The Perils of str()


The built-in function str() is handy but doesn't play well with non-ASCII strings. We can replace it with something better.

  • It's OK to call str() on non-strings.
  • It's not OK to call str() on strings because it might raise an exception. Use the string's .encode() method and pass "utf-8" as the parameter. e.g. my_string.encode("utf-8")
  • The built-in function unicode(my_string) is a bit less cumbersome than calling my_string.encode("utf-8"), but unicode() doesn't exist in Python 3 so all instances of it will eventually have to be replaced. We should keep our use to a minimum.
  • We can't avoid using unicode() entirely because that's the best way to convert our custom objects (experiments, metabs, etc.) to strings. For example, if you need a string representation of an experiment, use unicode(the_experiment).


Python 2.x has two string types, Unicode and what I'll call "8 bit" strings. Most modern Python libraries return Unicode. (See the historical note below.) That includes the two sources of most of our strings -- sqlite and wxPython. Python makes it easy to mix the two types of strings and in general we can ignore the difference.

However, there's two cases where we must use 8 bit strings, and how we convert from Unicode to 8 bit is important. The two cases where we need 8 bit strings are (1) when passing strings to PyGAMMA and (2) when writing to a stream (like a file or the console). You might think that it'd be a concern when writing to the database, but the sqlite module handles that for us.

To represent Unicode in 8 bit strings, one must encode the string. For historical reasons there are lots of encodings but nowadays in this part of the world, UTF-8 is the most popular and the only one we'll use.

In Python, one encodes a Unicode string with its .encode() method like so --


The result is an 8 bit string. The .decode() method reverses the process.

It's less obvious, but the built-in function str() can also convert a Unicode string into 8 bit. Normally we call str() on non-string objects to make them strings, but one can call it on Unicode strings to convert them to 8 bit. It's equivalent to this --


What's sys.getdefaultencoding()? It's the problem. In most Pythons it's "ascii" which means the string you're converting had better be limited to the 128 characters in the ASCII repetoire or you'll get an exception --

>>> str(u"Bj\xf6rn")
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
UnicodeEncodeError: 'ascii' codec can't encode character u'\xf6' in position 2: ordinal not in range(128)

The string u"Bj\xf6rn" is Python's Unicode representation of "Björn" which is a fairly common first name in Sweden.

So now you can probably see where str() leads to trouble. A Swedish user might name a metabolite that he got from his colleague "aspartate från Björn". The code below (in which is a Unicode object) is no problem --"utf-8")
'aspartate fr\xc3\xa5n Bj\xc3\xb6rn'

But this raises an exception --

Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
UnicodeEncodeError: 'ascii' codec can't encode character u'\xe5' in position 12: ordinal not in range(128)

Because that code is equivalent to this (assuming the typical default encoding of ASCII) --"ascii")
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
UnicodeEncodeError: 'ascii' codec can't encode character u'\xe5' in position 12: ordinal not in range(128)

So the code that we wrote that calls str() to convert strings from the GUI or the database into 8 bit representations in order to make those strings safe for PyGAMMA or to display them in a text file would have broken as soon as someone passed non-ASCII to it. All of that code was replaced in r1652.

What Does This Mean For Us?

When one calls unicode() on an object, Python first checks to see if the object implements __unicode__(). If not, it calls the object's __str__() method. If the object doesn't implement a custom __str__() method, standard object inheritance implies a call to the __str__() method on Python's object class (from which all objects derive). That will print the reliable-but-boring representation you've surely seen before --

<vespa.common.mrs_metabolite.Metabolite object at 0x13f2350>

That's the short version of how unicode() is implemented.

Note that an object's __unicode__() method must return a Unicode object.

When one calls str() on an object, Python ignores __unicode__() and calls only __str__(). However, objects may return Unicode objects from their __str__() method. If an object's __str__() method returns a Unicode object, Python might (sometimes? always?) convert the string to 8 bit using the default encoding before str() returns.

When we print an object, Python calls str().

Therefore --

  • We want to be able to continue to use print my_object, so all of our objects need to implement __str__().
  • If we return a Unicode object from the __str__() method, Python will convert it to 8 bit using the default encoding. As discussed above, this breaks when the string is non-ASCII.
  • Therefore, we need to return an 8 bit string from __str__(), which, for us, implies UTF-8.
  • Sometimes we want a Unicode representation of our objects, so our objects also need to implement __unicode__().
  • To keep ourselves sane, the __unicode__() method should be the primary method for converting the object to a string. The __str__() method should implemented like so --
    def __str__(self):
        return self.__unicode__().encode("utf-8")

This conversation goes into a little more detail on the subject of __str__() and __unicode__() --

So What's So Great About UTF-8?

UTF-8 is fiendishly clever in that it is a superset of ASCII. That is, every ASCII character has the same value in UTF-8. Yet UTF-8 can encode a huge chunk of Unicode -- "virtually all characters in common use" according to Wikipedia. (Thus UTF-8 is a superset of ASCII in the same way that North America is a superset of Poughkeepsie. ASCII encodes 127 characters, UTF-8 over 1.1 million.)

This is useful to us because if we take an ASCII string and "convert" it to UTF-8 by calling my_string.encode("utf-8"), we get the same string back. We haven't ruined it. At the same time, it's a safe, standard way to encode any non-ASCII that might happen to drift our way.

Technical Notes

There's no harm in calling .encode() on a non-Unicode string. Python returns the same string --

>>> assert("foo" == "foo".encode("utf-8"))
>>> assert(type("foo") == type("foo".encode("utf-8")))

One can make a string literal Unicode by prefacing it with 'u' as in the example below.

>>> type("hello world")
<type 'str'>
>>> type(u"hello world")
<type 'unicode'>

When an 8 bit string is added to a Unicode string, Python "promotes" the former to Unicode.

>>> type(u"hello" + "world")
<type 'unicode'>

Both Unicode and 8 bit strings derive from the class basestring.

>>> isinstance("hello", str)
>>> isinstance("hello", basestring)
>>> isinstance("hello", unicode)
>>> isinstance(u"hello", unicode)
>>> isinstance(u"hello", basestring)
>>> isinstance(u"hello", str)

Historical Note

The Python 2.5 documentation calls 8 bit strings "normal" strings. This was probably written when Python 2.0 came out and was appropriate then because Python 1.x had only 8 bit strings. Unicode strings were new in Python 2.0 so of course they seemed "not normal".

As Python 2.x matured, everyone realized that Unicode was the way to go. More and more libraries started returned Unicode strings by default. Nowadays, Unicode strings are just as "normal" as 8 bit ones to most Python programmers. Python 3.x has only Unicode strings, so in the eventually-to-be-default version of the language, Unicode strings are the norm.

Last modified 8 years ago Last modified on Apr 14, 2011, 3:19:11 PM