The 'u' and 'r' String Prefixes and Raw String Literals in Python

The 'u' and 'r' String Prefixes and Raw String Literals in Python


While learning Python or reading someone else's code, you may have encountered the 'u' and 'r' prefixes and raw string literals. But what do these terms mean? How do they affect our Python code? In this article, we will attemp to demystify these concepts and understand their usage in Python.

String Literals in Python

A string literal in Python is a sequence of characters enclosed in quotes. We can use either single quotes (' ') or double quotes (" ") to define a string.

# Using single quotes
my_string = 'Hello, StackAbuse readers!'

# Using double quotes
my_string = "Hello, StackAbuse readers!"

Running this code will give you the following:

$ python
Hello, StackAbuse readers!
Hello, StackAbuse readers!

Pretty straightforward, right? In my opinion, the thing that confuses most people is the "literal" part. We're used to calling them just "strings", so when you hear it being called a "string literal", it sounds like something more complicated.

Python also offers other ways to define strings. We can prefix our string literals with certain characters to change their behavior. This is where 'u' and 'r' prefixes come in, which we'll talk about later.

Python also supports triple quotes (''' ''' or """ """) to define strings. These are especially useful when we want to define a string that spans multiple lines.

Here's an example of a multi-line string:

# Using triple quotes
my_string = """
StackAbuse readers!

Running this code will output the following:

$ python

StackAbuse readers!

Notice the newlines in the output? That's thanks to triple quotes!

What are 'u' and 'r' String Prefixes?

In Python, string literals can have optional prefixes that provide additional information about the string. These prefixes are 'u' and 'r', and they're used before the string literal to specify its type. The 'u' prefix stands for Unicode, and the 'r' prefix stands for raw.

Now, you may be wondering what Unicode and raw strings are. Well, let's break them down one by one, starting with the 'u' prefix.

The 'u' String Prefix

The 'u' prefix in Python stands for Unicode. It's used to define a Unicode string. But what is a Unicode string?

Unicode is an international encoding standard that provides a unique number for every character, irrespective of the platform, program, or language. This makes it possible to use and display text from multiple languages and symbol sets in your Python programs.

In Python 3.x, all strings are Unicode by default. However, in Python 2.x, you need to use the 'u' prefix to define a Unicode string.

For instance, if you want to create a string with Chinese characters in Python 2.x, you would need to use the 'u' prefix like so:

chinese_string = u'你好'

When you run this code, you'll get the output:

$ 你好

Which is "Hello" in Chinese.

Note: In Python 3.x, you can still use the 'u' prefix, but it's not necessary because all strings are Unicode by default.

So, that's the 'u' prefix. It helps you work with international text in your Python programs, especially if you're using Python 2.x. But what about the 'r' prefix? We'll dive into that in the next section.

The 'r' String Prefix

The 'r' prefix in Python denotes a raw string literal. When you prefix a string with 'r', it tells Python to interpret the string exactly as it is and not to interpret any backslashes or special metacharacters that the string might have.

Consider this code:

normal_string = "\tTab character"


    Tab character

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Here, \t is interpreted as a tab character. But if we prefix this string with 'r':

raw_string = r"\tTab character"


\tTab character

You can see that the '\t' is no longer interpreted as a tab character. It's treated as two separate characters: a backslash and 't'.

This is particularly useful when dealing with regular expressions, or when you need to include a lot of backslashes in your string.

Working with 'u' and 'r' Prefixes in Python 2.x

Now, let's talk about Python 2.x. In Python 2.x, the 'u' prefix was used to denote a Unicode string, while the 'r' prefix was used to denote a raw string, just like in Python 3.x.

However, the difference lies in the default string type. In Python 3.x, all strings are Unicode by default. But in Python 2.x, strings were ASCII by default. So, if you needed to work with Unicode strings in Python 2.x, you had to prefix them with 'u'.

# Python 2.x
unicode_string = u"Hello, world!"


Hello, world!

But what if you needed a string to be both Unicode and raw in Python 2.x? You could use both 'u' and 'r' prefixes together, like this:

# Python 2.x
unicode_raw_string = ur"\tHello, world!"


\tHello, world!

Note: The 'ur' syntax is not supported in Python 3.x. If you need a string to be both raw and Unicode in Python 3.x, you can use the 'r' prefix alone, because all strings are Unicode by default.

The key point here is that the 'u' prefix was more important in Python 2.x due to the ASCII default. In Python 3.x, all strings are Unicode by default, so the 'u' prefix is not as essential. However, the 'r' prefix is still very useful for working with raw strings in both versions.

Using Raw String Literals

Now that we understand what raw string literals are, let's look at more examples of how we can use them in our Python code.

One of the most common uses for raw string literals is in regular expressions. Regular expressions often include backslashes, which can lead to issues if not handled correctly. By using a raw string literal, we can more easily avoid these problems.

Another common use case for raw string literals is when working with Windows file paths. As you may know, Windows uses backslashes in its file paths, which can cause issues in Python due to the backslash's role as an escape character. By using a raw string literal, we can avoid these issues entirely.

Here's an example:

# Without raw string
path = "C:\\path\\to\\file"
# Output: C:\path		o\file

# With raw string
path = r"C:\\path\\to\\file"
# Output: C:\\path\\to\\file

As you can see, the raw string literal allows us to correctly represent the file path, while the standard string does not.

Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

When working with 'u' and 'r' string prefixes and raw string literals in Python, there are a number of common mistakes that developers often make. Let's go through some of them and see how you can avoid them.

First, one common mistake is using the 'u' prefix in Python 3.x. Remember, the 'u' prefix is not needed in Python 3.x as strings are Unicode by default in this version. Using it won't cause an error, but it's redundant and could potentially confuse other developers reading your code.

# This is redundant in Python 3.x
u_string = u'Hello, World!'

Second, forgetting to use the 'r' prefix when working with regular expressions can lead to unexpected results due to escape sequences. Always use the 'r' prefix when dealing with regular expressions in Python.

# This might not work as expected
regex = '\bword\b'

# This is the correct way
regex = r'\bword\b'

Last, not understanding that raw string literals do not treat the backslash as a special character can lead to errors. For instance, if you're trying to include a literal backslash at the end of a raw string, you might run into issues as Python still interprets a single backslash at the end of the string as escaping the closing quote. To include a backslash at the end, you need to escape it with another backslash, even in a raw string.

# This will cause a SyntaxError
raw_string = r'C:\path\'

# This is the correct way
raw_string = r'C:\path\\'


In this article, we've explored the 'u' and 'r' string prefixes in Python, as well as raw string literals. We've learned that the 'u' prefix is used to denote Unicode strings, while the 'r' prefix is used for raw strings, which treat backslashes as literal characters rather than escape characters. We also delved into common mistakes when using these prefixes and raw string literals, and how to avoid them.

Last Updated: September 9th, 2023
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