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Re: Proposed: stop subjecting right-hand sides of `char` family requests

From: Douglas McIlroy
Subject: Re: Proposed: stop subjecting right-hand sides of `char` family requests to character translation
Date: Sun, 2 Apr 2023 13:40:41 -0400

My mistake. I found the word "entity" in groff.7, not groff_char.7.
Nevertheless, thanks for the revised History section of groff_char.7.
It's a far more definitive  account than I could give from my own


On Sat, Apr 1, 2023 at 9:22 PM G. Branden Robinson
<> wrote:
> Hi Doug,
> At 2023-04-01T19:45:19-0400, Douglas McIlroy wrote:
> > I went to see what this proposal meant and ran into undefined jargon
> > in groff_char.7.
> This, and phrases like "in the actual version", are regrettable defects
> in the groff 1.22.4 version of this man page.
> The one in the groff 1.23.0.rc2 and .rc3 release candidates does not
> have them.  This page is one that I've heavily revised.  I'm attaching a
> copy for your consideration.  I'd particularly welcome your comments on
> the new "History" section.
> > Yes, info groff probably tells me more than I want to know. Still, I
> > expect the man page to be terse, but intelligible.
> Fair.  I hope the intelligibility of the present form is improved.
> > What's an "entity"?
> Suggestive of conceptual fuzziness on the part of the writer, I would
> propose.  But I can't blame them; the difficulty of comprehending
> groff's flexible and complex character to glyph transformation process
> is the main reason I have not yet revised that part of our Texinfo
> manual.
> > Fortunately, Dave Kemper's post shed light on this question.
> >
> > The first use of .char that came to mind was
> >         .char \[ntilde] \o'n~'
> > which would collide badly with the following ancient trick for
> > unbreakable, unpaddable space. (Ignore the question of whether the
> > tilde at hand is usable as a diacritical.)
> >         .tr ~
> >         a~b~c
> You may be one of a dwindling number of people for whom that ancient
> trick comes to mind.  :)  But we do continue to support it, and I see no
> reason to withdraw it.
> > This, I guess, is typical of the motivation for the change.
> I was spurred into this by noticing a problem last July with what I
> think was a historical troff document.  I can't lay my hands it now, but
> the following short example suggests the issue.
> $ cat EXPERIMENTS/tr-in-env.roff
> .nf
> .tr ab
> bab
> .ev 1
> bab
> .br
> .ev
> bab
> .pl \n(nlu
> This produces 3 lines of "bbb".
> The problem I observed, as best I can recall, was that a document
> temporarily used `tr` to make input more convenient.
> The trouble was, the same character they were translating turned up in
> one of their page headers or footers.
> So, depending on how the document got modified and the resulting
> placement of the `tr`-ed material, the headers/footers might get
> corrupted or might not.
> A lengthier, but contrived, example of this is at
> <>.
> I suppose there are workarounds one could coach the user to undertake in
> such a situation, but once I got to thinking about it, it struck me that
> there should be a cleaner division of responsibility between `tr` and
> `char`.
> My suggestion is twofold: (1) that `tr` should be used for permuting
> what we can term groff's internal character set; meaning the 94
> printable characters of ASCII/Basic Latin, and whatever special
> characters happen to be defined; and (2) `char` and `rchar` are for
> adding and removing members of the set of special characters.  (You can
> try to `rchar` an ordinary Basic Latin character; it will silently fail.
> I mean to make that no longer silent.[1])
> It is necessary to consider the impact of these processes on diversions.
> I don't presently think my proposal is disruptive to the status quo in
> that respect.  When a diversion is populated, special character
> definitions are already resolved, and just as with string
> interpolations, using the `unformat` request does not recover their
> original forms.
> Illustration (with groff 1.22.4):
> $ cat EXPERIMENTS/char-in-a-diversion.groff
> .nf
> .char \[zz] FNORD
> .di XX
> You didn't \[zz] this.
> .di
> Hello, world.
> diverted XX: \c
> .XX
> .unformat XX
> unformatted XX: \*[XX]
> .pl \n[nl]u
> $ nroff -Tascii EXPERIMENTS/char-in-a-diversion.groff
> Hello, world.
> diverted XX: You didn't FNORD this.
> unformatted XX: You didn't FNORD this.
> $
> > Suppose the change isn't made? What does .char do for you that .ds
> > doesn't? Certainly nothing essential in the example above. However, it
> > can avoid the ugliness of string invocations.
> I don't remember where I saw this trick, but you can use a
> `char`-defined object as a margin character, and I suppose just about
> anywhere else the language syntax is accepting of an atomic character.
> The utility of this comes in when realizing that someone might
> reasonably want to set a margin character in a particular typeface
> (maybe it's a dingbat--most of these don't have special character names)
> and/or in a certain color.
> Recasting the language of the 1.22.4 Texinfo manual, `char` is described
> as doing this to the RHS of its definition: "[the RHS] is processed in a
> temporary environment and the result is wrapped up into a single object.
> Compatibility mode is turned off and the escape character is set to '\'
> while [it] is being processed.  Any emboldening, constant spacing or
> track kerning is applied to this object rather than to individual
> characters in [it]."
> > I regard the potential benefit mentioned in the last sentence as
> > unpersuasive, but the potential catastrophe of the initial example as
> > tilting the scales toward the proposal.
> I think it would help distinguish and orthogonalize the language if
> `char` character definitions remained global to formatter state, and
> translations/transliterations with `tr` became properties of the
> environment.
> I suppose roff veterans are used to it, but my mind twists even when
> looking at my own example in Savannah #62691 (linked above).
> Namely,
> .tr @--@
> is not a no-op!  In fact, it works a lot like file descriptor
> redirections in the shell.
> foo >/dev/null 2>&1 | grep error
> Each left-hand member of a `tr` translation pair identifies a place in
> the translation "from" space, and each right-hand member a place in the
> "to" space.  The transform is then done atomically.  On occasions when I
> want to send throw standard output away but grep the standard error
> stream, I haltingly think through this same issue.
> Regards,
> Branden
> [1]

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