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2010-09-07 14:31:07
1initial string normalization discussionhistory

String Normalization


There are four Unicode normalization forms defined in UAX #15, corresponding to two types of character equivalence.

The first, and most important, is canonical equivalence. This is equivalence between sequences of codepoints which represent the same abstract character. This includes:

The second character equivalence is compatibility equivalence. Compatibility equivalence is where two characters represent the same abstract character but differ in appearance or behavior. Differences include:

These two equivalences can be combined to provide four normalization forms:

Order matters, since the canonical and compatibility normalizations are not commutative. Normalizing by performing canonical composition followed by compatibility decomposition is not a defined form in the standard.

Note that neither of these equivalences ignore control characters, nor do they attempt to unify characters which look alike, such as Latin and Cyrillic "o", so spoofing is a security issue regardless of Unicode normalization.

Problems with Normalization

The problem inherent in a character set as complex as Unicode is the "same" (by any of the definitions above) character can have multiple representations. Thus the same conceptual word may be represented with different sets of codepoints, and not match as a search term or database key or filename, etc. For example, Googling the same word with different forms for NFC and NFK will return a different set of results, which makes no sense. Since web search is inherently an approximate art to begin with, this is perhaps not directly perceived as a "bug" by users, though certainly their experience would be improved if searching gave the same results.

Googling for unicode normalization bug, on the other hand, turns up a large number of hits for interoperability problems with filenames, and with systems sharing data between multiple users such as wikis.

A large part of the problem is that whereas Windows and Linux tend to default to NFC normalization, and Mac OS X input tends to produce NFC, the Mac HFS filesystem automatically normalizes to NFD (as well as doing full Unicode case-folding). But even if this were not the case problems would arise, just less predictably.

Approaches to Normalization

R6RS provided four separate procedures to convert explicitly between the four Unicode normalization forms. This is the obvious choice, and is what most other languages do. Whenever normalization matters (yes, every programmer working with any kind of text needs to understand normalization and when it is necessary), you need to convert all input to a chosen normalization form. Or more likely ignore it until you get a rare but inevitable normalization bug, then go back to your design and figure out where all the relevant inputs are. But it's what everyone else does, so at least we won't get laughed at for this choice.

Another option is to leave all strings in their original form and just compare them in a normalization-insensitive manner, e.g. with `string-ni=?'. If you want to hash with these you'll also need `string-hash-ni', and if you want to sort strings or use them in search trees you'll need `string-ni<?'. Searching will require `string-contains-ni', though this could (very inefficiantly) be built using `string-ni=?'. In general, anything that needs to be normalization independent needs to be built specially. And you get a lot of duplicated work. And the programmer still needs to remember to actually _use_ this API where appropriate instead of `string=?' and the like.

How can we make things easier for the programmer? One approach is to globally represent all strings in the same normalization form in memory. This is mostly a matter of normalizing on port input, but also involves some simple checks on endpoints when concatenating strings. String mutation is more complicated as well, though I think strings should be immutable anyway. The advantage is this is all done once, at the implementation level. The programmer never needs to worry about normalization, and can just compare with `string=?' and `string<?' like before (so existing code works too). Normalization then becomes an encoding issue, only of concern when working with an external system or format that expects a normalization form different from your own.

Automated normalization is not a complete silver bullet though. The fundamental problem is that we're working with codepoints when conceptually most of the time we want to be working with graphemes. The problem can be seen when searching for a string ending in a base character in a document which has that same string followed by a combining character (in any of the normal forms this is possible). Even when both are in the same normal form the search will return success, but the string doesn't actually match. If we were comparing grapheme by grapheme, on the other hand, it would correctly ignore the partial match. And assuming graphemes are all internally normalized this would provide the same benefits of automatically normalized strings. So using graphemes instead of codepoints (or layered over codepoints) as our basic unit of strings looks like a promising way to simplify the programmer's life.

Of course, with the exception of the first option none of these have been specified formally, much less implemented, much less tested and used in real applications. But they deserve consideration. Unfortunately, the first option, by exposing direct control over codepoint sequences, makes it impossible to implement either of the last two options, so it seems premature to standardize on this in WG1.

A practical compromise would be to provide a single `string-normalize' procedure, which converts a string to a system-specific normalization form. In an ASCII-only implementation, or an auto-normalizing implementation this could be the identify function. Other implementations would simply choose a single preferred form. Then programmers writing portable code could code just as they do in the first option, with the caveat that the normalization form has been chosen for them. This procedure would be sufficient to implement the API described in the second option, though more optimized versions could be provided by the implementation. Control of explicit normalization forms would be a matter for I/O and/or byte-vectors, probably in a separate WG2 module. And APIs that make the programmer's life easier would at least be possible.