In-depth

What is pseudocode?

We take a closer look at the descriptive take on programming languages

Pseudocode spelt out in wooden blocks in front of code text

Used to programme devices and to develop software, coding is a complex means by which to write instructions for computers to follow. To the untrained eye, it can be difficult to understand lines of code given they resemble something closer to a jumble of letters, numbers, characters and the occasional abbreviation than logical instructions.

At the same time, coding is becoming increasingly important as more and more organisations embark on digital transformation projects, and require the services of developers. Such intense, in-depth learning isn’t possible at such short notice, however, which is where pseudocode comes in. With this concept, users can write software and programme autonomous machines without needing to fully comprehend a new language from scratch.

Pseudocode provides users with an easy-to-digest informal guide that outlines the principles of the language they’re trying to understand, instead of requiring them to make sense of an entire page of a script. 

Users can draft a bare-bones outline of what the programming language is trying to do when performing a function within code, which is then turned into language that can be executed. This version of a programme is extremely thin, but crucially it’s free of the sort of complex jargon that might put off the non-technically minded, opening the door to more people. One of the core principles of pseudocode is that it offers as much detail as possible in a manner that’s easy to digest.

It’s not supposed to be read by machines, rather it’s meant to be examined by people who consider what’s in front of them. Certain aspects such as system-specific code or subroutines of a programme, app or algorithm are left out, but the formatting and norms of a piece of code are retained.

There are no formal standards, or necessarily a style', for pseudocode because it's by-design only written to be understood by whoever comprises its audience. In many cases, the writer may borrow some structure or terminology from a conventional programming language but it's not necessary.

In this case, you could see pseudocode as effectively a more talkative and descriptive take on traditional programming languages, which helps make it easier to understand for people who might only be familiar with a select number of languages.

With some pseudocode, it's possible to create a programme that can convert the language into its associated programming language.

Why is pseudocode code used?

Two people looking at code on a computer monitor

This form of coding is often used to map out or pre-plan how a programme will work before then translating it into a real language.

It's another way of planning, in that it could replace a series of flowcharts and unified modelling language charts that show how an algorithm or system works, as well as its key aims. This is especially useful for people who'd ideally want to ensure the core code is foolproof, and that whatever it is eventually translated into has a fixed point of reference in relatively plain English.

Pseudocode can also help to spot any potential flaws in the code before an app or algorithm is written out in full, which lends itself to a far more efficient process in the longer-term. When it comes to patching any errors in future, for example, the process could be much smoother.

Beyond the practical benefits of pseudocode, programmers often use pseudocode as a point of reference to translate a piece of code from one language to another, as it documents the underlying functions and aims of a programme; almost like a translatory aid. But it can also be helpful to add any additional functions, in terms of visualising where these may fit into the overall programme.

So where are you likely to see it? Pseudocode is often found in scientific publications or textbooks where it can be used to help outline specifically how certain algorithms can be deployed in certain tasks and use cases. Overall it's useful for straightening out how a function would work for any users who aren't necessarily versed in a particular language they're working with at any given time.

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