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The Updated Guide to Unicode on Python

posted Jul 11, 2013, 11:39 AM by Le Tuan Anh   [ updated Jul 11, 2013, 11:39 AM ]

Cached version of a nice article I have found about Python and Unicode.

I figured that it might be the right time to do an updated introduction to unicode in Python. Primarily because the unicode chapter got a whole lot of new confusing chapters on Python 3 that a developer needs to know.

Let's start first with how unicode worked on Python 2.

Unicode on Python 2

Unicode on Python 2 is a fairly simple thing. There are two types of string literals: bytestrings (look like this on 2.x: 'foo') and unicode strings (which have a leading u prefix like this: u'foo'). Since 2.6 you can also be explicit about bytestrings and write them with a leading b prefix like this: b'foo'.

Python 2's biggest problem with unicode was that some APIs did not support it. The most common ones were many filesystem operations, the datetime module, the csv reader and quite a few interpreter internals. In addition to that a few APIs only ever worked with non unicode strings or caused a lot of confusion if you introducted unicode. For instance docstrings break some tools if they are unicode instead of bytestrings, the return value of __repr__ must only ever be bytes and not unicode strings etc.

Aside from that Python had one feature that usually confused developers: a byte string for as long as it only contained ASCII characters could be upgraded to a unicode string implicitly. If however it was not ASCII safe it would have caused some form of UnicodeError. Either a UnicodeEncodeErrroror a UnicodeDecodeError depending on when it failed.

Because of all that the rule of thumb on 2.x was this:

  • the first time you know your encoding properly decode from bytes into unicode.
  • when it's most convenient for you and you know the target encoding, encode back to bytes.
  • internally feel free to use bytes literals for as long as they are restricted to the ascii subset.

This worked really well for many 2.x libraries. On Flask for instance you will only encounter unicode issues if you try to pass byte string literals with non ascii characters to the templates or if you try to use Flask with APIs that do not support unicode. Aside from that it takes a lot of work to create a unicode error.

This is accomplished because the whole WSGI layer is byte based and the whole Flask layer is unicode based (for text). As such Flask just does the encoding when it transfers from WSGI over to Flask. Likewise the return value is inspected and if the return type is unicode it will automatically encode it before handling data back to the WSGI layer.

Basic Unicode on Python 3

On Python 3 two things happened that make unicode a whole lot more complicated. The biggest one is that the bytestring was removed. It was replaced with an object called bytes which is created by the Python 3 bytes syntax: b'foo'. It might look like a string at first, but it's not. Unfortunately it does not share much of the API with strings.

The following code example shows that the bytes object is very different of the string object indeed:

>>> 'key=%s' % 'value'
>>> 'key=%s' % b'value'
>>> b'key=%s' % b'value'
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: unsupported operand type(s) for %: 'bytes' and 'bytes'
>>> str(10)
>>> bytes(10)
>>> list('foo')
['f', 'o', 'o']
>>> list(b'foo')
[102, 111, 111]
>>> 'foo' == b'foo'

One could argue that that's fine, because you will no longer mix bytes and unicode, but unfortunately that's not the case. The reason for this is that a whole bunch of APIs work on bytes and unicode strings interchangeably. For instance all the file system APIs operate on both unicode and bytes:

>>> os.listdir('/tmp/test')
>>> os.listdir(b'/tmp/test')

That might not seem like a big deal at first, but APIs have the attitude of spreading further. For instance opening a file will set the name attribute to a “string” of that type:

>>> open(b'/tmp/test/Schei\xc3\x9f_Encoding').name

As a result every user of the .name attribute will have to force it to the right type before interacting with it. The same thing also has been true on 2.x, however on 3.x this behavior is mostly undocumented.

It's not just file operations, it also happens on other APIs like the urllib parsing module which can produce both bytes and unicode strings:

>>> x.parse_qs(b'foo=bar')
{b'foo': [b'bar']}
>>> x.parse_qs('foo=bar')
{'foo': ['bar']}

Magic Defaults in 3.x

Python 3 unfortunately made a choice of guessing a little bit too much with unicode in some places. When I asked the question at one conference before about what people believe the default encoding for text files on Python 3 was, most were replying UTF-8. This is correct on some operating systems. It's definitely true for OS X and it's true for most linux distributions I tried. However how does Python determine that encoding? The answer is by looking into the locale settings in the environment variables.

Unfortunately those break very quickly. A good example for instance is SSH'ing from a german locale into a US linux box that does not support the german locale. Linux will then attempt to set the locale and fails, and default to C which is ASCII. Python then very happily opens a file in ASCII mode. Here is the logic that Python applies to guessing the default encoding on files:

  1. it first starts out finding the device the file is located on and will try to get the encoding from that device. This function currently only ever does something for terminals. As far as I know this only ever does something really interesting on windows where it might return a codepage (which totally is not unicode, but that's expected).
  2. The same function that finds out the device encoding might also call nl_langinfo(CODESET)which returns the current encoding that the locale system is aware of. Traditionally the locale support was not initialized on the Python interpreter but it definitely gets initialized somewhere. This call is also the one that can fail when a locale is not available but set (SSH example from above).
  3. If for whatever reason device_encoding does not return anything (for instance because the device was not a terminal) it will try to import the locale module (which BTW is written in Python, always interesting to see when the stuff written in C imports a Python module) and call into the locale.getpreferredencoding function and use the return value of that.

Because it does not set the locale there it basically only calls into nl_langinfo(CODESET) again. Because that call sometimes fails on OS X it converts the return value for OS X into utf-8 if it does not get a useful result otherwise.

I am not a fan of that behavior and I strongly recommend explicitly passing the encoding of text files as third parameter. That's how we did it on 2.x and that's also how I recommend doing it on Python 3. I really wish the default encoding was changed to utf-8 in all cases except for terminal devices and maybe have some encoding='auto' flag that guesses.

I failed installing a package on python 3 a while ago because a contributor name was containing a non ASCII name and the file was opening the README file for the docstring. Worked fine on OS X and normal Linux, but broke hard when I SSH'ed into my Linux box from an Austrian OS X. I am not sure how many people run into that (I assume not a lot) but it's annoying when it happens and there is literally nothing that guarantees that a file opened in text mode and without a defined encoding is UTF-8. So do the world a favor and open text files like this:

with open(filename, 'r', encoding='utf-8') as f:

Different Types of Unicode Strings

In addition to regular unicode strings, on Python 3 you have to deal with two additional types of unicode strings. The reason for this is that a library (or the Python interpreter) does not have enough knowledge about the encoding so it has to apply some tricks. Where in Python 2.x we made a string stick to being bytes in that case, on Python 3 there are two more choices you have. These strings don't have proper names and look like regular unicode strings, so I am going to give them names for the sake of the argument. Let's call the regular unicode string a “text” string. Each character in that string is correctly internally represented and no surprises are to be expected.

In addition to that there are strings I would call “transport decoded” strings. Those strings are used in a few places. The most common case where you are dealing with those strings is the WSGI protocol and most things that interface with HTTP. WSGI declares that strings in the WSGI environment are represented as incorrectly decoded latin1 strings. In other words what happens is that all unicode strings in the Python 3 WSGI environment are actually incorrectly encoded for any codepoint above ASCII. In order to properly decode that strings you will need to encode the string back to latin 1 and decode from the intended encoding. Werkzeug internally refers to such strings as “dance encoded” strings. The following logic has to be applied to properly re-decode them to the actual character set:

def wsgi_decoding_dance(s, charset='utf-8', errors='replace'):
    return s.encode('latin1').decode(charset, errors)

def wsgi_encoding_dance(s, charset='utf-8', errors='replace'):
    if isinstance(s, bytes):
        return s.decode('latin1', errors)
    return s.encode(charset).decode('latin1', errors)

This logic is not just required for WSGI however, the same requirement comes up for any MIME and HTTP header. Theoretically it's not a problem for these headers because they are limited to latin1 out of the box and use explicit encoding information if a string does not fit into latin1. Unfortunately in practical terms it's not uncommon for certain headers to be utf-8 encoded. This is incredibly common with custom headers emitted by applications as well as the cookie headers if the cookie header is set via JavaScript as the browser API does not provide automatic encoding.

The second string type that is common on Python 3 is the “surrogate escaped string”. These are unicode strings that cannot be encoded to an unicode encoding because they are actually invalid. These strings are created by APIs that think an encoding is a specific one but cannot guarantee it because the underlying system does not fully enforce that. This functionality is provided by the'surrogateescape' error handler:

>>> letter = '\N{LATIN CAPITAL LETTER U WITH DIAERESIS}'.encode('latin1')
>>> decoded_letter = letter.decode('utf-8', 'surrogateescape')
>>> decoded_letter

This is for instance happening for os.environ as well as all the unicode based filesystem functions. If you try to encode such a string to utf-8 for instance you will receive an UnicodeEncodeError:

>>> decoded_letter.encode('utf-8')
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
UnicodeEncodeError: 'utf-8' codec can't encode character
  '\udcdc' in position 0: surrogates not allowed

To solve this problem you need to encode such strings with the encoding error handling set to'surrogateescape'. As an extension this means that strings received from functions that might carry surrogates need to be resolved before passed to APIs not dealing with such strings.

This primarily means that you have two options: change all your encode() errorhandling anywhere in your codebase from 'strict' (which is the default) to 'surrogateescape' or remove surrogates from your strings. The easiest form I believe is going through a encode/decode dance. I believe that currently that's also the only simple way to check if something was indeed surrogate escaped.

My suggestion is that every time you deal with an API that might produce surrogate escaped strings (os.environ etc.) you should just do a basic check if the value is surrogate escaped and raise an error (or remove the surrogate escaping and call it a day). But don't forward those strings onwards as it will make it very painful to figure out what's wrong later.

If you for instance pass such a string to a template engine you will get an error somewhere else entirely and because the encoding happens at a much later stage you no longer know why the string was incorrect. If you detect that error when it happens the issue becomes much easier to debug (basically restores 2.x behavior).

These functions might be useful:

def remove_surrogate_escaping(s, method='ignore'):
    assert method in ('ignore', 'replace'), 'invalid removal method'
    return s.encode('utf-8', method).decode('utf-8')

def is_surrogate_escaped(s):
    except UnicodeEncodeError as e:
        if e.reason == 'surrogates not allowed':
            return True
    return False

Both “transport decoded” and “surrogate escaped” strings are the same type as regular strings so the best way to keep them apart is memorize where they come from. In Werkzeug I wrote helper functions that fetch the strings from their container (WSGI environ) and immediately decode them so that a user never has to deal with the low level details.

The following interfaces produce some of those strings:

APIString Type
os.environsurrogate escaped
os.listdirsurrogate escaped
WSGI environtransport decoded (latin1)
HTTP/MIME headerstransport decoded (latin1)
email text payloadsurrogate escaped
nntplib all datasurrogate escaped
os.exec* functionssurrogate escaped (except on windows)
subprocess environsurrogate escaped (except on windows)
subprocess argumentssurrogate escaped (except on windows)

There are also some special cases in the stdlib where strings are very confusing. Thecgi.FieldStorage module which WSGI applications are sometimes still using for form data parsing is now treating QUERY_STRING as surrogate escaping, but instead of using utf-8 as charset for the URLs (as browsers) it treats it as the encoding returned by locale.getpreferredencoding(). I have no idea why it would do that, but it's incorrect. As workaround I recommend not usingcgi.FieldStorage for query string parsing.

Unfortunately the docs generally are very quiet about where they are using surrogate escaping or not. Generally the best way is to look at the source currently.

Detecting Errors

On Python 2.x detecting misuse of Unicode was quite simple. Generally if you did dodgy things you got some form of UnicodeError or UnicodeWarning. Usually you either got a fatal UnicodeEncodeErroror UnicodeDecodeError or you got logged a UnicodeWarning. The latter for instance happened when comparing bytes and unicode where the bytes could not be decoded from ASCII. On Python 3 the situation looks very different unfortunately.

  • AttributeError: this usually happens if you try to use a string only API on a bytes object. Usually this happens for calls to casefold(), encode(), or format().
  • TypeError: this can happen for a variety of different reasons. The most common one is string formatting which does not work on bytes. If you try to do foo % bar and foo turns out to be a bytes object you will get a TypeError. Another form of this is that something iterates over a string and expects a one-character string to be returned but actually an integer is produced.
  • UnicodeEncodeError: usually happens now due to surrogate escaping problems when you're not using the 'surrogateescape' error handler on encoding strings or forget to remove surrogates from strings.
  • garbled unicode: happens if you're not dealing with transport decoded strings properly. This usually happens with WSGI. The best to catch this is to never expose WSGI strings directly and always go through an extra level of indirection. That way you don't accidentally mix unicode strings of different types.
  • no error: that happens for instance when you compare bytes and strings and the comparison will just return False without giving a warning. This can be remedied by running the Python interpreter with the -b flag which will emit warnings for bytes and text comparisons.
  • running out of memory / huge strings: this happens when you try to pass a large integer to thebytes() constructor. I have seen this happen a few times when porting to Python 3 where the pattern was a form of “if object not an instance of bytes, call bytes() on it”. This is dangerous because integers are valid input values to the bytes() constructor that will allocate as many null bytes as the integer passed. The recommendation there is to stop using that pattern and write a soft_bytes function that catches integer parameters before passing it to bytes.

Writing Unicode/Bytes Combination APIs

Because there are so many cases where an API can return both bytes or unicode strings depending on where they come from, new patterns need to be created. In Python 2 that problem solved itself because bytestrings were promoted to unicode strings automatically. On Python 3 that is no longer the case which makes it much harder to implement with APIs that do both.

Werkzeug and Flask use the following helpers to provide (or work with) APIs that deal with both strings and bytes:

def normalize_string_tuple(tup):
    """Ensures that all types in the tuple are either strings
    or bytes.
    tupiter = iter(tup)
    is_text = isinstance(next(tupiter, None), str)
    for arg in tupiter:
        if isinstance(arg, str) != is_text:
            raise TypeError('Cannot mix str and bytes arguments (got %s)'
                % repr(tup))
    return tup

def make_literal_wrapper(reference):
    """Given a reference string it returns a function that can be
    used to wrap ASCII native-string literals to coerce it to the
    given string type.
    if isinstance(reference, str):
        return lambda x: x
    return lambda x: x.encode('ascii')

These functions together go quite far to make APIs work for both strings and bytes. For instance this is how URL joining works in Werkzeug which is enabled by the normalize_string_tuple andmake_literal_wrapper helpers:

def url_unparse(components):
    scheme, netloc, path, query, fragment = \
    s = make_literal_wrapper(scheme)
    url = s('')
    if netloc or (scheme and path.startswith(s('/'))):
        if path and path[:1] != s('/'):
            path = s('/') + path
        url = s('//') + (netloc or s('')) + path
    elif path:
        url += path
    if scheme:
        url = scheme + s(':') + url
    if query:
        url = url + s('?') + query
    if fragment:
        url = url + s('#') + fragment
    return url

This way the function only needs to be written once for handling both bytes and strings which is in my mind a nicer solution than what the standard library does which is implementing every function twice which means a lot of copy/pasting.

Another problem is wrapping file objects in Python 3 because they now only support either texts or bytes but there is no documented interface to figure out what they accept. Flask uses the following workaround:

def is_text_reader(s):
    """Given a file object open for reading this function checks if
    the reader is text based.
    return type( is str

def is_bytes_reader(s):
    """Given a file object open for reading this function checks if
    the reader is bytes based.
    return type( is bytes

def is_text_writer(s):
    """Given a file object open for writing this function checks if
    the reader is text based.
        return True
    except TypeError:
        return False

def is_bytes_writer(s):
    """Given a file object open for writing this function checks if
    the reader is bytes based.
        return True
    except TypeError:
        return False

For instance Flask uses this to make JSON work with both text and bytes again similar to how it worked in 2.x:

import io
import json as _json

def load(fp, **kwargs):
    encoding = kwargs.pop('encoding', None) or 'utf-8'
    if is_bytes_reader(fp):
        fp = io.TextIOWrapper(io.BufferedReader(fp), encoding)
    return _json.load(fp, **kwargs)

def dump(obj, fp, **kwargs):
    encoding = kwargs.pop('encoding', None)
    if encoding is not None is_bytes_reader(fp):
        fp = io.TextIOWrapper(fp, encoding)
    _json.dump(obj, fp, **kwargs)

Unicode is Hard

Unicode is still hard, and in my experience it's not much easier on 3.x than it was on 2.x. While the transition forced me to make some APIs work better with unicode (and now more correct) I still had to add a lot of extra code that was not necessary on Python 2. If someone does another dynamic language in the future I believe the correct solution would have been this:

  1. take the approach of Python 2.x and allow mixing of bytes and unicode strings.
  2. Make 'foo' mean unicode strings and b'foo' mean byte strings.
  3. Make byte strings have an encoding attribute that defaults to ASCII
  4. Add a method to replace the encoding information (eg:b'foo'.replace_encoding_hint('latin1')
  5. When comparing strings and bytes use the encoding hint instead of the ASCII default (or more correct system default encoding which for better or worse was always ASCII).
  6. Have a separate bytes type that works exactly like strings that is not hashable and cannot carry encoding information and generally just barks when trying to convert it to strings. That way you can tag true binary data which can be useful sometimes (for instance for serialization interfaces).

If someone wants to see how much complexity the new unicode support in Python 3 caused have a look at the code of the os module on 3.x, the internal io module file operation utilities and things likeurllib.parse.

On the bright side: nothing changes much for high level users of Python. I think Flask provides for instance a painless experience for unicode on both 2.x and 3.x. Users are almost entirely shielded from the complexities of unicode handling. The higher level the API, the fewer does encoding play a role in it.