The mysterious byte order mark

I bumped into a strange problem with reading a text file recently. The file described the layout of a Nonogram for a program my father was working on:

N 5 5
Z 5 0 1 0 2 1 0 1 0 1 0
K 3 0 1 1 0 1 0 1 1 0 1 2 0

And to read the first line, he used something like this:

char ch;
int i1;
int i2;
ifstream ifs("Goobix 5.nono");
ifs >> ch >> i1 >> i2;

However, this didn’t work, the ints didn’t get read successfully. I then tried

char ch;
ifstream ifs("Goobix 5.nono");
while (ifs.get(ch))
	cout << ch;

to not ignore whitespace, resulting in this:


Behold, three unwanted characters! What are they? Let’s cast them to int to find out more:

char ch;
ifstream ifs("Goobix 5.nono");
while (ifs.get(ch))
	cout << ch << " (int: " << int(ch) << ")\n";

and we get


Negative, eh? Strange. Other people have seen similar things, so apparently these aren’t normal ASCII characters. To find out more, I’ve looked at the text file with a hex editor:


The file starts with 0xef 0xbb 0xbf. That’s googleable! and leads to byte order marks (BOM). The BOM indicates endianness and encoding of the text file; in the case of 0xef 0xbb 0xbf, it is a UTF-8 encoded file. To get rid of the BOM, we can just save the file with ANSI encoding:


Now, the file behaves as expected when being read:


Encodings in C++ (and elsewhere!) can be daunting. Good readings I have found include these:

Edit (February 2, 2015): Since I’ve written this, I’ve read Dive Into Python 3 by Mark Pilgrim, and the chapter about strings has made encodings so much clearer to me, so it is most recommended reading.

Written on December 30, 2014