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Have you ever wondered how to get your program to display numbers in a way that satisfies Macintosh users all around the world? This article tells you what users expect and shows you how to use the Macintosh Toolbox to correctly format numbers, taking the needs of both your program and the user into account. It also shows how to interpret numbers entered by the user.

When you develop an application, you usually have some opinion about the format in which numbers should be presented to the user. However, number formatting standards differ from country to country (and sometimes even within a country), and users also may have their own ideas on the subject. Macintosh system software provides support to format numbers in ways that accommodate both the needs of your application and local standards, and -- starting with System 7.1 -- also lets the user control some aspects of number formatting using the Numbers control panel.

This article shows two different ways to format numbers: using a default format for simple number display, and following the user's specification for more sophisticated number display. It also shows how to interpret numeric input correctly. This issue's CD contains an application called Numbers Test that lets you try out these two different methods of formatting numbers and enter numbers for interpretation. The CD also contains BuildNumbers, an MPW script that builds an MPW tool that's functionally equivalent to the application.


Users expect to see numbers in a format that makes sense to them. This challenges the programmer to accommodate the variations on number formatting that occur around the world.

The most common system for writing numbers is the decimal system, where numbers are formed from ten different numerals, with the position of each digit within a number defining a multiplier for it: 123 = 1*100 + 2*10 + 3*1. However, there are many local variations on this scheme, and there are some writing systems that prefer a different style of writing numbers, in which case decimal numbers may or may not be an acceptable alternative. Systems besides the decimal system that users may require include Roman numerals (used in many languages to number topics or title pages) and hexadecimal numbers (familiar to everybody who's ever dropped into MacsBug), as well as the Japanese and Chinese systems. For details on how these number formatting systems differ from one another, see "Number Formatting Variations."

Computers may complicate matters even more by providing multiple character codes for the same digit. For example, the Macintosh Japanese character set provides both 1-byte and 2-byte encodings of the Latin characters (which are called "Romaji" in Japanese). They can easily be distinguished on the screen: the 1-byte versions are narrower than the 2-byte versions, which take up the same widthas Kanji characters. For interpretation as numbers, however, these different encodings should be considered equivalent.

Another example is the Macintosh Arabic character set, which defines a set of Arabic digits with right-to-left orientation in addition to the ASCII digits, which have left-to-right orientation and are usually displayed with Arabic glyphs when an Arabic font has been chosen. The right-to-left digits are intended only for text that doesn't have a numeric meaning, such as software version strings and part numbers, and are needed to obtain proper line layout in these cases. However, users may not be aware of this intention and may try to enter numbers using these digits. Later we'll discuss how to deal with this.


Depending on how sophisticated your application is with regard to numbers, you'll need to support variations on number formatting in three different situations: simple number display, number display in a user-specified format, and numeric input.

For simple number display, your application needs to show a given number in a default format that makes sense to the user. This kind of formatting may suffice for many applications and is commonly used for dialogs.

For other number-display situations, your application might need to format numbers according to the user's specification. The user might specify which representation to use for the number (for example, decimal or traditional Chinese; Thai, Arabic, or Latin glyphs), the number of digits after the decimal separator, how to indicate negative numbers, whether to use thousands separators, which currency symbol to use, and where to place it. This kind of formatting is needed, for example, for spreadsheets, databases, and page layout applications.

Numeric input is needed in almost any application -- for example, to specify the width of a page, the number of a page to jump to, or the size of a font. Ideally, your application should be able to interpret a numeric string in any format that might make sense to the user, independent of the display formats you use.


Local variations on the decimal system include variations on the shapes of the digits, representation of negative numbers, the decimal separator, and the thousands separator.
  • The shapes of the digits: The glyphs used with the Latin writing system differ from those used with the Arabic writing system, and several other writing systems come with their own glyphs.

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  • Representation of negative numbers: The minus sign can be used before or after the number, or the number can be parenthesized.
  • The decimal separator: Either a period or a comma can be used to mark off the integer part of the number from the fractional part.
  • The thousands separator: A space, a comma, a period, or some other character can be used to mark off the thousands place from the hundreds place, the millions place from the hundred thousands place, and so on. Sometimes the thousands separator isn't used at all.

Many other variations exist, especially for noninteger numbers. Here's a sample of local variations on how one negative number is represented in the decimal system:

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French -1 234,56
German -1.234,56 Greek (1 234.56)
Japanese (1,234.56)
Swiss French -1'234.56

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U.S. -1,234.56

In the Roman system, numbers are formed from letter digits representing the numbers shown below.


Originally the digits of the number were simply added up to arrive at the value of the number, and digits were sorted in decreasing order within the number (so 9 = VIIII). Later a convention was added that positioning one of the digits C, X, or I before a higher-valued digit means that its value is to be subtracted instead of added (so 9 =IX).

The Japanese and Chinese systems represent numbers in various ways. In horizontal writing, the decimal system with Latin glyphs is commonly used. Ten thousands separators were once used instead of thousands separators and are still used in some very traditional quarters, but accountants in Japan now use thousands separators instead. In the traditional vertical writing preferred by native speakers, however, Chinese characters are used without separators. A mapping of decimal numbers to Chinese digits is acceptable; however, a direct representation of the numbers as they are spoken is preferred. The number 45000, for example, is represented in the decimal style on the left and in the traditional style on the right:

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Macintosh system software supports number formatting with international resources, the Numbers control panel (in System 7.1), and the Text Utilities routines. Unfortunately, the functionality provided doesn't cover all the needs just described -- it's limited to decimal numbers and a maximum of two encodings per script. This means that, for instance, Chinese vertical numbers aren't supported; with the advent of QuickDraw GX, which supports vertical text, this problem is becoming more urgent. There are some interesting details you'll have to understand to make the best use of the functionality provided.

International resources of two types, 'itl0' and 'itl4', provide data that helps in formatting numbers.

  • Resources of type 'itl0' contain separator symbols (decimal separator and thousands separator) and information about a simple default format. These resources allow for 1-byte characters only and don't support more sophisticated layout.
  • Resources of type 'itl4' contain a number parts table used by the Text Utilities routines to interpret format specification strings entered or selected by the user. They also contain a table of alternate digits that can be used instead of the default ASCII digits and that may be 2-byte characters. If there are no alternate digits for the script, the ASCII digits are repeated in this table. A system file can contain multiple resources of either type. Each regional version of system software comes with a default resource of each type, as well as the U.S. versions of the resources; more resources can be added.

If multiple scripts are installed on one machine, each script has at least one resource of each type and designates one resource of each type as the default for the script. The default resources for the system script (the script that supports the language your system is localized for) define the systemwide default. If GetIntlResource (IUGetIntl) is used to access a resource, the script whose resources are returned depends on the font in the current graphics port and the settings of the international resources selection flag. To avoid surprises, it's usually better to ask for resources of specific scripts; the InitializeDefaultNumberSeparators routine, discussed later, does this.

All Macintosh scripts support the use of the ASCII digits ($30-$39), and some scripts provide an additional set of digits in an alternate numeral table. The Japanese 'itl4' resource contains the 2-byte Romaji digits; the Arabic 'itl4' resource, the right-to-left digits; and the Thai 'itl4' resource, the Thai digits. Because only one alternate numeral table is allowed per 'itl4' resource, you won't find in the Japanese 'itl4' resource the Chinese numerals used in the Japanese script. Unfortunately, not all scripts that have multiple sets of digits define them in the 'itl4' resource; for instance, the Chinese versions of System 7.1 don't make use of the alternate numeral table but only support the ASCII digits.

The Numbers control panel (in System 7.1) lets users select the default number format and define customized decimal and thousands separators, as well as the currency symbol. In earlier systems, the International control panel (which was shipped only with certain localized versions of system software) allowed the user to select the default number format but didn't provide for customization. (See Figure 1.)

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Figure 1The International and Numbers Control Panels

To correctly access the international resources and interpret their contents, it helps to know how the control panels affect the resources. The behavior of the control panels has changed significantly from system software versions 7.0 and 7.0.1 to version 7.1. The International control panel in versions 7.0 and 7.0.1 lets the user select only the language whose number formatting rules apply; it does not allow modification of the rules. Selecting a language makes the corresponding region's 'itl0' resource the default resource for its script, so that all its features take effect. The 'itl4' resources are not affected.

The Numbers control panel in System 7.1 lets the user select a predefined regional version or define a custom version of the number format. The first time the control panel is opened after installing System 7.1, it creates a new 'itl0' resource in the System file based on the predefined default 'itl0' resource of this version of system software and makes this new resource the default for the system script. From then on it keeps the user's format definition in this personalized 'itl0' resource, whether it's selected from predefined formats or defined as a custom format. When the user selects a different regional version, all items of that region's 'itl0' resource that are represented in the control panel are copied into the personalized 'itl0' resource; other features defined in the 'itl0' resource are ignored. This means that the decision, for example, whether to show negative numbers with a minus sign or in parentheses is not affected by the selection. The default selection of the 'itl4' resource isn't changed; however, the default 'itl4' resource is modified to use the personalized 'itl0' resource's decimal and thousands separators in its number parts table.

There's one problem with the Numbers control panel that you have to be aware of: it doesn't impose any constraints on the selections for the decimal and thousands separators, other than not allowing the user to enter 2-byte characters. The user can, for example, select a digit, the minus sign, no character at all, or a character that conflicts with the inner workings of the Text Utilities routines for interpreting format specifications. To make sure that your application functions correctly, you have to check whether the separators make sense before using them.

The sample code discussed in this article assumes that you don't check for changes of the resources while your application is running, so it gets all necessary information at launch time and caches it. This way, changes made with the control panel will not be immediately reflected in your application, but you also avoid the problem of inconsistent updates. This problem can arise if you always use the most current information, and the user changes, say, the decimal separator while your application is displaying numbers in a window; in this case, it could happen that after redrawing a part of your window you display one decimal separator in the updated region and another one in the rest of the window.

The Text Utilities routines format or interpret numbers according to format specifications that are given by format strings and that can be quite sophisticated so that context-dependent variations can be taken into account. Format strings are used in some spreadsheet and database applications and look like this:


By default, the Text Utilities routines assume that numbers are encoded by ASCII digits ($30-$39) and displayed using Latin glyphs. However, we'll see that there's a way to have the routines support the set of digits defined in the alternate numeral table in the 'itl4' resource, in addition to ASCII digits.

The Text Utilities routines assume a localized format string. There's only limited support for automatically adjusting a generic format string to local customs or the user's preferences: the routines can replace characters by using a different number parts table but cannot convert to a different structure of the number format. For example, the indicator of negative numbers can't be switched automatically from the minus sign to parentheses. This is a problem if your application isn't localized for all the regions supported by Macintosh system software.

Now you know what users expect, what your application's needs are, and what support Macintosh system software offers when it comes to number formatting. You've seen that the Toolbox doesn't provide a solution for all your needs, so you'll have to extend it in some cases. We'll now look at how you can make the best use of whatis  provided to do simple number display using a default format, to display numbers in a user-specified format, and to interpret numeric input. The sample code presented here uses the international resources either directly or in combination with the Text Utilities routines to make up for at least some of the shortcomings of the Text Utilities routines.


First I'll show you how to use the 'itl0' resources in conjunction with the Text Utilities or Standard Apple Numerics Environment (SANE) routines to display numbers in the default number format. This method provides a simple solution for cases of simple number display.

The following code takes the localized or user-defined decimal and thousands separators into account. It assumes that numbers are written as integer or fixed-point decimal numbers in the ASCIIcharacter set and displayed in a font of the system script. It doesn't support Roman numerals, full- width Romaji, Chinese numbers, Thai digits, or the like. Negative numbers are written with a leading minus sign; parentheses aren't supported.

In some cases you won't want to use the default number formatting definition but instead will want to use the definition for a specific language. This case isn't taken into account in this version.

We start by defining the variables used to cache the default decimal and thousands separators. They must be initialized by calling InitializeDefaultNumberSeparators when the application is launched.

PROGRAM Numbers;
USES Script, Resources, Memory, Errors, GestaltEqu, Packages, SANE,
VAR gDefaultDecimalSeparator:   Char;
    gDefaultThousandsSeparator: Char;

We call the procedure InitializeDefaultNumberSeparators in the application's initialization sequence to initialize both gDefaultDecimalSeparator and gDefaultThousandsSeparator from the default 'itl0' resource of the system script. If your application tracks changes in the Script Manager state, you can reinitialize the variables by calling InitializeDefaultNumberSeparators again. Because the Numbers control panel lets the user select any characters as the separators, we verify that the selection doesn't conflict with our use of the separators. If no character was specified in the control panel, the 'itl0' resource contains Char(0). It's OK not to have a thousands separator, but you can't display floating- point numbers without a decimal separator. We don't use GetIntlResource (IUGetIntl), so the outcome of this routine doesn't depend on the font in the current graphics port or the international resources selection flag.

PROCEDURE InitializeDefaultNumberSeparators;
VAR theItl0Handle: Handle;
    theItl0Handle := GetResource('itl0', GetScript(smSystemScript, 
    WITH Intl0Hndl(theItl0Handle)^^ DO BEGIN
        IF (decimalPt IN ['0'..'9', Char(0), '-']) OR (thousSep IN
                ['0'..'9', '-']) OR (decimalPt = thousSep) THEN
        gDefaultDecimalSeparator := decimalPt;
        gDefaultThousandsSeparator := thousSep;

The FailNILResource, FailNIL, FailOSErr, and FailResError routines check for errors and initiate error handling if necessary; they were originally introduced in MacApp. In this sample code, I don't provide complete error handling, but only call these routines to indicate where a real application would have to be prepared to handle errors.

The procedure LocalizeNumberString takes a string representing a number as it's produced by a nonlocalizable conversion routine and localizes it by adjusting the decimal separator (if there is one) and inserting thousands separators.

PROCEDURE LocalizeNumberString(VAR theString: Str255);
VAR boundary:           Integer;
    separatorString:    String[1];
    minusOffset:        Integer;
    separatorString := ',';
    separatorString[1] := gDefaultThousandsSeparator;
First, we find the boundary between the integer and fractional parts. If there's a period, that's the boundary (and we fix the decimal separator right away); otherwise it's the end of the string.

    boundary := Pos('.', theString);
    IF boundary <> 0 THEN
        theString[boundary] := gDefaultDecimalSeparator
        boundary := Length(theString) + 1;

Second, we insert as many thousands separators as necessary, if the user has specified one. We take into account that we don't want to insert a thousands separator right after a minus sign.

    IF gDefaultThousandsSeparator <> Char(0) THEN BEGIN
        IF theString[1] = '-' THEN
            minusOffset := 1
            minusOffset := 0;
        WHILE boundary > 4 + minusOffset DO BEGIN
            theString := Concat(Copy(theString, 1, boundary - 4),
                                Copy(theString, boundary - 3, 
                                Length(theString) - boundary + 4));
            boundary := boundary - 3;

And now we finally come to the two routines that an application will call directly to format numbers into strings. The first one is intended for integer numbers, the second one for floating-point numbers.

IntegerToLocalString converts the given integer into a string representation using the thousands separator specified by localization or by the user. It calls NumToString, a Text Utilities routine.

PROCEDURE IntegerToLocalString(theNumber: LongInt;
           VAR theString: Str255);
    NumToString(theNumber, theString);

ExtendedToLocalString converts the number into a fixed-point representation using the decimal separator specified by localization or by the user. The number of digits to be used after the decimal separator is specified in decimalDigits. DecForm and Num2Str are defined by SANE.

PROCEDURE ExtendedToLocalString(theNumber: Extended;
        decimalDigits: Integer; VAR theString: Str255);
VAR theDecForm: DecForm;
    WITH theDecForm DO BEGIN
        style := fixedDecimal;
        digits := decimalDigits;
    Num2Str(theDecForm, theNumber, DecStr(theString));

That's all there is to the simple case.


Now I'll show you how to use the Text Utilities routines and 'itl4' resources to format numbers according to the user's specification. The idea is that your application comes with a range of predefined format strings, from which the user can pick one. The application might also let users enter their own format strings. Of course, these strings aren't exactly the most user-friendly way to define a number format, so if your application is intended for novice users you should hide them behind a friendlier user interface. Before we dive into the code, let's look at a few obstacles that the Text Utilities routines provide for us and consider how we can work around them.

First of all, the Text Utilities routines expect to work with localized format specifications. They aren't able to take, for example, the standard number format used in the United States and translate it into the standard number format used in Greece, which uses parentheses to indicate negative numbers. This will be a problem if your application doesn't get localized for all regions for which Macintosh system software is localized and if some versions of your application get used in regions for which they aren't localized. To work around this problem, the range of format strings that a given version of the software offers should include all formats commonly used in any of the regions in which this version might be used, and your application should also let users enter their own format strings.

Second, the format strings are interpreted with reference to the characters defined by the number parts table that you pass into the Text Utilities StringToFormatRec routine. You have to be sure to use a number parts table whose characters are compatible with the strings you provide. Currently, only the characters defined by the U.S. 'itl4' resource are documented. To deal with this situation, we'll take advantage of the fact that the U.S. 'itl4' resource is always available and will use its characters as a stable reference point. We'll define all format strings using the U.S. characters, and use the number parts table in the U.S. 'itl4' resource to interpret them.

Third, if you match a format string against the number parts table of the default 'itl4' resource, you'll have to make sure that your application doesn't break if the user defines a custom number format and the Numbers control panel patches the new decimal and thousands separators into the 'itl4' resource. Therefore, we'll have to undo all changes that the user may have made with the control panel before we can use an 'itl4' resource to interpret our format strings.

Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that other parts of the number parts table won't be modified by the Numbers control panel in the future. This means that a format string that can be converted under the current mechanism may become unconvertible in the future, just as a valid 7.0 format string may no longer be recognized by the 7.1 StringToFormatRec routine. There's not much you can do about this until you know it's happened.

An alternative approach that avoids this problem is to store internal representations of format specifications instead of format strings in the application's resources. The internal representations are created by a separate tool that's run on unmodified U.S. system software during the development process. This approach, however, makes it more difficult for localizers to look at the format strings and to create new ones, and also makes it slightly more difficult to use an additional feature that we'll discuss later, in the "Converting Format Strings" section. I therefore prefer to keep format strings in the application and convert them at run time.

So, to display numbers in a user-specified format, we do the following:

  1. Define all format strings using the characters given by the default U.S. 'itl4' resource and documented inInside Macintosh: Text, pages 5-39 to 5-43.
  2. Set up two separate number parts tables: one "reference" table that will be used to interpret the predefined format strings and one "user" table that reflects the user's formatting needs.
  3. Using the reference number parts table, convert the predefined format strings into the Text Utilities' internal numeric representation.
  4. Using the user number parts table, convert the internal numeric representation into format strings that can be displayed to users (to let them select a preferred format, for example).
  5. Using the user number parts table, convert a format string that the user has entered into an internal numeric representation.
  6. Format numbers using the user number parts table.

Inside Macintosh: Text , pages 5-35 to 5-44, goes into great detail about how to format numbers according to the user's specifications. The approach I describe here differs somewhat from that approach. Instead of assuming that all format strings are localized for the language supported by the default 'itl4' resource, we prepare the application to support format strings from two different sources, the application resources and the user, by using separate number parts tables for them. This is shown in Figure 2, which essentially replaces the upper left portion of the data flow diagram on page 5-37 of Inside Macintosh: Text.  In all other places where the diagram inInside Macintosh: Text  shows a number parts table, we use the user number parts table.

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Figure 2 Number Formatting Using Two Different Number Parts Tables

Which format strings you provide with your application depends on the countries you want to target and the specific needs of your users. Here are some sample strings that you may want to use: * '###,###.##;-###,###.##;0.##' can be used for floating-point numbers with an absolute value of less than one million, with a thousands separator and the minus sign for negative numbers, and without padding. * '###,###.##;(###,###.##);0.##' is similar, but with parentheses to represent negative numbers, as is customary in some countries. * '+^^^;-^^^;^^^^' can be used for integer numbers with an absolute value of less than one thousand, with signs for both positive and negative numbers, and with padding to four places with a space character as may be necessary for alignment.

When you define the format strings, there are a few things you have to watch out for. Most important, the predefined format strings shouldn't include any literal text, as this text is almost guaranteed to be inappropriate for the regions the application isn't localized for. (Note that it may be inappropriate even for the target region; for example, you shouldn't embed currency symbols, because many users deal with foreign currency.)

Also, conversion from U.S. to localized characters really only works for characters that are listed as separate tokens inInside Macintosh: Text , page B-56, not for unquoted characters or other text. For example, parentheses are unquoted characters and don't get converted to the special right-to-leftparentheses used by the Arabic and Hebrew script systems. As a result, neither a format string that contains parentheses nor numbers formatted with it display correctly on Arabic, Persian, or Hebrew system software. To avoid problems like this, make sure to test your software on the system software for all countries that you want to target.

Finally, the format string specifies the maximum number of predecimal digits in a formatted number, and the formatting routine will report an error if the number doesn't fit into the format. This means that your program has to ensure that the format strings have enough predecimal digits to accommodate all numbers that may need to be formatted. If the predefined strings you need get too long, you may want to use a simplified version that you can show to users without scaring them.

Now we'll set up the number parts tables that we'll use. The reference table is based on the U.S. 'itl4' resource, but we'll undo all changes that the user may have made with the control panel. The user table is based on the system's default number parts table and the user's selections in the Numbers or International control panel.

Again, we assume that your application doesn't check for changes in the Script Manager state, and therefore we cache the number parts tables that we need at launch time. The tables are initialized by calling InitializeNumberPartsTables. If the user number parts table is an unmodified U.S. table, only one table is allocated, and both pointers reference this table.

VAR gUserNumberPartsTable:      NumberPartsPtr;
    gReferenceNumberPartsTable: NumberPartsPtr;
VAR gSystemVersion:             LongInt;

The function GetUserItl4 gets the 'itl4' resource that matches the user's selection in the Numbers or International control panel. This isn't necessarily the default 'itl4' resource.

FUNCTION GetUserItl4:           Handle;
VAR theItl4Handle:              Handle;
    systemScript:               ScriptCode;
    tableOffset, tableLength:   LongInt;
    theItl0Handle:              Handle;
    theResID:                   Integer;
    theResType:                 ResType;
    theResName:                 Str255;

System 7 provides a new routine, GetIntlResourceTable (IUGetItlTable), that returns the number parts table of the default 'itl4' resource. However, the effect of the International control panel on the default 'itl4' resource differs from that of the Numbers control panel, as explained earlier, and we take some extra steps to achieve the behavior that best matches the control panel's behavior. The International control panel selects an 'itl0' resource but doesn't affect the 'itl4' resource. If we continued using the default 'itl4' resource, the user wouldn't see any effect from the control panel selection. To make up for this, we'll try to find an 'itl4' resource that matches the 'itl0' that the user selected, and use it instead of the default 'itl4'. The Numbers control panel, on the other hand, updates the decimal and thousands separators in the 'itl4' resource, and changes in the default 'itl0' resource are limited to the features visible in the control panel. Therefore, the best solution in this case is to use the default 'itl4' resource.

    IF gSystemVersion >= $0710 THEN BEGIN
       systemScript := GetEnvirons(smSysScript);
       IUGetItlTable(systemScript, iuNumberPartsTable, theItl4Handle, 
            tableOffset, tableLength);

The workaround used here is to ask the system for the 'itl0' resource and then try to find an 'itl4' resource with a matching number. Some countries, however, have multiple 'itl0' resources and only one 'itl4' resource, or they don't have any 'itl4' resource of their own (they use the U.S. version). To cover these cases, we have to go through an exception table.

theItl0Handle := IUGetIntl(0);
GetResInfo(theItl0Handle, theResID, theResType, theResName);
theItl4Handle := GetResource('itl4', theResID);
IF ResError = resNotFound THEN BEGIN

The exceptions in system software versions 7.0 and 7.0.1 are as follows:

  • the Netherlands: 'itl0' IDs 5 and 6; 'itl4' only ID 5.
  • Czechoslovakia: 'itl0' IDs 30776, 30777, 56, 57; 'itl4' only ID 30776.

Note that 'itl0' 56 occurs in both the Czechoslovakian and Polish versions. For all other cases, we try the U.S. resource.

            CASE theResID OF
                6: theResID := 5;   { Netherlands }
                30777, 56, 57: theResID := 30776; { Czechoslovakia }
                OTHERWISE theResID := verUS;
            theItl4Handle := GetResource('itl4', theResID);
    GetUserItl4 := theItl4Handle;

In the procedure InitializeDefaultNumberSeparators we've verified that the characters the user has specified as decimal and thousands separators don't conflict with the use of these separators for default formatting. Here, we have to take one additional step: the Text Utilities routines for user- specified formatting don't work if the same character is used for different purposes in the number parts table. For instance, a character can't be used both as the decimal separator and to represent digits in a format string. If the routines find a number parts table they don't like, they return the fBadPartsTable result. The procedure CheckDefaultNumberSeparators uses this to check for problems in the user number parts table (which contains the default separators) at application initialization time. In real life, your application should produce a more meaningful message explaining to the user what went wrong and then should quit.

PROCEDURE CheckDefaultNumberSeparators(userNumberPartsTable:
CONST   testString = '0';
VAR formatRecord:   NumFormatString;
        result:             FormatStatus;
    result := Str2Format(testString, userNumberPartsTable^,
    IF FormatResultType(result) <> fFormatOK THEN

The procedure ExtractNumberPartsTable is used by the InitializeNumberPartsTables routine to extract a number parts table from an 'itl4' resource.

FUNCTION ExtractNumberPartsTable(theItl4Handle: Handle):
VAR tableOffset:    LongInt;
    tableLength:    LongInt;
    theTable:       Ptr;
    WITH NItl4Handle(theItl4Handle)^^ DO BEGIN
        tableOffset := defPartsOffset;
        tableLength := defPartsLength;
    theTable := NewPtr(tableLength);
    { Might have been purged since we got hold of it }
    BlockMove(Ptr(LongInt(theItl4Handle^) + tableOffset), theTable,
    ExtractNumberPartsTable := NumberPartsPtr(theTable);

The procedure InitializeNumberPartsTables initializes gUserNumberPartsTable and gReferenceNumberPartsTable by copying the tables from the respective 'itl4' resources into nonrelocatable blocks in the heap and cleaning the reference table if necessary.

PROCEDURE InitializeNumberPartsTables;
VAR userItl4, usItl4: Handle;
    userItl4 := GetUserItl4;
    usItl4 := GetResource('itl4', verUS);
    gUserNumberPartsTable := ExtractNumberPartsTable(userItl4);

We check whether the user number parts table is an unmodified U.S. table, so we can use it as the reference table as well.

    IF (usItl4 = userItl4) AND ((gSystemVersion < $0710) OR
            ((gDefaultDecimalSeparator = '.') AND 
            (gDefaultThousandsSeparator = ','))) THEN
        gReferenceNumberPartsTable := gUserNumberPartsTable

We need to get the U.S. number parts table and undo any changes that the user may have made with the Numbers control panel.

        gReferenceNumberPartsTable := ExtractNumberPartsTable(usItl4);
        gReferenceNumberPartsTable^.data[tokDecPoint].a[1] := '.';
        gReferenceNumberPartsTable^.data[tokThousands].a[1] := ',';

The procedure DisposeNumberPartsTables disposes of the global number parts tables.

PROCEDURE DisposeNumberPartsTables;
    IF gReferenceNumberPartsTable <> gUserNumberPartsTable THEN
    gReferenceNumberPartsTable := NIL;
    gUserNumberPartsTable := NIL;

Now that we have the two number parts tables, we're going to use them to do some conversions. We're going to convert our predefined format strings into the Text Utilities' internal numeric representation, convert this representation into format strings that can be displayed to the user, and convert format strings entered by the user into internal representations.

But first, remember the alternate numerals table mentioned earlier? It's time now to reveal a previously undocumented feature: if a number parts table used for converting a format string to its internal numeric representation contains a character other than "#" as the no-leader format marker, the resulting internal numeric representation will specify using the alternate numerals.

We can use this knowledge to write a wrapper around the StringToFormatRec (Str2Format) routine that temporarily replaces the no-leader format marker, adjusts the format string to use the replacement character as well, calls StringToFormatRec, and reverts the number parts table to its original state. A convenient replacement character is "1," because digits are very unlikely to be used for any other purpose in any version of the number parts table. As the character code for "#" is in a range that isn't used for the bytes of 2-byte characters, we don't have to check for 2-byte characters here.

Here's what the wrapper routine looks like:

PROCEDURE StringToFormatRecord(formatString: Str255;
                                useAlternateNumerals: Boolean;
                                theNumberPartsTable: NumberPartsPtr;
                                VAR formatRecord: NumFormatString);
VAR result: FormatStatus;
        oldChar:    WideChar;
        i:          Integer;
    IF useAlternateNumerals THEN BEGIN
        oldChar := theNumberPartsTable^.data[tokNonLeader];
        theNumberPartsTable^.data[tokNonLeader].b := Ord('1');
        FOR i := 1 TO Length(formatString) DO
            IF formatString[i] = '#' THEN
                formatString[i] := '1';
    result := Str2Format(formatString, theNumberPartsTable^,
    IF useAlternateNumerals THEN
        theNumberPartsTable^.data[tokNonLeader] := oldChar;
    IF FormatResultType(result) <> fFormatOK THEN

When do you use alternate numerals? First you have to find out whether the user 'itl4' resource you're using supports alternate numerals. You can use the following routine to do this. If it returns TRUE, you should let the user make the final decision whether to use the alternate numerals for output -- you can't take for granted that they're always preferred over the ASCII digits. For input, it probably makes sense to accept them without bothering the user first. An exception is the alternate numerals in bidirectional scripts, where the internal representation of the number won't match what the user sees on the screen. You probably shouldn't accept these digits.

FUNCTION HasAlternateNumerals
      (aNumberPartsTable: NumberPartsPtr): Boolean;
HasAlternateNumerals :=
        aNumberPartsTable^[0].b <> Ord('0');

Obviously, the decision whether to use alternate numerals has to be made at run time. This is the second reason I recommended storing format strings and not internal representations in the application: with internal representations, you would have to store both versions and select the right one at run time; with format strings, you only store one version and decide at run time how to convert it.

Given this preparation and the two number parts tables, the remaining steps are straightforward. The following routines do no more than call StringToFormatRecord and FormatRecToString with the appropriate number parts table and check for errors that might occur.

PredefinedStringToFormatRecord converts a predefined format string using the standard U.S. number parts table into an internal numeric representation.

PROCEDURE PredefinedStringToFormatRecord
                           (predefinedFormatString: Str255;
                            useAlternateNumerals: Boolean;
                            VAR formatRecord: NumFormatString);
                          gReferenceNumberPartsTable, formatRecord);

FormatRecordToUserString converts an internal numeric representation into a format string that can be displayed to the user.

PROCEDURE FormatRecordToUserString(formatRecord: NumFormatString;
                                    VAR userFormatString: Str255);
VAR result: FormatStatus;
    positions: TripleInt;
    result := Format2Str(formatRecord, gUserNumberPartsTable^, 
    userFormatString, positions);
    IF FormatResultType(result) <> fFormatOK THEN

UserStringToFormatRecord converts a format string entered by the user into an internal numeric representation.

PROCEDURE UserStringToFormatRecord(userFormatString: Str255;
                            useAlternateNumerals: Boolean;
                            VAR formatRecord: NumFormatString);
    StringToFormatRecord(userFormatString, useAlternateNumerals,
    gUserNumberPartsTable, formatRecord);

After all the preparations, the formatting itself is trivial. FormatNumber formats theNumber into a string, using the internal numeric representation given and the user number parts table.

PROCEDURE FormatNumber(theNumber: Extended;
                        theFormatRecord: NumFormatString; 
                        VAR theString: Str255);
VAR result: FormatStatus;
    result := FormatX2Str(theNumber, theFormatRecord, 
    gUserNumberPartsTable^, theString);
    IF FormatResultType(result) <> fFormatOK THEN


Now let's look at conversions in the opposite direction. When the user enters a number, your application receives a numeric string that it has to convert into a number. This could be quite a difficult task, given that a user may pick a rather arbitrary format (and remember, Macintosh users are generally inclined to do things their own way). Unfortunately, the Toolbox doesn't provide a routine that simply converts an arbitrary numeric string to a number; your application always has to specify the acceptable format.

We can reasonably make some simplifying assumptions: If your application doesn't support output in formats other than ASCII digits, it's probably acceptable to apply the same restriction to the input formats that can be used. And if your application uses only the default format for display, you can also get away with allowing input in this format only, although it would be nicer to accept input in any format the user prefers. If your application supports user-specified number formats, however, it should be prepared to accept input in any currently defined format, and probably in some variations of them, plus the default format.

The Toolbox provides three routines that convert numeric strings into numbers. StringToNum can parse integer numbers but can't deal with anything that goes beyond a sequence of decimal digits that's possibly preceded by a sign. The SANE routine Str2Num can parse floating-point numbers and does detect erroneous input, but it assumes the period as the decimal separator and doesn't support thousands separators. Finally, StringToExtended is supposed to support input of numeric strings in a localized format, but it can deal with only one format at a time and has several other shortcomings that we'll look at later.

We'll take the same approach as with number display and provide separate routines that can deal with the default number format and with user-specified formats.

This solution restricts user input to something that's very close to the default number format. Then we can simply reverse the "localization" process done for the default format -- that is, strip thousands separators and modify the decimal separator -- and call the StringToNum routine or SANE directly to interpret the number.

The procedure UnlocalizeNumberString checks whether theString is a legal number string, strips all thousands separators, and replaces the default decimal separator with a period. As the default number format consists only of ASCII digits, the minus sign, and thousands and decimal separators (which are limited to one byte by the 'itl0' resource), we don't have to worry about 2-byte characters here if we walk the string and check each character (we would have to worry if we used a string search routine).

PROCEDURE UnlocalizeNumberString(VAR theString: Str255; 
                                            allowDecimal: Boolean);
VAR delta:      Integer;
    i:          Integer;
    theChar:    Char;
    delta := 0;
    FOR i := 1 TO Length(theString) DO BEGIN
        theChar := theString[i];
        IF (theChar >= '0') & (theChar <= '9') THEN
            theString[i - delta] := theChar
        ELSE IF (theChar = '-') & (i = 1) THEN
            theString[i - delta] := theChar
        ELSE IF theChar = gDefaultThousandsSeparator THEN
            delta := delta + 1
        ELSE IF theChar = gDefaultDecimalSeparator THEN BEGIN
            IF allowDecimal THEN BEGIN
                allowDecimal := FALSE; { one is enough }
                theString[i - delta] := '.';
    theString[0] := Char(Length(theString) - delta);
    IF Length(theString) = 0 THEN

And here we finally come to the two routines that your application will call directly to interpret numeric strings. The first one is intended for integer numbers, the other one for floating-point numbers.

LocalStringToInteger converts to an integer a numeric string that we're hoping represents an integer. The string may contain localized thousands separators.

PROCEDURE LocalStringToInteger(theString: Str255;
                                    VAR theNumber: LongInt);
    UnlocalizeNumberString(theString, FALSE);
    StringToNum(theString, theNumber);

LocalStringToExtended converts to an equivalent floating-point number a numeric string that we're hoping represents a fixed-point number. The string may contain localized thousands and decimal separators.

PROCEDURE LocalStringToExtended(theString: Str255; 
                                    VAR theNumber: Extended);
    UnlocalizeNumberString(theString, TRUE);
    theNumber := Str2Num(theString);

Now we can benefit from some of the work that we did to display a number in a user-specified number format: we use the same number parts tables and the same format conversion routines. However, because we can't really constrain users to any given format for input, we have to allow them at least to use any currently defined format, including the default format. To do this, your application should try the default format and all currently defined format strings until it finds one for which the conversion is successful.

The core of this conversion is the StringToExtended (FormatStr2X) routine, and it helps to understand how this routine works. You get the most reliable results from StringToExtended if users enter numbers exactly in one of the three possible formats given by a format string (for positive and negative numbers and 0). In this case it returns fFormatOK. If the input string doesn't conform to any of the three formats, StringToExtended tries to guess: it replaces the default decimal separator in the string with a period, moves the minus sign to the beginning of the string, and strips some other punctuation. If the resulting string can be interpreted by SANE, StringToExtended returns fBestGuess and the number found by SANE; otherwise StringToExtended returns one of several other values that indicate why the string cannot be interpreted.

You can control how liberal your application is by either allowing fBestGuess as a result of StringToExtended or treating it as an error. If you don't allow fBestGuess, the input string can deviate from the specified format in only the following two ways:

  • If you specify parentheses to indicate negative numbers, StringToExtended recognizes parenthesized numbers as negative but still also accepts numbers with a minus sign. This helps in many countries where negative numbers can be written with either a minus sign or parentheses.
  • If you set useAlternateNumerals to TRUE when you converted your format string, StringToExtended accepts ASCII digits in addition to the alternate numerals.

If you allow fBestGuess, the following deviations (and more) are also allowed:

  • The minus sign for negative numbers can occur anywhere in the number. That may be nice for some people who prefer to write the minus at the end, but interpreting "12-3" as -123 doesn't make sense.
  • Thousands separators can be missing or in the wrong place.
  • A fractional part can be present while the format string doesn't provide for it.
  • A decimal separator and fractional part specified in the format string can be missing.
  • More predecimal digits than specified by the format can be present.

Because the guessing process ignores some of the information entered by the user, it may behave inconsistently with the behavior shown when the format is OK. For example, if your format string uses parentheses to indicate negative numbers and also specifies thousands separators, "(123)" will be read as -123 (with fFormatOK), but "(1234)" will be read as 1234 (with fBestGuess). The missing thousands separator causes StringToExtended to go into the guessing pass, and there the parentheses are stripped instead of being interpreted as the indicator for "negative."

This situation is somewhat unfortunate. On one hand, checking for fFormatOK alone doesn't give users much freedom to type numbers in their preferred format -- for instance, where a fractional part is specified, they must at least enter the decimal separator. On the other hand, allowing fBestGuess may mean that some pretty bizarre strings are accepted and may lead to inconsistent interpretation of parentheses. It seems that for integer strings allowing fBestGuess is never a good solution, while for real values it might be OK as long as you don't support expressing negative numbers with parentheses. To play it safe, I don't allow fBestGuess in the code that follows.

To provide the appropriate handling and return the desired type of number, here are two different routines that interpret numeric strings representing floating-point and integer numbers. They both return Booleans to tell the caller whether theString was successfully converted.

InterpretExtended interprets a numeric string and converts it to an Extended number.

FUNCTION InterpretExtended(theString: Str255; 
                                theFormatRecord: NumFormatString;
                                VAR theNumber: Extended): Boolean;
VAR result: FormatStatus;
    result := FormatStr2X(theString, theFormatRecord, 
                          gUserNumberPartsTable^, theNumber);
    InterpretExtended := FormatResultType(result) = fFormatOK;

InterpretInteger interprets a numeric string that (we hope) represents an integer and converts it to the equivalent LongInt.

FUNCTION InterpretInteger(theString: Str255;
                                    theFormatRecord: NumFormatString;
                                    VAR theNumber: LongInt): Boolean;
VAR result:         FormatStatus;
        theExtended:    Extended;
        minLongInt = -2147483648;
        maxLongInt = 2147483647;
    result := FormatStr2X(theString, theFormatRecord, 
                          gUserNumberPartsTable^, theExtended);
    IF (FormatResultType(result) = fFormatOK) & 
         (theExtended >= minLongInt) & 
         (theExtended <= maxLongint) THEN BEGIN
        theNumber := Num2LongInt(theExtended);
        InterpretInteger := TRUE;
        InterpretInteger := FALSE;


The Numbers Test application on this issue's CD tests all the routines that we've seen so far. It's a simple, text-based application that spits out a few numbers in the default format, converts a few format strings and displays them in the localized version, and then runs a test that reads in numbers and formats them according to format strings. In a real program, you would of course get the format strings and the messages from resources. In case you prefer to play with an MPW tool, you can use the BuildNumbers script on the CD to build a tool that's equivalent to the application.

One final warning in case you don't check out the source code: Before using the routines described in this article, your application has to check that it runs on system software version 7.0 or higher, because the section "Setting Up the Number Parts Tables" makes some assumptions about this.


If you compare the user expectations described at the beginning of this article and what we've actually achieved with the Toolbox, you'll find that we've been only partially successful. The code handles the default number format and some user-specified customizations, but it's still limited to decimal numbers expressed in ASCII digits and to additional characters supported by the 'itl4' resource.

You may consider adding code of your own to make your number handling more flexible. There's an obvious need for support for nondecimal numbers. Many specialized applications already support Roman numerals or hexadecimal numbers; your application could similarly support traditional Chinese numbers or decimal numbers using Chinese digits.

When you add your own number support, you should always design it as an extension to the facilities provided by system software, not as a replacement. The Macintosh is being localized into ever more languages to reach ever more customers, and you'll be more successful if your application is at least as good as system software worldwide.


  • Apple Numerics Manual , 2nd ed. (Addison-Wesley, 1988).
  • Inside Macintosh: Text  (Addison-Wesley, 1993). See Chapter 1, "Introduction to Text on the Macintosh"; Chapter 5, "Text Utilities"; Chapter 6, "Script Manager"; and Appendix B, "International Resources."

NORBERT LINDENBERG is an import from Germany who still wonders why there are offices in California that don't have windows and need artificial light while the sun is shining outside, and how Americans can survive on 12 days of vacation a year instead of the normal six weeks. While a student at the University of Karlsruhe, Norbert developed the Literate Programming Workshop, which he claims is the best environment for doing literate programming. (Literate programming is similar to a develop  article in that you combine source code and documentation in one document, but different because you compile the source code right out of this integrated source document.) Now he actually gets paid for writing literate programs for Apple's International Software Support Group. *For background information on number formatting, see Chapter 5, "Text Utilities," in Inside Macintosh: Text . For definitions of basic terms used in this article, see Chapter 1, "Introduction to Text on the Macintosh," in the same volume. *

The number in international resource types isn't related to functionality. Resources of type 'itl1' contain long date strings; resources of type 'itl2' deal with text handling (sorting, uppercase and lowercase, word boundaries); and resources of type 'itl5' define rendering and character encoding. There are no resources of type 'itl3'. *

GetIntlResource or IUGetIntl? With the new edition of Inside Macintosh , many Toolbox routines have been renamed. However, interface files defining the new names are not yet available for all Macintosh programming environments. Therefore, I use the new names in the documentation, followed by the old names in parentheses, and I use the old names in the source code.*

GetIntlResource (IUGetIntl) is described in Inside Macintosh: Text , pages 6-90 to 6-91. The international resources selection flag is described in Inside Macintosh: Text , pages 6-21 to 6-26.*

SANE is the set of routines for floating-point calculations in Apple computers. It's documented in the Apple Numerics Manual .*

NumToString is described in Inside Macintosh: Text , page 5-92.*

DecForm and Num2Str are described in the Apple Numerics Manual , second edition, pages 26 to 27. *

Number parts tables are described in more detail in Inside Macintosh: Text , pages B-55 to B-57.*

GetIntlResourceTable (IUGetItlTable) is described in Inside Macintosh: Text , pages 6-91 to 6-92.*

StringToFormatRec (Str2Format) is described in Inside Macintosh: Text , pages 5-95 to 5-96.*

FormatRecToString (Format2Str) is described in Inside Macintosh: Text , pages 5-96 to 5-98.*

StringToNum and StringToExtended (FormatStr2X) are described in Inside Macintosh: Text . See pages 5-93 to 5-94 for StringToNum, and pages 5-98 to 5-99 for StringToExtended.*

Str2Num is described in the Apple Numerics Manual , second edition, pages 25 to 26. *

Result values for StringToExtended are described in Inside Macintosh: Text , page 5-38.*

Num2LongInt is described in the Apple Numerics Manual,  second edition, page 22.*

THANKS TO OUR TECHNICAL REVIEWERS Jeannette Cheng, Peter Edberg, Bryan K. ("Beaker") Ressler, Kenny Tung *


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