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Learn Documents Quoting Flow Style Schema Best Practices

To Quote or not to Quote?

This article covers scalar styles in YAML 1.1 and 1.2. It mostly works the same in both versions.

One design goal of YAML was that it's human friendly. It should be easy to read and edit, even if that makes parsing it harder.

Let's look at strings, specifically.

If you look at JSON, you have only one style to encode strings, and that's the double quoted style which doesn't allow literal linebreaks.

YAML is a data serialization language, but YAML files are used for many different purposes, and there are many types of strings, especially multiline strings. For each use case, you can choose the type of quoting (or no quoting) that makes the string readable and easy to edit.

This gives you lots of freedom, but you also have to learn using it to avoid mistakes.

You basically have five ways to express a string:

Quick comparison - tl;dr

# Flow Scalar Styles
plain scalars:
- a string with a \ backslash that doesn't need to be escaped
- can also use " quotes ' and $ a % lot /&?+ of other {} [] stuff
- a string
  on multiple lines

single quoted:
- '& starts with a special character, needs quotes'
- 'no need to escape backslash \ and double " quote'
- 'to express one single quote, use '' two of them'

double quoted:
- "here we can use predefined escape sequences like \t \n \b"
- "or generic escape sequences \x0b \u0041 \U00000041"
- "the double quote \" needs to be escaped"
- "just like the \\ backslash"
- "the single quote ' and other characters must not be escaped"

# Block Scalar Styles
literal block scalar: |
  a multiline text
  line 2
  line 3

# mnemonic: '>' is a folded '|'
folded block scalar: >
  a long line split into
  several short
  lines for readability

Flow Scalars

The three types of Flow Scalars have some common rules.

They can be on multiple lines, and can start on the same line as the parent node.

Linebreaks are subject to flow folding:

single: simple scalar on one line
multi: this is
  all one
  single line
same as: this is all one single line
  this is
  all one
  single line
same as: this is all one single line

This can be very useful if you have a long string and want to limit the length of the lines in your YAML file.

Whitespace at the beginning or end of line are ignored:

flow: a
same as: a b c d e

Whitespace inside a line are kept:

flow: a
  b	c
  d   e
same as: "a b\tc d   e"

You should avoid using literal tabs, especially in plain scalars.

There's also a way to enforce newlines. If you add a blank line, it will not be folded:


single: "a b\nc d"

Every following empty line after the first will be kept as a newline, too:


single: "a b\n\nc d"

Plain Scalars

In YAML, you can write a string without quotes, if it doesn't have a special meaning. See the next section for cases where you have to quote a string.

a string: no quotes needed
another string: with 'single' and "double" quotes
a url: http://example.org/

You can use literal tabs, backslashes and unicode characters:

a string: with a real	 tab character and a \ backslash

But note that literal tabs are discouraged, as there are edge cases, and they are usually not easy to see.

You can not use escapes sequences like \n or \t here, it will be returned literally as "Backslash + n" / "Backslash + t".

A comment will end such a plain scalar, so the following example is invalid:

  first    # a comment
  second   # this is invalid

You can only use a comment at the end:

  second   # a comment

It should be noted that, while a plain scalar cannot start with a -<space>, for example, the following lines can, although this might look like a badly indented sequence:

- a multiline
  - plain string

# same as
- "a multiline - plain string"

So you should avoid this.

When not to use Plain Scalars

Because a plain scalar without quotes can conflict with YAML syntax elements, there are some exceptions where you can not use it.

Characters that cannot be used at the beginning of a plain scalar:


- this @ is ok
- @but this not
- comma,
- ,no comma

Character sequences that can't be used inside a plain scalar:

Additional exceptions for scalars in Flow Style Collections:

flow style sequence: [ string one, string two ]
flow style mapping: { key: value }

As you can see, a comma or a square bracket will end a plain scalar. Therefor, to avoid confusion, the following characters or character sequences are not allowed in plain scalars:

A colon is an indicator for a mapping key if it is followed by one of these characters []{},:

# Some processors don't implement this correctly. To be
# sure you should always add a space.
flow mapping: {key:[sequence]}

The following example with a colon without a space is also valid in flow style collections, but some processors don't allow it (currently):

request: { url: http://example.org/ }
urls: [http://example.org/, http://yaml.org/]

Finally, to be compatible with JSON, you also can omit the space if the key is quoted:

flow mapping: { "quoted":23 }

Special types

Another use case for quotes is when you have a string that would be resolved as a special type. This highly depends on the YAML version and on the Schema in use. Here are some examples where you need quotes:

See YAML Schema and Tags

Single Quoted Scalar

In the last section you learned when you have to quote a scalar. Single quoted scalars mostly work like plain scalars, only that the special character sequences are allowed:

a string:         '&enclosed in single quotes'
colon plus space: 'this colon : would be forbidden without quotes'
another colon plus space:
  'this colon : would create a mapping without quotes'
no comment:       'this would be # a comment without quotes'
curly brace:      '{ this would be: a flow style mapping }'
square bracket:   '[ this would be a flow style sequence ]'
backslash:        'this \n is a backslash and "n", not a linebreak'

Any character except ' will be returned literally. You can not use escapes sequences here. The single quote itself is escaped by doubling it:

a string: 'with one single '' quote'

The following demonstrates that a backslash is not an escape character:

a string: 'this is \' # the end of the string'

In JSON, this would be:

{ "a string": "this is \\" }

So the # the end of the string' is really a comment.

Multiple lines

Folding rules are like in all flow scalars:

single: 'a b c d'

However, spaces after the starting quote or before the ending quote will be kept:

  '  a
  d   '
single: "  a b c d   "

Double Quoted Scalar

A double quoted scalar has the same rules as a single quoted scalar, plus escape sequences. This is the only scalar style where you can use escape sequences.

The escaping rules are compatible to JSON. (I should note, though, that it also depends on the processor you use, since not all are fully JSON compatible. The incompatible cases should be rare, though.)

a string: "here's a \t tab and a \n newline,
  followed by a \\ backslash"
another string: "with an escaped \" double quote"

It's important to note, that only a limited set of characters can be escaped. Other escapes are invalid:

- "invalid \. escape"
- "invalid \' escape"
- "invalid \- escape"

There are special escape sequences which let you express any character:

- "a \x20 space"
- "a vertical \v tab can also be written as \x0B or \x0b"
- "an 'A' in 8-bit unicode: \x41"
- "an 'A' in 16-bit unicode: \u0041"
- "an 'A' in 32-bit unicode: \U00000041"

The list of allowed escapes can be found here:

In YAML 1.1, escaping of a slash is forbidden. In 1.2, this was one of the changes made to be compatible with JSON:

string: "escaped \/ slash"

The backslash also has an additional meaning. If you add it to the end of a line, the next line will be folded without a space. This is useful when you want to break a long string into several lines, but it doesn't have spaces anywhere:

a long string without spaces:

You can also use it to preserve spaces at the end:

  "the first line ends with 5 spaces     \
  second line"
single: "the first line ends with 5 spaces     second line"

In that case the five spaces are preserved and will be used for folding. You can use a Backslash plus Space at the beginning of the line to get a similar effect:

  \     5 spaces
single: "first      5 spaces third"

Note that you will actually get six spaces in this case!

Block Scalars

When your string is longer, it can be a good idea to use a block scalar to make it more readable.

An advantage is that inside of the block scalar any character sequence is allowed. It is ended by a less indented line so you can freely use :<space>, <space># and quotes.

You can choose between Literal and Folded Block Scalars.

You can not use escape sequences like \t for tabs.

Spaces at the beginning or end of the line will be preserved.

Literal Block Scalar

A Literal Block Scalar is introduced with the | pipe. The content starts on the next line and has to be indented:

literal: |
  line 1
   line 2

The indendation is detected from the first (non-empty) line of the block scalar.

The newlines will be preserved, so this is equivalent to:

quoted: "line 1\n line 2\nend\n"

This way you can add all kinds of text to your YAML, for example a shell script:

bash: |
  #!/usr/bin/env bash
  echo "Help, I'm trapped in a YAML document!"
  exit 1

You could even embed a YAML document in YAML! If you ever had to do this in JSON, you know how ugly this can get.

Also trailing spaces will be preserved.

- |
  trailing spaces   
  trailing tab	
- "trailing spaces   \ntrailing tab\t\n"

Folded Block Scalar

The Folded Block Scalar, as the name suggests, will fold its lines with spaces. It is introduced with the > sign, which can be seen as a folded |.

a long command: >
  apt-get update
  && apt-get install -y
  git tig vim jq tmux tmate git-subrepo
quoted: "apt-get update && apt-get install -y git
  tig vim jq tmux tmate git-subrepo\n"

The folding rules are actually almost the same as for quoted scalars. You can enforce a newline with an empty line:

a text with long lines: >
  this is the first
  long line

  and this is the

quoted: "this is the first long line\nand this is the second\n"

There's an additional way to enforce newlines, and probably not very well known:

a long text with enforced newlines: >
    line two
    line three
quoted: "line one\n  line two\n  line three\nline four\n"

Another difference to flow folding is that trailing spaces are kept:

a text with long lines: >
  trailing spaces   

quoted: "trailing space    continued\n"


If a line starting with # is indented correctly, it will not be interpreted as a comment:

literal: |
  # no comment
quoted: "a\n# no comment\nb\n"

Also note that even the first line can start with a #:

folded: >
  # no comment
quoted: "# no comment a b\n"

A less indented line starting with a # will be interpreted as a comment and will also end the block scalar:

folded: >
  # a comment, end of block scalar

You can add comments to a block scalar directly after the header:

literal: | # a block scalar
folded: > # a block scalar

Leading Empty Lines

Unlike trailing empty lines, at the beginning they will be preserved. Note that lines containing only spaces count as empty lines here. An underscore "_" is used to represent the spaces:

folded: >

quoted: "\n\na b\n"

Chomp Indicator

You might have noticed that Block Scalars always end with a newline. This is the default behaviour. Any further trailing newlines will be stripped:

literal: |

quoted: "a\nb\n"

folded: >

quoted: "a b\n"

If you don't want to end your scalar with a newline, you can use the - chomping indicator:

literal: |-

quoted: "a\nb"

folded: >-

quoted: "a b"

If you want to keep all trailing newlines, use the "keep" + indicator:

literal: |+

quoted: "a\nb\n\n\n"

folded: >+

quoted: "a b\n\n\n"

Block Scalar Indenting

Sometimes, your block scalar might start with one or multiple spaces that you want to preserve:

literal: | # invalid!
    This Is A Header
  The body starts here

All continuation lines in a block scalar have to be indented at least as much as the first line. So how can you preserve the spaces in the first line? By specifying the number of indentation spaces in the block scalar header:

implicit: | # indentation is 1

explicit: |2
    This Is A Header
  The body starts here
quoted: "  This is A Header\nThe body starts here\n"

This tells the YAML processor that the indentation is 2. Note that the number must be greater than zero. You can also combine the indicators, and the order does not matter:

literal: |-2

quoted: "  header\nbody"

Document Header and Footer

A special note about the Document Headers and Footers.

In YAML, ---<space> or ---<linebreak> at the beginning of a line explicitly starts the document.

...<space> or ...<linebreak> ends a document.

Even inside of Block Scalars or Quoted Scalars they still have their special meaning.

If your YAML document consistes of only one string at the top level, you should still indent it, because otherwise it might break your content if it contains --- or ....

--- "valid
--- "valid
--- >
  more block

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