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Concise Text Encoding

Concise Text Encoding (CTE) is the text variant of Concise Encoding: a general purpose, human and machine friendly, compact representation of semi-structured hierarchical data.

The text format aims to present data in a human friendly way, encoding data in a manner that can be easily and unambiguously edited in a UTF-8 capable text editor while maintaining 1:1 compatibility with the binary format (which aims for compactness and machine processing efficiency).

CTE documents MUST follow the Concise Encoding structural rules. Many terms used in this document are defined there.


Version 1 (prerelease)


Terms and Conventions

The following bolded, capitalized terms have specific meanings in this specification:

Term Meaning
MUST (NOT) If this directive is not adhered to, the document or implementation is invalid/non-conformant.
SHOULD (NOT) Every effort should be made to follow this directive, but the document/implementation is still valid if not followed.
MAY (NOT) It is up to the implementation to decide whether to do something or not.
CAN Refers to a possibility which MUST be accommodated by the implementation.
CANNOT Refers to a situation which MUST NOT be allowed by the implementation.
OPTIONAL(LY) The implementation MUST support both the existence and the absence of the specified item.
OPTION(S) Configuration option(s) that implementations MUST provide.

Sample data will generally be represented as follows:

  • Character sequences are enclosed within backticks: this is a character sequence
  • Byte sequences are represented as a series of two-digit hexadecimal values, enclosed within backticks and square brackets: [f1 33 91]


A CTE document is a UTF-8 encoded text document containing data arranged in an ad-hoc hierarchical fashion.

All characters in a CTE document MUST be text-safe. Text-unsafe characters MUST only be represented using escape sequences (where allowed). Validation of text-safety MUST occur before processing escape-sequences. All other validation of string-like values MUST occur after decoding any escape sequences contained within.

Structural whitespace is used to separate elements in a container. In maps, the key and value portions of a key-value pair are separated by an equals character (=) and possible structural whitespace. The key-value pairs themselves are separated by structural whitespace. Extraneous structural whitespace is ignored.


  • CTE v1 empty document: c1 null
  • CTE v1 document containing the top-level integer value 1000: c1 1000
  • CTE v1 document containing a top-level list: c1 ["a" "b" "c"]
  • CTE v1 document containing a top-level map: c1 {"a"=1 "b"=2 "c"=3}

Human Editability

A CTE document MUST be editable by a human. This means that it MUST contain only valid UTF-8 characters and sequences that can actually be viewed, entered and modified in a UTF-8 capable text editor. Unicode runes that have no width or visibility or direct input method, or are reserved or permanently marked as non-characters, MUST not be present in the document.

In the spirit of human editability:

  • Implementations SHOULD avoid outputting characters that editors tend to convert automatically.
  • Line lengths SHOULD be kept within reasonable amounts in order to avoid excessive horizontal scrolling in an editor.
  • The canonical line ending is linefeed (u+000a)
  • Implementations SHOULD convert structural line endings to the operating system's native format when saving a document to disk. See: line endings
  • If a certain character is likely to be confusing or problematic to a human reader or editor, it MUST be escaped.

Line Endings

Line endings CAN be encoded either as LF only (u+000a) or CR+LF (u+000d u+000a) to maintain compatibility with editors on various popular platforms. However, for data transmission the canonical format is LF only. Decoders MUST accept all encodings as input, but encoders SHOULD output LF when the destination is a foreign or unknown system.

Escape Sequences

In some contexts, escape sequences MAY be used to encode data that would otherwise be cumbersome or impossible to represent. \ acts as an escape sequence initiator, followed by an escape type character and possible data (see letter case rules):

Sequence (\ + ...) Interpretation
t horizontal tab (u+0009)
n linefeed (u+000a)
r carriage return (u+000d)
" double quote (u+0022)
* asterisk (u+002a)
/ slash (u+002f)
< less-than (u+003c)
> greater-than (u+003e)
\ backslash (u+005c)
_ non-breaking space (u+00a0)
- soft-hyphen (u+00ad)
u+000a continuation
u+000d continuation
0 - 9 Unicode sequence
. verbatim sequence

Escape sequences MUST be converted before any other processing occurs during the decode process.


A continuation escape sequence causes the decoder to ignore all structural whitespace characters until it encounters the next character that is not structural whitespace. The escape character (\) followed by either LF (u+000a) or CR (u+000d) initiates a continuation.


c1  "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, \
     mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or \
     say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles \
     exploding like spiders across the stars."

The above string is interpreted as:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

Unicode Sequence

Unicode escape sequences begin with a backslash (\) character, followed by one digit (0-9) specifying the number of hex digits encoding the codepoint, followed by that number of hex digits (0-f) representing the hexadecimal value of the codepoint.


Sequence Digits Character
\0 0 NUL
\16 1 ACK
\27f 2 DEL
\3101 3 ā (a macron)
\42191 4 ↑ (up arrow)
\51f415 5 🐕 (dog)

Verbatim Sequence

Verbatim escape sequences work similarly to "here" documents in Bash. They're composed as follows:

  • Verbatim sequence escape initiator (\.).
  • An end-of-sequence sentinel, which is a sequence of text-safe, non-whitespace characters (in accordance with human editability).
  • A structural whitespace terminator to terminate the end-of-sequence sentinel (either: SPACE u+0020, TAB u+0009, LF u+000a, or CR+LF u+000d u+000a).
  • The string contents.
  • A second instance of the end-of-sequence sentinel (without whitespace terminator).


"Verbatim sequences can occur anywhere escapes are allowed.\n\
In verbatim sequences, everything is interpreted literally until the
end-of-string sentinel is encountered (in this case three @ characters).
Characters like ", [, <, \ and such can appear unescaped.

Whitespace (including "leading" whitespace) is also read verbatim.
          For example, this line really is indented 10 spaces.

@@@Normal processing resumes after the terminator, so '\n' and such are interpreted."

Which decodes to:

Verbatim sequences can occur anywhere escapes are allowed.
In verbatim sequences, everything is interpreted literally until the
end-of-string sentinel is encountered (in this case three @ characters).
Characters like ", [, <, \ and such can appear unescaped.

Whitespace (including "leading" whitespace) is also read verbatim.
          For example, this line really is indented 10 spaces.

Normal processing resumes after the terminator, so '
' and such are interpreted.

Version Specifier

A CTE document begins with a version specifier, which is composed of the character c (u+0063), followed immediately by an unsigned integer version number. The document MUST NOT begin with a byte order mark (BOM), and there MUST NOT be anything (whitespace or otherwise) between the c and the version number.

Note: Due to the overriding letter case rule for decoders, a decoder must also accept uppercase C (u+0043).

The version specifier and the top-level object MUST be separated by structural whitespace.


  • Version specifier (CTE version 1): c1
  • Complete (and empty) document: c1 null

Numeric Types


Represented by the sequences true and false.


Integer values CAN be positive or negative, and CAN be represented in various bases. Negative values are prefixed with a dash - as a sign character. There is no positive sign character (such as +). Encoders MUST write values in lower case (see letter case rules).

Integers CAN be specified in base 2, 8, 10, or 16. Bases other than 10 require a prefix:

Base Name Digits Prefix Example Decimal Equivalent
2 Binary 01 0b -0b1100 -12
8 Octal 01234567 0o 0o755 493
10 Decimal 0123456789 900000 900000
16 Hexadecimal 0123456789abcdef 0x 0xdeadbeef 3735928559

CTE encoders MAY offer configuration options to output integers in bases other than 10, but MUST by default output in base 10.

Floating Point

A floating point number is composed of an implied base (signified by an OPTIONAL prefix), a significand portion (composed of a whole part and an OPTIONAL fractional part), and an OPTIONAL exponential portion, such that the value is calculated as:

value = significand × baseᵉˣᵖ
  • The significand and exponential portions are separated by an exponent marker.
  • The whole and fractional parts of the significand are separated by a radix point.
  • Negative values are represented by prepending a dash - to the front of the floating point value (before any prefix).

Note: A value with no fractional part and no exponential portion will be interpreted as an integer.



Radix Point

A radix point separates the whole part of the significand from the fractional part. The General Conference on Weights and Measures declared in 2003 that "the symbol for the decimal marker shall be either the point on the line or the comma on the line". CTE therefore accepts both , and . equally as radix points.


    -3.81 // Same value as below
    -3,81 // Same value as above

Base-10 Notation

Base-10 notation is used to represent decimal floating point numbers.

The exponential portion of a base-10 number is denoted by the lowercase character e (see letter case rules), followed by the signed size of the exponent (using OPTIONAL + for positive, and mandatory - for negative). The exponential portion is a signed base-10 number representing the power-of-10 to multiply the significand by. Values SHOULD be normalized (only one digit to the left of the decimal point) when using exponential notation.

value = significand × 10ᵉˣᵖ

Although there is technically no maximum number of significant digits or exponent digits for base-10 floating point notation, care should be taken to ensure that the receiving end will be able to store the value. For example, 64-bit ieee754 floating point values can represent values with up to 16 significant digits and an exponent range roughly from 10⁻³⁰⁷ to 10³⁰⁷.


    6.411e+9 // 6411000000
    6.411e9  // 6411000000
    6411e6   // 6411000000
    6,411e-9 // 0.000000006411

Base-16 Notation

Base-16 notation is used to represent binary floating point numbers because it allows 100% accurate representation of the actual value.

Base-16 notation MUST have a prefix of 0x, and the exponential portion is denoted by the lowercase character p (see letter case rules). The exponential portion is a signed base-10 number representing the power-of-2 to multiply the significand by. The exponent's sign character CAN be omitted if it's positive. Values SHOULD be normalized.

value = significand × 2ᵉˣᵖ

To maintain compatibility with CBE, values in base-16 notation MUST NOT exceed the range of ieee754 64-bit binary float. A value outside of this range is a data error.


    0xa.3fb8p+42 // a.3fb8 x 2⁴²
    -0x1p0       // -1

Special Floating Point Values

    inf  // Infinity
    -inf // Negative Infinity
    nan  // Not a Number (quiet)
    snan // Not a Number (signaling)

Floating Point Rules

  • Codecs MUST output exponent portion markers in lowercase (e or p), but MUST also accept uppercase markers when decoding (E or P).
  • There MUST be at least one digit on each side of a radix point.
Invalid Valid Notes
-1. -1.0 Or just use the integer value -1
.1 0.1
,218901e+2 21,8901 Or 2.18901e+1, or 0,218901e+2

Numeric Whitespace

The _ character CAN be used as "numeric whitespace" when encoding integers and floating point numbers. Other whitespace characters are not allowed.

CTE encoders MAY offer configuration options to output numeric whitespace, but MUST by default output no numeric whitespace.


  • Only integer and floating point types CAN contain numeric whitespace.
  • Named values (such as nan and inf) MUST NOT contain numeric whitespace.
  • Numeric whitespace CAN only occur between two adjacent numeric digits (0-9, a-f, depending on numeric base).
  • Numeric whitespace characters MUST be ignored when decoding numeric values.



    1_000_000        // 1000000
    4_3,5_5_4e9_0    // 43.554e90
    -0xa.fee_31p1_00 // -0xa.fee31p100


  • _1000000
  • 1000000_
  • 43_.554e90
  • 43,_554e90
  • 43,554_e90
  • -_43.554e90
  • -_0xa,fee31p100
  • -0xa,fee31p_100
  • -0_xa.fee31p100


An rfc4122 UUID string representation.



Temporal Types

Temporal types record time with varying degrees of precision.

Fields other than year CAN be pre-padded with zeros (0) up to their maximum allowed digits.


A date is made up of the following fields, separated by a dash character (-):

Field Mandatory Min Value Max Value Min Digits Max Digits
Year Y -∞ 1
Month Y 1 12 1 2
Day Y 1 31 1 2
  • BC years are prefixed with a dash (-).


    2019-8-5   // August 5, 2019
    5081-03-30 // March 30, 5081
    -300-12-21 // December 21, 300 BC (proleptic Gregorian)


A time is made up of the following mandatory and OPTIONAL fields:

Field Mandatory Separator Min Value Max Value Min Digits Max Digits
Hour Y 0 23 1 2
Minute Y : 0 59 2 2
Second Y : 0 60 2 2
Subseconds N , or . 0 999999999 0 9
Time Zone N / - - - -

Note: If the time zone is omitted, it is assumed to be Zero (UTC).


    09:04:21                // 9:04:21 UTC
    23:59:59.999999999      // 23:59:59 and 999999999 nanoseconds UTC
    12:05:50,102/Z          // 12:05:50 and 102 milliseconds UTC
    4:00:00/Asia/Tokyo      // 4:00:00 Tokyo time
    17:41:03/-13,54/-172,36 // 17:41:03 Samoa time
    9:00:00/L               // 9:00:00 local time


A timestamp combines a date and a time, separated by a slash character (/).


    2019-01-23/14:08:51,941245            // January 23, 2019, at 14:08:51 and 941245 microseconds, UTC
    1985-10-26/01:20:01.105/M/Los_Angeles // October 26, 1985, at 1:20:01 and 105 milliseconds, Los Angeles time
    5192-11-01/03:00:00/48.86/2.36        // November 1st, 5192, at 3:00:00, at whatever is in the place of Paris at that time

Time Zones

The time zone is an OPTIONAL field. If omitted, it is assumed to be Zero (UTC).


An area/location time zone is written in the form Area/Location.


  • E/Paris
  • America/Vancouver
  • America/Indiana/Petersburg (which has area America and location Indiana/Petersburg)
  • Etc/UTC == Zero == Z
  • L

Global Coordinates

Global coordinates are written as latitude and longitude to a precision of hundredths of degrees, separated by a slash character (/). Negative values are prefixed with a dash character (-), and a radix point is used as a fractional separator.


  • 51.60/11.11
  • -13,53/-172,37


Simply omit the time zone entirely, which causes the time zone to default to UTC.

UTC Offset

UTC offsets are recorded by using a + or - character as the time zone separator instead of the / character, with the hours and minutes given in the form hhmm.

Examples (using timestamps):


Why not ISO 8601 or RFC 3339?

RFC 3339 was developed as a greatly simplified profile of ISO 8601 to be used in internet protocols. RFC 3339's criticisms of ISO 8601 are valid: it tries to handle too many things and offers too much optional functionality (most of which is unused in the real world), rendering it overcomplicated and prone to misinterpretation and bugs. It's also non-free, which makes it even harder to write compliant, bug-free implementations (or trust any that claim to be).

RFC 3339 is designed for timestamped internet events, and is well suited to that purpose. However, it lacks functionality that a general purpose date format would require:

  • It only supports time offsets (+01:00, -13:00, etc), not real time zones.
  • It doesn't support BCE dates.
  • It allows multiple interpretations of year values less than 4 digits long, which is a security risk and a source of bugs.

Array Types

The standard array encoding format consists of a pipe character (|), followed by the array type, mandatory structural whitespace, the contents, and finally a closing pipe. Depending on the kind of array, the contents are encoded either as structural whitespace separated elements, or as a double-quote (") delimited string-like sequence representing the contents:

|type elem1 elem2 elem3 ...|
|type "contents-represented-as-a-string"|

An empty array has a type but no contents:


The following array types are available:

Type Description Encoding Kind
b Bit Element
u8 8-bit unsigned integer Element
u16 16-bit unsigned integer Element
u32 32-bit unsigned integer Element
u64 64-bit unsigned integer Element
i8 8-bit signed integer Element
i16 16-bit signed integer Element
i32 32-bit signed integer Element
i64 64-bit signed integer Element
f16 16-bit floating point (bfloat) Element
f32 32-bit floating point (ieee754) Element
f64 64-bit floating point (ieee754) Element
u 128-bit UID Element
c Custom Types Element or string-Like
m Media Element or string-Like

Array types are lowercase, but a decoder MUST accept uppercase as well).

Element Array Encodings

For element array encodings, any valid representation of the element data type may be used, provided the value fits within the type's width.

Float Array Elements

Float array element values written in decimal form will be silently rounded as they're converted to binary floats. This is unavoidable due to differences in float parsers on different platforms, and is another reason why you should always use CBE instead of CTE when ingesting data from an untrusted source (see security and limits).

Implied Prefix

OPTIONALLY, a suffix CAN be appended to the type specifier (if the type supports it) to indicate that all values MUST be considered to have an implicit prefix (except for special values nan, snan, inf etc - see below).

Type Suffix Implied element prefix Example
b 0b |u8b 10011010 00010101|
o 0o |i16o -7445 644|
x 0x |f32x a.c9fp20 -1.ffe9p-40|

Special Array Element Rules

  • Bit array elements are represented using 0 for false and 1 for true. structural whitespace is OPTIONAL when encoding a bit array using 0 and 1 (e.g. |b 1001| = |b 1 0 0 1|).
  • Float array elements CAN be written using special float values such as nan, snan, inf (regardless of implied prefix).
  • CTE encoders MUST default to writing unsigned integer arrays using the x form (e.g. |u8x 01 02 ff|, not |u8 1 2 255|).


    |u8x 9f 47 cb 9a 3c|
    |f32 1,5 0x4,f391p100 30 9,31e-30|
    |i16 0b1001010 0o744 1000 0x7fff|
    |u 3a04f62f-cea5-4d2a-8598-bc156b99ea3b 1d4e205c-5ea3-46ea-92a3-98d9d3e6332f|
    |b 11010|


A media object is a specialization of the typed array. It has the array type m and consists of two whitespace separated fields:

Field Required?
Media type Y
Contents N

Media with no contents represents the equivalent of an empty file. Media with no media type is invalid.

Media Contents

If the actual media contents consist of UTF-8 text, they CAN be represented in string form by enclosing the contents in double quotes ("). Otherwise they MUST be represented using hex byte values like in a u8x array:

  • Text: |m media/type "contents"|
  • Binary: |m media/type 63 6f 6e 74 65 6e 74 73|


|m application/x-sh 23 21 2f 62 69 6e 2f 73 68 0a 0a 65 63 68 6f 20 68 65 6c 6c 6f 20 77 6f 72 6c 64 0a|

|m application/x-sh "\.@@

echo hello world

The above example media objects demonstrate two ways to represent the shell script:


echo hello world

String-Like Array Encodings

String-like array contents are enclosed within double-quote (") delimiters. They are interpreted as a whole, and MUST encode text-unsafe characters, TAB, CR, LF, and backslash (\) (as well as their lookalikes) as escape sequences except when encoding a verbatim sequence.


Strings are enclosed within double-quote (") delimiters, and the elements are string-like. All characters leading up to the closing double-quote (including whitespace) are considered part of the string sequence. A quoted string MUST encode text-unsafe characters, TAB, CR, LF, double-quote (") and backslash (\) (as well as their lookalikes) as escape sequences.


c1 "Line 1\nLine 2\nLine 3"

Resource Identifier

A resource identifier is enclosed within the delimiters @" and ".

A Concise Encoding implementation MUST interpret only CTE escape sequences when decoding resource identifiers. Resource-specific escape sequences (such as percent-escapes) MUST NOT be interpreted.

    @"http://x.y.z?quote=\""  // decodes to `http://x.y.z?quote="`,  which the upper layers interpret as `http://x.y.z?quote="`
    @"http://x.y.z?quote=%22" // decodes to `http://x.y.z?quote=%22`,  which the upper layers interpret as `http://x.y.z?quote="`

Custom Types

Custom data types are encoded using the typed array c, and can have a binary or textual form.

In the binary form, its contents are encoded like a u8x array (hex encoded byte elements).


c1 |c 01 f6 28 3c 40 00 00 40 40|

In the textual form, its contents are enclosed within within double-quote (") delimiters, and CAN contain escape sequences which MUST be processed before the converted string is passed to the custom decoder that will interpret it.


c1 |c "cplx(2.94+3i)"|

Container Types


A list begins with an opening square bracket [, contains structural whitespace separated contents, and finishes with a closing square bracket ].


c1 [


A map begins with an opening curly brace {, contains structural whitespace separated key-value pairs, and finishes with a closing curly brace }.

Map entries are split into key-value pairs using the equals = character and OPTIONAL structural whitespace. Key-value pairs MUST be separated from each other using structural whitespace. A key without a paired value is invalid.


c1 {
    1 = "alpha"
    2 = "beta"
    "a map" = {"one"=1 "two"=2}


An edge container is composed of the delimiters @( and ), containing the whitespace separated source, description, and destination.


Weighted graph edge:

    "objs" = [
    "graph" = [
      @($a 200 $b)

Relationship graph edge:



A node begins with an opening parenthesis (, contains a value (object) followed by zero or more whitespace separated child nodes, and is closed with a closing parenthesis ).


// The tree structure:
//       2
//      / \
//     7   5
//    /|\   \
//   2 1 6   9
//  / \       \
// 5   8       4

Other Types


Null is encoded as null.



A marker sequence consists of the following, with no whitespace in between:

  • & (the marker initiator)
  • A marker ID
  • : (the marker separator)
  • The marked value


c1 [
    &remember_me:"Remember this string"
    &1:{"a" = 1}

The string "Remember this string" is marked with the ID remember_me, and the map {"a"=1} is marked with the ID 1.


Locale Reference

A local reference begins with the reference initiator ($), followed immediately (with no whitespace) by a marker ID.


c1 {
    "some_object" = {
        "my_string" = &remember_me:"Remember this string"
        "my_map" = &1:{
            "a" = 1

    "reference_to_string" = $remember_me
    "reference_to_map" = $1

Remote Reference

A remote reference is encoded the same way as a resource identifier, except using a reference initiator ($) instead of a resource ID initiator (@).

$"some-URL" instead of @"some-URL"


c1 {
    "reference_to_local_doc" = $"common.cte"
    "reference_to_remote_doc" = $""
    "reference_to_local_doc_marker" = $"common.cte#legalese"
    "reference_to_remote_doc_marker" = $""

Invisible Objects


Comments CAN be written in single-line or multi-line form, and do not process escape sequences.

Single Line Comment

A single line comment begins at the sequence // and continues until the next line end - LF (u+000a) or CRLF (u+000d u+000a) - is encountered. No checks for nested comments are performed.

Multiline Comment

A multiline comment begins at the sequence /* and is terminated by the sequence */. Multiline comments support nesting, meaning that further /* sequences inside the comment will start subcomments that MUST also be terminated by their own */ sequence. No processing of the comment contents other than detecting comment begin and comment end is peformed.

Note: Commenting out strings containing the sequences /* or */ could potentially cause parse errors because the parser won't have any contextual information about the sequences, and will simply treat them as "comment begin" and "comment end". This edge case could be mitigated by pre-emptively escaping all occurrences of /* and */ in string-like objects:

    // Pre-emptively escape the "*" to avoid a false nested comment begin
    "comment begin" = "/\*"

    // Pre-emptively escape the "/" to avoid a false nested comment end
    "comment end" = "*\/"


// Comment before top level object
    // Comment before the "name" object.
    // And another comment.
    "name" = "Joe Average" // Comment after the "Joe Average" object.

    "email" = // Comment after the "email" key.
    /* Multiline comment with nested comment inside
      /* Nested multiline
         comments are allowed */

    "a" = "We're inside a string, so /* this is not a comment; it's part of the string! */"

    "data" =
    // A comment before some binary data
    |u8x 01 02 03 // A comment inside the binary array
         04 05 06 07 /* Another comment inside */ 08 09 0a|

    // Comment before the end of the top-level object (the map), but not after!


Padding is not supported in CTE. Skip all padding when encoding to CTE.

Empty Document

An empty document in CTE is signified by using the Null type as the top-level object:

c1 null

Letter Case

A CTE document MUST be entirely in lower case, except in the following situations:

  • Strings, string-like types, and comments CAN contain uppercase characters.
  • Marker identifiers CAN contain uppercase characters.
  • Time zones are case sensitive, and usually contain both uppercase and lowercase characters.

For the above situations, a CTE encoder MUST preserve letter case. In all other situations, a CTE encoder MUST convert to lower case.

Overriding Rule for Decoders

Humans will inevitably get letter case wrong when writing into a CTE document (because they copy-pasted it from somewhere, because they have caps-lock on, because it's just muscle memory to do it that way, etc). Rejecting a document on letter case grounds would be poor U/X, so some decoder lenience is necessary:

A CTE decoder MUST accept data that breaks letter case restrictions (including hexadecimal digits, exponents, escape sequences, etc).


Whitespace is defined as any character marked as whitespace in the Unicode database. As of 2021, these characters are:

Code Point Name
U+0009 character tabulation
U+000A line feed
U+000B line tabulation
U+000C form feed
U+000D carriage return
U+0020 space
U+0085 next line
U+00A0 no-break space
U+1680 ogham space mark
U+2000 en quad
U+2001 em quad
U+2002 en space
U+2003 em space
U+2004 three-per-em space
U+2005 four-per-em space
U+2006 six-per-em space
U+2007 figure space
U+2008 punctuation space
U+2009 thin space
U+200A hair space
U+2028 line separator
U+2029 paragraph separator
U+202F narrow no-break space
U+205F medium mathematical space
U+3000 ideographic space

Structural Whitespace Characters

Structural whitespace is a sequence of whitespace characters whose purpose is to separate objects in a CTE document (for example, separating objects in a list [1 2 3 4]). Such characters are not interpreted literally, are interchangeable, and can be repeated any number of times without altering the meaning or structure of the document. Whitespace characters not intended to be structural will need to be quoted in most contexts to preserve their meaning.

CTE decoders MUST accept all of the above whitespace characters when decoding structural whitespace. CTE Encoders MUST produce only the following characters as structural whitespace:

Code Point Name
U+0009 character tabulation
U+000A line feed
U+000D carriage return
U+0020 space

Structural Whitespace CAN occur:

  • Around an object.
  • Around array and container delimiters (|, [, ], {, =, }, <, ,, >)


  • [ 1 2 3 ] is equivalent to [1 2 3]
  • | u8x 01 02 03 04 | is equivalent to |u8x 01 02 03 04|
  • { 1="one" 2 = "two" 3= "three" 4 ="four"} is equivalent to {1="one" 2="two" 3="three" 4="four"}

Structural Whitespace MUST occur:

  • Between the version specifier and the first object.
  • Between the end-of-string sentinel and the beginning of the data in a verbatim sequence.
  • Between a typed array element type specifier and the array contents, and between typed array elements.
  • Between values in a list (["one""two"] is invalid).
  • Between key-value pairs in a map ({1="one"2="two"} is invalid).

Whitespace MUST NOT occur:

  • Before the version specifier.
  • Between a sentinel character and its associated value (& 1234, $ @"mydoc.cbe", # Planck_Js are invalid).
  • Between a marker ID and the object it marks (&123: xyz is invalid).
  • In time values (2018-07-01-10 :53:22.001481/Z is invalid).
  • In numeric values (0x3 f, 9, 41, 3 000, 9.3 e+3, - 1.0 are invalid). Use the numeric whitespace character (_) instead where it's valid to do so.

Lookalike Characters

Lookalike characters are characters that look confusingly similar to CTE structural symbol characters when viewed by a human. Such characters MUST be escaped in CTE documents where a human would likely confuse them for an escape sequence initiator (\) or a string object terminator.

Lookalike Escaped
"A” string" "A\4201d string"

The following is a (as of 2021-03-01) complete list of lookalike Unicode characters. This list may change as the Unicode character set evolves over time. Codec developers MUST keep their implementation current with the latest lookalike characters.

Character Context Lookalikes (codepoints)
" String-like 02ba, 02ee, 201c, 201d, 201f, 2033, 2034, 2036, 2037, 2057, 3003, ff02
* Comment 204e, 2055, 2217, 22c6, 2b51, fe61, ff0a
/ Comment 2044, 2215, 27cb, 29f8, 3033, ff0f, 1d10d
\ Escapable Content 2216, 27cd, 29f5, 29f9, 3035, fe68, ff3c

Pretty Printing

Pretty printing is the act of laying out structural whitespace in a CTE document such that it is easier for humans to parse. CTE documents SHOULD always be pretty-printed (except when intended for single-line log entries) because the purpose of CTE is to be read by humans.

Use CBE wherever possible instead of minified CTE, and convert to (pretty-printed) CTE only in places where a human will be reading the data.

The following sections describe how to pretty-print CTE documents.

Right Margin

The right margin (maximum column before breaking an object into multiple lines) SHOULD be kept "reasonable". "Reasonable" is difficult to define because it depends in part on the kind of data the document contains, and the container depth.

In general, 120 columns SHOULD always be considered reasonable, with larger margins depending on the kind and depth of data the document is likely to contain.


The canonical indentation is 4 spaces ( ). CTE encoders SHOULD always emit indentation unless the destination is a single-line log entry.


Objects in a list SHOULD be placed on separate lines.


If a list is empty, the closing ] SHOULD be on the same line.


Short lists containing small objects may be placed entirely on one line.

["a" "b" "c" "d"]


There SHOULD be a space between keys, values and the = in key-value pairs, and each key-value pair SHOULD be on a separate line.

    "aliens" = @""
    "moribito" = @""

If a map is empty, the closing } SHOULD be on the same line.


Small maps containing small objects may be placed entirely on one line. In such a case, omit the spaces around the =.

{"a"="b" "c"="d"}


In order to keep the tree as readable as possible to a human:

  • There SHOULD NOT be whitespace between the left ( and the node value.
  • All child nodes SHOULD be on separate lines at the next indentation depth.
  • If the node has child nodes, the closing ) SHOULD be on a separate line, at the same indentation depth as the (.
  • If the node has no children, the closing ) SHOULD be on the same line.

See the example in node.


Edge components SHOULD be broken up into multiple lines if they're too long.



Strings SHOULD use continuations if the line is getting too long.

    "All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; \
    all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; \
    all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were \
    visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled \
    upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by \
    his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, \
    he burst his hot heart's shell upon it."

Typed Arrays

Typed arrays SHOULD be broken up into multiple indented lines if the line is getting too long.

|u16x aa5c 5e0f e9a7 b65b 3572 96ec da16 6496 6133 5aa1 687f 9ce0 4d10 a39e 3bd3
      bf96 ad12 e64b 298f e137 a99f 5fb8 a8ca e8e7 0595 bc2f 4b64 8b0e 895d ebe7
      fb59 fdb0 1d93 5747 239d b16f 7d9c c48b 5581 13ba 19ca 6f3b 4ba9|


In the event that a machine generating CTE documents wants to also output comments, the following rules apply:

Comments SHOULD have one space (u+0020) after the comment opening sequence. Multiline-style comments (/* */) SHOULD also have a space before the closing sequence.

  // abc

  /* abc */

Long comments SHOULD be broken up to fit within the right margin.

    /* When a comment gets too long to fit within the right margin, place
       the overflow on a separate lines, adjusting the indent to keep
       everything aligned. */

The object following a comment SHOULD be on a different line.

    // See list of request types in
    "request-type" = "ping"

Version History

Date Version
July 22, 2018 Draft
TBD Version 1


Copyright (c) 2018 Karl Stenerud. All rights reserved.

Distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License: License deed: