What Escape Sequences Are

The concept of an 'escape sequence' is a common one in all fields of computing, but the concept is far broader than computers themselves. The idea of an escape sequence is to solve the following problem: we're desiging a code that uses a limited range of symbols to convey information and we need to be able to communicate each of their meanings literally; so how, without adding more possible symbols, do we signal a meaning that isn't any of those?

The brilliant and all-applicable answer is escape sequences. You agree on a single symbol that's used to toggle the next symbol between literal and alternate meanings; and to convey this special symbol's literal meaning, you just use it twice. In computing, a common character for this is the backslash: \ (not /).

A concrete example: how do you encode text so it all goes on one line, without removing the line breaks? \n is the usual escape sequence for 'newline'. For example,

Is encoded to

But you don't lose the ability to represent any possible string of text, because you can still signal a literal \ with \\. To signal a literal \n you would write \\n.

Most programming languages have a few that are commonly agreed on; besides \n for newline, \t usually represents tab, \a a "BEL" character (which is a nonprintable character that causes the computer to beep when outputted in environments that support it), \r is "carriage return", which causes the following text to appear at the beginning of the line overwriting the previous beginning - so basically a newline that doesn't go down. Likewise, in most programming languages, literal strings of text have to be enclosed in quotes, so to indicate a string that actually has a quote in it, you would write for example `print("hello \"user\"")` and it would print `hello "user"`.

In fact, even Linux terminal text coloration is achieved through escape sequences. There's a standard of ANSI codes that terminals support which includes escape characters that a program can output to change the current text color, switch to outputting text at a different position, or do almost anything you can imagine in a text-based terminal.

ANSI codes


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