed Case Notation

Now we will inspect a similar style: Hungarian notation without type information, or commonly called mixed case notation ( This style is used mainly in C++ libraries, like DirectX, Clanlib or the OO language Java. If we had a class for joystick input, it would be named JoystickInput, and it could have methods like getHorizontalRange, fakeSecondaryButton, etc.

Here you can see a pattern: ignoring the rest of the word, classes (and hence their constructors too) begin with upper case, methods are lower case. This helps to differentiate between constructor/objects and methods/variables (methods are always preceded by `->'). If the name consists of several words, they always start upper case to differentiate one word from the other.

Other than the first letter, would it be much different if words were lower case and separated with underscores? Let's see the previous examples: Joystick_input, get_horizontal_range, push_secondary_button. Thanks to the underscore everything is much more readable. Why, do you ask.

Well, when we are children and learn reading, our brain patterns adapt to recognize easier the space (or here underscore, which is similar graphically) as word separator. For somebody who has _learned_ to read the mixed case convention, using underscores to separate words may seem unnecessary. ButTheresTheKeyPoint: HeHasLearnedIt, ItsNotNatural (did you like that? yuck!). Instead, newcomers to programming find it easier when words are separated with underscores. Now we could argue if Allegro is aimed at novice or veteran programmers, but it's a pointless discussion: Allegro should be designed to be easiest to learn, easiest to use.

Returning back to the analysis: mixed case style helps to differentiate constructors (or objects) from methods. It's case concatenation only serves to make programmers using Hungarian style more at home, it doesn't help readability. And in fact, if we try to apply this to Allegro, a C library, we loose the only benefit of this style, so why worsen the API with this?

Yet another problem of the mixed case style is where to use the capitalized letters. As simple as it sounds, not everybody thinks of words with the same lexemes: take the word suboptimal. Applying the mixed case style, would you capitalize the `o'? Depending on your cultural background you are going to say yes or no. This problem happens with other style conventions too. However, with separation underscores, the newcomer learns easily what lexemes are used by the API because they are clearly separated, committing less mistakes during development time, because they stick around in your head. If the lexemes are separated through capitalization, it's harder to remember at which parts of the hole world.

Finally, if you use mixed case, you are using capitalization for word separation, so you loose the value of capitalization for names and abbreviations, which is what it is used for in natural language (when we talk about English, German for example uses capitalization for normal substantives too, like house, dog, book). Using mixed case, you are lowering the richness of the English language. (Off topic rant: music suffers from case style abuse too, it's stupid to have titles like "The Way We Wanted To Go", yet the music industry seems to enforce this for every song. Maybe the commercial target is uneducated people who never learned when to capitalize and they try to make it easier for them to read or write? Pffff...)

Other possible arguments I've heard in favor of the mixed case style are: it's shorter to type and everybody else is doing it, so why can't we?

The first argument doesn't have much weight. The development of a program using Allegro consists of more than writing code. In fact, the more experimented you are, the less you code and the more you plan and design your code. Besides, even if we talk about function names of four words, you only add three keystrokes, a good price for overall easier code readability, and no, your code is hardly going to call Allegro functions at every line, unless you are writing the source of Allegro's examples (which you are encouraged anyway). Just think in the hours you will spend as a programmer looking at your source code trying to debug that which doesn't do what you want. Are you typing then? No. Will lower case be easier to read? Yes.

The second argument is stupid on it's own: if we used things only because most people do, were would mac/linux/beos users be? Would we all be still driving beetle cars, or wear ties at work? Yuck! And taken seriously, all the examples come from C++ libraries, or C wrappers of C++ designs. Besides, Allegro is plain C, there is no real reason to use any mixed case style, because it doesn't improve it's readability, there are no constructors to differentiate (and here I want to note that yes, Allegro 4 and previous include little C++ code, but this is very probably going to be dropped in the next version).

Underscore separated words

Finally we can take a look at the current style, underscore separated lower case words. This is the best option: it continues the current style, not looking awkward to veteran Allegro coders, individual words are easier to read in the API, and the use of lowercase helps to differentiate acronyms (if they are needed) from normal words. Compare generateRASForNPC to generate_RAS_for_NPC, where acronym stands for random attribute seed and non player character. Abbreviations are evil anyway, but there are times where you can't avoid them or their use improves overall readability. Using a style which doesn't bury them between words is a plus.

Whatever the style is chose, one thing is clear: Allegro will be prefixed. For the lower case style this would be `al_'. For the other styles it could be `AlWhatever' (ala DirectX) or `Al_Whatever' (ala SDL). This is required because C doesn't support C++ features like name spaces or function overloading to help the compiler differentiate equal function names with different parameters. At the moment Ncurses's clear clashes with Allegro's clear. It can only get worse.

Word Order in Function Names

So far, so good. Once we have settled the exterior outlook, we have to concentrate on the contents. How do we structure function names? It's certain that they will include a verb, representing an action, and possibly one or more substantives. Again the big question is the placement of such names, but whatever it is, it has to be consistent. We can't choose one to later create exceptions, because each exception is a non-natural rule which breaks the logic, and which will have to be learned by the programmer. The less there is to memorize, the better.

There are two main possibilities with some little superficial combinations: either verb+subject or subject+verb. Of course I'm against the subject+verb style, because we read from left to right and are not stack machines. In fact, the stack machine comparison is good enough to show why this looks bad: you have to read all the (probably lengthy) function name to understand it's meaning. You probably are thinking how pedantic am I, but it also shows how illogical the subject+verb convention is. Do you sentences in that ever write ? Like Yoda look? Once I read in a Slashdot comment by volsung(#387): "True is this. Unimportant word order is to the Jedi. Through the Force, all syntax is made unambiguous".

Unsurprisingly the comment got a moderation of 4, funny. But it's partly funny because it's not what we should be doing, and we know it. Yet, why do APIs continue to use stack like notation? Well, there are excuses. Let's take a look at how SDL structures words (note, by this time you might believe I hate SDL. I don't, I just feel pity for them to clone Microsoft's DirectX yet poorer API):

  SDL_AudioInit        SDL_CDPause    TTF_RenderUTF8_Solid
  SDL_AudioQuit        SDL_CDResume   TTF_RenderUNICODE_Solid
  SDL_OpenAudio        SDL_CDEject    TTF_RenderGlyph_Shaded
  SDL_GetAudioStatus   SDL_CDClose    TTF_RenderGlyph_Blended
  IMG_isBMP         SDL_CreateSemaphore
  IMG_isPNM         SDL_SemWait
  IMG_isGIF         SDL_CreateCond
  IMG_LoadTGA_RW    SDL_CondBroadcast
  IMG_LoadLBM_RW    SDL_CondWait

From left to right, top to bottom, the functions are grouped in audio, cdrom, font rendering, image handling and event functions. Ignore the fact that font and image handling don't start with SDL_. That's probably because they decided they aren't part of the `core' of SDL, and hence got a different prefix (deciding what is core or not requires yet another rant). The word CD, could it be Cd instead? Here you see the problem of abbreviations, this time for compact disc, they are confusing in mixed case style.

Then, you would think they follow the rule verb+subject, but, how is then that they have SDL_AudioInit, SD_SemWait or SDL_CondWait? They would be much better inversed so the API would be coherent everywhere. You could argue that in the function name `SDL_AudioInit', the Audio is a prefix much like SDL_. But then, why the other functions don't use the same prefix? Why SDL_OpenAudio, but SDL_CDResume instead of SDL_ResumeCD?

Note here too my previous point about random capitalization of lexemes: why IMG_isBMP and not IMG_IsBMP? Is the `is' it less important? Yet it's the main and only verb which gives meaning to the function. So why the lower case? Why not SDL_getAudioStatus? It's also a very small word, no? Is it more important to `get' than to ask if something `is' this or that? Confusing.

But in the end one thing is clear: with the exception of some mistakes, the norm is verb+subject. I could bring more examples from other libraries, but at this point it's not necessary. The only reason I can imagine why the CD functions got a different naming convention style is that at the moment of writing them, the author thought that having SDL_CDxxxx would list better in documentation function indexes, because they would all group nicely alphabetically. The Allegro documentation is going to be written by humans, and they already have grouped functions together, so there's no need to use prefixes for function names.

Allegro developers seem to contradict themselves too in their API propositions: I might be looking at an outdated version of Peter Wang's timer routines, but he has al_timer_set_speed, al_uninstall_timer, al_timer_set_count practically in a row. Does it look right? Should be al_set_timer_speed, al_uninstall_timer and all_set_timer_count, no?

Well, it's very easy to forget about style rules, in fact, take a look at, the very same document I proposed practically a year ago. It has some incoherences, but that's because it was written when I thought that for Allegro 5 only the API would be rewritten, and tried to keep possibly close to the original, hence the preservation of names like al_findfirst, al_strcpy, etc. Now, it seems that a5 will really be a (partial at least) rewrite, so the API can be completely new too, and that proposed document partially ignored.

So let's say that we all merrily agree on verb+subject. Yet there is still confusion for longer function names, and here's an example:

al_joystick_get_axis_value  versus  al_get_joystick_axis_value
al_joystick_is_button_down          al_is_joystick_button_down

Thanks to Hein Zelle for reminding me of this. Here the problem is the word joystick either being used as part of the active function name, or as a simple prefix. Against the former case you could say that nobody told you of a verb+noun+noun... rule. But that's because you are thinking of noun == lexeme, when you should be thinking of verb+subject, where subject linguistically means one of the two main constituents of a sentence; the grammatical constituent about which something is predicated.

Putting joystick before the verb is thus breaking two rules. First, part of the subject is not after the verb, yet many people don't consider this bad at all, because they understand the word joystick as a grouping mechanism. But that breaks the second implicit rule of prefixes, and that is that they should be short. Why did we choose al? Because it's a prefix, everybody is going to have to deal with it, and everybody will know that 'al_' actually stands for 'allegro_'.

Now, joystick? Why not joy? or j, much shorter:


While tempting to most of us lazy guys, this is really BAD. You should be getting it by know, but just try to pronounce that aloud: no way to pronounce 'alj' together, unless you say 'al_joystick' or 'allegro_joystick'... which shows that it's a bad prefix.

Besides, if you are building a library and need to start sub grouping it's functions, you should really consider splitting that functional group, maybe you are trying to force it somewhere where it doesn't belong?

The final reasoning: if Allegro really needs to start using 'al_something', it means that it's too big and should be split in different libraries. Other than that, verb+subject is the only coherent solution to all the previous reasonings.

I wish I could say more about favoring verb+subject, but, the fact is that I don't find any reason why subject+verb would be better, and I don't know of an API using this weird convention heavily, so I will leave this for another time if somebody comes up with a real reason (other than alphabetically grouping).


This is the end. Hopefully you are switching now to lower case and underscore style for your code, or you have learned some good points in defending your style. You might wonder why every once and there I say things like "human language", "natural", "common sense". That's partly because I've read the book "The design of everyday things", formerly known as "The psychology of everyday things". This book doesn't talk about API design, but it does about objects' physical design, and most of the principles are perfect to decide which API style is better. One of the conclusions you learn from the book is that if your everyday design needs an instruction manual, even as tiny as the word "pull/push" written on a door, it means that it's not good, because it requires exterior learned knowledge to be used correctly. A recommended read, for all engineers, of every field.

Anyway, the goal of this document is to point out that while most styles are a propagation of what people have been exposed to while learning programming, for Allegro to have the perfect API you only need to analyze every function name, every global variable to discover that there is always a logical design decision. It's boring, it's tedious, but it will hopefully avoid another API rewrite for more than the eight years Allegro has been alive and kicking so far. This means that at least once before the final release, all the involved developers and any voluntaries should revise _each_ API entry exported by Allegro, judge it's design and purpose in it's use context, and correct if necessary.

I don't consider myself a developer, since I rarely contribute code, but I will happily join in the flame fest of criticizing others (as I always do). Muahahahaha... bring it on!