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Coding vs programming vs scripting: What’s the difference?

Your comprehensive guide to the important distinctions between coding, programming, and scripting

Three cartoon figures add to a board of code, with one sitting on top, a plant to the left and a cup of steaming coffee to the right

When people talk about writing code on a computer, the terms ‘coding’, ‘programming’ and ‘scripting’ are often used interchangeably. In fact, most people aren’t aware that there are subtle but important differences between the three activities. But just what are they?

What is coding?

Put simply, coding is the act of inputting commands into a computer in a language that it can understand. At the smallest level, computers process everything in binary — 1s and 0s — also called machine code.

Far back in computer science history, there was no other way in which users could write code, but quickly programming languages were written to give programmers a far more user-friendly coding experience.

Today, almost all code is written in one of many programming languages, which have their own libraries, documentation and syntax.

All of the most popular programming languages have their differences, with more or less overlap between them, and it takes time to learn how to use each one effectively.

When you strip each one down to its core, however, all each does is interface with a computer on its own terms, while simultaneously allowing a user to create commands in a way that they can understand and easily remember.

What is programming?

If coding is translating intention into language that computers can understand, programming can be understood as taking this language and making it into a comprehensive list of instructions.

Every decision you make on your computer, whether it’s right-clicking or pressing ‘search’ on Google, sets in motion a chain of code that varies in complexity depending on the demands of the user.

Usually, these chains have been written line-by-line in code inside a program called a compiler, which translates the program from the language in which it was written into machine code that the computer can run as a cohesive program.

Very recently, AI models have reached a point where they are beginning to be able to overtake humans in writing programs of their own, but this is still far from proven technology.

What is scripting?

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Scripting is typically used to automate a process that would otherwise be undertaken by a human operator. Some programming languages are considered good scripting languages, with a prime example of this being Python. This is due to its ample documentation, speed, and intuitiveness.

Unlike programs, which are compiled into machine code by a compiler, scripts are usually run by something called an interpreter. This runs the program line-by-line from the source code, with no translation of the script into any other code.

The benefit of scripts is that they are much easier to understand for beginners, as they are generally laid out in a more easily digestible format. On the other hand, scripts can only run on a computer that has the right interpreter installed.

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