Digraphs and trigraphs

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

In computer programming, digraphs and trigraphs are sequences of two and three characters respectively, appearing in source code, which a programming language specification requires an implementation of that language to treat as if they were one other character.

Various reasons exist for using digraphs and trigraphs: keyboards may not have keys to cover the entire character set of the language, input of special characters may be difficult, text editors may reserve some characters for special use and so on. Trigraphs might also be used for some EBCDIC code pages that lack characters such as { and }.


The basic character set of the C programming language is a subset of the ASCII character set that includes nine characters which lie outside the ISO 646 invariant character set. This can pose a problem for writing source code when the encoding (and possibly keyboard) being used does not support any of these nine characters. The ANSI C committee invented trigraphs as a way of entering source code using keyboards that support any version of the ISO 646 character set.


Trigraphs are not commonly encountered outside compiler test suites.[1] Some compilers support an option to turn recognition of trigraphs off, or disable trigraphs by default and require an option to turn them on. Some can issue warnings when they encounter trigraphs in source files. Borland supplied a separate program, the trigraph preprocessor, to be used only when trigraph processing is desired (the rationale was to maximise speed of compilation).

Language support[edit]

Different systems have different sets of defined trigraphs:


Pascal programming language supports digraphs (., .), (* and *) for [, ], { and } respectively. Unlike all other cases mentioned here, (* and *) were in wide use.


Vim text editor supports digraphs for actual entry of text characters, following RFC 1345.

GNU Screen[edit]

GNU Screen has a digraph command, bound to ^A ^V by default.


The J programming language uses dot and colon characters to extend the meaning of the basic characters available. These do not have a single-character equivalent.


The C preprocessor replaces all occurrences of the following nine trigraph sequences by their single-character equivalents before any other processing.

A programmer may want to place two question marks together yet not have the compiler treat them as introducing a trigraph. The C grammar does not permit two consecutive ? tokens, so the only places in a C file where two question marks in a row may be used are in multi-character constants, string literals, and comments. To safely place two consecutive question marks within a string literal, the programmer can use string concatenation "...?""?..." or an escape sequence "...?\?...".

Trigraph Equivalent
??= #
??/ \
??' ^
??( [
??) ]
??! |
??< {
??> }
??- ~

??? is not itself a trigraph sequence, but when followed by a character such as - it will be interpreted as ? + ??-, as in the example below which has 16 (5x3+1) ?s before the /.

The ??/ trigraph can be used to introduce an escaped newline for line splicing; this must be taken into account for correct and efficient handling of trigraphs within the preprocessor. It can also cause surprises, particularly within comments. For example:

 // Will the next line be executed????????????????/

which is a single logical comment line (used in C++ and C99), and

 * A comment *??/

which is a correctly formed block comment.

In 1994 a normative amendment to the C standard[specify], included in C99, supplied digraphs as more readable alternatives to five of the trigraphs. They are:

Digraph Equivalent
<: [
:> ]
<% {
%> }
%: #

Unlike trigraphs, digraphs are handled during tokenization, and any digraph must always represent a full token by itself, or compose the token %:%: replacing the preprocessor concatenation token ##. If a digraph sequence occurs inside another token, for example a quoted string, or a character constant, it will not be replaced.


C++ behaves like C (including the C99 additions), but with the following additional tokens:

Token Equivalent
%:%: ##
and &&
bitor |
or ||
xor ^
compl ~
bitand &
and_eq &=
or_eq |=
xor_eq ^=
not !
not_eq !=

Note, %:%: is treated as a single token, rather than two occurrences of %:.

The C++ Standard makes this comment with regards to the term "digraph":[2]

The term "digraph" (token consisting of two characters) is not perfectly descriptive, since one of the alternative preprocessing-tokens is %:%: and of course several primary tokens contain two characters. Nonetheless, those alternative tokens that aren’t lexical keywords are colloquially known as "digraphs".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jones, Derek M. "sentence 117". The New C Standard: An Economic and Cultural Commentary. 
  2. ^ http://www.open-std.org/jtc1/sc22/wg21/docs/papers/2012/n3337.pdf

External links[edit]