Wikipedia:Advanced template coding

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This essay, Wikipedia:Advanced template coding, describes some techniques to improve the display or editing of templates in Wikipedia and explains some tactics for debugging template parameters in the MediaWiki markup language. Most of these tips involve use of standard text-editors. While some special software packages exist to allow customized editing, they are typically not available when travelling to other computers for wiki-editing.

Perhaps the most important issue to note about complex templates is the fact that the markup language is very reliable for complex template coding, even with intricate calculations, so template problems are most often caused by obscure coding errors rather than by bugs inside the MediaWiki software. Most problems are due to awkward features in the markup language which lead to coding errors; for example, omitting a leading brace "{" at parameter {{1}}} causes it to become {{1}} }, as invoking Template:1 + "}". The bugs inside the parser are so rare that most people will never experience one.

Some techniques here are beyond the basics described in the Wikipedia help-page "Help:Template" which explains almost all basic options of template coding, also showing examples of each.

Nesting levels limited to 40[edit]

Inside a single template, the nesting limit is 40 nested expressions, such as 40 multiple "if-then-else-if...". At the 41st nested "if" keyword, then an error message might appear as: "Exceeded nesting limit". However, when not nested beyond 40 levels, then a template can contain hundreds of if-expressions and switch-branches (but not all nested inside the others).

Some templates have contained complex conditional calculations nested over 23 levels deep, for years. Also, some templates have contained hundreds of if-expressions, for years, just NOT all nested as one, giant: if-then-else-else-else-else-else....

MediaWiki wiki-formats the clauses inside #if[edit]

An issue which complicates template processing, for parameters, is the wiki-formatting of parameter contents when inside of if-logic (such as #if or #ifeq) or #switch (or lc:, lcfirst:, uc:, ucfirst:). As of May 2012, the MediaWiki markup parser is still wiki-formatting the contents of parameters when inside #if-expressions (but not outside). This means that parameters containing spaces, lead semicolon, colon (":") or pound sign ("#") can change their values while inside the if-clauses (surprise!). So, for example, a parameter {{{4}}} when outside an #if can display differently than inside {{#ifeq:{{{1}}}=0|{{{4}}} ...}}. The worst shock is when parameter 4 contains a leading semicolon, which triggers formatting to become ye-olde bolded semicolon-header line:

TEST 1: {{#if:{{{4|}}}|{{{4|;}}} <== yes, semicolon|no, 4=empty}}
TEST 2: {{#if:{{{4|;}}}|{{{4|;}}} <== yes, semicolon|no, 4=empty}}
TEST 1: no, 4=empty
TEST 2:
<== yes, semicolon
<== Separate example of semicolon-header

The problem occurs whether inside of #if, #ifexpr, #ifeq or #switch markup expressions. If the parameter is preceded by text, in either of the then/else clauses, then the wiki-formatting inside the parameter does not occur.

TEST 3: {{#ifexpr:{{{1|7}}}=7|<b/>{{{4|;}}} equals 7|not 7}}
TEST 4: {{#ifexpr:{{{1|7}}} < 9|{{{4|#}}} LESS THAN 9|not<9}}
TEST 5: {{#ifexpr:{{{1|7}}} < 9|&#32;{{{4|#}}} LESS THAN 9|not<9}}
TEST 6: "{{#ifexpr:{{{1|7}}} < 9|&#32;{{{4|#}}} LESS THAN 9|not<9}}"
TEST 3: ; equals 7
TEST 4:
  1. LESS THAN 9
TEST 5: # LESS THAN 9
TEST 6: " # LESS THAN 9"

In TEST 4, the leading pound sign "#" triggered auto-numbering of the line (indented with "1."). The situation of having a leading semicolon, colon or "#" might be relatively rare, but this is just a reminder: for showing the true contents of a template parameter, try to display a parameter outside the start of any if-statement clauses, or display other text before the parameter inside the if-logic, or else prepare for some shocking results when a parameter is wiki-formatted for display inside the if-logic.

If the result of #if, etc. is not intended to be formatted, using &#35;, &#58;, and &#59; instead of #, :, and ; will work fine.

TEST 7: {{#ifexpr:{{{1|7}}} < 9|{{{4|&#35;}}} LESS THAN 9|not<9}}
TEST 7: # LESS THAN 9

Debugging[edit]

Many coding errors can be debugged, more easily, by attempting to isolate the code section where coding errors most likely occurred. Intense proofreading, of the logic flow, is most often the quickest fix, such as checking for typical syntax errors (see below: "Common coding errors"). Sometimes, a section of troublesome code could be copied into a short test page, then by edit-preview, tested there, separately. However, if editing that extra-page window seems like too much effort, then consider merely copying the code to the top of the current template. Similarly, a template could be developed, in the early stages, as multiple sections of code, each to be debugged separately, then eventually joined together, such as nested sections with if-then-else-if.

As a review of those options, consider:

  • Try carefully proofreading troublesome code, matching "{{" with "}}".
  • Copy a template section into a test-page edit-window, for debug.
  • Copy a template section to the top of the template, for debug.
  • Restructure a template so that each section is more separated.
The basic strategy: isolate the code section to be debugged.

Next, the testing, of each section of code, is crucial. There are some age-old adages to heed:

  • If it hasn't been tested, then it doesn't work.
  • You can expect what you inspect. (W. Edwards Deming)

Perhaps put a variety of examples on each template's doc subpage, to help detect problems early in development. However, for complex templates, then the talk-page, or a special subpage "/testcases", should contain a section of numerous examples (a whole lot of them) to demonstrate the full scope of template features.

Defaulting parameters in expressions and if-logic[edit]

When developing sections of markup that use template parameters, try to always set each parameter with a default value, especially inside expressions or if-logic coding:

  • {{#expr: 109.75 / {{{1|1}}} }} → default {1} as 1 not zero.
  • {{#ifeq: {{{answer|y}}}|y|show yes}}

If a particular parameter is given the same default value across the whole page, then that value could be easily changed, in a text editor, by a global search-and-replace string substitution, to change the default value to some other value, for testing each case.

If those parameters are not given default values, then those sections of code cannot be tested, during edit-preview, while editing the template. Any parameter without a default value will become the literal triple-brace text (such as the literal 7 characters: {{{x}}}), and non-defaulted parameters cannot be evaluated, in expressions or if-logic, during an edit-preview of the template page.

Common coding errors[edit]

There are several common coding errors which will cause problems when processing templates. The following can be used as a checklist, to help debug problems, when a template seems to be acting bizarre:

  • Too few closing braces: A common problem is to put only 2 closing-braces around a parameter number or name, such as "{{{1}}". Having only 2 closing-braces "}}" might treat the parameter as a template named "Template:1" (preceded by a lone "{" brace).
  • Unopened comments: Forgetting to insert "<!--" at the start of an HTML comment can cause bizarre results, with no error message. Forgetting the exclamation point is very common: "<--" should be "<!--".
  • Unclosed comments: Forgetting to insert "-->" at the end of an HTML comment can cause bizarre results, with no error message.
  • Omitting colon or "#" on "#ifexpr": Forgetting to insert "#" or colon for "#ifexpr:" or "#expr:" can produce bizarre results, when passed into other subtemplates.
Omitting colon becomes literal text: {{#ifexpr y=0|then zero|else not}}

Note that those common coding errors could have been easily spotted by a simple syntax checker, such as warning that 3&2 braces could be trouble: "{{{size|180px}}" is treated as "{Template:Size" trying to pass 180px as the parameter because of only 2 end-braces.

Again, always checking first for common errors, as the first step, can avoid time hunting for "complex errors" which never really existed. Remember: the MediaWiki markup language is extremely error-prone, so that's why so many coding errors occur, and that's why:

Consider the above as a checklist to try first, as a type of sanity-check for the template.

Many hideous problems truly are merely 1-minute syntax fixes.

Coding a template to allow WP:Subst substitution[edit]

In rare cases, a template might need to be rewritten to allow text substitution (per WP:Subst), where the results of running a template will be saved into the page during an edit-SAVE operation. In that case, the safesubst-prefix must be inserted into every markup function used inside that template, at every level of nested logic. Also, every HTML comment must be surrounded by "noinclude" tags: <noinclude><!--HTML comment HERE--></noinclude>. Otherwise, all of the triggered HTML comments will be stored inside the SAVEd page, in the sequence executed by running the template. NOTE: All the extra "noinclude" and "{{{|safesubst:}}}" keywords will likely require the template's markup to be re-indented inside, to fit all that extra inserted text, which will widen and clutter the original markup style.

Specifically, to alter a template to allow text substitution, then the prefix "{{{|safesubst:}}}" must be inserted inside the opening double-brace "{{" of each markup function inside that template. Some examples of inserting the safesubst-prefix inside a template's markup:

  • Total articles now: {{NUMBEROFARTICLES}} → 4,499,360
  • Total articles was: {{ subst:NUMBEROFARTICLES}} → 3,953,715
  • {{ {{{|safesubst:}}}#ifeq:{{{1|AX}}|AX|yes}}
  • {{ {{{|safesubst:}}}lc:THIS LOWERCASE TEXT}} → this lowercase text

In general, every markup function which starts with double-brace "{{" must be altered to insert the long safesubst-prefix "{{{|safesubst:}}}" (with no space afterward). The action of keyword "safesubst" is to allow conditional substitution of markup, when the whole template is invoked as {{subst:MyTemplate|...}}. In essence, the keyword "safesubst" could be called "ifsubst" as meaning, "if 'subst:' was used to invoke this template, then substitute here as well".

Remember: The safesubst-prefix must be inserted into every markup function inside that template, except for test logic never used in an actual page. Any markup which omits "safesubst" will fail if the template is executed by the subst mode, "{{subst:MyTemplate|...}}". Parameters are not changed, so "{{{1}}}" would remain unchanged, without a safesubst-prefix.

Exceptions: Only logic which would never be stored in a page could omit "safesubst", such as test-logic which is triggered by special parameter values never used inside a stored page. Any markup which omits "safesubst" will only work during regular transclusion but fail if the template is executed by using the subst-mode prefix "subst:". For more examples, and further technical explanations, see: WP:Substitution.

Indenting the long lines: All of the added safesubst-prefix text will widen lines, so to improve readability, they could be split and indented after the 3 triple-braces "{{{"" in any of the "{{{|safesubst:}}}" prefixes. For example:

  • {{ {{{|safesubst:}}}#ifeq:{{ {{{
           |safesubst:}}}padleft:|1|{{{1}}} }}|A|Begins with "A"}}

In that indentation style, the text "|safesubst:" begins the next line. Avoid wrapping a line after the prefix "{{{|safesubst:}}}" because several markup functions might fail to work correctly unless the safesubst prefix is immediately attached before the keyword, such as "{{ {{{|safesubst:}}}#ifeq:...}}" Such failure to allow wrapping, after the safesubst prefix, could be considered a software bug, and might be allowed in a future, improved version of the MediaWiki software.

Examples of very large templates[edit]

When trying to perform more-complex, or intricate, operations, there might be an instinctive fear that templates cannot be as large as needed. However, there are many very large templates which have been running, for years, on Wikipedia. Below are a few to examine:

In particular, the 366-day conversions in Template:Convert/date use #switch logic with 1,464 switch branches to handle month abbreviations or reversed date formats, such as "7 August" or "August 7" or "Aug 7" etc. Note the results, below:

The source-footnote formatter, Template:Citation/core, displays a standardized citation format, as invoked by several wrapper templates which pass hundreds of parameters, where the core logic checks 621 parameter values, in the conditional markup expressions.

See also[edit]

 

Notes[edit]

[ This essay is a draft to be expanded later. ]