1. Carl Meyer
  2. python-peps


python-peps / pep-3138.txt

PEP: 3138
Title: String representation in Python 3000
Version: $Revision$
Last-Modified: $Date$
Author: Atsuo Ishimoto <ishimoto--at--gembook.org>
Status: Final
Type: Standards Track
Content-Type: text/x-rst
Created: 05-May-2008
Post-History: 05-May-2008, 05-Jun-2008


This PEP proposes a new string representation form for Python 3000. In
Python prior to Python 3000, the repr() built-in function converted
arbitrary objects to printable ASCII strings for debugging and logging.
For Python 3000, a wider range of characters, based on the Unicode
standard, should be considered 'printable'.


The current repr() converts 8-bit strings to ASCII using following

- Convert CR, LF, TAB and '\\' to '\\r', '\\n', '\\t', '\\\\'.

- Convert other non-printable characters(0x00-0x1f, 0x7f) and non-ASCII
  characters(>=0x80) to '\\xXX'.

- Backslash-escape quote characters (apostrophe, ') and add the quote
  character at the beginning and the end.

For Unicode strings, the following additional conversions are done.

- Convert leading surrogate pair characters without trailing character
  (0xd800-0xdbff, but not followed by 0xdc00-0xdfff) to '\\uXXXX'.

- Convert 16-bit characters(>=0x100) to '\\uXXXX'.

- Convert 21-bit characters(>=0x10000) and surrogate pair characters to

This algorithm converts any string to printable ASCII, and repr() is
used as a handy and safe way to print strings for debugging or for
logging. Although all non-ASCII characters are escaped, this does not
matter when most of the string's characters are ASCII. But for other
languages, such as Japanese where most characters in a string are not
ASCII, this is very inconvenient.

We can use ``print(aJapaneseString)`` to get a readable string, but we
don't have a similar workaround for printing strings from collections
such as lists or tuples. ``print(listOfJapaneseStrings)`` uses repr() to
build the string to be printed, so the resulting strings are always
hex-escaped. Or when ``open(japaneseFilemame)`` raises an exception, the
error message is something like ``IOError: [Errno 2] No such file or
directory: '\u65e5\u672c\u8a9e'``, which isn't helpful.

Python 3000 has a lot of nice features for non-Latin users such as
non-ASCII identifiers, so it would be helpful if Python could also progress
in a similar way for printable output.

Some users might be concerned that such output will mess up their
console if they print binary data like images. But this is unlikely to
happen in practice because bytes and strings are different types in
Python 3000, so printing an image to the console won't mess it up.

This issue was once discussed by Hye-Shik Chang [1]_ , but was rejected.


- Add a new function to the Python C API ``int Py_UNICODE_ISPRINTABLE
  (Py_UNICODE ch)``. This function returns 0 if repr() should escape the
  Unicode character ``ch``; otherwise it returns 1. Characters that should
  be escaped are defined in the Unicode character database as:

 * Cc (Other, Control)
 * Cf (Other, Format)
 * Cs (Other, Surrogate)
 * Co (Other, Private Use)
 * Cn (Other, Not Assigned)
 * Zl (Separator, Line), refers to LINE SEPARATOR ('\\u2028').
 * Zp (Separator, Paragraph), refers to PARAGRAPH SEPARATOR ('\\u2029').
 * Zs (Separator, Space) other than ASCII space('\\x20'). Characters in
   this category should be escaped to avoid ambiguity.

- The algorithm to build repr() strings should be changed to:

 * Convert CR, LF, TAB and '\\' to '\\r', '\\n', '\\t', '\\\\'.

 * Convert non-printable ASCII characters(0x00-0x1f, 0x7f) to '\\xXX'.

 * Convert leading surrogate pair characters without trailing character
   (0xd800-0xdbff, but not followed by 0xdc00-0xdfff) to '\\uXXXX'.

 * Convert non-printable characters(Py_UNICODE_ISPRINTABLE() returns 0)
   to 'xXX', '\\uXXXX' or '\\U00xxxxxx'.

 * Backslash-escape quote characters (apostrophe, 0x27) and add quote
   character at the beginning and the end.

- Set the Unicode error-handler for sys.stderr to 'backslashreplace' by

- Add a new function to the Python C API ``PyObject *PyObject_ASCII
  (PyObject *o)``. This function converts any python object to a string
  using PyObject_Repr() and then hex-escapes all non-ASCII characters. 
  ``PyObject_ASCII()`` generates the same string as ``PyObject_Repr()``
  in Python 2.

- Add a new built-in function, ``ascii()``. This function converts any
  python object to a string using repr() and then hex-escapes all non-ASCII
  characters. ``ascii()`` generates the same string as ``repr()`` in
  Python 2.

- Add ``'%a'`` string format operator. ``'%a'`` converts any python
  object to a string using repr() and then hex-escapes all non-ASCII
  characters. The ``'%a'`` format operator generates the same string as
  ``'%r'`` in Python 2. Also, add ``'!a'`` conversion flags to the
  ``string.format()`` method and add ``'%A'`` operator to the
  PyUnicode_FromFormat(). They converts any object to an ASCII string
  as ``'%a'`` string format operator.

- Add an ``isprintable()`` method to the string type. ``str.isprintable()``
  returns False if repr() should escape any character in the string;
  otherwise returns True. The ``isprintable()`` method calls the
  ``Py_UNICODE_ISPRINTABLE()`` function internally.


The repr() in Python 3000 should be Unicode not ASCII based, just like
Python 3000 strings. Also, conversion should not be affected by the
locale setting, because the locale is not necessarily the same as the
output device's locale. For example, it is common for a daemon process
to be invoked in an ASCII setting, but writes UTF-8 to its log files.
Also, web applications might want to report the error information in
more readable form based on the HTML page's encoding.

Characters not supported by the user's console could be hex-escaped on
printing, by the Unicode encoder's error-handler. If the error-handler
of the output file is 'backslashreplace', such characters are
hex-escaped without raising UnicodeEncodeError. For example, if your default
encoding is ASCII, ``print('Hello ¢')`` will print 'Hello \\xa2'. If
your encoding is ISO-8859-1, 'Hello ¢' will be printed.

The default error-handler for sys.stdout is 'strict'. Other applications
reading the output might not understand hex-escaped characters, so
unsupported characters should be trapped when writing. If you need to
escape unsupported characters, you should explicitly change the
error-handler. Unlike sys.stdout, sys.stderr doesn't raise
UnicodeEncodingError by default, because the default error-handler is
'backslashreplace'. So printing error messeges containing non-ASCII
characters to sys.stderr will not raise an exception. Also, information
about uncaught exceptions (exception object, traceback) are printed by
the interpreter without raising exceptions.

Alternate Solutions

To help debugging in non-Latin languages without changing repr(), other
suggestions were made.

- Supply a tool to print lists or dicts.

  Strings to be printed for debugging are not only contained by lists or
  dicts, but also in many other types of object. File objects contain a
  file name in Unicode, exception objects contain a message in Unicode,
  etc. These strings should be printed in readable form when repr()ed.
  It is unlikely to be possible to implement a tool to print all
  possible object types.

- Use sys.displayhook and sys.excepthook.

  For interactive sessions, we can write hooks to restore hex escaped
  characters to the original characters. But these hooks are called only
  when printing the result of evaluating an expression entered in an
  interactive Python session, and doesn't work for the ``print()`` function,
  for non-interactive sessions or for ``logging.debug("%r", ...)``, etc.

- Subclass sys.stdout and sys.stderr.

  It is difficult to implement a subclass to restore hex-escaped
  characters since there isn't enough information left by the time it's
  a string to undo the escaping correctly in all cases. For example,
  ``print("\\"+"u0041")`` should be printed as '\\u0041', not 'A'. But
  there is no chance to tell file objects apart.

- Make the encoding used by unicode_repr() adjustable, and make the
  existing repr() the default.

  With adjustable repr(), the result of using repr() is unpredictable
  and would make it impossible to write correct code involving repr().
  And if current repr() is the default, then the old convention remains
  intact and users may expect ASCII strings as the result of repr().
  Third party applications or libraries could be confused when a custom
  repr() function is used.

Backwards Compatibility

Changing repr() may break some existing code, especially testing code.
Five of Python's regression tests fail with this modification. If you
need repr() strings without non-ASCII character as Python 2, you can use
the following function. ::

  def repr_ascii(obj):
      return str(repr(obj).encode("ASCII", "backslashreplace"), "ASCII")

For logging or for debugging, the following code can raise
UnicodeEncodeError. ::

  log = open("logfile", "w")
  log.write(repr(data))     # UnicodeEncodeError will be raised
                            # if data contains unsupported characters.

To avoid exceptions being raised, you can explicitly specify the error-
handler. ::

  log = open("logfile", "w", errors="backslashreplace")
  log.write(repr(data))  # Unsupported characters will be escaped.

For a console that uses a Unicode-based encoding, for example, en_US.
utf8 or de_DE.utf8, the backslashescape trick doesn't work and all
printable characters are not escaped. This will cause a problem of
similarly drawing characters in Western, Greek and Cyrillic languages.
These languages use similar (but different) alphabets (descended from a
common ancestor) and contain letters that look similar but have
different character codes. For example, it is hard to distinguish Latin
'a', 'e' and 'o' from Cyrillic 'а', 'е' and 'о'. (The visual
representation, of course, very much depends on the fonts used but
usually these letters are almost indistinguishable.) To avoid the
problem, the user can adjust the terminal encoding to get a result
suitable for their environment.

Rejected Proposals

- Add encoding and errors arguments to the builtin print() function,
  with defaults of sys.getfilesystemencoding() and 'backslashreplace'.

  Complicated to implement, and in general, this is not seen as a good
  idea. [2]_

- Use character names to escape characters, instead of hex character
  codes. For example, ``repr('\u03b1')`` can be converted to ``"\N{GREEK

  Using character names can be very verbose compared to hex-escape. 
  e.g., ``repr("\ufbf9")`` is converted to ``"\N{ARABIC LIGATURE UIGHUR

- Default error-handler of sys.stdout should be 'backslashreplace'.

  Stuff written to stdout might be consumed by another program that
  might misinterpret the \ escapes. For interactive session, it is
  possible to make 'backslashreplace' error-handler to default, but may
  add confusion of the kind "it works in interactive mode but not when
  redirecting to a file".


The author wrote a patch in http://bugs.python.org/issue2630; this was
committed to the Python 3.0 branch in revision 64138 on 06-11-2008.


.. [1] Multibyte string on string\::string_print

.. [2] [Python-3000] Displaying strings containing unicode escapes


This document has been placed in the public domain.