Unicode, Source Spans, Editor Tooling, and You

1. Introduction

One of the most difficult part of writing a programming language is creating good error messages. It's one thing to create a fancy new type theory that has some exellent features, but making that usable adds a whole layer of complexity atop a very complex thing. This blog post aims to address one tiny, underdiscussed problem involved in doing this: properly handling source spans in the presence of Unicode.

2. Variable Width Encodings

Most of the advice surrounding source spans seems to focus on the fact that the popular Unicode encodings (UTF-8 and UTF-16) are Variable Width Encodings. This means that a single "character"1 may be represented by a variable number of bytes. For instance, in UTF-8 all of the ASCII characters are represented by a single byte, but something like the 'λ' character is represented by 2 bytes. This seems to imply that byte indexing is fundamentally broken, as the number of bytes no longer lines up with a multiple of the number of characters.

This leads to the very common advice to "use codepoints instead". Let's break down precisely what that means before we get into why (in this specific case) that is bad advice. In Unicode parlance, a Codepoint is a well-formed sequence of bits. These usually represent single graphemes (what we think of as a character), but this is not always the case! For instance, consider the 'ä'2 character: this consists of 2 codepoints: one for the 'a' (0x61), and the other for the umlaut diacritic (0x308). If we were counting codepoints, then the column number for foo in the following source code would be incorrect:

let= foo

This is why "just use codepoints" is bad advice: codepoints do not line up with what we think of as characters.

3. Grapheme Clusters

What we should be counting instead are Grapheme Clusters. These are defined to be "horizontally segmentable unit of text". In plain terms, these are what we think of as characters when we are using a computer. For instance, if you were to select a grapheme cluster like 'ä' in our editor, it would get selected as a single unit; there's no way to just select the 'a' or the umlaut.

This may seem like the notion of "character" we are looking for, but the notion of "character" is, to be honest, a bit fuzzy. Is 🏳️‍🌈 a single character? This may render as a single glyph for some people, but this is in fact font-dependent. Many emojis are implemented via Zero-Width-Joiner Sequences: they consist of a bunch of existing emojis together with a magic "Zero-Width-Joiner" codepoint that hints to the font-renderer that, if possible, the sequence should be rendered as a single glyph. For instance, 🏳️‍🌈 is really 🏳️+ZWJ+🌈. This is very useful for when your font may not support an emoji: at the very least we can render something meaningful, and not ⍰.

However, this makes even the notion of column numbers somewhat meaningless from an error-message perspective. If we can't determine how wide a user may percieve a glyph to be, we have no chance of giving a good column number! This means that there's only really a single 2 meaningful operations one can do with a source spans: combine them, or use them to index into source code.

4. Source Spans Done Right

Now, with all of this talk of grapheme clusters, it may seem like they are the correct option, and we should use them as our source span indicies. Unfortunately, this isn't a viable solution for a couple of reasons. First, indexing by grapheme cluster will involve segmentation, or the process of chopping up a unicode string into grapheme clusters. This is an O(n) operation, and as we've discussed before, doesn't even capture what a user will see on their display.

We might then try to use codepoints, but this is also a mistake. As noted earlier, really all we can do with a span is slice into strings, and indexing by codepoints is an O(n) operation, which is unacceptable.

This leaves byte-indexing, which may seem like sacrilege to many! We've all had "never byte-index UTF-8 encoded text" hammered into our heads 10000 times. However, UTF-8 is a marvelously well-engineered encoding, and it is not possible to form valid codepoints by slicing existing codepoints in half. This means that if that our initial byte indexes lie on codepoint boundaries3, then we can slice away to our hearts content.

This leaves us with the following design for a span type:

data Span = Span
    { start     :: Int
    -- ^ The absolute position of the span start, in bytes.
    , startBol  :: Int
    -- ^ The absolute position of the beginning of the line of span start, in bytes.
    , startLine :: Int
    -- ^ The line number of the span start.
    , end       :: Int
    -- ^ The absolute position of the span end, in bytes.
    , endBol    :: Int
    -- ^ The absolute position of the beginning of the line of span end, in bytes.
    , stopLine  :: Int
    -- ^ The line number of the span end.
    , filename  :: String
    -- ^ The filename.

By tracking the start of the lines, it's easy to slice out entire lines, which is a common operation when working with spans. One might be tempted to compute column numbers by doing grapheme-cluster counting between the startBol and start fields, but as noted above, this is a fools errand. If we want to be correct, we have to accept that the notion of a column number is somewhat malformed.

5. Source Spans and Error Messages

From here, it may be tempting to try and pretty-print spans in error messages using some sort of ASCII art or box-drawing characters. However, this too is a mistake, as it's basically impossible to figure out how wide the span will be on the users display, even when we ignore the problem of ZWJ sequences. As an extreme example, the ﷽ glyph is a single grapheme cluster4, so it will throw off any sort of underlining logic in your error rendering. Now, this may seem like a somewhat contrived example, but there are plenty of characters that someone may want to use that may render wider than a single cell. Furthermore, this is largely font-dependent, and is thus impossible to figure out how wide the character is without being able to interact with the device the error message is being rendered on (for instance, the terminal emulator).

Instead, the best option is to take the advice of the Unicode Consortium themselves, and rely on markup languages or platform-specific features to handle styling of unicode text. For terminal display, this is best handled by SGR codes for underlining, and other platforms/editors have their own mechanisms.

6. Source Spans and Editor Tooling

Now that we are properly handling error messages, we may want to write some editor tooling for our language. As of 2022, the most commonly used protocol for editor tooling is the the Language Server Protocol, or LSP. As one might expect, a large part of the protocol involves communicating information about various source positions/spans. This is where things get somewhat difficult.

Before diving into the details, we need to discuss another bit of Unicode terminology: Codeunits. These measure the atomic unit of memory used to store codepoints. For UTF-8 these are just bytes, but larger encodings require larger code units (2 bytes for UTF-16, and 4 for UTF-32 respectively).

Now, LSP was developed at Microsoft and was originally geared towards Javascript, so they chose UTF-16 codeunits as their default unit of offset. Before LSP 3.17 this was your only choice, but luckily there is now the option to perform a negotiation step upon server startup to choose the offset units used. However, for backwards compatibility reasons, servers are still required to support UTF-16 codeunits, which makes the following advice regarding byte-indexed spans entirely moot.

However, many clients5 either only support UTF-8 positions, or provide support for UTF-8 positions, so in my opinion it's a much more reasonable option to disregard the spec and only provide support for UTF-8. Dealing with Unicode is tricky enough, we don't need to make it worse on ourselves by tying ourselves to some poor engineering choices.

7. Conclusion

In summary, if you are trying to add source spans to your language:

  • Spans should only be used to slice/index source code.
  • Don't include column numbers in error messages: they are rife with edge cases.
  • If you have to include column numbers: count grapheme clusters instead.
  • Don't try to underline errors with ASCII art or box-drawing characters, use SGR or other more semantic mechanisms instead.
  • Use byte-indexed spans, even if you want to support LSP.

Now, go out into the world, and write some programming languages 🙂



Calling these characters is a bit of a misnomer, as we will discuss later.


Technically this can be represented by a single codepoint under some circumstances. For a technical discussion, see this.


It's actually possible to check if a byte-index lies on a codepoint boundary just by indexing. As mentioned earlier, UTF-8 is very well engineered!


﷽ is actually a single codepoint too!


From a quick survery, lsp-mode only supports UTF-8 (see here and here), elgot only supports UTF-8 by default (see here), and both VsCode and NeoVim support UTF-8 (see here).

Author: Reed Mullanix

Created: 2022-06-09 Thu 08:51