Programming in PL/I

Ever programmed in PL/I?

PL/I stands for Programming Language One – it was suppose to have been called NPL (for New Programming Language), but apparently the National Physical Laboratory (UK) objected, so they had to think of a better name. The first compiler appeared in 1966. In a paper written by Richard Holt in 1973 [1] – “Teaching the Fatal Disease (or) Introductory Computer Programming Using PL/I“, he poses an “An Economico-Academico–IBMical Inevitability“:

PL/I is better than Fortran or Cobol because :

  1. PL/I can do what both of those can.
  2. It is usually easier to say it in PL/I.
  3. PL/I has somewhat reasonable control structures (DO-WHILE and IF-THEN-ELSE) .
  4. PL/I doesn’t have a vast number of silly restrictions.
  5. If you ever thought you wanted it, it is likely to be in PL/I.

Unfortunately PL/I never did displace Fortran or Cobol. To sum it up, here’s a nice quote from Dijkstra [2]:

Using PL/1 must be like flying a plane with 7000 buttons, switches and handles to manipulate in the cockpit. I absolutely fail to see how we can keep our growing programs firmly within our intellectual grip when by its sheer baroqueness the programming language —our basic tool, mind you!— already escapes our intellectual control. And if I have to describe the influence PL/1 can have on its users, the closest metaphor that comes to my mind is that of a drug. I remember from a symposium on higher level programming language a lecture given in defense of PL/1 by a man who described himself as one of its devoted users. But within a one-hour lecture in praise of PL/1. he managed to ask for the addition of about fifty new “features”, little supposing that the main source of his problems could very well be that it contained already far too many “features”. The speaker displayed all the depressing symptoms of addiction, reduced as he was to the state of mental stagnation in which he could only ask for more, more, more… When FORTRAN has been called an infantile disorder, full PL/1, with its growth characteristics of a dangerous tumor, could turn out to be a fatal disease.

And guess what – it’s still out there, being used in business and industry.

[1] Holt, R.C., “Teaching the fatal disease (or) introductory computer programming using PL/I”, Sigplan Notices, 8(5), pp.8-23 (1973).
[2] Dijkstra, E.W., “The Humble Programmer“, ACM Turing Lecture 1972


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