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ICU4J Number Parsing Problems

I was looking at ICU ticket#7128.  I decided to write down this document for discussing what we should do.


In ICU4J 4.0, Mark Davis implemented lenient symbol parsing feature in DecimalFormat under ticket#5909.  This code partially implemented items discussed in this design document.  The implementation is actually beyond the description available in 5909.  I'm going to describe what was done in more detail in this document.  This change introduced several UnicodeSet static objects in DecimalFormat class -

    private static final UnicodeSet dotEquivalents =(UnicodeSet) new UnicodeSet(
    private static final UnicodeSet commaEquivalents = (UnicodeSet) new UnicodeSet(
    private static final UnicodeSet otherGroupingSeparators = (UnicodeSet) new UnicodeSet(
        "[\\ '\u00A0\u066C\u2000-\u200A\u2018\u2019\u202F\u205F\u3000\uFF07]").freeze();
    private static final UnicodeSet strictDotEquivalents =(UnicodeSet) new UnicodeSet(
    private static final UnicodeSet strictCommaEquivalents = (UnicodeSet) new UnicodeSet(
    private static final UnicodeSet strictOtherGroupingSeparators = (UnicodeSet) new UnicodeSet(
        "[\\ '\u00A0\u066C\u2000-\u200A\u2018\u2019\u202F\u205F\u3000\uFF07]").freeze();

    private static final UnicodeSet defaultGroupingSeparators = (UnicodeSet) new UnicodeSet(
    private static final UnicodeSet strictDefaultGroupingSeparators = (UnicodeSet) new UnicodeSet(

During number parsing, following lines create a couple of UnicodeSet instances -

            UnicodeSet decimalSet = new UnicodeSet(getSimilarDecimals(decimal, strictParse));
            UnicodeSet groupingSet = new UnicodeSet(strictParse ? strictDefaultGroupingSeparators : defaultGroupingSeparators)

The implementation of getSimilarDecimals is below -

     * Return characters that are used where this decimal is used.
     * @param decimal
     * @param strictParse
     * @return
    private UnicodeSet getSimilarDecimals(char decimal, boolean strictParse) {
        if (dotEquivalents.contains(decimal)) {
            return strictParse ? strictDotEquivalents : dotEquivalents;
        if (commaEquivalents.contains(decimal)) {
            return strictParse ? strictCommaEquivalents : commaEquivalents;
        // if there is no match, return the character itself
        return new UnicodeSet().add(decimal);

Before this change was made, the parse code simply compared a character with decimalSeparator/groupingSeparator in DecimalFormatSymbols.  UnicodeSet decimalSet can be one of followings -

1. if DecimalFormatSymbols.decimalSeparator is a variant of "dot", use either dotEquivalents (or strictDotEquivalents when NumberFormat#setParseStrict(true))
2. if DecimalFormatSymbols.decimalSeparator is a variant of "comma", use either commaEquivalents (or strictCommaEquivalents when NumberFormat#setParseString(true))
3. otherwise, use a UnicodeSet only containing DecimalFormatSymbols.decimalSeparator itself.

Note: I think there is a bug in this code.  xxxEquivalents is a super set of strictXxxEquivalents.  If DecimalFormatSymbols.decimalSeparator is a character included in xxxEquivalents, but not in strictXxxEquivalents, then the parser will miss DecimalFormatSymbols.decimalSeparator itself.

The set of grouping separator character is defaultGroupingSeparators (or strictDefaultGroupingSeparator when NumberFormat#setParseString(true)), plus DecimalFormatSymbols.groupingSeparator, minus the set of decimal separator characters produced by the logic above.

Note: Again, I think there is a bug in this code too.  If DecimalFormatSymbols.groupingSeparator matches a character included in decimalSet, the parser will miss DecimalFormatSymbols.groupingSeparator itself.

During parse, check for decimal separator is done prior to grouping separator.  Once the parser found a character matching one of decimalSet, the parser memorize the detected decimal separator character and does not interpret all other characters in decimalSet as decimal separators.  The same logic is used for grouping separator.


The ticket#7128 was reported by Apache Harmony development team.  Apache Harmony project wants to use ICU4J NumberFormat/DecimalFormat as their JRE class library implementation.  This lenient symbol parsing is not implemented in JDK.  Because this logic is hardcoded in ICU4J DecimalFormat implementation, they cannot provide JDK compatible behavior with ICU4J implementation.

This is also an undocumented feature.  ICU4J JavaDoc does not explain how decimal/grouping separators are parsed, and it also does not explain NumberFormat#setParseString(boolean) affects the behavior.

So this behavior is totally undocumented/uncontrollable.


The lenient symbol parsing behavior is probably useful in common use cases.  But it is sometimes harmful, mainly because it is not controllable.  For example, ticket#7128 complains that space (U+0020) characters are eaten by the parser.  Space characters might be used as separator for multiple numbers, rather than grouping separator.  However, the current implementation always interprets space as grouping separator no matter how users configure DecimalFormatSymbols.  So, I think our goals are -

1. Lenient decimal/grouping separator parsing must be controllable via public APIs - also it must be easily disabled (strictly use separators in DecimalFormatSymbols)
2. The default behavior should use the current logic
3. API documentation should explain the default behavior (what characters are interpreted as decimal/grouping separator) and effect of setParseStrict (if we still want to use smaller set in the strict parsing mode - but I personally think controlling the behavior from multiple APIs is not a good thing, because it easily introduce inconsistencies)

Design Options

[Option 1] Configuring set of decimal/grouping separators used for parsing in DecimalFormatSymbols

Initially, I proposed to add public void setParseStrictSymbols(boolean) in DecimalFormat for just skipping the lenient decimal/grouping separator match.  This is good enough to satisfy the JDK compatibility requirement.  Mark Davis countered that the behavior should be driven by new APIs in DateFormatSymbols which allow ICU4J users to control the set of possible decimal/grouping separator characters.  With this approach, we would need new APIs like below -

In DateFormatSymbols

public void setParsingDecimalSeparators(UnicodeSet decimalSeparators)
public void setParsingGroupingSeparators(UnicodeSet groupingSeparators)
public UnicodeSet getParsingDecimalSeparators()
public UnicodeSet getParsingGroupingSeparators()

DateFormatSymbols also has decimal/grouping separators for monetary numbers, thus, we would also need -

public void setParsingMonetaryDecimalSeparators(UnicodeSet decimalSeparators)
public void setParsingMonetaryGroupingSeparators(UnicodeSet groupingSeparators)
public UnicodeSet getParsingMonetaryDecimalSeparators()
public UnicodeSet getParsingMonetaryGroupingSeparators()

In addition to this, our current implementation use different set for strict mode (NumberFormst#setParseStrict(true)).  So, we may need strict variants -

public void setStrictParsingDecimalSeparators(UnicodeSet decimalSeparators)
public void setStrictParsingGroupingSeparators(UnicodeSet groupingSeparators)
public UnicodeSet getStrictParsingDecimalSeparators()
public UnicodeSet getStrictParsingGroupingSeparators()
public void setStrictParsingMonetaryDecimalSeparators(UnicodeSet decimalSeparators)
public void setStrictParsingMonetaryGroupingSeparators(UnicodeSet groupingSeparators)
public UnicodeSet getStrictParsingMonetaryDecimalSeparators()
public UnicodeSet getStrictParsingMonetaryGroupingSeparators()

This is obviously too much.  In addition to this, the current implementation switches the decimal separator set by the primary decimal separator character (DecimalFormatSymbols.getDecimalSeparator()).  Thus, calling DecimalFormatSymbols.setDecimalSeparator(char) easily introduce inconsistency problem between decimal separator used for formatting and separator variants used for parsing.  For these reasons, I think this is not a good solution.

[Option 2] Simply expose dotEquivalents, commaEquivalents and defaultGroupingSeparators

It's possible to make these UnicodeSets currently used by DecimalFormat configurable, either via DecimalFormat APIs or DecimalFormatSymbols APIs.  By doing so, you can avoid the inconsistency problem between DateFormatSymbols.setDecimalSeparator and DateFormatSymbols.setParsingDecimalSeparator.  With this solution, actual set used for parsing decimal separator is populated with the logic currently used by DecimalFormat.  For example -

In DecimalFormat or DecimalFormatSymbols -

public void setDotEquivalents(UnicodeSet dotEquivalents)
public void setCommaEquivalents(UnicodeSet commaEquivalents)
public UnicodeSet getDotEquivalents()
public UnicodeSet getCommaEquivalents()

public void setAlternativeGroupingSeparators(UnicodeSet grpSeparators)
public UnicodeSet getAlternativeGroupingSeparators()

But, again, if we want to preserve current strict behavior, we need the same set of APIs for strict

public void setStrictDotEquivalents(UnicodeSet dotEquivalents)
public void setStrictCommaEquivalents(UnicodeSet commaEquivalents)
public UnicodeSet getStrictDotEquivalents()
public UnicodeSet getStrictCommaEquivalents()

public void setStrictAlternativeGroupingSeparators(UnicodeSet grpSeparators)
public UnicodeSet getStrictAlternativeGroupingSeparators()

Actually, we could merge these two sets of APIs into one set by adding boolean arg like below -

public void setDotEquivalents(UnicodeSet dotEquivalents, boolean strict)
public void setCommaEquivalents(UnicodeSet commaEquivalents, boolean strict)
public UnicodeSet getDotEquivalents(boolean strict)
public UnicodeSet getCommaEquivalents(boolean strict)

public void setAlternativeGroupingSeparators(UnicodeSet grpSeparators, boolean strict)
public UnicodeSet getAlternativeGroupingSeparators(boolean strict

This solution should work OK, but I do not like this because it's really difficult to understand the relationship between decimal separator and dotEquivalents/commaEquivalents.  This just exposes what we're doing internally, based on the assumption - decimal separator belongs to either dotEquivalents or commaEquivalents in most case.

[Option 3] Customizable matcher function

Supporting lenient match through multiple UnicodeSets like Option 1 and 2 require a bunch of different sets and sometimes difficult to understand.  Another approach is to make the matching logic by customizable functions, which can hide manipulation of multiple sets behind the API.

public class AlternativeDecimalSymbolMatcher implement Serializable {
    public enum SymbolType {

     * Return the length of matching symbol at the given position.
     * @param text input text
     * @param idx position in the text
     * @param type Decimal symbol type
     * @param primarySymbol The primary symbol character for the type
     * @param narrowMatch true if matching is done more strictly (When NumerFormat#setParseStrict(true),
     * DecimalFormat sets true to narrowMatch)
     * @return When the text segment at the given index matches an
     * alternative symbol for the symbol type, return the length of
     * matching symbol.  Otherwise, return 0.
    public int match(CharSequence text, int idx, SymbolType type, char
primarySymbol, boolean narrowMatch) {

With this option, DecimalFormat checks if a character at a certain position matches the primary decimal separator (DecimalFormatSymbols.decimalSeparator, or monetaryDecimalSeparator for currency number) or not.  If not, then check if a character matches the primary grouping separator (DecimalFormatSymbols.groupingSeparator, or monetaryDecimalSeparator for currency number) or not.  When the character matches neither of them, then calls DecimalSymbolMatcher.match with DECIMAL_SEPARATOR, then GROUPING_SEPARATOR in this order until match is found.  The default implementation uses existing logic (dotEquivalent, commaEquivalent, etc..)   We can create a static instance of DecimalSymbolMatcher subclass doing nothing in this method for supporting JDK compatible behavior.  For example,

public class NoopDecimalSymbolMatcher extends DecimalSymbolMatcher {
    public static final NoopDecimalSymbolMatcher INCETANCE = new NoopDecimalSymbolMatcher();

    public int match(CharSequence text, int idx, SymbolType type, char symbol) {
        return 0;

In DecimalFormat, add new APIs -

public void setAlternativeDecimalySymbolMatcher(AlternativeDecimalSymbolMatcher altSymMatcher)
public AlternativeDecimalSymbolMatcher getAlternativeSymbolMatcher()

This design allow more flexible customization without exploding API signature.  Also we could support more symbol types discussed in this document in future.