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2.12: Choosing Mnemonic Variable Names

As long as you follow the simple rules of variable naming, and avoid reserved words, you have a lot of choice when you name your variables. In the beginning, this choice can be confusing both when you read a program and when you write your own programs. For example, the following three programs are identical in terms of what they accomplish, but very different when you read them and try to understand them.

a = 35.0
b = 12.50
c = a * b
hours = 35.0
rate = 12.50
pay = hours * rate
x1q3z9ahd = 35.0
x1q3z9afd = 12.50
x1q3p9afd = x1q3z9ahd * x1q3z9afd

The Python interpreter sees all three of these programs as exactly the same but humans see and understand these programs quite differently. Humans will most quickly understand the intent of the second program because the programmer has chosen variable names that reflect their intent regarding what data will be stored in each variable.

We call these wisely chosen variable names "mnemonic variable names". The word mnemonic2 means "memory aid". We choose mnemonic variable names to help us remember why we created the variable in the first place.

While this all sounds great, and it is a very good idea to use mnemonic variable names, mnemonic variable names can get in the way of a beginning programmer's ability to parse and understand code. This is because beginning programmers have not yet memorized the reserved words (there are only 33 of them) and sometimes variables with names that are too descriptive start to look like part of the language and not just well-chosen variable names.

Take a quick look at the following Python sample code which loops through some data. We will cover loops soon, but for now try to just puzzle through what this means:

for word in words:

What is happening here? Which of the tokens (for, word, in, etc.) are reserved words and which are just variable names? Does Python understand at a fundamental level the notion of words? Beginning programmers have trouble separating what parts of the code must be the same as this example and what parts of the code are simply choices made by the programmer.

The following code is equivalent to the above code:

for slice in pizza:

It is easier for the beginning programmer to look at this code and know which parts are reserved words defined by Python and which parts are simply variable names chosen by the programmer. It is pretty clear that Python has no fundamental understanding of pizza and slices and the fact that a pizza consists of a set of one or more slices.

But if our program is truly about reading data and looking for words in the data, pizza and slice are very un-mnemonic variable names. Choosing them as variable names distracts from the meaning of the program.

After a pretty short period of time, you will know the most common reserved words and you will start to see the reserved words jumping out at you:

for word in words:
    print word

The parts of the code that are defined by Python (forinprint, and :) are in bold and the programmer-chosen variables (word and words) are not in bold. Many text editors are aware of Python syntax and will color reserved words differently to give you clues to keep your variables and reserved words separate. After a while you will begin to read Python and quickly determine what is a variable and what is a reserved word.