Tom Davies <todavies5(at)gmail(dot)com>
Standards Track

EEP 62: String interpolation syntax #

Abstract #

This EEP proposes new syntax for string interpolation, allowing expressions to be embedded into string constants to make constructing compound strings more readable.

For example, the new syntax:

bf"A utf-8 binary string: ~2 + 2~"

would evaluate to:

<<"A utf-8 binary string: 4"/utf8>>

Feature outline #

This proposal adds four kinds of string interpolation split over two axes (utf-8 binary or unicode codepoint list, and user-facing or developer-facing formatting).

The result are four general classes of syntax with interpolated values:

% binary format
<<"A utf-8 binary string: 4"/utf8>> =
  bf"A utf-8 binary string: ~2 + 2~"

% list format
"A unicode codepoint list string: 4" =
  lf"A unicode codepoint list string: ~2 + 2~"

% binary debug
<<"A utf-8 binary string: {4, foo, [x, y, z]}"/utf8>> =
  bd"A utf-8 binary string: ~{2 + 2, foo, [x, y, z]}~"

% list debug
"A unicode codepoint list string: {4, foo, [x, y, z]}" =
  ld"A unicode codepoint list string: ~{2 + 2, foo, [x, y, z]}~"

Arbitrary expressions can be nested inside string interpolation substitutions, including variables, function calls, macros and even further string interpolation expressions.

Design #

Why both list- and binary-strings? #

In the string module from the stdlib, a string is represented by unicode:chardata(), that is, a list of codepoints, binaries with UTF-8-encoded codepoints (UTF-8 binaries), or a mix of the two.

With this in mind, the list- and binary-oriented string interpolation syntaxes accept either type of interpolated value, but the user of the interpolation determines whether they want to generate a unicode:char_list() or unicode:unicode_binary() based on which kind of interpolation they use (bf"..." and bd"..." to create binaries, or lf"..." and ld"..." to create lists).

List-strings are most useful for backwards compatibility and convenience. Binary-strings are most useful for memory-compactness and IO.

Why user- and developer-oriented strings? #

There are two similar, but distinct cases where developers typically want to format strings: when logging/debugging, and when displaying data to users.

When logging or debugging, the most important features are typically that any kind of term can be printed, and it should round-trip losslessly and be read by developers unambiguously. Examples of these properties are, for example, retaining runtime type information, e.g. keeping strings quoted when formatting them and printing floats with full range and resolution.

When displaying to users, the most important features are typically that they are always going to be human-readable and cleanly formatted. Examples of these properties are, for example, formatting strings verbatim, without quotation marks, and not retaining any Erlang-isms (e.g. we don’t want to be printing Erlang tuples, because they won’t make much sense to the average application consumer), so we’d rather get a badarg error to push the developer to make an explicit formatting decision.

Why no formatting options? #

Let’s consider the two use-cases introduced earlier:

  • Logging/debugging: Typically you want to fire-and-forget, giving whatever value you care about to the formatter, and just let it print that value unambiguously, meaning there’s no need to tweak formatting options: bd"~Timestamp~: ~Query~ returned ~Result~"
  • Displaying to users: Typically you want to tightly control formatting, and you probably want to do so in a modular and reusable way. In that case, factoring out your formatting decision to a function, and interpolating the result of that function is probably the best way to go: bf"You account balance is now ~my_app:format_balance(Currency, Balance)~".

Notably, nothing in the design and implementation here precludes the future introduction of formatting options such as bf"float: ~.2f(MyFloat)~" as one might do with io_lib:format etc. But existing stdlib functions can offer similar functionality, e.g. bf"float: ~float_to_binary(MyFloat, [{decimals, 2}, compact])~", and can be factored out into their own reusable functions.

Why not use Elixir’s syntax? #

Elixir uses #{...} to introduce an interpolated expression within a string, and it might perhaps be convenient to reuse that syntax. Unfortunately, this conflicts with Erlang’s syntax for maps. Elixir’s maps use %{...}, so it doesn’t have that conflict.

Implementation outline #

To parse interpolated strings, the scanner tracks some additional state regarding whether we are currently in an interpolated string, at which point it enables the recognition of ~ as the delimiter for interpolated expressions, and generates new tokens which represent the various components of an interpolated string.

Early during compilation and shell evaluation, interpolated strings are desugared into calls to functions from the io_lib module, and therefore don’t impact later stages of compilation or evalution.

Reference Implementation #

PR #7343

Backward compatibility #

The new string interpolation syntax was not previously valid syntax, so tooling supporting the new syntax should be entirely backwards compatible with existing source code.

The new syntax will generate calls to new binary-constructing functions in the standard library, so BEAM files compiled with this new feature will not be compatible with earlier releases.

Copyright #

This document is placed in the public domain or under the CC0-1.0-Universal license, whichever is more permissive.