[Rd] Error in substring: invalid multibyte string

Tomas Kalibera tom@@@k@||ber@ @end|ng |rom gm@||@com
Mon Jun 29 09:29:42 CEST 2020

 From the user's (or package author's) point, all strings should always 
be valid in their declared encoding. If they are not, the result of 
string operations is undefined - it may be an error or warning, but also 
silently produced correct or incorrect result. There are R functions 
that check if a string is valid. In this example, the string was invalid 
in its declared encoding.

 From the viewpoint of R implementation (or of external software), some 
operations such as substring can be carried out in a well defined way 
even on strings with invalid characters or characters invalid in 
specific ways, usually only in some encodings (e.g. UTF-8), and the 
implementation is then more complicated. Some operations can't be well 
defined on such strings.

It may seem it would make sense to ban all invalid strings (not allow 
their creation) as not to mask errors like the one you have encountered, 
but it is sometimes better for debugging to be able to include invalid 
strings in error and diagnostic messages. Moreover, some systems support 
invalid strings in some operations also as they may appear in file 
names. On Windows, file names may include unpaired UTF-16 surrogates, 
which can't be represented in UTF-8. Some systems allow representing 
invalid strings in a custom way that is a valid string but preserves the 
information, only in some encodings (e.g. in UTF-8).

So differences in how invalid strings are treated by different R 
functions are to be expected. The same applies to differences wrt to 
external software. Some may be optimized for UTF-8 and support invalid 
strings in more cases (R does not support substring on invalid strings), 
of course other may have bugs or intentionally may not check strings for 
validity when that is perceived too slow in given operation.


On 6/28/20 12:38 AM, Toby Hocking wrote:
> Thanks for the quick response Ivan. readLines with encoding='latin1' works
> for me (on Ubuntu).
> However I was more concerned with the inconsistency in results between
> substr and regexpr. I was expecting that if one of them errors because of
> an unknown encoding then the other should as well. Even better, if regexpr
> works, why shouldn't substr work as well?
> Incidentally the analogous stringi function stri_sub works fine in this
> case:
>> stringi::stri_sub("<I>Jens Oehlschl\xe4gel-Akiyoshi", 1, 100)
> [1] "<I>Jens Oehlschl\xe4gel-Akiyoshi"
> But the stringi analog to nchar gives a similar warning:
>> stringi::stri_length("<I>Jens Oehlschl\xe4gel-Akiyoshi")
> [1] NA
> Warning message:
> In stringi::stri_length("<I>Jens Oehlschl\xe4gel-Akiyoshi") :
>    invalid UTF-8 byte sequence detected; try calling stri_enc_toutf8()
> On Sat, Jun 27, 2020 at 2:12 AM Ivan Krylov <krylov.r00t using gmail.com> wrote:
>> On Fri, 26 Jun 2020 15:57:06 -0700
>> Toby Hocking <tdhock5 using gmail.com> wrote:
>>> invalid multibyte string at '<e4>gel-A<6b>iyoshi'
>>> https://stat.ethz.ch/pipermail/r-devel/1999-November/author.html
>> The server says that the text is UTF-8:
>> curl -sI \
>>   https://stat.ethz.ch/pipermail/r-devel/1999-November/author.html | \
>>   grep Content-Type
>> # Content-Type: text/html; charset=UTF-8
>> But it's not, at least not all of it. If you ask readLines to mark
>> the text as Latin-1, you get Jens Oehlschlägel-Akiyoshi without the
>> mojibake and invalid multi-byte characters:
>> x <- readLines(
>>   'https://stat.ethz.ch/pipermail/r-devel/1999-November/author.html',
>>   encoding = 'latin1'
>> )[28]
>> substr(x, 1, 100)
>> # [1] "<I>Jens Oehlschlägel-Akiyoshi"
>> The behaviour we observe when encoding = 'latin1' is not specified
>> results from returned lines having "unknown" encoding. The substr()
>> implementation tries to interpret such strings according to multi-byte C
>> locale rules (using mbrtowc(3)). On my system (yours too, probably, if
>> it's GNU/Linux or macOS), the multi-byte C locale encoding is UTF-8,
>> and this Latin-1 string does not result in valid code points when
>> decoded as UTF-8.
>> --
>> Best regards,
>> Ivan
> 	[[alternative HTML version deleted]]
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