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Diviner Phabricator User Docs Differential User Guide: Inline Comments

Differential User Guide: Inline Comments
Phabricator User Documentation (Application User Guides)

Guide to inline comments in Differential.


Differential allows reviewers to leave feedback about changes to code inline, within the body of the diff itself. These comments are called "inline comments", and can be used to discuss specific parts of a change.

Click the line number next to a line to leave an inline comment.

To leave an inline comment, click the line number next to a line when reviewing a change in Differential. You can also leave a comment on a range of adjacent lines by clicking one line number and dragging to a nearby line number.

Other users can't see your comments right away!

When you make a comment, it is initially an unsubmitted draft, indicated by an "Unsubmitted" badge in the comment header. Other users can't see it yet. This behavior is different from the behavior of other software you may be familiar with.

To publish your inline comments, scroll to the bottom of the page and submit the form there. All your unsubmitted inline comments will be published when you do, alongside an optional normal comment and optional action (like accepting the revision).

Differential doesn't publish inlines initially because having a draft phase gives reviewers more time to revise and adjust the inlines, and make their feedback more cohesive, and contextualize their inlines with discussion in a normal comment. It also allows Differential to send fewer, more relevant emails and notifications.

Porting / Ghost Comments

When a revision is updated, we attempt to port inline comments forward and display them on the new diff. Ported comments have a pale, ghostly appearance and include a button which allows you to jump back to the original context where the comment appeared.

Ported comments sometimes appear in unexpected locations. There are two major reasons for this:

  • In the general case, it is not possible to always port comments to the same lines humans would automatically.
  • We are very aggressive about porting comments forward, even in the presence of heavy changes. This helps prevent mistakes and makes it easier to verify feedback has been addressed.

You can disable this behavior in SettingsDiff PreferencesShow Older Inlines if you prefer comments stay anchored to their original diff.

To understand why porting comments forward is difficult and can produce unexpected results, and why we choose to be aggressive about it, let's look at a case where the right behavior is ambiguous. Imagine this code is added as part of a change:

111 ...
113 if (a() || b() || c()) {
114   return;
115 }
117 ...

Suppose a reviewer leaves this comment on line 113:

important.c:113 This is a serious security vulnerability!

The author later updates the diff, and the code now looks like this, with some other changes elsewhere so the line numbers have also shifted:

140 ...
142 if (a()) {
143   return;
144 }
146 if (b()) {
147   return;
148 }
150 ...

If we port the inline forward from the first change to the second change, where should it go? A human would probably do one of three things:

  1. Put it on line 142, with the call to a().
  2. Put it on line 146, with the call to b().
  3. Don't bring it forward at all.

A human would choose between (1) and (2) based on context about what a() and b() are and what the reviewer meant. The algorithm can not possibly read the comment and understand which part of the statement it talked about. Humans might not even agree on which line is the better fit.

When we choose one of these behaviors, humans will sometimes think the other behavior was the better one, because they have more information about what a() and b() are and what the comment actually meant. The line we choose may be unexpected, but it is the best the algorithm can do without being able to actually read the code or understand what the comment means.

A human might also choose not to bring the comment forward if they knew that removing c() addressed it, but the algorithm can not know that. The call to a() or b() may be the dangerous thing the reviewer was talking about, and we err on the side of caution by bringing comments forward aggressively.

When a line of code with an inline comment on it changes, we can not know if the change addressed the inline or not. We take the cautious route and always assume it did not, and that humans need to verify problems have really been addressed.

This means that inlines are sometimes ported forward into places that don't make sense (the code has changed completely), but we won't drop important inlines just because the structure of the code has changed.

Here's another case where bringing inlines forward seems desirable. Imagine this code is added as part of a change:

12 ...
13 function_x();
14 ...

Suppose a reviewer leaves this comment on line 13:

warpgate.c:13 This should be function_y() instead.

The author later updates the diff, and the code now looks like this:

12 ...
13 function_y();
14 ...

For the reasons discussed above, we port the comment forward, so it will appear under line 13.

We think this is desirable: it makes it trivial for an author or reviewer to look through the changes and verify that the feedback has really been addressed, because you can see that the code now uses the proper function.

This isn't to say that we always do the best we can. There may be cases where the algorithm can be smarter than it currently is or otherwise produce a better result. If you find such a case, file a bug report. But it's expected that the algorithm will sometimes port comments into places that aren't optimal or no longer make sense, because this is frequently the best behavior available among the possible alternatives.

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