The Common Lisp Cookbook – Strings

The most important thing to know about strings in Common Lisp is probably that they are arrays and thus also sequences. This implies that all concepts that are applicable to arrays and sequences also apply to strings. If you can’t find a particular string function, make sure you’ve also searched for the more general array or sequence functions. We’ll only cover a fraction of what can be done with and to strings here.

Some external libraries available on Quicklisp bring some more functionality or some shorter ways to do.

  • cl-string defines functions such as split, join, replace, insert, starts-with, ends-with, functions to change case,…
  • str defines trim, words, unwords, lines, unlines, concat, blankp,…
  • cl-change-case has functions to convert strings between camelCase, param-case, snake_case and more.

Accessing Substrings

As a string is a sequence, you can access substrings with the SUBSEQ function. The index into the string is, as always, zero-based. The third, optional, argument is the index of the first character which is not a part of the substring, it is not the length of the substring.

* (defparameter *my-string* (string "Groucho Marx"))
* (subseq *my-string* 8)
* (subseq *my-string* 0 7)
* (subseq *my-string* 1 5)

You can also manipulate the substring if you use SUBSEQ together with SETF.

* (defparameter *my-string* (string "Harpo Marx"))
* (subseq *my-string* 0 5)
* (setf (subseq *my-string* 0 5) "Chico")
* *my-string*
"Chico Marx"

But note that the string isn’t “stretchable”. To cite from the HyperSpec: “If the subsequence and the new sequence are not of equal length, the shorter length determines the number of elements that are replaced.” For example:

* (defparameter *my-string* (string "Karl Marx"))
* (subseq *my-string* 0 4)
* (setf (subseq *my-string* 0 4) "Harpo")
* *my-string*
"Harp Marx"
* (subseq *my-string* 4)
" Marx"
* (setf (subseq *my-string* 4) "o Marx")
"o Marx"
* *my-string*
"Harpo Mar"

Accessing Individual Characters

You can use the function CHAR to access individual characters of a string. CHAR can also be used in conjunction with SETF.

* (defparameter *my-string* (string "Groucho Marx"))
* (char *my-string* 11)
* (char *my-string* 7)
* (char *my-string* 6)
* (setf (char *my-string* 6) #\y)
* *my-string*
"Grouchy Marx"

Note that there’s also SCHAR. If efficiency is important, SCHAR can be a bit faster where appropriate.

Because strings are arrays and thus sequences, you can also use the more generic functions AREF and ELT (which are more general while CHAR might be implemented more efficiently).

* (defparameter *my-string* (string "Groucho Marx"))
* (aref *my-string* 3)
* (elt *my-string* 8)

Each character in a string has an integer code. The range of recognized codes and Lisp’s ability to print them is directed related to your implementation’s character set support, e.g. ISO-8859-1, or Unicode. Here are some examples in SBCL of UTF-8 which encodes characters as 1 to 4 8 bit bytes. The first example shows a character outside the first 128 chars, or what is considered the normal Latin character set. The second example shows a multibyte encoding (beyond the value 255). Notice the Lisp reader can round-trip characters by name.

* (stream-external-format *standard-output*)

* (code-char 200)


* (code-char 1488)

* (char-code #\HEBREW_LETTER_ALEF)

Check out the UTF-8 Wikipedia article for the range of supported characters and their encodings.

Manipulating Parts of a String

There’s a slew of (sequence) functions that can be used to manipulate a string and we’ll only provide some examples here. See the sequences dictionary in the HyperSpec for more.

* (remove #\o "Harpo Marx")
"Harp Marx"
* (remove #\a "Harpo Marx")
"Hrpo Mrx"
* (remove #\a "Harpo Marx" :start 2)
"Harpo Mrx"
* (remove-if #'upper-case-p "Harpo Marx")
"arpo arx"
* (substitute #\u #\o "Groucho Marx")
"Gruuchu Marx"
* (substitute-if #\_ #'upper-case-p "Groucho Marx")
"_roucho _arx"
* (defparameter *my-string* (string "Zeppo Marx"))
* (replace *my-string* "Harpo" :end1 5)
"Harpo Marx"
* *my-string*
"Harpo Marx"

Another function that can be frequently used (but not part of the ANSI standard) is replace-all. This function provides an easy functionality for search/replace operations on a string, by returning a new string in which all the occurences of the ‘part’ in string is replaced with ‘replacement’”.

* (replace-all "Groucho Marx Groucho" "Groucho" "ReplacementForGroucho")
"ReplacementForGroucho Marx ReplacementForGroucho"

One of the implementations of replace-all is as follows:

(defun replace-all (string part replacement &key (test #'char=))
"Returns a new string in which all the occurences of the part
is replaced with replacement."
    (with-output-to-string (out)
      (loop with part-length = (length part)
            for old-pos = 0 then (+ pos part-length)
            for pos = (search part string
                              :start2 old-pos
                              :test test)
            do (write-string string out
                             :start old-pos
                             :end (or pos (length string)))
            when pos do (write-string replacement out)
            while pos)))

However, bear in mind that the above code is not optimized for long strings; if you intend to perform such an operation on very long strings, files, etc. please consider using cl-ppcre regular expressions and string processing library which is heavily optimized.

Concatenating Strings

The name says it all: CONCATENATE is your friend. Note that this a generic sequence function and you have to provide the result type as the first argument.

* (concatenate 'string "Karl" " " "Marx")
"Karl Marx"
* (concatenate 'list "Karl" " " "Marx")
(#\K #\a #\r #\l #\Space #\M #\a #\r #\x)

If you have to construct a string out of many parts, all of these calls to CONCATENATE seem wasteful, though. There are at least three other good ways to construct a string piecemeal, depending on what exactly your data is. If you build your string one character at a time, make it an adjustable VECTOR (a one-dimensional ARRAY) of type character with a fill-pointer of zero, then use VECTOR-PUSH-EXTEND on it. That way, you can also give hints to the system if you can estimate how long the string will be. (See the optional third argument to VECTOR-PUSH-EXTEND.)

* (defparameter *my-string* (make-array 0
                                        :element-type 'character
                                        :fill-pointer 0
                                        :adjustable t))
* *my-string*
* (dolist (char '(#\Z #\a #\p #\p #\a))
    (vector-push-extend char *my-string*))
* *my-string*

If the string will be constructed out of (the printed representations of) arbitrary objects, (symbols, numbers, characters, strings, …), you can use FORMAT with an output stream argument of NIL. This directs FORMAT to return the indicated output as a string.

* (format nil "This is a string with a list ~A in it"
          '(1 2 3))
"This is a string with a list (1 2 3) in it"

We can use the looping constructs of the FORMAT mini language to emulate CONCATENATE.

* (format nil "The Marx brothers are:~{ ~A~}."
          '("Groucho" "Harpo" "Chico" "Zeppo" "Karl"))
"The Marx brothers are: Groucho Harpo Chico Zeppo Karl."

FORMAT can do a lot more processing but it has a relatively arcane syntax. After this last example, you can find the details in the CLHS section about formatted output.

* (format nil "The Marx brothers are:~{ ~A~^,~}."
          '("Groucho" "Harpo" "Chico" "Zeppo" "Karl"))
"The Marx brothers are: Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, Karl."

Another way to create a string out of the printed representation of various object is using WITH-OUTPUT-TO-STRING. The value of this handy macro is a string containing everything that was output to the string stream within the body to the macro. This means you also have the full power of FORMAT at your disposal, should you need it.

* (with-output-to-string (stream)
    (dolist (char '(#\Z #\a #\p #\p #\a #\, #\Space))
      (princ char stream))
    (format stream "~S - ~S" 1940 1993))
"Zappa, 1940 - 1993"

Processing a String One Character at a Time

Use the MAP function to process a string one character at a time.

* (defparameter *my-string* (string "Groucho Marx"))
* (map 'string #'(lambda (c) (print c)) *my-string*)
"Groucho Marx"

Or do it with LOOP.

* (loop for char across "Zeppo"
        collect char)
(#\Z #\e #\p #\p #\o)

Reversing a String by Word or Character

Reversing a string by character is easy using the built-in REVERSE function (or its destructive counterpart NREVERSE).

*(defparameter *my-string* (string "DSL"))
* (reverse *my-string*)

There’s no one-liner in CL to reverse a string by word (like you would do it in Perl with split and join). You either have to use function from an external library like SPLIT-SEQUENCE or you have to roll your own solution. Here’s an attempt:

* (defun split-by-one-space (string)
    "Returns a list of substrings of string
divided by ONE space each.
Note: Two consecutive spaces will be seen as
if there were an empty string between them."
    (loop for i = 0 then (1+ j)
          as j = (position #\Space string :start i)
          collect (subseq string i j)
          while j))
* (split-by-one-space "Singing in the rain")
("Singing" "in" "the" "rain")
* (split-by-one-space "Singing in the  rain")
("Singing" "in" "the" "" "rain")
* (split-by-one-space "Cool")
* (split-by-one-space " Cool ")
("" "Cool" "")
* (defun join-string-list (string-list)
    "Concatenates a list of strings
and puts spaces between the elements."
    (format nil "~{~A~^ ~}" string-list))
* (join-string-list '("We" "want" "better" "examples"))
"We want better examples"
* (join-string-list '("Really"))
* (join-string-list '())
* (join-string-list
     "Reverse this sentence by word")))
"word by sentence this Reverse"

Controlling Case

Common Lisp has a couple of functions to control the case of a string.

* (string-upcase "cool")
* (string-upcase "Cool")
* (string-downcase "COOL")
* (string-downcase "Cool")
* (string-capitalize "cool")
* (string-capitalize "cool example")
"Cool Example"

These functions take :START and :END keyword arguments so you can optionally only manipulate a part of the string. They also have destructive counterparts whose names starts with “N”.

* (string-capitalize "cool example" :start 5)
"cool Example"
* (string-capitalize "cool example" :end 5)
"Cool example"
* (defparameter *my-string* (string "BIG"))
* (defparameter *my-downcase-string* (nstring-downcase *my-string*))
* *my-downcase-string*
* *my-string*

Note this potential caveat: According to the HyperSpec, “for STRING-UPCASE, STRING-DOWNCASE, and STRING-CAPITALIZE, string is not modified. However, if no characters in string require conversion, the result may be either string or a copy of it, at the implementation’s discretion.” This implies the last result in the following example is implementation-dependent - it may either be “BIG” or “BUG”. If you want to be sure, use COPY-SEQ.

* (defparameter *my-string* (string "BIG"))
* (defparameter *my-upcase-string* (string-upcase *my-string*))
* (setf (char *my-string* 1) #\U)
* *my-string*
* *my-upcase-string*

Trimming Blanks from the Ends of a String

Not only can you trim blanks, but you can get rid of arbitary characters. The functions STRING-TRIM, STRING-LEFT-TRIM and STRING-RIGHT-TRIM return a substring of their second argument where all characters that are in the first argument are removed off the beginning and/or the end. The first argument can be any sequence of characters.

* (string-trim " " " trim me ")
"trim me"
* (string-trim " et" " trim me ")
"rim m"
* (string-left-trim " et" " trim me ")
"rim me "
* (string-right-trim " et" " trim me ")
" trim m"
* (string-right-trim '(#\Space #\e #\t) " trim me ")
" trim m"
* (string-right-trim '(#\Space #\e #\t #\m) " trim me ")

Note: The caveat mentioned in the section about Controlling Case also applies here.

Converting between Symbols and Strings

The function INTERN will “convert” a string to a symbol. Actually, it will check whether the symbol denoted by the string (its first argument) is already accessible in the package (its second, optional, argument which defaults to the current package) and enter it, if necessary, into this package. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to explain all the concepts involved and to address the second return value of this function. See the CLHS chapter about packages for details.

Note that the case of the string is relevant.

* (in-package "COMMON-LISP-USER")
#<The COMMON-LISP-USER package, 35/44 internal, 0/9 external>
* (intern "MY-SYMBOL")
* (intern "MY-SYMBOL")
* (export 'MY-SYMBOL)
* (intern "MY-SYMBOL")
* (intern "My-Symbol")
* (intern "MY-SYMBOL" "KEYWORD")
* (intern "MY-SYMBOL" "KEYWORD")

To do the opposite, convert from a symbol to a string, use SYMBOL-NAME or STRING.

* (symbol-name 'MY-SYMBOL)
* (symbol-name 'my-symbol)
* (symbol-name '|my-symbol|)
* (string 'howdy)

Converting between Characters and Strings

You can use COERCE to convert a string of length 1 to a character. You can also use COERCE to convert any sequence of characters into a string. You can not use COERCE to convert a character to a string, though - you’ll have to use STRING instead.

* (coerce "a" 'character)
* (coerce (subseq "cool" 2 3) 'character)
* (coerce "cool" 'list)
(#\c #\o #\o #\l)
* (coerce '(#\h #\e #\y) 'string)
* (coerce (nth 2 '(#\h #\e #\y)) 'character)
* (defparameter *my-array* (make-array 5 :initial-element #\x))
* *my-array*
#(#\x #\x #\x #\x #\x)
* (coerce *my-array* 'string)
* (string 'howdy)
* (string #\y)
* (coerce #\y 'string)
#\y can't be converted to type STRING.
   [Condition of type SIMPLE-TYPE-ERROR]

Finding an Element of a String

Use FIND, POSITION, and their -IF counterparts to find characters in a string.

* (find #\t "The Hyperspec contains approximately 110,000 hyperlinks." :test #'equal)
* (find #\t "The Hyperspec contains approximately 110,000 hyperlinks." :test #'equalp)
* (find #\z "The Hyperspec contains approximately 110,000 hyperlinks." :test #'equalp)
* (find-if #'digit-char-p "The Hyperspec contains approximately 110,000 hyperlinks.")
* (find-if #'digit-char-p "The Hyperspec contains approximately 110,000 hyperlinks." :from-end t)
* (position #\t "The Hyperspec contains approximately 110,000 hyperlinks." :test #'equal)
* (position #\t "The Hyperspec contains approximately 110,000 hyperlinks." :test #'equalp)
* (position-if #'digit-char-p "The Hyperspec contains approximately 110,000 hyperlinks.")
* (position-if #'digit-char-p "The Hyperspec contains approximately 110,000 hyperlinks." :from-end t)

Or use COUNT and friends to count characters in a string.

* (count #\t "The Hyperspec contains approximately 110,000 hyperlinks." :test #'equal)
* (count #\t "The Hyperspec contains approximately 110,000 hyperlinks." :test #'equalp)
* (count-if #'digit-char-p "The Hyperspec contains approximately 110,000 hyperlinks.")
* (count-if #'digit-char-p "The Hyperspec contains approximately 110,000 hyperlinks." :start 38)

Finding a Substring of a String

The function SEARCH can find substrings of a string.

* (search "we" "If we can't be free we can at least be cheap")
* (search "we" "If we can't be free we can at least be cheap" :from-end t)
* (search "we" "If we can't be free we can at least be cheap" :start2 4)
* (search "we" "If we can't be free we can at least be cheap" :end2 5 :from-end t)
* (search "FREE" "If we can't be free we can at least be cheap")
* (search "FREE" "If we can't be free we can at least be cheap" :test #'char-equal)

Converting a String to a Number

CL provides the PARSE-INTEGER to convert a string representation of an integer to the corresponding numeric value. The second return value is the index into the string where the parsing stopped.

* (parse-integer "42")
* (parse-integer "42" :start 1)
* (parse-integer "42" :end 1)
* (parse-integer "42" :radix 8)
* (parse-integer " 42 ")
* (parse-integer " 42 is forty-two" :junk-allowed t)
* (parse-integer " 42 is forty-two")

Error in function PARSE-INTEGER:
   There's junk in this string: " 42 is forty-two".

PARSE-INTEGER doesn’t understand radix specifiers like #X, nor is there a built-in function to parse other numeric types. You could use READ-FROM-STRING in this case, but be aware that the full reader is in effect if you’re using this function.

* (read-from-string "#X23")
* (read-from-string "4.5")
* (read-from-string "6/8")
* (read-from-string "#C(6/8 1)")
#C(3/4 1)
* (read-from-string "1.2e2")
* (read-from-string "symbol")
* (defparameter *foo* 42)
* (read-from-string "#.(setq *foo* \"gotcha\")")
* *foo*

Converting a Number to a String

The general function WRITE-TO-STRING or one of its simpler variants PRIN1-TO-STRING or PRINC-TO-STRING may be used to convert a number to a string. With WRITE-TO-STRING, the :base keyword argument may be used to change the output base for a single call. To change the output base globally, set print-base which defaults to 10. Remember in Lisp, rational numbers are represented as quotients of two integers even when converted to strings.

* (write-to-string 250)
* (write-to-string 250.02)
* (write-to-string 250 :base 5)
* (write-to-string (/ 1 3))

Comparing Strings

The general functions EQUAL and EQUALP can be used to test whether two strings are equal. The strings are compared element-by-element, either in a case-sensitive manner (EQUAL) or not (EQUALP). There’s also a bunch of string-specific comparison functions. You’ll want to use these if you’re deploying implementation-defined attributes of characters. Check your vendor’s documentation in this case.

Here are a few examples. Note that all functions that test for inequality return the position of the first mismatch as a generalized boolean. You can also use the generic sequence function MISMATCH if you need more versatility.

* (string= "Marx" "Marx")
* (string= "Marx" "marx")
* (string-equal "Marx" "marx")
* (string< "Groucho" "Zeppo")
* (string< "groucho" "Zeppo")
* (string-lessp "groucho" "Zeppo")
* (mismatch "Harpo Marx" "Zeppo Marx" :from-end t :test #'char=)