Text processing

This is a guide for common character and string tasks.

Data types

Scheme has had standard string and character datatypes since forever. They are fully distinct types: a character is neither a string nor an integer. String, bytevector, vector and list are also distinct types: none of them is a subtype of another.

Unicode and multi-byte character encodings

A Scheme character object represents one Unicode codepoint. char→integer and integer→char convert between integer codepoints and character objects. (map char→integer (string→list s)) shows all the codepoints in the string s.

Mutable vs immutable strings

Scheme strings are generally mutable. This means you can change individual characters in the string using string-set! at any time after the string has been created.

However, actual Scheme code that mutates strings is somewhat rare. It is generally best to avoid mutating them if you can manage without. In the medium-to-long term, Scheme may evolve in a direction where strings are immutable, or where mutable strings are second-class citizens and immutable strings are the default thing to use.


Scheme has had several standard char- and string- procedures since forever (R2RS). Since R6RS they have been Unicode-aware.

SRFI 13 (String Libraries) is the most popular library for extra convenience. SRFI 130 (Cursor-based string library) is mostly a drop-in replacement, but additionally supports string cursors for walking a string character-by-character while keeping track of the current position.

R7RS: If you don’t need string cursors, you can use the following cond-expand. It will import whichever one of 130 and 13 is available in any given Scheme implementation. Almost all R7RS Schemes come with one or both libraries.

(cond-expand ((library (srfi 130)) (import (srfi 130)))
             ((library (srfi 13))  (import (srfi 13))))

Classify characters

  • char-alphabetic?

  • char-numeric?

  • char-whitespace?

  • char-upper-case?

  • char-lower-case?

SRFI 175 (ASCII character library) has ASCII-only versions of these.

Compare characters

  • char-ci=?

  • char-ci<?

  • char-ci>?

  • char-ci⇐?

  • char-ci>=?

Compare strings

  • string-ci=?

  • string-ci<?

  • string-ci>?

  • string-ci⇐?

  • string-ci>=?

Change letter case

  • char-upcase

  • char-downcase

  • string-upcase

  • string-downcase

SRFI 129 (Titlecase procedures) has Unicode-aware title-casing.

Convert between numbers and text

string→number and number→string deal with Scheme syntax. (number→string number base) can output binary, octal or hexadecimal numbers.

digit-value (standard in R7RS) converts an individual character to a number.

Convert between bytes and text

string→utf8 and utf8→string take care of most needs.

Programming tactics

Making new strings

Scheme does not have lazy strings (or "ropes"). Doing (string-append a b) makes copies of the underlying bytes of both a and b. The resulting string does not share structure with a or b. This means building new strings is somewhat expensive.

Building a string one character at a time

list→string allows accumulating individual characters into a list and then turning them into a string at the end. This is fast enough for everyday tasks.

(let letters ((cc (char->integer #\a)) (chars '()))
  (if (<= cc (char->integer #\z))
      (letters (+ cc 1) (cons (integer->char cc) chars))
      (list->string (reverse chars))))

Same without the reverse:

(let letters ((cc (char->integer #\z)) (chars '()))
  (if (< cc (char->integer #\a))
      (list->string chars)
      (letters (- cc 1) (cons (integer->char cc) chars))))

Building a string as if writing to a port

R7RS has a standard open-output-string procedure. Writing to a string output port can be faster (and in some cases more convenient) than list→string.

(call-with-port (open-output-string)
  (lambda (out)
    (let letters ((cc (char->integer #\a)))
      (cond ((<= cc (char->integer #\z))
             (write-char (integer->char cc) out)
             (letters (+ cc 1)))
            (else (get-output-string out))))))

Reading text from ports

read-char (R7RS) a.k.a get-char (R6RS) reads a character at a time from a string port. In some cases, using a byte port instead of a string port can yield an approach that is more resilient against character encoding gotchas, and utf8→string can be called once after reading a bytevector instead of constructing the string character-by-character.

Reading from strings

A string can be iterated by incrementing the character index in a loop:

(define (display-chars s)
  (let ((n (string-length s)))
    (let loop ((i 0))
      (when (< i n)
        (display (string-ref s i))
        (loop (+ i 1))))))

string-ref is a constant-time operation in implementations that store string characters internally as a vector of 32-bit integers. Implementations that store a string as UTF-8 generally have to traverse the string from the beginning for each string-ref.

Reading from strings as if they were ports

R7RS has a standard open-input-string procedure. Reading from a string port can be faster than string-ref depending on the implemnetation.


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