In computer and machine-based telecommunications terminology, a character is a unit of information that roughly corresponds to a grapheme, grapheme-like unit, or symbol, such as in an alphabet or syllabary in the written form of a natural language.
Examples of characters include letters, numerical digits, common punctuation marks (such as "." or "-"), and whitespace. The concept also includes control characters, which do not correspond to visible symbols but rather to instructions to format or process the text. Examples of control characters include carriage return or tab, as well as instructions to printers or other devices that display or otherwise process text.
Historically, the term character was also used to just denote a specific number of contiguous bits. While a character is most commonly assumed to refer to 8 bits (one byte) today, other definitions, like 6-bit character code was once popular (using only upper case, while enough bits to also represent lower case, not with numbers and punctuation allowed for), and even 5-bit Baudot code have been used in the past as well, and while the term has also been applied to 4 bits with only 16 possible values, it wasn't meant to, nor can, represent the full English alphabet. See also Universal Character Set characters, where 8 bits are not enough to represent, while all can be represented with one or more 8-bit code units with UTF-8.
Computers and communication equipment represent characters using a character encoding that assigns each character to something – an integer quantity represented by a sequence of digits, typically – that can be stored or transmitted through a network. Two examples of usual encodings are ASCII and the UTF-8 encoding for Unicode. While most character encodings map characters to numbers and/or bit sequences, Morse code instead represents characters using a series of electrical impulses of varying length.
Historically, the term character has been widely used by industry professionals to refer to an encoded character, often as defined by the programming language or API. Likewise, character set has been widely used to refer to a specific repertoire of characters that have been mapped to specific bit sequences or numerical codes. The term glyph is used to describe a particular visual appearance of a character. Many computer fonts consist of glyphs that are indexed by the numerical code of the corresponding character.
With the advent and widespread acceptance of Unicode and bit-agnostic coded character sets,[clarification needed] a character is increasingly being seen as a unit of information, independent of any particular visual manifestation. The ISO/IEC 10646 (Unicode) International Standard defines character, or abstract character as "a member of a set of elements used for the organisation, control, or representation of data". Unicode's definition supplements this with explanatory notes that encourage the reader to differentiate between characters, graphemes, and glyphs, among other things. Such differentiation is an instance of the wider theme of the separation of presentation and content.
For example, the Hebrew letter aleph ("א") is often used by mathematicians to denote certain kinds of infinity (ℵ), but it is also used in ordinary Hebrew text. In Unicode, these two uses are considered different characters, and have two different Unicode numerical identifiers ("code points"), though they may be rendered identically. Conversely, the Chinese logogram for water ("水") may have a slightly different appearance in Japanese texts than it does in Chinese texts, and local typefaces may reflect this. But nonetheless in Unicode they are considered the same character, and share the same code point.
The Unicode standard also differentiates between these abstract characters and coded characters or encoded characters that have been paired with numeric codes that facilitate their representation in computers.
The combining character is also addressed by Unicode. For instance, Unicode allocates a code point to each of
This makes it possible to code the middle character of the word 'naïve' either as a single character 'ï' or as a combination of the character 'i ' with the combining diaeresis: (U+0069 LATIN SMALL LETTER I + U+0308 COMBINING DIAERESIS); this is also rendered as 'ï '.
A char in the C programming language is a data type with the size of exactly one byte, which in turn is defined to be large enough to contain any member of the “basic execution character set”. The exact number of bits can be checked via
CHAR_BIT macro. By far the most common size is 8 bits, and the POSIX standard requires it to be 8 bits. In newer C standards char is required to hold UTF-8 code units which requires a minimum size of 8 bits.
A Unicode code point may require as many as 21 bits. This will not fit in a char on most systems, so more than one is used for some of them, as in the variable-length encoding UTF-8 where each code point takes 1 to 4 bytes. Furthermore, a "character" may require more than one code point (for instance with combining characters), depending on what is meant by the word "character".
The fact that a character was historically stored in a single byte led to the two terms ("char" and "character") being used interchangeably in most documentation. This often makes the documentation confusing or misleading when multibyte encodings such as UTF-8 are used, and has led to inefficient and incorrect implementations of string manipulation functions (such as computing the "length" of a string as a count of code units rather than bytes). Modern POSIX documentation attempts to fix this, defining "character" as a sequence of one or more bytes representing a single graphic symbol or control code, and attempts to use "byte" when referring to char data. However it still contains errors such as defining an array of char as a character array (rather than a byte array).
Unicode can also be stored in strings made up of code units that are larger than char. These are called "wide characters". The original C type was called wchar_t. Due to some platforms defining wchar_t as 16 bits and others defining it as 32 bits, recent versions have added char16_t, char32_t. Even then the objects being stored might not be characters, for instance the variable-length UTF-16 is often stored in arrays of char16_t.