Design Docs‎ > ‎Formatting‎ > ‎MessageFormat‎ > ‎

New Syntax


Introduce new syntax, as follows. By default, auto-detect from the message pattern string whether it uses the old syntax or the new one.

  • Use digraphs to enclose both arguments and sub-messages: {|...|} instead of {...}.
    • ASCII digraphs for easy input, and easy string literals in non-Unicode source code.
    • Unusual combinations of characters that are rare in normal text.
    • Use the same digraphs for both arguments and sub-messages. Otherwise we believe that users will be confused. (And we would have to come up with a second set of low-collision digraphs.)
  • Make the plural/selectordinal remainder placeholder look like an argument: {|#|}
    • Allow white space just like with an argument, for consistency: {|  #    |}
  • In a choice argument style, enclose sub-messages also with {|...|} rather than the less-than operator and the single |
    • Allow white space before the {| and after the |} as in plural/select/selectordinal.
    • We retain the # or ≤ in the choice format so that the syntax and the MessagePattern.Part stream remain mostly the same.
  • Add two more MessagePattern.ApostropheMode values: (The enum name does not really fit the choices well.)
    • Existing DOUBLE_OPTIONAL (ICU 4.8 default behavior)
    • Existing DOUBLE_REQUIRED (JDK compatibility mode)
    • New SINGLE_AND_DIGRAPH_BRACES (new syntax)
      • Proposed to be the default behavior in ICU 50.
      • Detects simply via pattern.contains("{|") or equivalent.
      • Note: The new syntax looks to an old parser like a syntax error, unless it is immediately preceded by a quote-starting ASCII apostrophe that does not solely enclose the curly brace: "... '{| ...' ..." -- this seems extremely unusual.
  • No mechanism for quoting/escaping in the new syntax.
    • Digraphs can be disrupted with space or U+200B ZWSP or similar.
  • New method ApostropheMode getResolvedApostropheMode()
    • If getApostropheMode()==HEURISTIC, then getResolvedApostropheMode() will return
      • HEURISTIC if no pattern has been parsed yet.
      • DOUBLE_OPTIONAL or SINGLE_AND_DIGRAPH_BRACES after a pattern has been parsed.
      • When parsing another pattern, the heuristic is applied again. (Hence the new method.)
    • Otherwise getResolvedApostropheMode() will return the same value as getApostropheMode()
  • C++ API signatures:
    • New UMessagePatternApostropheMode constants
    • New MessagePattern method
      • UMessagePatternApostropheMode getResolvedApostropheMode () const
ICU ticket: "more robust MessageFormat syntax"


With ApostropheMode.DOUBLE_OPTIONAL (ICU 4.8 default behavior):

In folder {folder_name} on {when, date, yyyy-MM-dd} there are
{num1, choice, 1<very few|4#at least four} files including
{num2, plural, offset:1 =0 {no} =1 {one} =2 {two}
               other {one and # from group '#'3}}
 text files from
{gender, select, female {her} male{his}other{their}} collection.

With ApostropheMode.SINGLE_AND_DIGRAPH_BRACES (proposed ICU 50 behavior):

In folder {|folder_name|} on {|when, date, yyyy-MM-dd|} there are
{|num1, choice, 1< {|very few|} 4# {|at least four|}|} files including
{|num2, plural, offset:1 =0 {|no|} =1 {|one|} =2 {|two|}
                other {|one and {|#|} from group #3|}|}
 text files from
{|gender, select, female {|her|} male{|his|}other{|their|}|} collection.

Problems with old syntax

  • Uses single-ASCII-character syntax which is prone to collide with normal text and requires quoting/escaping.
  • Unfortunately, we made this worse in plural arguments by using a single # sign for the number.
  • Quoting is done with ASCII apostrophes which definitely collides with normal text, although this got improved significantly in ICU 4.8.


  • ... {num, plural, ... other{# fans call them their #1 band}} ... (with num=5 this becomes "5 fans call them their 51 band")
  • ... {gender, select, male{He said 'No way!'} ...} ... (fails with syntax error: ASCII apostrophe before variant-ending } starts quoted literal text)
  • ... {num, plural, =1{Seleccioneu un màxim d'# widget més} ...} ... (fails with syntax error: ASCII apostrophe before plural number replacement # starts quoted literal text)

Minor Issue

In some translation tools, it has been awkward to have sub-messages enclosed in {pairs of curly braces}. It would be slightly easier for those tools to instead terminate sub-messages at the next syntax token. On the other hand, the {pairs} are useful for avoiding white space characters when a message is broken into lines without enclosing each line in "quotes" or similar. (White space (line feeds, indentation) are not an issue in C++ or Java when messages are written in "string literals", but can be awkward if messages are in XML contents or similar.)


  • Use digraphs (pairs of characters) for syntax, to make syntax tokens very unlikely to collide with normal text.
    • Each digraph should be a very unusual (in human-readable text) combination of unusual characters.
    • For parsing, each of these characters should be Pattern_Syntax.
    • For typing, each of these characters should be an ASCII Pattern_Syntax character [\- , ; \: ! ? . ' " ( ) \[ \] \{ \} @ * / \\ \& # % ` \^ + < = > | ~ \$], although this conflicts with the goal of choosing unusual characters.
  • Most syntax has begin-end tokens with further specs in between. At least in some of the simpler cases, we could make it so that only a completely syntactically correct begin-spec-end sequence is recognized as syntax, while any other sequence is just text (and does not cause a syntax error).
    • This would strongly reduce possible collisions with normal text.
    • However, it might complicate the parser, and it would turn actual syntax errors into visible text rather than reporting an error.
  • Arguments should be terminated with a digraph as well, so that the last sub-message in a complex argument is terminated with that rather than with a single character.
  • Maybe add an optional token like {.} for terminating a sub-message, or maybe {+} for generally ignoring following Pattern_White_Space? ({+} reminiscent of Java String concatenation.)
    • These would be useful if we chose to bracket selectors rather than sub-messages.
    • This seems to indicate that bracketing selectors is as problematic as bracketing sub-messages.
  • Quoting/escaping:
    • Maybe no quoting/escaping at all.
    • Or something sufficiently obscure like {'x'} where x is a single escaped Pattern_Syntax character. If someone really needs to write "$}" they could escape the $ and write "{'$'}}".
    • Or something that harmlessly breaks the digraph rather than quoting a character. For example, reserve some character that results in no output at all, and insert it between the two characters that we want to prevent from forming a digraph. Or insert a special token that has no output, such as {°} which could also serve as a "this is new syntax" indicator.
  • ICU transition:
    • We probably want an attribute on MessageFormat & MessagePattern.
    • It would be good if we could auto-detect the new syntax, so that users need not switch APIs.
      • For auto-detection, we might need a special token that just indicates the new syntax if we do not otherwise need arguments/placeholders, to suppress old-syntax quoting/escaping. Or else we ignore argument-less message patterns?

Sample: All-ASCII syntax, bracketing selectors

When selectors are bracketed, then a sub-message is terminated either by another selector or by the end-of-argument token.

Choice format selectors: {:1<:} for an exclusive limit (sub-message for values greater than 1) vs. {:4:} for an inclusive limit (sub-message for values greater than or equal to 4).

Plural format selectors: We could distinguish explicit values vs. keywords by looking for a leading digit (although ICU 4.8 allows any non-syntax, non-whitespace character in keywords), adding syntax inside the selector, or using different selector begin-end tokens. This sample adds an equals sign inside the explicit-value selector, similar to the ICU 4.8 syntax.

In folder {@folder_name@} on {@when, date, yyyy-MM-dd@} there are
{@num1, choice, {:1<:}very few{:4:}at least four@} files including
{@num2, plural, offset:1 {:=0:}no{:=1:}one{:=2:}two{+}
                {:other:}one and {#} from group {{'#'}3}@} text files from

{@gender, select, {:female:}her{:male:}his{:other:}their {'@'}{'}'}@} collection.

Sample: Syntax with Latin-1, bracketing sub-messages

Sub-messages are {§bracketed like this§}. No syntax for "end sub-message" or "ignore following white space".

Choice format selectors: 1< for an exclusive limit (sub-message for values greater than 1) vs. 4 for an inclusive limit (sub-message for values greater than or equal to 4).

In folder {°folder_name°} on {°when, date, yyyy-MM-dd°} there are
{°num1, choice, 1< {«very few»} 4 {«at least four»}°} files including
{°num2, plural, offset:1 =0 {«no»} =1 {«one»} =2 {«two»}
                other {«one and {¤} from group {{¦¤¦}3}»}
°} text files from
{°gender, select, female {«her»} male{«his»}other{«their {¦§¦}{¦}¦}»}°} collection.

Same idea, different characters, no quoting/escaping syntax:

In folder «%folder_name%» on «%when, date, yyyy-MM-dd%» there are
«%num1, choice, 1< «{very few}» 4 «{at least four}»%» files including
«%num2, plural, offset:1 =0 «{no}» =1 «{one}» =2 «{two}»
                other «{one and «#» from group #3%»%»
 text files from
«%gender, select, female «{her}» male«{his}»other«{their %#}»%» collection.

Sample: Syntax with trigraphs, bracketing sub-messages

Sub-messages are ~+{bracketed like this}+~. No syntax for "ignore following white space".

No syntax for quoting/escaping in this sample. Needed? Maybe ~%{}%~ as a new-syntax marker and trigraph breaker with no output by itself?

Choice format selectors: 1< for an exclusive limit (sub-message for values greater than 1) vs. 4 for an inclusive limit (sub-message for values greater than or equal to 4).

In folder ~%{folder_name}%~ on ~%{when, date, yyyy-MM-dd}%~ there are
~%{num1, choice, 1< ~+{very few}+~ 4 ~+{at least four}+~}%~ files including
~%{num2, plural, offset:1 =0 ~+{no}+~ =1 ~+{one}+~ =2 ~+{two}+~
                other ~+{one and ~%{#}%~ from group #3}+~
}%~ text files from
~%{gender, select, female ~+{her}+~ male~+{his}+~other~+{their xyz}+~}%~ collection.

Sample: Somewhat XML-ish

Argument is one of

  • "{arg" PWS+ arg-name PWS+ "/}"
  • "{arg" PWS+ arg-name PWS+ ":" PWS+ arg-type PWS+ "/}"
  • "{arg" PWS+ arg-name PWS+ ":" PWS+ arg-type PWS+ "}" arg-style "{/arg}".

where PWS=Pattern_White_Space.

Sub-message begins with "{msg" PWS+ selector "}" and ends with "{/msg}".

No syntax for quoting/escaping; needed?

Maybe optional {msg}...{/msg} around the whole message for syntax version disambiguation? Or just scan for presence of "{/arg}" and similar? Or use square brackets in new syntax? Or use "{$arg "..."{/arg$}"?

In folder {arg folder_name/} on {arg when:date}yyyy-MM-dd{/arg} there are
{arg num1:choice}{msg 1<}very few{/msg}{msg 4<=}at least four{/msg}{/arg} files including
{arg num2:plural}{offset:1}{msg =0}no{/msg}{msg =1}one{/msg}{msg =2}two{/msg}
              {msg other}one and {plural_number/} from group #3{/msg}{/arg} text files from
{arg gender:select}{msg female}her{/msg}{msg male}his{/msg}{msg other}their xyz{/msg}{/arg} collection.

Original Sample

In folder {$folder_name$} on {$when, date, yyyy-MM-dd$} there are
{$num1, choice, {<1}very few{<=4}at least four$} files including
{$num2, plural, offset:1 {=0}no{=1}one{=2}two{+}
                {:other}one and {#} from group {{'#'}3}$} text files from

{$gender, select, {:female}her{:male}his{:other}their {'$'}{'$'}$} collection.

Mark's comments on the original version & sample

Some thoughts on alternatives.

{%folder_name%} or {!folder_name!} or {$folder_name$}




{'<any char>'}

Also, we could use {% or to trigger new vs old syntax, and then have the same method....