[Python-3000] PEP: str(container) should call str(item), not repr(item)

Oleg Broytmann phd at phd.pp.ru
Thu May 29 21:21:57 CEST 2008

Hello. A draft for a discussion.

Title: str(container) should call str(item), not repr(item)
Version: $Revision$
Last-Modified: $Date$
Author: Oleg Broytmann <phd at phd.pp.ru>,
        Jim Jewett <jimjjewett at gmail.com>
Discussions-To: python-3000 at python.org
Status: Draft
Type: Standards Track
Content-Type: text/plain
Created: 27-May-2008
Post-History: 28-May-2008


    This document discusses the advantages and disadvantages of the
    current implementation of str(container).  It also discusses the
    pros and cons of a different approach - to call str(item) instead
    of repr(item).


    Currently str(container) calls repr on items.  Arguments for it:
    -- containers refuse to guess what the user wants to see on
       str(container) - surroundings, delimiters, and so on;
    -- repr(item) usually displays type information - apostrophes
       around strings, class names, etc.

    Arguments against:
    -- it's illogical; str() is expected to call __str__ if it exists,
       not __repr__;
    -- there is no standard way to print a container's content calling
       items' __str__, that's inconvenient in cases where __str__ and
       __repr__ return different results;
    -- repr(item) sometimes do wrong things (hex-escapes non-ascii
       strings, e.g.)

    This PEP proposes to change how str(container) works.  It is
    proposed to mimic how repr(container) works except one detail
    - call str on items instead of repr.  This allows a user to choose
    what results she want to get - from item.__repr__ or item.__str__.

Current situation

    Most container types (tuples, lists, dicts, sets, etc.) do not
    implement __str__ method, so str(container) calls
    container.__repr__, and container.__repr__, once called, forgets
    it is called from str and always calls repr on the container's

    This behaviour has advantages and disadvantages.  One advantage is
    that most items are represented with type information - strings
    are surrounded by apostrophes, instances may have both class name
    and instance data:

        >>> print([42, '42'])
        [42, '42']
        >>> print([Decimal('42'), datetime.now()])
        [Decimal("42"), datetime.datetime(2008, 5, 27, 19, 57, 43, 485028)]

    The disadvantage is that __repr__ often returns technical data
    (like '<object at address>') or unreadable string (hex-encoded
    string if the input is non-ascii string):

        >>> print(['тест'])

    One of the motivations for PEP 3138 is that neither repr nor str
    will allow the sensible printing of dicts whose keys are non-ascii
    text strings.  Now that unicode identifiers are allowed, it
    includes Python's own attribute dicts.  This also includes JSON
    serialization (and caused some hoops for the json lib).

    PEP 3138 proposes to fix this by breaking the "repr is safe ASCII"
    invariant, and changing the way repr (which is used for
    persistence) outputs some objects, with system-dependent failures.

    Changing how str(container) works would allow easy debugging in
    the normal case, and retrain the safety of ASCII-only for the
    machine-readable  case.  The only downside is that str(x) and
    repr(x) would more often be different -- but only in those cases
    where the current almost-the-same version is insufficient.

    It also seems illogical that str(container) calls repr on items
    instead of str.  It's only logical to expect following code

        class Test:
            def __str__(self):
                return "STR"

            def __repr__(self):
                return "REPR"

        test = Test()

    to print


    where it actually prints


    Especially it is illogical to see that print in Python 2 uses str
    if it is called on what seems to be a tuple:

        >>> print Decimal('42'), datetime.now()
        42 2008-05-27 20:16:22.534285

    where on an actual tuple it prints

        >>> print((Decimal('42'), datetime.now()))
        (Decimal("42"), datetime.datetime(2008, 5, 27, 20, 16, 27, 937911))

A different approach - call str(item)

    For example, with numbers it is often only the value that people
    care about.

        >>> print Decimal('3')

    But putting the value in a list forces users to read the type
    information, exactly as if repr had been called for the benefit of
    a machine:

        >>> print [Decimal('3')]

    After this change, the type information would not clutter the str

        >>> print "%s".format([Decimal('3')])
        >>> str([Decimal('3')])  # ==

    But it would still be available if desired:

        >>> print "%r".format([Decimal('3')])
        >>> repr([Decimal('3')])  # ==

    There is a number of strategies to fix the problem.  The most
    radical is to change __repr__ so it accepts a new parameter (flag)
    "called from str, so call str on items, not repr".  The
    drawback of the proposal is that every __repr__ implementation
    must be changed.  Introspection could help a bit (inspect __repr__
    before calling if it accepts 2 or 3 parameters), but introspection
    doesn't work on classes written in C, like all builtin containers.

    Less radical proposal is to implement __str__ methods for builtin
    container types.  The obvious drawback is a duplication of effort
    - all those __str__ and __repr__ implementations are only differ
    in one small detail - if they call str or repr on items.

    The most conservative proposal is not to change str at all but
    to allow developers to implement their own application- or
    library-specific pretty-printers.  The drawback is again
    a multiplication of effort and proliferation of many small
    specific container-traversal algorithms.

Backward compatibility

    In those cases where type information is more important than
    usual, it will still be possible to get the current results by
    calling repr explicitly.


    This document has been placed in the public domain.

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     Oleg Broytmann            http://phd.pp.ru/            phd at phd.pp.ru
           Programmers don't die, they just GOSUB without RETURN.

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