Version 57 of Tcl Minimal Escaping Style

Updated 2015-05-19 15:49:10 by pooryorick

A minimal Tcl escaping style is a code style that eschews unnecessary Tcl escaping syntax.


In some languages such as C, Javascript, Lisp, and Python, double quotes indicate a certain type of value: a string. In Tcl all values are already strings, so double quotes do not have that function. Instead, they provide an environment in which whitespace characters are ordinary characters rather than word delimiters. Braces do the same, but additionally inhibit the standard substitutions. It's technically possible to use backslash substitution to accomplish the same thing that quotes or braces do, but in all non-trivial cases this results in unreadable scripts.

A lot of Tcl code that one encounters employs double quotes even when not strictly necessary. Sometimes this is done to make a text editor highlight those values; other times to make Tcl seem more like C or a Unix shell. Such usage can be confusing to the beginner who is trying to understand the intended use of double quotes, braces, and backslash substitution. Furthermore, the use of these characters can at times have a performance impact that the beginner may find subtle and surprising.

The minimal Tcl escaping style presented on this page results in Tcl code that only employs Tcl escape environments where semantically necessary, resulting in code that naturally avoids the pitfalls of extraneous escaping.

Here are the rules of the minimal escaping style:

Don't use braces where no backslash substitutions are otherwise needed.
Don't use quotes where braces could be used.

That's it. If your code follows this style, you can avoid potential performance issues like "[unintended shimmering]", as well as whatever miniscule performance improvement that comes from minimizing double quote processing by the Tcl interpreter. This minimal style also "scales" better as one moves into more complex forms of Tcl scripting such as code generation. Best of all , beginners will be able to learn by reading your code when braces and quotes are actually needed. It also helps to disabuse them of that all-to-common misunderstanding that braces mean "list".

For example, if a value contains whitespace and also substitutions , quotes would be the way to go, since braces would over-escape the value, preventing the substitutions from occurring.

MS dons his evil hat and remarks: in that case, really minimal style could be without quotes or braces, just backslash-escape the whitespaces! Of course, it depends on how you define minimal ...

PYK 2015-04-30: Except that braces and quotes were presumably introduced into the language specifically to alleviate backslash pain. This minimal escaping style merely advocates using them only for their respective intended purposes. Note that the minimal escaping style says nothing about backslash escaping, which is always fair game!


The above discussion might imply that this style is widely accepted or endorsed. As discussion on the Tcl Chatroom has revealed, it is not. Cursory examination of the majority of code on this wiki, or published in tcllib and elsewhere shows the same. A few reasons to use a less grammar-bound style of quoting:

  • syntax highlighting and "type" identification. Writing strings quoted with "" generally causes editors to highlight them differently, and conveys to the reader that the value is intended to be treated as a string. The visual cues make code easier to read on the wiki, in an editor or printed on paper.
  • it's arguably more common to make a change like "Hello, world!" -> "Hello, $whom!". Not having to change delimiters makes such changes easier and less bug-prone.
  • proc foo {a} {...} is another case where leaving out the first set of {} just makes later edits more cumbersome.

These points can be summarised in the famous Abelson and Sussman quote: "Programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute." Optimise for the human reader, not the mechanical parser.

aspect can see the minimal escaping style as a useful pedagogical device for users who haven't yet internalised the dodekalogue, but finds its use elsewhere rather bizarre. Changing existing examples to this style without specific justification for that example seems gratuitous and potentially harmful.

This might be a good place to collect other examples of divergent coding styles .. Heronian triangles uses some short definitions to make equations work with minimal punctuation, at the cost of performance and safety.

PYK 2015-05-17: Wouldn't the proper solution here be to fix your editor's Tcl syntax highlighting algorithms, rather than to change your coding style just for the sake of an editor that "doesn't get it?" The problem with the "convey to the reader that the value is intended to be treated as a string" idea is that in Tcl every value is intended to be treated as a string. I don't think this "type identification" idea holds any water at all. Rather, it obfuscates the nature of Tcl. If I ever looked at a piece of Tcl code and thought, "oh, this value is enclosed in quotes -- now I know it's going to be used as a string", it was back before I really grokked Tcl. Instead, to understand what's happening in any given command, I look at the command name, the value itself, and its position. I'd love to see some examples where double quotes actually add to a Tcl script the kind of value you're talking about. I suspect that any such examples that are brought up would be just as easily distinguished as strings if they were enclosed in braces, and that those who prefer quotes are just carrying habits over from other languages they work in. I agree that the minimal style isn't strictly adhered to nearly as widely as it should be, and that as more Tclers become more vigilant about it, there will be a corresponding increase in the speed at which newcomers grasp the nuances of the rules of Tcl.

APN 2015-05-18: Without getting into issues of what I term stylistic opinions, I'll just point out that recommendations for using unquoted barewords are incomplete without a discussion of expr. I also don't understand the "unintended shimmering" comment. Either you want substitutions in which case use quotes, or you do not, in which case use braces. Shimmering and performance is a red herring. If the quoted and braced contents result in identical strings, internal reps will be identical.

PYK: 2015-05-18: For expressions, Rule one is not triggered, as it depends on backslash substitution being necessary, but backslash is an invalid character in an expression. Rule 2, however, may apply. To conform to the minimal escaping style,

expr {$mystring eq "hello, world"}

would instead be:

expr {$mystring eq {hello, world}}

I see what you mean about the "[unintended shimmering]" bit. I thought there were cases where that would cause a string representation to be generated, but I can't find any such cases in the current release of Tcl.

The performance impact of the extra work that the Tcl interpreter goes through to scan a string in double quotes for substitutions is indeed usually (always?) nominal, but worth mentioning for the sake of completeness. As you said, it's a red herring.

APN Re. expr, I'm talking about the need for quotes. expr {$mystring eq hello} will raise an error. hello needs to be "hello".

PYK: expr {$mystring eq {hello}} also works.


EMJ (2015-04-22) Re "Sometimes this is done..." near the beginning: it might be done to clarify the purpose of a string, or with an eye on a future change (and so is about program maintainability). And I just don't believe the "seem more like C" bit.

PYK 2015-04-30: Anyone who thinks they can improve this page is free to dive in and rewrite it wholesale as far as I'm concerned....

EMJ (2015-04-22) No they can't, you'll put their name on the rewrites and try to turn them into another bit of your own private but global edit war!

PYK 2015-04-30: I added your name to your comments because they were in discussion format, expressing a different opinion. In that case, the speakers need to be labeled so the reader can understand that it's different people talking. If you don't want to attribute yourself, you could always defer to anonymous coward or something. In any case, other readers already aren't going to understand what we're discussing here because the page has already taken on another form. That's cool. It'll just need some cleanup later.

RS 2015-05-13: Some exceptions:

  • semicolons must be quoted/braced if not used as statement separators:
set x [split $y ";"]
  • small characters are better visible if redundantly quoted/braced: e.g. "."

PYK 2015-05-13: To conform to the minimal escaping style, that would either be

set x [split $y \;]


set x [split $y {;}]

The idea behind the minimal escaping style is specifically to not use braces quotes or backslash for side purposes such as increasing visibility of characters, appeasing syntax highlighters, or posing as another language. To be justified under the minimal escaping style, a brace, quote, or backslash must have a programmatic effect. Says me :)

MiHa 2015-05-18: So, what is the point of replacing "xx" with {xx} ? Conforming to some random style is no value per se. {xx} doesn't get syntax-highlighted as a string by the wiki. I count that as a disadvantage.

If some style makes it harder for the user to see / understand / work / modify the code, is bad.

Is there some "official" / regular style ?

RLE 2015-05-18: There is no "official" or regular style, per se., as in "imposed by others". There are some suggestions that have the advantage of making code easier to read (i.e., indenting one's nested blocks), but nothing required/official, other than that required in order to get the Tcl parser to parse and execute the script.

For what it is worth, the "point" of replacing "xx" with {xx} is essentially arbitrary and decided by PYK. It is simply yet another version of the great space-comma rampage of last year by PYK, only at least with this rampage PYK has a more logical and reasonable reason for the changes. But in the end, it is simply PYK imposing his "one world view" on everyone else yet again (albeit with a more reasoned and reasonable excuse behind the imposition).

EMJ (2015-05-18) No sensible syntax-highlighter for Tcl is going to highlight {xx} as text because then most of the code would be highlighted as text.

PYK 2015-05-18: It's not arbitrary, but informed by the rules of Tcl. In the case of "xx", the double quotes have no functional value since they aren't escaping any whitespace. For that matter, the same is true of {xx}. To conform to the minimal escaping style, it would simply be xx. As an example, the first random page I came across just now that uses double quotes is dictutils. They only occur in a couple of spots, and here is one of them:

foreachLine l myfile.tcl { puts [format "%-4d | %s" [incr count] $l] }

The minimal escaping style for this line would be:

foreachLine l myfile.tcl { puts [format {%-4d | %s} [incr count] $l] }

More difficult to read? Nah, but certainly more informative to newcomers who can note that from a functional standpoint only braces are necessary to get the job done. The main point of the Tcl minimal escaping style is readability, actually, since its wide adoption would help reduce quoting hell issues among newcomers -- in my experience the primary source of the most unreadable and contorted Tcl code out there.

When I started using the wiki a couple of years ago, the vast majority of its code examples weren't highlighted at all. I've put many hours into fixing that (dkf has as well), so I guess syntax-highlighted examples on the wiki are yet another one of my rampages imposing my "one world view" on everyone :)

EMJ (2015-05-18) No, it's an example of the perfectly reasonable wiki-gnome activity of converting a page to use a useful but previously-unavailable piece of wiki-formatting without any actual change in content (assuming you manage to not accidentally change the content).


foreachLine l myfile.tcl { puts [format {%-${nwidth}d | %s} [incr count] $l] }

I can see a reason for doing the above, but I seem to have forgotten that now I have to use double quotes!

PYK: Eat more casein protein!

EMJ 2015-05-18: It would be nice (or perhaps not) if I could see any point in that remark.

PYK: The point is that quotes are not there to save the programmer from forgetting to use the right escaping mechanism for their needs in a given scenario. That's more a function of size of dessert portions, caffeine levels, domestic felicity, etc. We all make typos, forget to link variables from other scopes, and commit any number of other programming mistakes. The purpose of double quotes is not to save the programmer from braces, but to permit substitutions when necessary. If double quotes are used where braces would have sufficed, another more important signal to the reader is sacrificed, namely that "There's (almost) no substitution going on here, folks. Move along."

EMJ 2015-05-18: You claim that your minimal quoting helps beginners. I don't agree. Even if it did, for a short while, you are actually hampering their ability to eventually understand how the language works, and to be able to understand code not written in this style. My normal approach is to use double- quotes unless I need to suppress substitution, so when I see later that I have used braces other than as an apparent part of the language structure, I know that there was a reason for it. Not so different from your argument really, just the other way round. But I can still cope with other styles, it may just take a little longer sometimes. As for all this diet etc. stuff, we know that how you feel affects your mistake rate, but it's got nothing to do with a choice of programming style.

You do know, don't you, that the only people using your style are you and a few who you taught or who you managed to convert. You are not a prophet of the future, just a guy with a different opinion.

PYK: An assertion like "hampering their ability to understand code not written in this style" deserves some evidence or explanation. Have you got any? I believe quite the opposite, that it enhances their ability to understand code written in any style. This "apparent part of the language structure" stuff is exactly what messes newcomers up. It's so easy to start off with that mistaken conception about braces, and hold it for a long, long time. Just ask scoofy in the Tcl Chatroom.

aspect: pooryorick, do you have any idea how rude you are being? Four of us here are disagreeing with you on a matter of opinion, and you're demanding evidence that you haven't provided yourself, meanwhile throwing out flippant, nonsensical remarks like "eat more casein" (and edits like this )? I couldn't decide if you were high or deliberately trolling. This is not suitable behaviour for an environment of peers. And it's not the first time. Please rein in your behaviour, or take it elsewhere.

PYK: I'm trying to conduct a discussion on the merits of the Tcl minimal escaping style. aspect, EMJ, and RLE want to take issue with me personally, but this is not the place. I encourage you all to stay on topic, and dispense with these personal attacks. The "eat more protein" comment was intended as a pithy and humorous alternative to "PEBKAC". Maybe it failed but it wasn't intended to be dismissive. The edit to the Quoting Hell page is jovial in nature, but the link from there to here is quite appropriate. There's no need to get all crotchety about it. If anyone has made inappropriate comments here, it's you three. aspect, you in particular are taking this discussion far too seriously. Lighten up.


#instead of
puts "Hello!"

puts Hello!
#instead of 
puts "Hello World."

puts {Hello, World.}
#instead of 
proc {x} { ... }

proc x { ... }

See also