7 Code Documentation

This section contains guidelines for content and formatting of code documentation mentioned in earlier sections. The aims of these guidelines are to:

  • Document files, data types, functions, etc. consistently.
  • Promote good documentation practices so that essential information is presented clearly and lucidly, and which do not over-burden developers.
  • Generate source code documentation using the Doxygen system.

Document only what’s needed

7.1 Documentation should only include what is essential for users and other developers to easily understand code. Comments should be limited to describing constraints, pre- and post-conditions, and other issues that are important, but not obvious. Extraneous comments (e.g., documenting “the obvious”) should be avoided.

Code that uses clear, descriptive names (functions, variables, etc.) and clear logical structure is preferable to code that relies on a lot of comments for understanding. To be useful, comments must be understood by others and kept current with the actual code. Generally, maintenance and understanding are better served by rewriting tricky, unclear code than by adding comments to it.

Documenting new code vs. existing code

7.2 New source code must be documented following the guidelines in this section. Documentation of existing code should be modified to conform to these guidelines when appropriate.

7.3 Existing code documentation should be improved when its inadequate, incorrect, or unclear.


When code is modified, documentation must be changed to reflect the changes.

Write clear documentation

7.4 To make comment text clear and reduce confusion, code comments should be written in grammatically-correct complete sentences or easily understood sentence fragments.

Documentation should be easy to spot

7.5 End-of-line comments should not be used to document code logic, since they tend to be less visible than other comment forms and may be difficult to format cleanly.

Short end-of-line comments may be useful for labeling closing braces associated with nested loops, conditionals, for scope in general, and for documenting local variable declarations.

7.6 All comments, except end-of-line comments, should be indented to match the indentation of the code they are documenting. Multiple line comment blocks should be aligned vertically on the left.

7.7 Comments should be clearly delimited from executable code with blank lines and “blocking characters” (see examples below) to make them stand out and, thus, improve the chances they will be read.

7.8 White space, such as blank lines, indentation, and vertical alignment should be used in comment blocks to enhance readability, emphasize important information, etc.

General Doxygen usage

The Doxygen code documentation system uses C or C++ style comment sections with special markings and Doxygen-specific commands to extract documentation from source and header files. Although Doxygen provides many sophisticated documentation capabilities and can generate a source code manual in a variety of formats such as LaTeX, PDF, and HTML, these guidelines address only a small subset of Doxygen syntax. The goal of adhering to a small, simple set of documentation commands is that developers will be encouraged to build useful documentation when they are writing code.

Brief vs. detailed comments

The Doxygen system interprets each documentation comment as either “brief” or “detailed”.

  • A brief comment is a concise statement of purpose for an item (usually no more than one line) and starts with the Doxygen command “\brief” (or “@brief”). Brief comments appear in summary sections of the generated documentation. They are typically seen before detailed comments when scanning the documentation; thus good brief comments make it easier to can or navigate a source code manual.
  • A detailed comment is any comment that is not identified as ‘brief’.

7.9 A “brief” description should be provided in the Doxygen comment section for each of the following items:

  • A type definition (i.e., class, struct, typedef, enum, etc.)
  • A macro definition
  • A struct field or class data member
  • A class member function declaration (in the header file class definition)
  • An unbound function signature (in a header file)
  • A function implementation (when there is no description in the associated header file)

7.10 Important information of a more lengthy nature (e.g., usage examples spanning multiple lines) should be provided for files, major data types and definitions, functions, etc. when needed. A detailed comment must be separated from a brief comment in the same comment block with a line containing no documentation text.

Doxygen comment blocks

7.11 Doxygen comment blocks may use either JavaDoc, Qt style, or one of the C++ comment forms described below.

JavaDoc style comments consist of a C-style comment block starting with two *’s, like this:

 * ...comment text...

Qt style comments add an exclamation mark (!) after the opening of a C-style comment block,like this:

 * ...comment text...

For JavaDoc or Qt style comments, the asterisk characters (“*”) on intermediate lines are optional, but encouraged.

C++ comment block forms start each line with an additional slash:

/// ...comment text...

or an exclamation mark:

//! ...comment text...

For these C++ style comment forms, the comment delimiter is required on each line.

7.12 A consistent Doxygen comment block style must be used within a component.

7.13 Doxygen comment blocks must appear immediately before the items they describe; i.e., no blank lines between comment and documented item. This insures that Doxygen will properly associate the comment with the item.

Doxygen inline comments

7.14 Inline Doxygen comments may be used for class/struct data members, enum values, function arguments, etc.

When inline comments are used, they must appear after the item on the same line and must use the following syntax:

/*!< ...comment text... */

Note that the “<” character must appear immediately after the opening of the Doxygen comment (with no space before). This tells Doxygen that the comment applies to the item immediately preceding the comment. See examples in later sections.

7.15 When an item is documented using the inline form, the comment should not span multiple lines.

File documentation

7.17 Each header file that declares a global type, method, etc. must have a Doxygen file prologue similar to the following:

 * \file ...optional name of file...
 * \brief A brief statement describing the file contents/purpose. (optional)
 * Optional detailed explanatory notes about the file.

   The "\\file" command **must** appear first in the file prologue. It
   identifies the comment section as documentation for the file.

   The file name **may** include (part of) the path if the file name is not
   unique. If the file name is omitted on the line after the "\\file"
   command, then any documentation in the comment block will belong to
   the file in which it is located instead of the summary documentation
   in the listing of documented files.


Doxygen requires that a file itself must be documented for documentation to be generated for any global item (global function, typedef, enum, etc.) defined in the file.

See Header file layout details and Source file layout details for guidelines on placement of file prologue in header and source files, respectively.

Brief and detailed comments

7.18 A brief statement of purpose for the file should appear as the first comment after the file command. If included, the brief statement, must be preceded by the “\brief” command.

7.19 Any detailed notes about the file may be included after the brief comment. If this is done, the detailed comments must be separated from the brief statement by a line containing no documentation text.

Type documentation

7.20 Each type and macro definition appearing in a header file must have a Doxygen type definition comment prologue immediately before it. For example

 * \brief A brief statement of purpose of the type or macro.
 * Optional detailed information that is helpful in understanding the
 * purpose, usage, etc. of the type/macro ...
 * \sa optional cross-reference to other types, functions, etc...
 * \sa etc...
 * \warning This class is only partially functional.


Doxygen requires that a compound entity, such as a class, struct, etc. be documented in order to document any of its members.

Brief and detailed comments

7.21 A brief statement describing the type must appear as the first text comment using the Doxygen command “\brief”.

7.22 Important details about the item should be included after the brief comment and, if included, must be separated from the brief comment by a blank line.

Cross-references and caveats

7.23 Cross-references to other items, such as other related types should be included in the prologue to enhance the navigability of the documentation.

The Doxygen command “\sa” (for “see also”) should appear before each such cross-reference so that links are generated in the documentation.

7.24 Caveats or limitations about the documented type should be noted using the “\warning” Doxygen command as shown above.

Function documentation

7.25 Each unbound function should be be documented with a function prologue in the header file where its prototype appears or in a source file immediately preceding its implementation.

7.26 Since C++ class member functions define the class interface, they should be documented with a function prologue immediately preceding their declaration in the class definition.

Example function documentation

The following examples show two function prologue variations that may be used to document a method in a class definition. The first shows how to document the function arguments in the function prologue.

 * \brief Initialize a Foo object with given operation mode.
 * The "read" mode means one thing, while "write" mode means another.
 * \return bool indicating success or failure of initialization.
 *              Success returns true, failure returns false.
 * \param[in] mode OpMode enum value specifying initialization mode.
 *                 ReadMode and WriteMode are valid options.
 *                 Any other value generates a warning message and the
 *                 failure value ("false") is returned.
 bool initMode(OpMode mode);

The second example shows how to document the function argument inline.

 * @brief Initialize a Foo object to given operation mode.
 * The "read" mode means one thing, while "write" mode means another.
 * @return bool value indicating success or failure of initialization.
 *             Success returns true, failure returns false.
 bool initMode(OpMode mode /*!< [in] ReadMode, WriteMode are valid options */ );

Note that the first example uses the “" character to identify Doxygen commands; the second uses “@”.

Brief and detailed comments

7.27 A brief statement of purpose for a function must appear as the first text comment after the Doxygen command “\brief” (or “@brief”).

7.28 Any detailed function description, when included, must appear after the brief comment and must be separated from the brief comment by a line containing no text.

Return values

7.29 If the function has a non-void return type, the return value should be documented in the prologue using the Doxygen command “\return” (or “@return”) preceding a description of the return value.

Functions with “void” return type and C++ class constructors and destructors should not have such documentation.


7.30 Function arguments should be documented in the function prologue or inline (as shown above) when the intent or usage of the arguments is not obvious.

The inline form of the comment may be preferable when the argument documentation is short. When a longer description is provided (such as when noting the range of valid values, error conditions, etc.) the description should be placed within the function prologue for readability. However, the two alternatives for documenting function arguments must not be mixed within the documentation of a single function to reduce confusion.

In any case, superfluous documentation should be avoided. For example, when there are one or two arguments and their meaning is obvious from their names or the description of the function, providing no comments is better than cluttering the code by documenting the obvious. Comments that impart no useful information are distracting and less helpful than no comment at all.

7.31 When a function argument is documented in the prologue comment section, the Doxygen command “param” should appear before the comment as in the first example above.

7.32 The “in/out” status of each function argument should be documented.

The Doxygen “param” command supports this directly by allowing such an attribute to be specified as “param[in]”, “param[out]”, or “param[in,out]”. Although the inline comment form does not support this, such a description should be included; e.g., by using “[in]”, “[out]”, or “[in,out]” in the comment.

Grouping small functions

7.33 Short, simple functions (e.g., inline methods) may be grouped together and documented with a single descriptive comment when this is sufficient.

An example of Doxygen syntax for such a grouping is:

//! @name Setters for data members

void setMember1(int arg1) { m_member1 = arg1; }
void setMember2(int arg2) { m_member2 = arg2; }


Header file vs. source file documentation

7.34 Important implementation details (vs. usage detailed) about a function should be documented in the source file where the function is implemented, rather than the header file where the function is declared.

Header file documentation should include only purpose and usage information germane to an interface. When a function has separate implementation documentation, the comments must not contain Doxygen syntax. Using Doxygen syntax to document an item in more than one location (e.g., header file and source file) can cause undesired Doxygen formatting issues and potentially confusing documentation.

A member of a class may be documented as follows in the source file for the class as follows (i.e., no Doxygen comments):

 * Set operation mode for a Foo object.
 * Important detailed information about what the function does...
 bool Foo::initMode(OpMode mode)
    ...function body...

Data member documentation

7.35 Each struct field or class data member should have a descriptive comment indicating its purpose.

This comment may as appear as a prologue before the item, such as:

 * \brief Brief statement describing the input mode...
 * Optional detailed information about the input mode...
int m_input_mode;

or, it may appear after the item as an inline comment such as:

int m_input_mode; /*!< \brief Brief statement describing the input mode.... */

Brief and detailed comments

7.36 Regardless of which documentation form is used, a brief description must be included using the Doxygen command “\brief” (or “@brief”).

7.37 Any detailed description of an item, if included, must appear after the brief comment and be separated from the brief comment with a line containing no documentation text.

When a detailed comment is provided, or the brief statement requires more than one line, the prologue comment form should be used instead of the inline form to make the documentation easier to read.

Grouping data members

7.38 If the names of data members are sufficiently clear that their meaning and purpose are obvious to other developers (which should be determined in a code review), then the members may be grouped together and documented with a single descriptive comment.

An example of Doxygen syntax for such a grouping is:

//!  @name Data member description...

int m_member1;
int m_member2;

Summary of common Doxygen commands

This Section provides an overview of commonly used Doxygen commands. Please see the Doxygen guide for more details and information about other commands.

Note that to be processed properly, Doxygen commands must be preceded with either “" or “@” character. For brevity, we use “" for all commands described here.

The “brief” command is used to begin a brief description of a documented item. The brief description ends at the next blank line.
The “file” command is used to document a file. Doxygen requires that to document any global item (function, typedef, enum, etc.), the file in which it is defined must be documented.
The “name” command, followed by a name containing no blank spaces, is used to define a name that can be referred to elsewhere in the documentation (via a link).
The “param” command documents a function parameter/argument. It is followed by the parameter name and description. The “\param” command can be given an optional attribute to indicate usage of the function argument; possible values are “[in]”, “[out]”, and “[in,out]”.
The “return” command is used to describe the return value of a function.
The “sa” command (i.e., “see also”) is used to refer (and provide a link to) another documented item. It is followed by the target of the reference (e.g., class/struct name, function name, documentation page, etc.).
These two-character sequences begin and end a grouping of documented items. Optionally, the group can be given a name using the “name” command. Groups are useful for providing additional organization in the documentation, and also when several items can be documented with a single description (e.g., a set of simple, related functions).
\verbatim, \endverbatim
The “verbatim/endverbatim” commands are used to start/stop a block of text that is to appear exactly as it is typed, without additional formatting, in the generated documentation.
-, -#
The “-” and “-#” symbols begin an item in a bulleted list or numbered list, respectively. In either case, the item ends at the next blank line or next item.
\b, \e
These symbols are used to make the next word bold or emphasized/italicized, respectively, in the generated documentation.