Chapter 5: File Formats

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
  The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

This chapter surveys the range of file formats that a text editor might encounter.

Text Files

Each operating system has a standard way of storing text files. Text editors must be able to edit these standard system text files. From the user's point of view, such files consist of a series of reasonable-length lines of "reasonable" characters.

Line Boundaries

From the program's point of view, system text files consist of a sequence of characters, divided into lines in a variety of ways. Each of the most popular methods will be described.

Card and Print Images: These files are a series of lines, all exactly the same length (typically 80, 132, or 133 characters long). They may also include another form of line divisor (e.g., 80 characters, then a CR/LF sequence). These files will mostly be found on older systems.

Newline Character: Marker bytes are used to signal the end of one line and the start of another. Popular choices are:

Character Count: Some systems use an initial count of characters (typically the count is one or two bytes long), followed by that many characters. There may or may not be padding between lines in order to align their start on a word boundary.

Record Markers: Some operating systems store one line per record, and store the record markers "out of band." In this case, you must read and write one line at a time, and record the line break information somehow. (If the operating system lets you read multiple lines at once, it must have some method of indicating what the line boundaries are, which leads us to one of the earlier methods.)

Line Contents

Some systems place restrictions on the contents of each line. The most frequently encountered restrictions are:

Long Lines: Some systems have no limit on the length of a line. Others place a fixed limit. Typical limits are 80, 127 or 128, 255/6, 511/2, 32,767/8, and 65,535 characters. If a program attempts to write lines that exceed the system limit, some systems return an error, others split the line, and still others will silently truncate the line.

Short Lines: Most systems support zero-length (empty) lines quite well. However, some systems do not allow such lines while others allow them in theory but not in practice. For example, the system-supplied text editor may not allow the entry of empty lines. Because of this limitation, no files will be created that have such lines. Hence, the code to handle such lines may not be tested well, and some programs may not behave properly when such lines are encountered.

Partial Last Line: This problem can only occur in systems that use a newline character. As with short lines, the system-supplied text editor may not allow the entry of partial last lines (i.e., a missing newline character) and some programs may not behave properly when such lines are encountered.

Non-Printing Characters: All systems generally allow all printing characters and the Space character to appear in text files. These character have codes that range from 32 to 126 decimal in ASCII or the equivalent characters in EBCDIC. Difficulties arise in how programs handle other characters. For example, are Tab characters treated as one character or the appropriate number of spaces, and if the latter, what is the appropriate width? Limitations on non-printing characters usually fall into the following groups:

Typically, systems that allow a given group allow all preceding groups. Given that the characters are allowed, the next question is how should the character be displayed. Typical methods are:

End of File

Most systems record the exact file length and make this information available to the program. However, there are two special cases to be considered:

CP/M systems only record the file length to the next multiple of 128 bytes. By convention, a control-Z (^Z) character is used to mark the end of the file. Data after the first Z character is ignored. Note that if the file ends exactly on a 128-byte boundary, some programs do not add the trailing ^Z character. Some programs filled the entire remainder of the block with the ^Z character: other programs relied on this convention and only removed trailing ^Z characters.

MS/DOS systems started off following the CP/M convention but later changed to omit the ^Z character. The safest algorithm to use on these systems is:

As always, the user should have a way of selecting both methods.

Binary Files

From a text editor's point of view, a binary file is any file that is not a text file. These files have none of the following restrictions found in text files:

As a general rule, it is a nice feature to be able to edit a binary file. The rules to be followed are these:

Structured Files

If your editor will only encounter standard system-text files and binary files, you can skip the rest of this chapter which describes considerations for designing file formats for holding information in addition to pure ASCII text.

Basic text files use 94 printing characters and a Space character. They also need some way to indicate line breaks. Often, users will want to include the Bell, Back Space, Tab, and Form Feed characters in their text files. Thus, a total of 99 characters are reserved for representing themselves. This leaves 29 codes (with 7 bit characters) or 157 codes (with 8 bit characters) available for other uses.

If all computer manufacturers used only the ASCII character set, the analysis could stop here. However, IBM Corp., Apple Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard, and other vendors all support "extended" character sets that make use of many of these other codes. (Not to worry, though, the world is still safe: all of the manufacturers support different extended character sets.) What were previously unused codes are now in use to the extent that your users wish to be able to make use of the extended characters.

(Actually, as this book is being written, many vendors are jointly developing a 16-bit character set that is intended to encompass most characters and glyphs in use, although not doing a complete job on Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.)

Where to Store the "Extra" Information

Whether or not "extended" character sets are supported, it is likely that you will want to store more information than can fit into the unused character codes. This leads us to the basic choice that will affect many other aspects of the implementation: is the extra information stored in-band or out-of-band?


Storing information in-band means that some of the character codes are used to signal the presence of this additional information. Once the presence of this information is indicated, all character codes can potentially be used to represent the information.

The use of these character codes for non-character purposes has two ramifications. First, those codes are not available for representing characters. Second, if those characters are present, redisplay must know how to display them (and their associated information) and the user commands must know how to process them.

Depending upon the purpose of the extra information and your users' expectations, it may be appropriate to allow this in-band information to be visible to the user, at least in some display modes. Further, it may be appropriate to allow the user to edit the information directly. On the other hand, the best choice might be to hide this information from the user and allow only indirect manipulation.

Note that programs should be able to parse in-band information in either direction (i.e., both when working forwards through the buffer and when working backwards). It is also important in this representation that it be reasonably easy to determine how to display a file when starting from an arbitrary point in the middle of the file. In particular, the program shouldn't have to examine the entire previous contents of the file in order to figure out how to display something.


Storing information out-of-band means that none of the character codes are used for any special purpose. Rather, the additional information is stored somewhere else and is tied back to the text by means of pointers and offsets.

The disadvantage of choosing the out-of-band method is that you must find some place to put the information. While a file is being edited, the information can (and probably should) be stored in special purpose structures within the editor. However, when the file is stored, the additional information must be put somewhere. This place can be a separate file or a separate part of the same file (either a different file "fork," or at the file's beginning or end).


There may be enough additional information that manipulating it can itself require significant overhead. The techniques described in the next chapter can apply to the additional information as to the text itself.

There is no preferred choice: both in-band and out-of-band have their good points and their bad. The choice must be made on a case-by-case basis.

Actually, they are almost two ends of a continuous scale. The difference between them could also be considered like this:

The Additional Information

This section describes some of the categories of additional information that you may wish to store in files. These categories are illustrative examples only: you will probably want to store other types of information or the same types in different ways.

Fonts, Sizes, Attributes

A font describes the shapes of the characters. Size information describes how large a character should be. Attributes are variations on a font such as boldface, italics, or underscoring. Together, these are used in word processors to provide character formatting.

These three share common qualities such as the ability to change at a character boundary, and the ability to change one without changing the others. The representation that you select needs to take these qualities into account.

Line, Paragraph, Page, and Other Formats

This information determines such things as line margins, justification types, tab stops, page headings and footings, page length, and so forth. This information has a major effect on the redisplay code described in Chapter 7.

Non-Text Objects

These can be arbitrary non-text objects such as graphical bitmaps or object, spread sheets, database excerpts, or other information used by non-editor applications. The editor needs to know such things as:


This section lists some of the U.S. and English language biases that might be encountered in text files. Techniques for removing these biases from the program are outside the scope of this book. By their nature, these biases are hard to sort out: my apologies if I have missed some.

Except for this section, this book contains U.S. and English language biases. However, the programming and design techniques described in the rest of this book are applied in pretty much the same way in non-U.S. and non-English language editors.

The first bias is the character set used to represent information. There are many different international character sets and, while they tend to incorporate the U.S. ASCII character set (presented in Appendix E) in them, they all differ in the other characters.

The second bias is the character size (i.e., the number of bits required to represent the number of distinct characters that can be stored in the document). If you are limiting your users to ASCII, 7-bit characters are sufficient. However, international character sets may require 8, 16, or even 32 bits per character. In the case of the larger character sizes, it may make sense to store most characters as 8-bit codes and to have multiple-byte characters for the others. So long as your implementation handles them consistently and can interchange data with the other programs on your system, the exact representation does not matter.

The third bias is the language direction. English uses left-to-right, then top-to-bottom. Other languages use different patterns. You must also properly handle cases where you mix languages (say, English and Arabic).

The fourth bias is the general conventions for handling such things as character case (some languages do not have English's upper/lowercase distinction), characters changing representation depending upon their position within a word (contextual forms), and so forth.

The fifth bias is in handling numbers. For example, in the U.S., numbers are written as "1,000.5". In Europe, they are written as "1.000,5". In addition, languages differ in the order that digits are entered (left to right vs. right to left) and the placement of the most significant digit.

The sixth bias is in handling dates: day - month - year, month - day - year, and year - month - day are all popular, as are differing punctuation characters between them.

The seventh bias is in handling calendars. Gregorian and Julian are both in use and quite similar, but there are lunar and other calendars also in use.

The eigth bias is how punctuation characters are handled. For example, in Spanish, questions are introduced with an inverted "?" character and terminated with "?".

The last bias is how hyphenation is handled. In English, it is often difficult or impossible to determine how a word should be hyphenated. In Portuguese, for example, it is very easy to determine how to hyphenate a word and is considered mandatory to handle hyphenation properly.

Questions to Probe Your Understanding

How visible should the representation of line boundaries in standard system-text files be to the user? (Easy)

Why is the ability to edit binary files useful? (Easy)

Is it reasonable to require that font, size, and attribute definitions always be properly nested? (Medium: note that the program can automatically make non-nested change requests into nested ones)

Define a representation for fonts, sizes, and attributes. (Medium)

Define a good representation for fonts, sizes, and attributes. (Hard)

Identify a bias that I missed. (Easy for non-U.S. readers, probably Hard for U.S. readers)

Copyright 1999 by Craig A. Finseth.

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