TIP 114: Eliminate Octal Parsing of Leading Zero Integer Strings

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by Aug 21.
Author:         Don Porter <dgp@users.sf.net>
Created:        16-Oct-2007
Type:           Project
State:          Draft
Vote:           Done
Tcl-Version:    9.0
Keywords:       octal


This TIP proposes elimination of Tcl's practice of using octal notation to interpret a string with a leading zero when an integer value is expected.

History and Rationale

There are several places in the syntax of several Tcl commands where an integer value may be accepted. Routines such as Tcl_GetInt() perform the task of parsing an integer value from the string value in these places. Ultimately, these routines have been built on C standard library functions such as strtol(). Due to this implementation choice, Tcl integer parsing has inherited features from strtol() including the feature that a leading zero in a string has been taken as a signal that the string is an integer value in octal format.

Several programmers and programs have hit this feature by surprise, resulting in nasty bugs such as:

 % proc m date {
      lassign [split $date -] y m d
      return [string index _JFMAMJJASOND $m]
 % m 2007-02-14
 % m 2007-12-25
 % m 2007-09-26
 bad index "09": must be integer?[+-]integer? or end?[+-]integer? (looks like invalid octal number)

There are very few places in Tcl scripts where this feature is actually useful. Octal format for integers simply isn't encountered all that often in most programming tasks tackled by Tcl scripts. The main counterexample is the use of octal format integers to describe filesystem permissions on unix systems. The Tcl commands that operate on filesystem permission values are open and file attributes, and it is a simple matter to directly code them to recognize octal format, rather that have then rely on octal parsing as a general integer value recognition feature. On the HEAD, these commands have already been so revised. With those few cases accounted for, it's been observed that removing this feature of Tcl integer parsing "will likely fix more scripts than it breaks."

The opportunity to make this change in Tcl 8.5 arises because we've already replaced our old parsing routines based on strtol() with our own number parser [249].


Revise all integer parsing in Tcl by making modifications to the TclParseNumber() routine. With reference to the state machine graph in [249], we change the exit edges of state integer[1]. Characters 0 - 7 and characters 8 - 9 should now lead to state integer[4], so that they continue decimal parsing, and not octal parsing. The states integer[2] and error[5] will now be accessible only if the character o or O is seen while in state integer[1] and there will no longer be any exit from those states when the characters . or e or E are observed.

This change to TclParseNumber() is achieved with a #define KILL_OCTAL in the file tclStrToD.c.


This change is an incompatibility. It's long been believed that such a change should not happen until Tcl 9 because of this, but over time the consensus belief has developed that far fewer programs and programmers will be harmed by the incompatibility than will be helped by removing the misfeature.

That said, the incompatibility is serious. The same string in the same place in a script can now have a completely different meaning. Before the change:

 % lindex {a b c d e f g h i j k} 010

After the change:

 % lindex {a b c d e f g h i j k} 010

This is not the usual situation where new feature causes scripts that were an error to become non-errors -- a compatible change.

This is also not a situation where a change causes legal scripts to become errors. Such a change would break scripts, but would at least leave behind scripts that raise noisy errors alerting about the breakage.

This is the most serious kind of incompatibility, where we replace a working script with another working script that does something completely different. An illustration of the problem from Tcl's own test suite highlights the danger. Some of Tcl's tests in io.test depend on the umask value, so that value is captured:

 set umaskValue [exec /bin/sh -c umask]

Note that the shell command umask returns a mask value as an integer in octal format. The test suite has relied on Tcl's built-in ability to recognize this format, and the expected result of test io-40.3 has been computed:

 format %04o [expr {0666 & ~$umaskValue}]

After the proposed change, $umaskValue is treated as a decimal number, and the wrong expected result is computed. (This test has already been updated on the HEAD to avoid such problems.)

It is not difficult to imagine more serious problems in scripts that make use of the result returned by the shell command umask where a file might be created or modified with completely unintended permissions as a result of the proposed change. Such scripts might easily raise security concerns.

Even in the light of the judgment that such (hopefully rare) compatibility issues are acceptable in exchange for the benefits of purging the misfeature, we really ought to consider seriously how we can alert those migrating to Tcl 8.5 to this possibility and to the need to examine their scripts for this issue.

Besides the impact on Tcl commands, this change may also cause incompatibilities in extensions, to the extent their commands rely on Tcl's integer parsing to support octal notation.

Rejected Alternatives

Motivated largely by the serious incompatibilities lurking here, a few people have suggested that some means be provided to toggle Tcl's integer parsing behavior between two modes, one which recognizes octal and one which does not. This idea appears inspired in part by the ::tcl_precision variable, which has long exercised control over Tcl's floating point number formatting.

While the motivation may be well-intended, this proposal is basically unworkable, and can't really help anybody. The point of the proposed change is to make simple code work as simple coders expect it to. Our original example proc can already be corrected like so:

 proc m date {
    scan $date %d-%d-%d y m d
    return [string index _JFMAMJJASOND $m]

The point of this proposal is to make the original code just work. It doesn't help to offer this complexity as a solution:

 % proc m date {
      set mode [tcl::unsupported::octal]
      tcl::unsupported::octal off
      lassign [split $date -] y m d
      set result [string index _JFMAMJJASOND $m]
      tcl::unsupported::octal $mode
      return $result

No one would choose that over just fixing the code to use scan, in which case this proposal won't be needed. Also, this kind of management of a shared mode setting cannot (easily and cheaply) be avoided, because at the point we need to control the Tcl number parser, the most specific context we have is the thread, so the mode has to be set thread-wide.

Likewise, the (hopefully rare) set of scripts that would actually want to turn octal parsing back on are not going to announce themselves. In order to know that

 tcl::unsupported::octal on

needs to be added to a script to make it function correctly, some kind of audit has to reach that conclusion, and once that conclusion is reached and the issues are understood, it's just as easy to insert scan %o in the proper places as it would be to insert the tcl::unsupported::octal stopgap.

In short, any coder finding themselves in a position to consider using a tcl::unsupported::octal tool, would quickly decide not to use it in favor of just fixing their code. Thus users of this feature are mythical, and it will not be implemented.


This TIP has been explicitly rejected as a feature for Tcl 8.5. Consensus was that the type of breakage it inherently induces is not acceptable in a minor version change.


This document is placed in the public domain.