Summary: We consider characters and strings, two of the important primitive data types in many languages. Characters are the building blocks of strings. Strings, conversely, are combinations of characters. Both characters and strings are useful for input and output.
A character is a small, repeatable unit within some system of writing -- a letter or a punctuation mark, if the system is alphabetic, or an ideogram in a writing system like Han (Chinese). Characters are usually put together in sequences that computer scientists call strings.
Although early computer programs focused primarily on numeric processing, as computation advanced, it grew to incorporate a variety of algorithms that incorporated characters and strings. Some of the more interesting algorithms we will consider involve these data types. Hence, we must learn how to use this building blocks.
As you might expect, Scheme needs a way to distinguish between many different but similar things, including: characters (the units of writing), strings (formed by combining characters), symbols (which look like strings, but are treated as atomic and also cannot be combined or separated), and variables (names of values). Similarly, Scheme needs to distinguish between numbers (which you can compute with) and digit characters (which you can put in strings).
In Scheme, a name for any of the text characters can be formed by
#\ before that character. For instance,
#\a denotes the lower-case a. Of
course, lower-case a should be distinguished from
the upper-case A character, (denoted by
from the symbol that you obtain with
from the string
"a", and from the name
#\3 denotes the character 3 (to be
distinguished from the number 3) and the expression
denotes the question mark (to be distinguished from a symbol and a
name that look quite similar).
In addition, some characters are named by pound, backslash, and a
longer name. In particular, the expression
#\space denotes the space character, and
denotes the newline character (the one that is used to terminate lines
of text files stored on Unix and Linux systems).
In any implementation of Scheme, it is assumed that the available
characters can be arranged in sequential order (the “collating
sequence” for the character set), and that each character
is associated with an integer that specifies its position in
that sequence. In ASCII, the numbers
that are associated with characters run from 0 to 127; in Unicode, they lie within the range from 0 to
65535. (Fortunately, Unicode includes all of the ASCII characters and
associates with each one the same collating-sequence number that ASCII
uses.) Applying the built-in
procedure to a character gives you the collating-sequence
number for that character; applying the converse procedure,
integer->char, to an integer in the appropriate
range gives you the character that has that collating-sequence number.
The importance of the collating-sequence numbers is that they
extend the notion of alphabetical order to all the characters.
Scheme provides five built-in predicates for comparing characters
char>?). They all work by determining which
of the two characters comes first in the collating sequence (that is,
which one has the lower collating-sequence number).
The Scheme specification requires that if you compare two capital
letters to each other or two lower-case letters to each other, you'll
get standard alphabetical order:
(char<? #\A #\Z)
must be true, for instance. If you compare a capital letter with a
lower-case letter, though, the result depends on the design of the
character set. In ASCII, every capital letter (even
precedes every lower-case letter (even
if you compare two digit characters, the specification guarantees that
the results will be consistent with numerical order:
#\1, which precedes
#\2, and so on.
But if you compare a digit with a letter, or anything with a punctuation
mark, the results depend on the character set.
Because there are many applications in which it is helpful to ignore the
distinction between a capital letter and its lower-case equivalent in
comparisons, Scheme also provides case-insensitive
versions of the comparison procedures:
These procedures essentially convert all letters to the same case
before comparing them.
There are also two procedures for converting case,
If its argument is a lower-case letter,
returns the corresponding capital letter; otherwise, it returns
the argument unchanged. If its argument is a capital letter,
char-downcase returns the corresponding lower-case letter;
otherwise, it returns the argument unchanged.
Scheme provides several one-argument predicates that apply to characters:
char-alphabetic?determines whether its argument is a letter (
#\Z, in English).
char-numeric?determines whether its argument is a digit character (
#\9in our standard base-ten numbering system).
char-whitespace?determines whether its argument is a “whitespace character”, one that is conventionally stored in a text file primarily to position text legibly. In ASCII, the whitespace characters are the space character and four specific control characters: <Control/I> (tab), <Control/J> (line feed), <Control/L> (form feed), and <Control/M> (carriage return). On most systems,
#\newlineis a whitespace character. On our Linux systems,
#\newlineis the same as <Control/J> and so counts as a whitespace character.
char-upper-case?determines whether its argument is a capital letter.
char-lower-case?determines whether its argument is a lower-case letter.
It may seem that it's easy to implement some of these operations. For
example, you might want to implement
char-alphabetic? using a strategy
something like the following.
A character is alphabetic if it is between
However, that implementation is not necessarily correct for all versions of Scheme: Since the Scheme specification does not guarantee that the letters are collated without gaps, it's possible that this algorithm treats some non-letters as letters. The alternative, comparing to each valid letter in turn, seems inefficient. By making this procedure built-in, the designers of Scheme have encouraged programmers to rely on a correct (and, presumably, efficient) implementation.
Note that all of these predicates assume that their parameter is a character. Hence, if you don't know the type of a parameter, you will need to first ensure that it is a character. For example,
(char-lower-case? 23)char-lower-case?: expects argument of type <character>; given 23 Interactions:1:0: (char-lower-case? (quote 23))
(and (char? 23) (char-lower-case? 23))
(define lower-case-char? (lambda (x) (and (char? x) (char-lower-case? x))))
As you've just learned, characters provide the basic building blocks of the things we might call “texts”. What do we do with characters? We combine them into strings.
A string is a sequence of zero or more characters. Most strings
can be named by enclosing the characters they contain between
plain double quotation marks, to produce a string
literal. For instance,
"periwinkle" is the
nine-character string consisting of the characters
#\e, in that order. Similarly,
is the zero-character string (the null string
or the empty string).
String literals may contain spaces and newline characters; when such
characters are between double quotation marks, they are treated like any
other characters in the string. There is a slight problem when one wants
to put a double quotation mark into a string literal: To indicate that the
double quotation mark is part of the string (rather than marking the end of
the string), one must place a backslash character immediately in front of
it. For instance,
"Say \"hi\"" is the eight-character
string consisting of the characters
#\", in that order. The backslash
before a double quotation mark in a string literal is an
character, present only to indicate that the character immediately
following it is part of the string.
This use of the backslash character causes yet another slight problem:
What if one wants to put a backslash into a string? The solution is similar:
Place another backslash character immediately in front of it. For instance,
"a\\b" is the three-character string consisting of the
that order. The first backslash in the string literal is an escape, and
the second is the character that it protects, the one that is part of the
Scheme provides several basic procedures for working with strings:
predicate determines whether its argument is or is not a string.
( procedure constructs and returns
a string that consists of
count repetitions of
a single character. Its first argument indicates how long the string
should be, and the second argument specifies which character it should
be made of. For instance, the following code constructs and returns
(make-string 5 #\a)
( procedure takes any number of
characters as arguments and constructs and returns a string consisting
of exactly those characters. For instance,
(string #\H #\i
#\!) constructs and returns the string
This procedure can be useful for building strings with quotes.
(string #\" #\") produces
(Isn't that ugly?)
( procedure converts a string into a
list of characters. The
( procedure converts
a list of characters into a string. It is invalid to call
list->string on a non-list or on a list that
contains values other than characters.
(#\H #\e #\l #\l #\o)
(list->string (list #\a #\b #\c))
(list->string (list 'a 'b))list->string: expects argument of type <list of character>; given (a b) Interactions:1:0: (list->string (list (quote a) (quote b)))
( procedure takes any string
as argument and returns the number of characters in that string.
For instance, the value of
is 8 and the value of
(string-length "a\\b") is 3.
( procedure is used to
select the character at a specified position within a string.
zero-based indexing; the position is specified
by the number of characters that precede it in the string. (So the
initial character in the string is at position 0, the next at position
1, and so on.) For instance, the value of
#\p -- the character that follows four other
characters and so is at position 4 in zero-based indexing.
Strings can be compared for “lexicographic order”, the
extension of alphabetical order that is derived from the collating
sequence of the local character set. Once more, Scheme provides both
case-sensitive and case-insensitive versions of these predicates:
string>? are the case-sensitive
string-ci>? the case-insensitive ones.
procedure takes three arguments. The first is a string and the second
and third are non-negative integers not exceeding the length of that
substring procedure returns the
part of its first argument that starts after the number of characters
specified by the second argument and ends after the number of characters
specified by the third argument. For instance:
"hypocycloid" 3 8) returns the substring
-- the substring that starts after the initial
and ends after the eighth character, the
l. (If you
think of the characters in a string as being numbered starting
substring takes the characters from
end - 1.)
procedure takes any number of
strings as arguments and returns a string formed by concatenating those
(string-append "al" "fal" "fa")
( procedure takes any Scheme number
as its argument and returns a string that denotes the number.
( procedure provides the inverse
operation. Given a string that represents a number, it returns the
corresponding number. On some implementations of Scheme, when you
string->number an inappropriate input, it
returns the value
#f (which represents “no”
or “false”). You are then responsible for checking the
(string->number "3 + 4i")
When a character is stored in a computer, it must be represented as a
sequence of bits (“binary digits”,
that is, zeroes and ones). However, the choice of a particular bit
sequence to represent a particular character is more or less arbitrary.
In the early days of computing, each equipment manufacturer developed one
or more “character codes” of its own, so that, for example,
the capital letter A was represented by the sequence
on an IBM 1401 computer, by
000001 on a Control Data 6600, by
11000001 on an IBM 360, and so on. This made it troublesome
to transfer character data from one computer to another, since it was
necessary to convert each character from the source machine's encoding
to the target machine's encoding. The difficulty was compounded by the
fact that different manufacturers supported different characters; all
provided the twenty-six capital letters used in writing English and the
ten digits used in writing Arabic numerals, but there was much variation
in the selection of mathematical symbols, punctuation marks, etc.
In 1963, a number of manufacturers agreed to use the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII), which is currently the most common and widely used character code. It includes representations for ninety-four characters selected from American and Western European text, commercial, and technical scripts: the twenty-six English letters in both upper and lower case, the ten digits, and a miscellaneous selection of punctuation marks, mathematical symbols, commercial symbols, and diacritical marks. (These ninety-four characters are the ones that can be generated by using the forty-seven lighter-colored keys in the typewriter-like part of a MathLAN workstation's keyboard, with or without the simultaneous use of the <Shift> key.) ASCII also reserves a bit sequence for a “space” character, and thirty-three bit sequences for so-called control characters, which have various implementation-dependent effects on printing and display devices -- the “newline” character that drops the cursor or printing head to the next line, the “bell” or “alert” character that causes the workstation to beep briefly, and such.
In ASCII, each character or control character is represented by a sequence of exactly seven bits, and every sequence of seven bits represents a different character or control character. There are therefore 27 (that is, 128) ASCII characters altogether.
Over the last quarter-century, non-English-speaking computer users have grown increasingly impatient with the fact that ASCII does not provide many of the characters that are essential in writing other languages. A more recently devised character code, the Unicode Worldwide Character Standard, currently defines bit sequences for 49194 characters for the Arabic, Armenian, Bengali, Bopomofo, Canadian Syllabics, Cherokee, Cyrillic, Devanagari, Ethiopic, Georgian, Greek, Gujarati, Gurmukhi, Han, Hangul, Hebrew, Hiragana, Kannada, Katakana, Khmer, Latin, Lao, Malayalam, Mongolian, Myanmar, Ogham, Oriya, Runic, Sinhala, Tamil, Telugu, Thaana, Thai, Tibetan, and Yi writing systems, as well as a large number of miscellaneous numerical, mathematical, musical, astronomical, religious, technical, and printers' symbols, components of diagrams, and geometric shapes.
Unicode uses a sequence of sixteen bits for each character, allowing for 216 (that is, 65536) codes altogether. Many bit sequences are still unassigned and may, in future versions of Unicode, be allocated for some of the numerous writing systems that are not yet supported. The designers have completed work on the Deseret, Etruscan, and Gothic writing systems, although they have not yet been added to the Unicode standard. Characters for the Shavian, Linear B, Cypriot, Tagalog, Hanunoo, Buhid, Tagbanwa, Cham, Tai, Glagolitic, Coptic, Buginese, Old Hungarian Runic, Phoenician, Avenstan, Tifinagh, Javanese, Rong, Egyptian Hieroglyphic, Meroitic, Old Persian Cuneiform, Ugaritic Cuneiform, Tengwar, Cirth, tlhIngan Hol (that is, “Klingon”; can you tell that CS folks are geeks, even CS folks who work on international standards?), Brahmi, Old Permic, Sinaitic, South Arabian, Pollard, Blissymbolics, and Soyombo writing systems are under consideration or in preparation.
Although some local Scheme implementations use and presuppose the ASCII character set, the Scheme language does not require this, and Scheme programmers should try to write their programs in such a way that they could easily be adapted for use with other character sets (particularly Unicode). In fact, MediaScript supports Unicode.
#\a(lowercase a) ...
#\A(uppercase A) ...
Copyright (c) 2007-9 Janet Davis, Matthew Kluber, Samuel A. Rebelsky, and Jerod Weinman. (Selected materials copyright by John David Stone and Henry Walker and used by permission.)
This material is based upon work partially supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. CCLI-0633090. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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