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A few observations regarding tbl

From: Oliver Corff
Subject: A few observations regarding tbl
Date: Tue, 15 Jun 2021 12:39:02 +0200
User-agent: Mozilla/5.0 (X11; Linux x86_64; rv:78.0) Gecko/20100101 Thunderbird/78.10.1

Dear All,

my huge text project which involved typesetting approx. 1,300 tables,
tiny, small, large and huge, demonstrated that tbl is a remarkably
powerful and reliable tool for this work, and I can say with confidence
that the question which type of table software to use (LaTeX? (x)html?
others?) was best answered by tbl which helped me recreate tables with a
fidelity so close to the printed sources that the uninitiated reader
could not tell an image of the page from the typeset reproduction.

I came across a few very minor discrepancies between expected and actual
behaviour, though.

1) For the global option "tab(x)", the man page says:

    tab(x) Use the character x instead of a tab to separate items in a
line of input data.

This works as long as x is a 7-bit ascii character, it does not work
with utf-8 characters. E.g.: "tab(|)" (with the pipe symbol) works,
"tab(¦)" does not work and yields the message: "argument to `tab' option
must be a single character".

I suggest either specifying "7-bit ascii character" in the manpage
and/or make the tbl parser utf8-aware.

2) The global option "nospaces", according to the manpage, is described as:

    Ignore leading and trailing spaces in data items (GNU tbl only).

The following point may be a question of correct interpretation of this
statement. Does the underbar "_" qualify as a data item in this
terminology? I positively think so, because the manpage states

    If  a  data  line  consists of only ‘_’ or ‘=’, a single or double
line, respectively, is drawn across the table at that point;

If my data line consists of a single '_', that line is drawn. However,
if that '_' is followed by spurious whitespace, then only the '_'
appears in the first cell, and no line is drawn, or a line spanning the
first cell only is drawn. From a logical point of view, this is clear,
as the statement says "consists of only ...", but the nospaces option
does not seem to work here as expected.

These two issues are true trifles and easy to bypass, that's why I say
"observations" rather than "bugs".

Best regards,


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