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Escape sequences in C

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Title: Escape sequences in C  
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Escape sequences in C

Escape sequences are used in the programming languages C and C++, and also in many more languages (with some variations) like Java and C#. An escape sequence is a sequence of characters that does not represent itself when used inside a character or string literal, but is translated into another character or a sequence of characters that may be difficult or impossible to represent directly.

In C, all escape sequences consist of two or more characters, the first of which is the backslash, \; the remaining characters determine the interpretation of the escape sequence. For example, \n is an escape sequence that denotes a newline character. The remainder of this article focuses on C; other programming languages are likely to have different syntax and semantics.


Suppose we want to print out Hello, on one line, followed by world! on the next line. One could attempt to represent the string to be printed as a single literal as follows:

int main() {

This is not valid in C, since a string literal may not span multiple logical source lines. This can be worked around by printing the newline character using its numerical value (0x0a in ASCII),

int main() {
    printf("Hello,%cworld!", 0x0a);

This instructs the program to print Hello,, followed by the character whose numerical value is 0x0a, followed by world!. While this will indeed work when the machine uses the ASCII encoding, it will not work on systems that use other encodings, that have a different numerical value for the newline character. It is also not a good solution because it still does not allow us to represent a newline character inside a literal, and instead takes advantage of the semantics of printf. In order to solve these problems and ensure maximum portability between systems, C interprets \n inside a character or string literal as a newline character, whatever that may be on the target system:

int main() {

In this code, the escape sequence \n does not stand for a backslash followed by the letter n, because the backslash causes an "escape" from the normal way characters are interpreted by the compiler. After seeing the backslash, the compiler expects another character to complete the escape sequence, and then translates the escape sequence into the character it is intended to represent. Thus, "Hello,\nworld!" represents a string with an embedded newline, regardless of whether it is used inside printf or anywhere else.

This raises the issue of how to represent an actual backslash inside a literal. This is done by using the escape sequence \\, as seen in the next section.

Table of escape sequences

The following escape sequences are defined in standard C. This table also shows the values they map to in ASCII. However, these escape sequences can be used on any system with a C compiler, and may map to different values if the system does not use a character encoding based on ASCII.
Escape sequence Hex value in ASCII Character represented
\a 07 Alarm (Beep, Bell)
\b 08 Backspace
\f 0C Formfeed
\n 0A Newline (Line Feed); see notes below
\r 0D Carriage Return
\t 09 Horizontal Tab
\v 0B Vertical Tab
\\ 5C Backslash
\' 27 Single quotation mark
\" 22 Double quotation mark
\? 3F Question mark
\nnn any The character whose numerical value is given by nnn interpreted as an octal number
\xhh any The character whose numerical value is given by hh interpreted as a hexadecimal number


Each escape sequence in the above table maps to a single character, including \n. This is despite the fact that the platform may use more than one character to denote a newline, such as the MS-DOS/Windows CR-LF sequence, 0x0d 0x0a. The translation from 0x0a to 0x0d 0x0a on MS-DOS and Windows occurs when the character or string is written out to a file or to the console, but \n only creates a single character within the memory of the program itself.

A hex escape sequence must have at least one hex digit following \x, with no upper bound; it continues for as many hex digits as there are. Thus, for example, \xABCDEFG denotes the character with the numerical value ABCDEF16, followed by the letter G, which is not a hex digit. However, if the resulting integer value is too large to fit in a single character, the actual numerical value assigned is implementation-defined. Most platforms have 8-bit char types, which limits a useful hex escape sequence to two hex digits. However, hex escape sequences longer than two hex digits might be useful inside a wide character or string literal:

char s1[] = "\x12";       // single char with value 0x12 (18 in decimal)
char s1[] = "\x1234";     // single char with implementation-defined value, unless char is long enough
wchar_t s2[] = L"\x1234"; // single wchar_t with value 0x1234, provided wchar_t is long enough (16 bits suffices)

An octal escape sequence consists of \ followed by one, two, or three octal digits. The octal escape sequence ends when it either contains three octal digits already, or the next character is not an octal digit. For example, \11 is a single octal escape sequence denoting a character with numerical value 9 (11 in octal), rather than the escape sequence \1 followed by the digit 1. However, \1111 is the octal escape sequence \111 followed by the digit 1. In order to denote the character with numerical value 1, followed by the digit 1, one could use "\1""1", since C automatically concatenates adjacent string literals. Note that some three-digit octal escape sequences may be too large to fit in a single character; this results in an implementation-defined value for the character actually produced. The escape sequence \0 is a commonly used octal escape sequence, which denotes the null character, with value zero.

Non-standard escape sequences

A sequence such as \z is not a valid escape sequence according to the C standard as it is not found in the table above. The C standard requires such "invalid" escape sequences to be diagnosed (i.e., the compiler must print an error message). Notwithstanding this fact, some compilers may define additional escape sequences, with implementation-defined semantics.
Escape sequence Hex value in ASCII Character represented Supporting implementation
\e 1B Escape character GCC[1]

Universal character names

Since the C99 standard, C has also supported escape sequences that denote Unicode code points in string literals. Such escape sequences are called universal character names, and have the form \uxxxx or \Uxxxxxxxx, where x stands for a hex digit. Unlike the other escape sequences considered, a universal character name may expand into more than one code unit.

The sequence \uxxxx denotes the code point xxxx, interpreted as a hexadecimal number. The sequence \Uxxxxxxxx denotes the code point xxxxxxxx, interpreted as a hexadecimal number. (Therefore, code points located at U+10000 or higher must be denoted with the \U syntax, whereas lower code points may use \u or \U.) The code point is converted into a sequence of code units in the encoding of the destination type on the target system. For example, consider

char s1[] = "\xC0";
char s2[] = "\u00C0";
wchar_t s3[] = u"\xC0";
wchar_t s4[] = u"\u00C0";

The string s1 will contain a single char object (not counting the terminating null) whose numerical value, the actual value stored in memory, is in fact 0xC0. However, the string s2 will contain the character "À", U+00C0 LATIN CAPITAL LETTER A WITH GRAVE. It may contain more than one char; their number and values depend on the encoding used by the system. On a system that uses the UTF-8 encoding, the string s2 will contain two char objects, 0xC3 0x80. The string s3 contains a single wchar_t object, again with numerical value 0xC0. The string s4 contains the character "À" encoded into wchar_t objects. If the UTF-16 encoding is used, then s4 will also contain only a single wchar_t, 16 bits long, with numerical value 0x00C0. A universal character name such as \U0001F603 may be represented by a single wchar_t object if the UTF-32 encoding is used, or two if UTF-16 is used.

Importantly, the universal character name \u00C0 always denotes the character "À", regardless of what kind of string literal it is used in, or the encoding in use. Again, \U0001F603 always denotes the character at code point 1F60316, regardless of context. On the other hand, octal and hex escape sequences always denote certain sequences of numerical values, regardless of encoding. Therefore, universal character names are complementary to octal and hex escape sequences; while octal and hex escape sequences represent "physical" characters, universal character names represent code points, which may be thought of as "logical" characters.


  1. ^ "GCC 4.8.2 Manual". Retrieved 8 March 2014. 

See also

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