String Literal Syntax

DEP #:



DEP 8, multi-line-strings


Standards Track




Carl Gay












Dylan string literals have two deficiencies when compared to many current programming languages, most notably the inability to encode multi-line strings into a single source token that crosses multiple source lines and no fully supported way to represent unescaped (“raw”) strings. This DEP proposes a literal syntax for both of these cases. Briefly, it proposes syntax for one-line raw strings delimited by #r", multi-line strings delimited by """ and #r""", and quoted symbols delimited by #""".


Summary: Literal syntax to address both of these deficiencies would be nice to have and is something that people expect to exist in modern programming languages.

Multi-line String Literals

While it should be noted that encoding long string literals into source code is not good practice when internationalization is desired, it is convenient to have this ability for quick scripts, for encoding test data, and as simple format string templates. Most modern programming languages provide this ability.

For very short multi-line strings one can get away with using \n or \r\n in a regular string:

"line one\nline two"

but readability quickly suffers as these strings get longer. An alternative is to put one string on each line and rely on automatic string concatenation by the compiler:

"line one\n"
"line two"

The problem here is that changing the contents of the string quickly becomes an editing chore as the programmer attempts to keep the lines a similar length, and remembering to put the \n at the end of each line. Having a multi-line string literal syntax would alleviate both of these problems.

Raw String Literals

Raw string literals (that is, strings in which '\\' is not a special character) are useful for inputting data that needs to contain many '\\' characters. The primary example of this is regular expressions, which quickly become difficult to interpret when they themselves contain many backslashes.

Open Dylan has a fairly simple work-around for this problem, which it calls parser expansions:

define function string-parser (s) s end;
define constant s1 = "\\.\\[\\*\\\\\\]";     // standard Dylan
define constant s2 = #:string:"\.\[\*\\\]";  // uses string-parser

There are some problems with this mechanism:

  1. Because the parser can have any name (“string” in the above example) and various different delimiters, it’s difficult to provide good editor support.

  2. The parser only allows a single character to delimit the string, meaning that that character is forbidden within the string literal. For long string literals it can be hard to predict which delimiter character (if any) will not be needed.

  3. For the relatively common task of specifying a raw string, each individual library needs to either define string-parser or import it. (This could be made easier by exporting it from the common-dylan module.)

  4. This kind of parser prevents consecutive string literal concatenation by the compiler because the reader doesn’t produce a string literal fragment for it. Instead it emits a call to string-parser.

Having a standard raw string literal syntax would eliminate or reduce these problems.


Multi-line string literals are delimited by three double quote characters on each end: """. Any string literal, whether one-line or multi-line, may be prefixed with #r or #R to disable backslash escape processing, i.e., to make it a “raw” string literal.

Literal end-of-line sequences are always interpreted as a single LF character, in both raw and escaped string literals, regardless of operating system platform. Specifically,

  1. CR (character code 13) by itself is converted to a single LF (character code 10).

  2. CRLF (character codes 13 10, when occurring consecutively) are converted to a single LF (character code 10).

An implication of this design is that the only way to include a CR character in a string literal is with the escape sequence \r in a non-raw string.

All string literals, whether escaped, raw, one-line, or multi-line, continue to adhere to the rule that consecutive string literals separated by only whitespace are automatically concatenated.

Because Dylan’s quoted symbol syntax (also known as “unique string” syntax) is just # followed by any standard string, we also allow #""" to indicate a multi-line quoted symbol, to be consistent. No new syntax is provided to create a “raw” quoted symbols, i.e., quoted symbols without escape processing.

The Rectangle Rule

The Rectangle Rule states

When a source file is formatted, each subtree gets its own bounding rectangle, containing all of that subtree’s text and none of any other subtree’s.

To permit (but not require) Dylan source code to conform to that rule, multi-line string literals need special treatment of leading whitespace. In the following two examples the programmer wants to ensure that there is no leading whitespace on any line in the resulting string literal token:

Without support for the Rectangle Rule
1define method foo ()
2  let text = """bits on the wire
3protocols well understood
4where did my mail go?
6  ...
7end method;

Here, without special handling for leading whitespace, there is no choice but to put the first line of text on the same line with """ and to left-align the highlighted lines, harming readability due to violating the Rectangle Rule.

With support for the Rectangle Rule
1define method foo ()
2  let text = """
3             bits on the wire
4             protocols well understood
5             where did my mail go?
6             """;
7  ...
8end method;

Here, the \n (and any other whitespace) after the opening delimiter is removed and leading whitespace is removed from the highlighted lines in the resulting string literal token, so they may be moved (as a unit) left or right without affecting the result.

To achieve this we adopt the techniques used for raw strings in C#.

The following rules apply to both raw and non-raw multi-line string literals:

  • Starts and ends with a sequence of at least three double quote characters (""", #r""", or #R"""). More than three consecutive " characters are allowed to start and end the sequence in order to support string literals that contain three (or more) repeated " characters.

  • Single line string literals that use triple-double-quoting require the opening and closing delimiters to be on the same line.

  • In multi-line string literals, any whitespace to the left of the closing delimiter is removed from all lines of the string literal.

  • In multi-line string literals, whitespace to the left of the closing delimiter must be identical on each line. For example, it is not valid to use tab characters on one line and space characters on another.

  • In multi-line string literals, whitespace following the opening delimiter on the same line is ignored.

  • In multi-line string literals, whitespace-only lines following the opening delimiter are included in the string literal.


In the Dylan Reference Manual, in the section Tokens, #r is added to the #-word production.

The BNF, which augments Character and String Literals in the DRM, is shown below.

    ' character '

    any printing character (including space) except for ' or \

    \ escape-character

    " more-string

    " " "... multi-line-string

    # r raw-string

    string-character more-string


    multi-line-string-character more-multi-line-string

    multi-line-string-character more-multi-line-string

    " " "...     (must match the number of " in start delimiter)

    any character except for \ or the """... closing delimiter

    \ escape-character

    " more-raw-string

    " " "... more-raw-string-multi-line

    raw-string-character more-raw-string


    raw-string-character-multi-line more-raw-string-multi-line

    " " "...     (must match the number of " in start delimiter)

    any printing character (including space) except for " or \

    \ escape-character

    any printing character (including space) except for "

    any character but not three " in a row

    one of \ ' " a b e f n r t 0

    < hex-digits >


Strings equivalent to "abc":




Multi-line string equivalent to "line one\nline two":

let text = """
           line one
           line two

Same as above because whitespace to the left of the closing delimiter is removed:

let text = """
      line one
      line two

Multi-line string equivalent to "\nline one\nline two\n":

let text = """

           line one
           line two


Same as above but using escape sequences:

let text = """
           \nline one
           line two\n

Equivalent to "let x = \"foo\";":

"""let x = "foo";"""

Raw string for C:\users\:


Equivalent to "^\\s*([0-9A-Fa-f]+)\\s*":


Reference Implementation

The Open Dylan dfmc-reader contains the reference implementation.

Revision History

The revision history of this document is available here: