Character Encoding / Line Ends
Computers use binary bit patterns to represent not only numbers, but also
characters such as digits, letters, and punctuation.
A text file contains binary bit patterns that map to printable
characters according to some mapping table.
While the binary bit pattern all-zeroes, 00000000,
usually represents zero when encoded as an integer,
a printable zero character digit, i.e. '0',
is not usually encoded in a text file using the same zero bit pattern.
For example, the ASCII character code uses the 7-bit pattern
0x30 to encode a printable zero digit character.
EBCDIC uses the 8-bit pattern 0xF0 to encode the same digit.
These are clearly not the same bit patterns used to represent an integer
value of zero.
To display the number 12 on the screen using the ASCII
code, the character encoding for the digit '1' would be
sent first (0x31) followed by the character encoding for the
digit '2' (0x32).
Originally, here in North America, the bit patterns being used to encode
characters only handled English.
English only needed a 7-bit or 8-bit character size to include all the
letters, digits, and common punctuation,
so these character bit patterns all fit nicely into one computer "byte".
The mapping of bit pattern to printable character has gotten complex over
the past decades due to the introduction of more and more different mappings
to include more and more of the world's languages, current and past.
(Not all the world speaks English!)
For many years, the industry was reluctant to break the rule "one-character,
one-byte", so many mutually incompatible 8-bit character mappings were
developed to handle different languages in different parts of the world.
The same 8-bit pattern might map to one printable character in Norway, and
a different character in France or Greece.
Creating a file containing both French and Greek characters was impossible.
In 1991, a Universal Character set Unicode
was introduced, using a 16-bit (two-byte) character format, with later
updates to permit extensions to 32-bit characters as needed.
This 16-bit character set broke the "one-character, one-byte" rule.
It was incompatible with all one-byte character systems used to date, and
thus rendered much text manipulation software (sorting, indexing, etc.)
In 1993, some Americans introduced an UTF-8, an 8-bit variable-length version
of Unicode that was backwards-compatible with ASCII, and thus with English.
If you didn't use any non-English characters in your file, the file
format was plain 7-bit ASCII.
Only when you needed a foreign Unicode character did you have to resort
to some 8-bit encoding sequences.
Most software that expected ASCII could handle UTF-8 equally well.
UTF-8 has become very popular in North America, since it treats ASCII
as ASCII with no complications.
- ASCII - 1963 - 7 bit - English only
- EBCDIC - 1963 - 8 bit - IBM Mainframe (e.g. Cobol) - English only
- Latin-1 - 1985 - 8 bit - Western European (includes ASCII as a subset)
- Unicode - 1991 - 16-bit - Universal - all languages
- UTF-8 - 1993 - 8-bit version of Unicode that is backwards-compatible with 7-bit ASCII
Character Encoding : ASCII
Students should know from memory the basic layout of the letters and
digits in the 7-bit ASCII character encoding table.
What region of the table contains unprintable control characters?
What is the ASCII value of a space? the letters "a" and "A"?
What is the lowest standard-ASCII (7-bit) character's name and bit pattern?
What is the highest standard-ASCII (7-bit) character's name and bit pattern?
The American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) coding
scheme was developed as a 7-bit code.
A 7-bit code provides enough different bit patterns (128) to permit a
coding scheme for all the upper- and lower-case characters found on a
standard English language keyboard, plus punctuation and some unprintable
device control characters (e.g. Newline, Carriage Return, Bell, etc.).
Seven-bit ASCII encoding is normally used in 8-bit bytes with the top
(leftmost) bit set to zero.
Some extended encodings based on ASCII use the top bit set to
include an additional 128 characters, e.g. ISO-8859-1 (Latin-1) is an
8-bit standard that includes the accented letters needed for Western
European languages (including French).
Before the development of standards for extended-ASCII encodings, each
manufacturer of computer equipment used different incompatible choices
for what the extended characters represented.
Files written on one machine don't display properly on another.
Minimal Sizes for Codes Representing Characters
A byte is the collection of bits used by a particular computer for the most common character encoding scheme used by that computer. The most common byte size is 8 bits, but 6, 7, 9, and 12-bit bytes are used by some (different) computer systems.
- How Many Characters Are There?
- 10 decimal digit characters
- 26 letters (or 52 if different codes required for upper and lower case)
- between 10 and 30 "special" characters
- between 2 and 30 non-display "control" codes
- a minimal scheme would require at least 48 codes
- a complete system would require at least 122 codes)
- a minimal scheme could be handled with a 6-bit code, since 6-bits provides 64 different patterns
- a "complete" scheme would require (at least) a 7-bit code; 7-bits give 128 different patterns
The Major ASCII Codes and Rules
- 7-Bit Standard - The standard ASCII encoding
scheme is defined only for 7-bit values. For computer systems using a
larger than 7-bit byte, high order bits must be zero for characters
defined by the ASCII standard. (The high order bits
may be used to provide additional extended "special" characters,
but these are not part of the ASCII standard and may not display
correctly on all computers.)
- Blank / Space - 20h; codes below this value are used only for non-display, control codes
- Decimal Digits - 30h to 39h for "0" to "9" respectively
- Upper-case Alphabetic - 41h to 5Ah for "A" to "Z" respectively
- Lower-case Alphabetic - calculated as the value of a space greater than the corresponding upper-case code i.e. 61h to 7Ah for "a" to "z" respectively
- Special Display Characters - in the "gaps" between 20h and 7Fh not assigned to digits or letters
- Control Characters - 00h to 1Fh; includes: 0Dh, the "carriage return" , and 0Ah, the "line feed"
The Full ASCII Table
Most ASCII encoding/decoding can be performed without tables by knowing a
few base codes: the blank, the letter "A", the digit "0", the
carriage-return, and the line-feed. The rest of the letters and digits
can be figured out from these base codes.
- Line Terminated Files (vs. Fixed-length and Run-length)
- Standard ASCII files are "line terminated" files; that is, the lines (or "records") that make up a standard ASCII file can be separated from each other by means of one or more special control codes appended to each line.
- Fixed-length encoded files have records which are all the same length; for character files, this means that short lines need to be "padded" to the full line or "record" length with additional blank characters, and long lines need to be truncated or "wrapped around" into another line; nothing in the actual file indicates how the file is to be divided into lines or records.
- Run-length encoded files have character-count fields at the beginning of each line (or "record").
- Unix vs. MS-DOS Line Terminators - both Unix and
MS-DOS (and Windows) make use of ASCII encoded files; however, the
standard used for line termination is slightly different. For Unix,
lines are terminated with a single "line feed" (0Ah) code. For
MS-DOS (and Windows), lines are terminated with a "carriage return"
(0Dh) and "line feed" (0Ah) pair of codes.
Why it matters - If you use a package like
FTP to download a web-based "Text" (i.e. ASCII) file (where Unix is the
assumed operating system) to an MS-DOS based system, the FTP process will
automatically scan the file and replace each "line feed" character
with a "carriage return"-"line feed" pair. If the file originated from
an MS-DOS based system (and was uploaded to the web), then it already has
a "carriage return" for each line. As a result, the downloaded file would now
have two "carriage return" codes and a "line feed" code; for many editors
this will cause the file to appear to be double spaced. (One way around
this is to transfer your files as "Binary" instead of "Text" so FTP does
not attempt any character expansion).
Summary of line terminators
ASCII-encoded files are usually composed of variable length lines of
characters. Each line is terminated with one or more unprintable characters.
The exact character or characters used at the end of each line depends on
what computer system you are using.
- a single carriage-return character:
Used to end lines on pre-OSX Apple Macintosh systems.
- a single line-feed character:
Used to end lines on Unix/Linux/BSD systems and modern OSX systems.
- a carriage-return followed by a line-feed:
Used to end lines on Microsoft MS-DOS and Windows systems.
When using a file-transfer program to move text (not binary) files
between machines, you must know the consequences of incompatible
Example of ASCII File Decoding
Basic Character Encoding : EBCDIC
EBCDIC material does not need to be memorized
You may need to decode/encode EBCDIC in an assignment
Character encoded data on IBM mainframe computers is normally based on a
scheme called EBCDIC.
The EBCDIC character encoding preceded the ASCII encoding.
EBCDIC was developed from a basis the involved the computer punched card and has
features that, to be properly understood, require a knowledge of that
EBDIC encoded files normally contain fixed-length records.
The Punched Card and Hollerith Codes
- Numeric Requirements: Digits and Signs
- Initially data processing was limited to numbers
- 10 digit symbols were required (0 to 9)
- 2 possible "signs" were required (+ or -)
- Punched Card Structure
- 80 columns wide
- each column could "hold" one of the numeric symbols required as a hole punched in the column, different distances from the top of the card for each symbol; there were 12 possible punch locations in each column resulting in 12 rows of possible punch locations across the entire card
- a punch in the top-most row of a column represented a plus sign (+)
- a punch in the second row from the top represented a minus sign (-)
- a punch in the third row from the top represented a zero (0) and so on from there until the bottom row was used to represent a nine (9)
- multi-digit values were normally punched with the sign of the number and the last digit of the number punched in the same column; this reduced the number of columns required for numbers and could be used as a marker for the end of a numeric value, separating contiguous values on the card
- Alphabetic Requirements: Digits and Zones
- using two punced holes in a single column (one in the top 3 rows, called the "zone" rows, and one in the bottom 9 rows, called the "digit" rows) provided enough codes to support a 26 letter alphabet (with an "extra" punch combination left over)
- a punch in the (top) plus(+) zone row and a punch in one of the 1 to 9 rows was used to represent the (upper case) letters from "A" to "I" respectively
- a punch in the minus(-) zone row and a punch in one of the 1 to 9 rows was used to represent the (upper case) letters from "J" to "R" respectively
- a punch in the zero(0) zone row and a punch in one of the 2 to 9 rows was used to represent the (upper case) letters from "S" to "Z" respectively; notice the zero-one punch combination was not used (perhaps because the card tended to tear if you had two holes that close together)
EBCDIC Codes (Basic Codes)
- The Space / Blank
- hexadecimal code : 40h (twice as good as ASCII?)
- Digit Codes
- hexadecimal codes : F0h (for "0") to F9h (for "9")
- Alphabetic Codes
- the zone punch was encoded in the first hexadecimal digit of a byte with Ch being used for the plus-punch, Dh being used for the minus-punch, and Eh being used for the zero-punch
- the digit punch was encoded in the second hexadecimal digit of the byte using the decimal value of the punch location
- "A" to "I" were encoded as (hexadecimal) C1h to C9h
- "J" to "R" were encoded as (hexadecimal) D1h to D9h
- "S" to "Z" were encoded as (hexadecimal) E2h to E9h
- notice this produces an encoding scheme with "gaps" in the code values that are not used for alphabetic characters (namely CAh to D0h and DAh to E1h inclusive)
- lower case letters were defined as the corresponding upper case letter minus the code value for a space (similar to, but infact the reverse of, the ASCII system)
Standard EBCDIC Files
- Fixed-length Records
- standard EBCDIC encoded files are composed of fixed length records (with 80 characters, just like a punched card, still being the most common length)
- short lines are "padded" on the right with blanks to fill out to the fixed length for a specific file (again, this is most often 80 characters)
- lines longer than the file's fixed record size must be split to form (at least) two lines (records)
- "carriage return" and "line feed" codes are not used
- Record Length Information
- the record length used when the EBCDIC file was created is saved (on an IBM mainframe system) in the VTOC, Volume Table Of Contents, entry for the file (the VTOC is equivalent to an MS-DOS directory); there is no indication of the record size anywhere in the actual file itself.
- it is the programmer's responsibility to code programs so that they use or ask for the proper record length; if a file were created with 80 character EBCDIC records and the programmer's code read 60 character records, the first "read" would get the first 60 characters of the first record, the second "read" would get the last 20 charcters of the first record followed by the first 40 characters of the second record, the third "read" would get the last 40 characters of the second record plus the first 20 characters of the third record, and so on...
EBCDIC vs. ASCII Character Sequences
- in EBCDIC: lower-case letters precede (are less than) upper-case letters which, in turn, precede digits
- in ASCII: digits precede (are less than) upper-case letters which, in turn, precede lower-case letters
- For example, if telephone directory listings were created from two different systems, an ASCII-based system and an EBCDIC-based system, certain company names would occur in different places in the listing, if the listing were
sorted by numeric character code:
ASCII sorted directory listing
- 1-for-All Rentals
- A1 Movers
- alpha-1 Insurance
EBCDIC sorted directory listing
- alpha-1 Insurance
- A1 Movers
- 1-for-All Rentals
For a side-by-side comparison, see: http://www.natural-innovations.com/computing/asciiebcdic.html
Q: If you examine an EBCDIC text file copied byte-for-byte onto an ASCII
system such as Unix/Linux or DOS/Windows/Macintosh, what will you see on
your ASCII screen? (Hints:  Do the EBCDIC letters and numbers match
any printable 7-bit ASCII characters?  Do EBCDIC sentence punctuation
and space characters match any printable ASCII characters?)