Text​Output​Stream

print is among the most-used functions in the Swift standard library. Indeed, it’s the first function a programmer learns when writing “Hello, world!”. So it’s surprising how few of us are familiar with its other forms.

For instance, did you know that the actual signature of print is print(_:separator:terminator:)? Or that it had a variant named print(_:separator:terminator:to:)?

Shocking, I know.

It’s like learning that your best friend “Chaz” goes by his middle name and that his full legal name is actually “R. Buckminster Charles Lagrand Jr.” — oh, and also, they’ve had an identical twin the whole time.

Once you’ve taken a moment to collect yourself, read on to find out the whole truth about a function that you may have previously thought to need no further introduction.


Let’s start by taking a closer look at that function declaration from before:

func print<Target>(_ items: Any...,
                   separator: String = default,
                   terminator: String = default,
                   to output: inout Target)
    where Target : TextOutputStream

This overload of print takes a variable-length list of arguments, followed by separator and terminator parameters — both of which have default values.

  • separator is the string used to join the representation of each element in items into a single string. By default, this is a space (" ").
  • terminator is the string appended to the end of the printed representation. By default, this is a newline ("\n").

The last parameter, output takes a mutable instance of a generic Target type that conforms to the TextOutputStream protocol.

An instance of a type conforming to TextOutputStream can be passed to the print(_:to:) function to capture and redirect strings from standard output.

Implementing a Custom Text Output Stream Type

Due to the mercurial nature of Unicode, you can’t know what characters lurk within a string just by looking at it. Between combining marks, format characters, unsupported characters, variation sequences, ligatures, digraphs, and other presentational forms, a single extended grapheme cluster can contain much more than meets the eye.

So as an example, let’s create a custom type that conforms to TextOutputStream. Instead of writing a string to standard output verbatim, we’ll have it inspect each constituent code point.

Conforming to the TextOutputStream protocol is simply a matter of fulfilling the write(_:) method requirement.

protocol TextOutputStream {
    mutating func write(_ string: String)
}

In our implementation, we iterate over each Unicode.Scalar value in the passed string; the enumerated() collection method provides the current offset on each loop. At the top of the method, a guard statement bails out early if the string is empty or a newline (this reduces the amount of noise in the console).

struct UnicodeLogger: TextOutputStream {
    mutating func write(_ string: String) {
        guard !string.isEmpty && string != "\n" else {
            return
        }

        for (index, unicodeScalar) in
            string.unicodeScalars.lazy.enumerated()
        {
            let name = unicodeScalar.name ?? ""
            let codePoint = String(format: "U+%04X", unicodeScalar.value)
            print("\(index): \(unicodeScalar) \(codePoint)\t\(name)")
        }
    }
}

To use our new UnicodeLogger type, initialize it and assign it to a variable (with var) so that it can be passed as an inout argument. Anytime we want to get an X-ray of a string instead of merely printing its surface representation, we can tack on an additional parameter to our print statement.

Doing so allows us to reveal a secret about the emoji character 👨‍👩‍👧‍👧: it’s actually a sequence of four individual emoji joined by ZWJ characters — seven code points in total!

print("👨‍👩‍👧‍👧")
// Prints: "👨‍👩‍👧‍👧"

var logger = UnicodeLogger()
print("👨‍👩‍👧‍👧", to: &logger)
// Prints:
// 0: 👨 U+1F468    MAN
// 1:    U+200D     ZERO WIDTH JOINER
// 2: 👩 U+1F469    WOMAN
// 3:    U+200D     ZERO WIDTH JOINER
// 4: 👧 U+1F467    GIRL
// 5:    U+200D     ZERO WIDTH JOINER
// 6: 👧 U+1F467    GIRL

Ideas for Using Custom Text Output Streams

Now that we know about an obscure part of the Swift standard library, what can we do with it?

As it turns out, there are plenty of potential use cases for TextOutputStream. To get a better sense of what they are, consider the following examples:

Logging to Standard Error

By default, Swift print statements are directed to standard output (stdout). If you wanted to instead direct to standard error (stderr), you could create a new text output stream type and use it in the following way:

import func Darwin.fputs
import var Darwin.stderr

struct StderrOutputStream: TextOutputStream {
    mutating func write(_ string: String) {
        fputs(string, stderr)
    }
}

var standardError = StderrOutputStream()
print("Error!", to: &standardError)

Writing Output to a File

The previous example of writing to stderr can be generalized to write to any stream or file by instead creating an output stream to a FileHandle (for which standard error is accessible through a type property).

import Foundation

struct FileHandlerOutputStream: TextOutputStream {
    private let fileHandle: FileHandle
    let encoding: String.Encoding

    init(_ fileHandle: FileHandle, encoding: String.Encoding = .utf8) {
        self.fileHandle = fileHandle
        self.encoding = encoding
    }

    mutating func write(_ string: String) {
        if let data = string.data(using: encoding) {
            fileHandle.write(data)
        }
    }
}

Following this approach, you can customize print to write to a file instead of a stream.

let url = URL(fileURLWithPath: "/path/to/file.txt")
let fileHandle = try FileHandle(forWritingTo: url)
var output = FileHandlerOutputStream(fileHandle)

print("\(Date())", to: &output)

Escaping Streamed Output

As a final example, let’s imagine a situation in which you find yourself frequently copy-pasting console output into a form on some website. Unfortunately, the website has the unhelpful behavior of trying to parse < and > as if they were HTML.

Rather than taking an extra step to escape the text each time you post to the site, you could create a TextOutputStream that takes care of that for you automatically (in this case, we use an XML-escaping function that we found buried deep in Core Foundation).

import Foundation

struct XMLEscapingLogger: TextOutputStream {
    mutating func write(_ string: String) {
        guard !string.isEmpty && string != "\n",
            let xmlEscaped = CFXMLCreateStringByEscapingEntities(nil, string as NSString, nil)
        else {
            return
        }

        print(xmlEscaped)
    }
}

var logger = XMLEscapingLogger()
print("<3", to: &logger)
// Prints "&lt;3"

Printing is a familiar and convenient way for developers to understand the behavior of their code. It complements more comprehensive techniques like logging frameworks and debuggers, and — in the case of Swift — proves to be quite capable in its own right.

Have any other cool ideas for using TextOutputStream that you’d like to share? Let us know on Twitter!

NSMutableHipster

Questions? Corrections? Issues and pull requests are always welcome.

This article uses Swift version 4.2. Find status information for all articles on the status page.

Written by Mattt
Mattt

Mattt (@mattt) is a writer and developer in Portland, Oregon. He is the founder of NSHipster and Flight School, and the creator of several open source libraries, including AFNetworking and Alamofire.

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