Last update March 7, 2012

Daniel Keep /
Text In D

(redirection from Chars And Strs)

Copyright: This document has been placed in the Public Domain.

Many thanks to Bill Baxter, Jarrett Billingsley, Anders F Björklund, Lutger Blijdestijn, Thomas Kuehne, Pierre Rouleau and Max Samuha for their input, and to Walter Bright for making such a great language.

One of the great features of D is its’ fantastic support for text. However, many people new to D have trouble understanding why things are the way they are. People coming from a C or C++ background are quickly confused by the fact that char does not appear to work the way they expect it to, whilst people coming from a Java, C# or interpreted language background wonder why D has three different character types, and no string class.

This article will hopefully address these questions, and help explain the how and why of text in D. But first, some background.


Character Encoding

Back when C was created, the dominant character encoding in use was ASCII. ASCII was cool because it could encode every letter of the western alphabet, numbers, and a whole bunch of punctuation. If you needed more characters, then by golly you could just stick them in the upper 128 fields as an extension to ASCII.

This led to the rather unfortunate mess that are character encodings. They arose out of the impossibility of fitting every language’s symbols into just 128 characters. Things became worse with multi byte character sets like Shift_JIS where you couldn’t even count on each 8-bit code being an actual symbol. You also had to carry around a description of which code page you were using. It only got worse if you wanted to use multiple character encodings in a single text document: you usually can’t.

In the end, this led to the creation of Unicode; a character encoding to replace all other character encodings. Unicode significantly differs from most other character encodings in that it encodes every one of its’ symbols using a unique integer identifier called a code point. For example, the N-ary summation symbol “∑” is identified in Unicode as code point 0x2211. By contrast, this symbol is not defined in most character encodings, usually because there simply isn’t room.

However, Unicode by itself does not specify how to actually store these code points; it merely defines what they mean. This is where the Unicode Transformation Formats come in to play.


UTF-32 is the easiest to understand. Every Unicode code point is stored literally as a 32-bit unsigned integer. The obvious disadvantage to this is that it requires a large amount of space to store even the simplest of text.

UTF-16 is somewhat more complex. As the name suggests, it is based around 16-bit unsigned integers. However, since you cannot represent every Unicode code point with only 16-bits, it uses variable length encoding to make sure you can store any code point you please. Most normal code points will only use a single 16-bit value, with more uncommon code points taking up two. Each of these 16-bit values is called a “code unit.”

UTF-8 can be thought of as an “extension” of UTF-16 in that it uses a similar variable length encoding scheme based on 8-bit integers. Code points that fall into the traditional ASCII range remain exactly the same (meaning ASCII is effectively a subset of UTF-8), with other code points taking somewhere between 2 and 4 bytes (aka: code units) to store.

UTF-8 history
For the low-down on how UTF-8 was painstakingly designed, and the challenges faced by its’ designers, head on over to UTF-8 history.

Unicode in D

So, by now, you’re probably thinking “what a complete and total mess!” To a degree it is, but it’s important to realise that this is a huge simplification of how things used to be. What’s important to take from all this is that there are three distinct ways of representing Unicode text, and all three are supported directly in D.

Unlike C which says nothing on, for example, how to store Japanese text, D is designed to use Unicode internally for all text storage. This means that instead of having to support multiple character encodings in your programs, you only need to support one, possibly using a library to convert to and from Unicode as necessary.

Specifically, here is how the various encodings translate to D types:

  • char is a UTF-8 code unit,
  • wchar is a UTF-16 code unit,
  • dchar is a UTF-32 code point,
  • char[] is a UTF-8 string,
  • wchar[] is a UTF-16 string and
  • dchar[] is a UTF-32 string.
However, this brings up an interesting point, and our first problem for new D programmers.

Common Problems

Problem: chars won't print!

The first thing that trips up people new to D is that the following program works:

import std.stdio;

int main()
    char[] text = "Hello, World!";
    foreach( character ; text )

But this one doesn’t:

import std.stdio;

int main()
    char[] text = "HєllѲ, ШѲrld!";
    foreach( character ; text )

It simply crashes out with an error saying something about “invalid UTF sequence.” Many people see this and wonder what’s going on.

The answer is something like this: remember how UTF-8 encodes code points using somewhere between one and four individual code units? Well, in D, a char is only a single UTF-8 code unit, so it cannot contain all possible code points. The problem is that “є” requires two code units to represent; it is actually stored as "\xD1\x94".

So when the program comes to print out the second “character,” the standard library throws up the red flag saying “wait a second, 0xD1 isn’t a valid UTF-8 sequence; you can’t print that!” You’re basically trying to write out half a code point, which really doesn’t make any sense.

Is the standard library at fault? Not really; you don’t exactly want to be outputting incomplete code points, otherwise other programs could choke on your output. You certainly wouldn’t appreciate being fed garbage text.


The way to fix this is to realise that you’re using the wrong type for the job. Remember, a single char cannot possibly hold all valid code points. What you need to do is use a type which can:

import std.stdio;

int main()
    char[] text = "HєllѲ, ШѲrld!";
    foreach( dchar code_point ; text ) // notice that we added "dchar"!

The above code works perfectly, since the foreach loop is smart enough to decode a single complete code point at a time.

dchar is the only type in D that can store any valid Unicode code point. char and wchar cannot since they only represent a single code unit.

Problem: arrays of characters aren’t

The second problem comes up when programmers discover the power of D’s arrays. They see things like the built-in length property and slicing and think “cool; I can use those on strings!”

When their code fails miserably on international text, they wonder just what’s gone wrong. The problem is, once again, that UTF-8 and UTF-16 don’t necessarily store a single code point in a single code unit. For example, if we are using UTF-8,

"HєllѲ, ШѲrld!"[1]

does not give you “є”. It gives you "\xD1" which isn’t what you really wanted. Similarly,

"HєllѲ, ШѲrld!"[1:5]

gives you “єll” and not “єllѲ” as you would expect (since the “є” actually takes up two chars.) The reason for this is that decoding a UTF-8 or UTF-16 stream is all well and good, but trying to decode a slice in the middle is difficult to do efficiently.

Similarly, the length property of a UTF-8 or UTF-16 string can be misleading; it is counting the number of code units, not the number of actual code points.


The simplest way to deal with this is to stick to UTF-32 strings (aka: dchar[]) if you’re going to be doing a lot of indexing or slicing. This is because they do not suffer from these variable length encoding problems. Another possible way to do this is to use a foreach loop to convert your string into individual code points, and manually extract the slice you want as you go.

The std.utf module provides many functions which you might find useful:

  • std.utf.toUTF8(s) – converts s from any UTF encoding to UTF-8, and returns the result.
  • std.utf.toUTF16(s) – as above, but for UTF-16.
  • std.utf.toUTF32(s) – as above, but for UTF-32.
A complete reference is available at

Another trick to keep in mind is that when using foreach, you can also ask it to give you the index of each code point within the string:

foreach( int i, dchar c ; "HєllѲ, ШѲrld!" )
    writefln("Index %d: ’%s’", i, c);

The above code produces the following output (assuming your terminal can display UTF-8):

Index 0: ’H'
Index 1: ’є'
Index 3: ’l'
Index 4: ’l'
Index 5: ’Ѳ'
Index 7: ’,'
Index 8: ’ '
Index 9: ’Ш'
Index 11: ’Ѳ'
Index 13: ’r'
Index 14: ’l'
Index 15: ’d'
Index 16: ’!'

Note that the index is that of the first code unit for that code point. These indices can be used in slicing operations to ensure you get a valid UTF sequence.

You cannot reliably index or slice UTF-8 or UTF-16 strings; use UTF-32 instead. Also remember that a UTF-8 or UTF-16 string’s length property is counting code units not code points.

Problem: there is no string class

This is an area of active discussion. Many people assert that D needs a string class, whilst others say that it is unnecessary. Instead of trying to convince you either way, I’ll just explain why D doesn’t have a string class, and show what you can do without one.

An important thing to remember is that C++ grew a string class because C’s string handling was so incredibly painful. Java has a string class because Java is object-oriented to the extreme, and it makes sense to have one.


On the other hand, D does many of the things that C++ needed the string class for quite nicely by itself:

  • Since all strings are arrays, all strings have a length property, meaning you don’t need a function to go looking for the end of a string.
  • Strings can also be trivially concatenated together using the concatenation operator ~.
  • Slicing works as expected for UTF-32 strings, and in UTF-8 and UTF-16 strings as long as you slice on known code point positions.
Another thing provided by many string classes is a wealth of functionality such as searching, case conversion, etc. You don’t need a class to do this: you can simply pass the string to a function. However, keep in mind that in D the following expression:

find(some_string, search_for)

can be rewritten as:


Which means that although you don’t have a string class, you can “fake” it, by simply writing functions that take strings as their first argument; you aren’t even limited to what comes in the standard library, unlike in C++ and Java!

For a full list of what string manipulation functions come with D, take a look at

If you really, really can’t live without the warm comforting embrace of a string class, you can find a good one at

D doesn’t have a string class, but you usually can get by just fine without one. Failing that, you can use someone else’s or write your own.

Problem: C functions choke on D strings

By now you should understand the problems that arise because of D’s use of UTF encodings. However, there is another problem that comes about because of how D represents arrays.

Back before D had the std.stdio.writefln method, most examples used the old C function printf. This worked fine until you tried to output a string:

char[] some_string = some_function();

Statements like the above are very likely to print out garbage, which leaves many people scratching their heads. The reason is that C uses NUL-terminated strings, whereas D uses true arrays. In other words:

  • Strings in C are a pointer to the first character. A string ends at the first NUL character.
  • Strings in D are a pointer to the first code unit, followed by a length. There is no terminator.
And that’s the problem: printf is looking for a terminator that doesn’t necessarily exist.


Thankfully, there is an easy solution:

char[] some_string = some_function();

The std.string.toStringz function converts any char[] string to a C-compatible char* string by ensuring that there is a terminating NUL.

If passing strings to a C function that expects it to be NUL-terminated, make sure to pass the string through std.string.toStringz first!

The DigitalMars D compiler automatically NUL-terminates string literals for you. However, relying on this is bad practice since slices of strings, and strings obtained from other sources may not necessarily have the NUL-terminator. You should always use std.string.toStringz since it only adds the terminator if it is not already present.

Problem: the D compiler chokes on Unicode source files

So you’ve been clever and added some nifty symbols into your source file using Unicode, only to have the compiler barf on them. “What's wrong?” I hear you ask; “I thought D supported Unicode source!”

In fact, it does. There are two problems you might run into:

  1. The editor you used may support Unicode, but didn't end up saving in it. Go back and double-check that the file really is Unicode. How you do this depends on your editor, but there's usually an option lying around somewhere to set a file's character encoding.
  2. The other is a bit obscure: if you save your source file in Unicode without a Byte Order Mark and the first character is outside the ASCII character range, D won't be able to read it properly.
If you do have a suspicious looking first character in your source file, you can either stick a blank line in at the top of the file or save the source file again with a Byte Order Mark.

What's a Byte Order Mark?
The Byte Order Mark (or BOM) is a special character sequence that may appear at the beginning of a UTF text file. It tells the application which UTF encoding is being used, and in some cases what the byte order is (ie: Little Endian/Big Endian.)


Use an editor that properly supports UTF. Seriously, even Windows Notepad does it correctly!

Questions & Answers

“Can D source code contain Unicode characters freely?”

Yes, it can. D source files support four character encodings: ASCII, UTF-8, UTF-16 and UTF-32. Provided your source file is saved in one of these encodings, you can include any character you like.

Of course, this requires that you use an editor that properly supports UTF; as stated above, using an editor that incorrectly writes out UTF files can cause the D compiler to choke on your source files.

Obviously, if you're using ASCII, you're limited to the standard set of characters from 0 to 127; characters above this, also known as “extended ASCII” is not really ASCII at all, and thus not supported.

UTF and byte order
Technically, there are six encodings. ASCII, UTF-8, UTF-16BE?, UTF-16LE?, UTF-32BE? and UTF-32LE?. The “BE” and “LE” variants refer to Big Endian and Little Endian byte order; you generally don't have to worry about this yourself, so long as your editor properly supports UTF.

“How can we define a Unicode string literal?”

There are two ways to do this:

  1. Enter the characters you want directly, and save the source file in one of the UTF encodings.
  2. Find out what the code point for the symbol you want to use is, and then manually enter it into the string literal using \uXXXX for code points 0xFFFF and below, or \UXXXXXXXX if they don't fit in the first form. Remember, each X is a hexadecimal digit.

“How do we store ASCII, then?”

You can store ASCII text directly using char[] strings. Remember, ASCII is a subset of UTF-8, which means that all ASCII strings are valid UTF-8 strings.

“Can I use non-ASCII characters in identifiers?”

You can use pretty much any character allowed in C99. This boils down to any of the following:

  • Letters,
  • digits,
  • underscore (_),
  • code points greater than or equal to \u00A0 and less than \uD800 and
  • code points greater than \uDFFF.
However, the following cannot be used:

  • \u0024 ($),
  • \u0040 (@) and
  • \u0060 (`).
If in doubt, just write a quick test program and give it a try. For example, the following works just fine:

import std.stdio;

// 「こんにちは」 roughly means "hello" in Japanese.
void こんにちは()

void main()

“What about other encodings?”

For that, you will need to use a ubyte[] array. You should not use char[] for this purpose, since char[] is supposed to contain UTF-8 strings, and other encodings more than likely aren't valid UTF-8 strings.

To convert between Unicode and your chosen code page, you will want to use a library designed to do this: iconv < > is a popular open source library for code page conversions.

On windows, you can look in, functions toMBSz() and fromMBSz() for converting to/from Win-ANSI/Oem? encodings.

“Does D have any support for internationalisation?”

Not directly. You can either roll your own system, or use an existing library like gettext < > to do this.

“So should I use char[] or dchar[]?”

This one’s tricky to answer.

For most cases, char[] is more than sufficient. It’s also usually the most succinct encoding for Unicode text. Problems only really arise when you need to look at a string's length or do indexing/slicing on fixed locations.

The first problem (getting the length) can be solved by using a function like the following:

uint characters(char[] string)
    uint result = 0;
    foreach( dchar c ; string )
    return result;

This will give you the correct answer. The second problem’s a little trickier. First of all, it’s important to realise that you can slice a UTF-8 or UTF-16 string: you just need to make sure you're not slicing in the middle of a code sequence. For example:

// Extract text after first ':'...
char[] line = "にほんご:Japanese";
char[] value = line[line.find(':')..$];

Works just fine since the find function returns the code unit index, and not the code point index. What you need to be careful of is code like this:

// Check the 1'th character is 'ö'
assert( "Hög"[1] == 'ö' );

This doesn't work because ‘ö’ requires two UTF-8 code units to encode. Currently, there is no function in the standard library for extracting the nth character from a string, however you can use something like this:

dchar nthCharacter(char[] string, int n)
    int curChar = 0;
    foreach( dchar cp ; string )
        if( curChar++ == n )
            return cp;
    return dchar.init;

Once you take care of those two problems, aside from things like the system API or what kind of text you're storing, it doesn't really matter which encoding you use.

“Isn't that nthCharacter function slow?”

It is a bit, actually. Here's a fast version written by Derek Parnell and Frits van Bommel that supports any given string type passed to it (not just char[].)

dchar nthCharacter(charT)(charT[] string, int n)
    if (n < 0 || n >= string.length)
        return dchar.init;
    auto utfIndex = std.utf.toUTFindex(string, n);
    return std.utf.decode(string, utfIndex);

See the newsgroup thread starting at

“How does UTF interact with system calls?”

Here's the long and short of it:

  • Windows: ASCII for old Win9x APIs, UTF-16 for WinNT? APIs. You can tell the difference because ASCII APIs have a trailing 'A' on their name, whilst UTF-16 APIs have a trailing 'W'. For example: GetCommandLineA? and GetCommandLineW?.
  • Linux: Depends on what you're calling, how it was compiled, system (locale) settings, etc. Best to read the documentation.
  • Mac OSX: Usually UTF-8, some old-old-old functions may expect MacRoman? (yuck!). Be careful with filenames though, becase they allow only specific normalized subset of UTF-8 (you can read them as UTF-8, but you can't use any UTF-8 as filename unless you normalize it).


So here’s the short and sweet on text in D:

  • char is a UTF-8 code unit, and may not be a complete code point.
  • wchar is a UTF-16 code unit, and may not be a complete code point.
  • dchar is a UTF-32 code unit, which is guaranteed to be a complete code point.
  • char[] is a UTF-8 string, and uses one to four bytes per code point.
  • wchar[] is a UTF-16 string, and uses two to four bytes per code point.
  • dchar[] is a UTF-32 string and uses four bytes per code point.
  • Outputting an incomplete UTF-8 or UTF-16 sequence will result in an error.
  • You cannot reliably index or slice a UTF-8 or UTF-16 string due to variable-length encoding.
  • The length property of a char[] or wchar[] array is the number of code units, not code points.
  • Strings destined for a C function that expects NUL-terminated strings need to be passed through std.string.toStringz first (or manually make sure the NUL-terminator exists).


This version was manually transcribed from the original, and so there may be a few formatting errors.

If you update this document, please inform the original author.

See also

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