ASCII-Centrism

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If you’re reading this, I presume you know what ASCII is, but if not, it’s the letter-to-number mapping commonly used in American programming to display our alphabet, punctuation, and some other characters. It’s one of the earliest character encodings (it’s designed to drive typewriters, back when those were the interface used for computing) and won out over EBCDIC as the standard encoding used … in America.

This was fine when 7 bits was enough for anybody and we had neither the fonts nor the inclination to draw more symbols than could fit on a keyboard.

This is not an article about how we finally moved beyond ASCII (the short version is: the Unicode Consortium is defining a single table whose goal is to map all characters in all writing systems to numbers called code points, and the UTF-8 encoding is the One True Way to implement this; stop using other things, Windows); I just wanted to provide some backstory.

So when C, one of the ancestors of basically all modern programming, was being built, it was written with ASCII being the only serious encoding around, which was fine, at the time. It was written in America, by and for Americans, and ASCII has American right in the name. C adopted sigil conventions from its own immediate ancestor, BCPL, popularizing the use of English’s many different grouping characters – (), [], {}, <>, ', " – for different semantic meanings that have continued essentially unchanged in C’s descendants today.

This is good; using words such as begin/end to denote blocks instead of {} is a recipe for disaster, and it permits complex arrangements to be made with minimal line noise.

This is all well and good, until we look at strings. I take many, many issues with C strings and will complain at length about them some other time; for now I just want to talk about how text is placed in a source file.

In C, the single quote ' (U+0027) surrounds a single character. In C’s ASCII, this is equivalent to a signed, 8-bit, integer. The values 'A' and 65 are identical. Single quotes permitted working with text as numbers with no special weirdness in place. The double quote " (U+0022) surrounded “C strings”, which are actually arrays of ASCII numbers with a zero byte secretly slapped on the end. This leads to fun confusion where 'A' is of type char (8 bits wide) and has the value 65, whereas "A" is a pointer (as wide as your CPU) of type char* and has some value pointing into the compilation output, and at the end of the pointer is the sequence [65, 0].

The distinction between single and double quotes is essentially just a language quirk that one must learn as part of learning the language; I’m not here to complain about that either.

Look at the quotation marks I’m using in my normal text. Rather than using straight single quotes “'” and double quotes ‘"’, I am using the paired, fancy, curved quotation marks one sees in word processors.

If you’ve ever tried to copy code samples between a programming environment and a word processor, you’ve no doubt run into errors when the parser reached the fancy, non-ASCII, not-part-of-the-grammar, quotation marks.

Programming is a world-wide, supposedly modern, phenomenon, yet in many ways we’re still hobbled by past assumptions and restrictions. Only recently have languages branched out from ASCII in their grammar (the iconic example being “emoji as valid identifiers” in Swift and other Unicode-aware parsers) and process (for example, Rust mandates that all source files and String values are UTF-8), yet the grammars have not expanded similarly.

We can now declare variables such as résumé or 😭, but we still can only wrap text in ' and ". Non-English Latin languages use accented characters, which are only recently not compiler errors; non-Western scripts such as Arabic or Chinese are even less supported: consider the language Qalb, which contains no English text in its grammar, has the GitHub URL https://github.com/nasser/---, and still uses ASCII quotes for string literals.

English isn’t the only language with quotation marks that aren’t valid syntax, however. French uses « and » as its double quotes, and ‹ and › as its single quotes. There are more, and more esoteric, quotation marks that can be found on Wikipedia, but I don’t know much about them and would prefer to avoid putting my foot in my mouth over them.

This isn’t 1970. The English character set is more than 128 characters, and the world has more character sets in it than just English.

It’s past time to move beyond ASCII as an encoding, and UTF-8 is making excellent progress at supplanting it. It’s also time to move beyond ASCII as an alphabet.

Permit using ‘’ “” ‹› «» as quotation marks in syntax grammars. That’s what they mean (and to make parsing easier, there’s even a Unicode character property “Quotation_Mark” that groups all, not just these, marks for easy and future-proof processing). There will be fewer problems moving text between word and code processors. There will be fewer international quirks for people and text that aren’t a subset of English. There might even be benefits for those of us who are: imagine being able to use specific quotation marks to control string interpolation instead of the hacks currently present, such as @{}, #{}, $(), $<>, and all the other permutations that are essentially just Frankeinstein abuses of unused sigils and ASCII-acceptable paired group markers. Or imagine not having the name Robert '); DROP TABLE Students; -- ruin your life because code and data mixed too freely.

Written language is a big place. Let’s not restrict ourselves to one small part of it simply because of accidents of history. The world is bigger than the US. The languages available are bigger than ASCII. They shouldn’t be kept as second-class citizens in our tools just because the ancestors of computing didn’t think of them.