String conversion S() or nodeValue()?


Confused about which string conversion function to use?

This FAQ provides an explanation of when to use :nodeValue() and when to use:S(). We will explain how each function works, how they are different, and how to apply each one correctly (including any exceptions to the rules). To really understand how these functions work, nothing beats playing around with the the examples.

If you are in hurry (and don’t need explanations), then just read the two rules below.

Tip: To better understand this FAQ, you may need to read up on the following:

Rules for when to choose :S() or :nodeValue() [top]

Just follow these two rules:

  • Use :nodeValue() to convert a leaf node to a string
  • Use :S() to serialize a non-leaf node (tree) as a string

We have found that simply thinking of :S() as “s for serialize” helps users to remember the difference.


Are there any occasions where using :S() on a leaf node is a good idea? In our opinion, probably not.

However, this is not a hard and fast rule! You might find an application where it is useful to use :S() to serialize HL7 or XML messages stored in leaf nodes. For example, you might need to store a complete message in a leaf node and return it in serialized form using :S(), however we strongly recommend against this because it is counter-intuitive and confusing.

The only real “exception” is Database node trees, as they return the same same value using nodeValue() or S().  Regardless, we recommend using nodeValue() for consistency.

Use :S() for Node Trees [top]

Use :S() to serialize a non-leaf node (tree) as a string.

Converting a node tree into a string is such a common task that we created the builtin :S() method that you can use. The :S() method is simply a shorthand for the Lua tostring() method.

Here is an example using tostring() and the more concise :S() method:

If we view the annotation data from we can see it is the same in both cases:

Note: If we try to use :nodeValue() it raises an error:

Use nodeValue() for Leaf Nodes [top]

Use :nodeValue() to convert a leaf node to a string. It is important to use :nodeValue() when converting leaf nodes,  particularly with HL7 and XML that use escape characters.

This example shows how use :nodeValue() works correctly, but:S() incorrectly escapes XML delimiters:

Note: If you try to use :nodeValue() on a non-leaf node (tree) it will raise an error.

How :S() and :nodeValue() work and how they differ [top]

How does :S() work?

  • The :S() function serializes any node into a string:
    • It converts non-leaf nodes (trees) into a string representation
    • It will also convert leaf nodes (but we recommend using :nodeValue() instead)
      Note: It will perform escaping which 99.99% of the time is not what you want!
  • The :S() function performs escaping on values, if the protocol requires it:
    • For an XML node, it will convert ‘>’ to ‘>’etc.
    • For HL7 and X12 nodes, it will convert ‘&’ to ‘\T\’ etc.
    • For all other node type no escaping is performed

How does :nodeValue() work?

  • The :nodeValue() function returns a leaf node as a string value
    • It converts leaf nodes (trees) into a string representation
    • It cannot convert non-leaf nodes (you must use :S() or tostring() instead)
  • The :nodeValue() function never performs escaping, regardless of protocol

What is the difference between :S() and :nodeValue():

  • The :S() function works for any node, nodeValue() only works on leaf nodes
  • The :S() function performs escaping (when required), nodeValue() never performs escaping
  • The nodeValue() function will decode (“un-serialize”) escape sequences (i.e., XML entities) when required, whereas the :S() will does not decode escape sequences and just returns the encoded text

What is the difference between :S() and tostring()?


The tostring() function works identically to :S(), because :S() is simply a wrapper for tostring(). As such, you can substitute tostring() anywhere you use :S().

Examples [top]

By now, you should understand when to use :nodeValue() and when to use:S(). If you are still a bit hazy about the rules, we recommend that you play around with the code in the examples provided. That said, if you remember the basic rules listed above, you cannot go wrong.

HL7 and X12

First let’s look at a fairly realistic example where we want to set the Sending Facility name to “Accident & Emergency Dept”.

What is the result?

  • The output from :S() encoded the “&” as “\T\” which is not what we wanted.

    Note: the two extra backslashes are from Lua string encoding.

  • The output from :nodeValue() returns the exact string that we expected.

Our second example uses all the HL7 delimiter characters.

As you can see :S() escapes all the delimiters, and :nodeValue() gives our desired plain text.

Now lets look at the same example using X12:

This looks very similar to the HL7 example, the only code change is on line seven. The reason they look the same is because X12 uses the same encoding as HL7 and produces an identical node tree.

Once again :nodeValue() gives our desired plain text, but :S() encodes all the delimiters.

Here is the combined code for all three examples:

function main(Data)
   -- create an HL7 node tree
   local msg = hl7.message{vmd = 'demo.vmd', name = 'ADT'}

   -- "Accident & Emergency Dept"
   msg.MSH[3][1] = [[Accident & Emergency Dept]]



   -- All the standard HL7 delimeters
   msg.MSH[3][1] = [[HL7 standard separators: field delimeter = |, ]]..
                   [[sub-delimiter = ^, sub-sub-delimeter = &, ]]..
                   [[repeat separator = ~, escape character = \]]



   -- X12 example
   local X = x12.message{vmd = 'demo.vmd', name = 'ADT'}

   -- All the standard HL7 delimeters
   X.MSH[3][1] = [[HL7 standard separators: field delimeter = |, ]]..
                   [[sub-delimiter = ^, sub-sub-delimeter = &, ]]..
                   [[repeat separator = ~, escape character = \]]





Our example demonstrates how :nodeValue() handles XML entities (escape sequences) correctly.

So what exactly is an Entity in XML? An XML entity is an escape sequence that represents a some text. Entities usually represent special characters that need to be displayed rather than processed.

Here are some common special character entities used in HTML (and XML):

  • &lt; = <
  • &gt; = <
  • &amp; = &
  • &quot; = “

You can also create custom entities in XML:

  • Create in DTD: <!ENTITY ifware “Interfaceware sells the Iguana Interface Engine”>
  • Use in XML: <text>&info;</text>
  • Result: &info; is replaced by “Interfaceware sells the Iguana Interface Engine”

Our XML example is pretty simple. I created the <text> field that contains a mixture of special characters and escape sequences (entities in XML).

As you can see both the special characters and escape sequences are handled correctly by :nodeValue().

Here is the code:

function main(Data)
   -- XML example using ">" and XML escape codes (entities)
   local x = xml.parse{data = [[
      <text>"&lt;" &amp; ">" are called Entities in XML</text> 




JSON does not work with :S() and :nodeValue()

JSON node trees can be created in several ways: By json.parse(), json.createObject()  (creates an empty tree), or simply by creating a lua table directly in your code. A “JSON tree” is actually just a  Lua table not a node tree, therefore :S() and :nodeValue() do not work on a “JSON tree”. The tostring() function will work (on any Lua table) but it will not do any encoding

Note: to encode/serialize a JSON Tree (in a Lua table) you must use json.serialize().

So first lets create two “JSON Trees” one using json.parse() and the second directly as a Lua table.

Here are the two “JSON Trees” we created:

As you can see the field order within the trees are different, the first tree is from json.parse(), the second is the Lua table.

Now we will serialize both trees to JSON text format (to demonstrate that json.serialize() takes a Lua table as a parameter).

As you can see both “JSON Trees” (Lua tables) were successfully serialized, though the field order is different.

Now let’s try :S() and :nodeValue() against a “JSON Tree”:

As expected neither function works.

Let’s see how tostring() works against our trees:

As you can see the standard Lua tostring() is invoked and it behaves differently to our custom implementation of tostring() that is used for Iguana node trees.

And finally we will try out json.CreateObject():

Initially if seems that we have a “json_empty_object”, but it is showing with a table icon.

Lets add the same data as above and see what happens:

Now it is clear that we just have two Lua tables.

So lets serialize them:

As you can see serialization gives identical results.

I also tried JO:S() and JO:nodeValue() which both fail.

Here is the code:

function main()
   -- JSON example
   -- test data
   local test = "{'int_test': 1.23, 'string_test':'a', 'boolean_test' : true}"

   -- json.parse returns a "JSON Tree" (in a Lua table)
   local J = json.parse{data=test}

   -- use a Lua table to create a similar "JSON Tree"
   -- Note: json.parse produces a different order within the table/tree
   local JT = {['int_test'] = 1.23, ['string_test'] = 'a', ['boolean_test'] = true}

   -- serialize our parsed JSON Tree
   local S = json.serialize{data=J}

   -- Serialize our manually created "Lua table JSON Tree"
   -- Note: the field order within the tree is different
   S = json.serialize{data=JT}  

   -- try :S() and :nodeValue() against our JSON Tree

   tostring(J)              -- name of table as string
   tostring(J.boolean_test) -- boolean_test field value
   tostring(J.int_test)     -- int_test field value
   tostring(J.string_test)  -- string_test field value

   local JO = json.createObject()
   local jo = {}

   -- add data 
   JO['int_test'] = 1.23
   jo['int_test'] = 1.23
   JO['string_test'] = 'a'
   jo['string_test'] = 'a'
   -- alternate syntax to reference table field
   JO.boolean_test = true
   jo.boolean_test = true

   S = json.serialize{data=J}  -- J from above for reference
   S = json.serialize{data=JO}
   S = json.serialize{data=jo}

   -- try :S() and :nodeValue() against our JSON Tree


Other node types like Database

There are three types:

All three types share the same behaviour when using :S() and :nodeValue()

  • No encoding is used so :S() and :nodeValue() on a leaf node will produce the same output
  • Using :S() on a non-leaf node returns the data & structure as text (interesting but I do not see an application)

Note: we recommend using :nodeValue() for consistency and safety (it is possible that the behaviour of :S() might be changed to escape special characters for databases).

Not recommended: Because it is counter-intuitive and confusing [top]

Not recommended: Store an unserialized message in a leaf node and serialize it with :S()

It is technically possible to store a complete unserialized message in a leaf node and use :S() to return it in serialized format. We usually recommend against this as it generally not the best approach. However nothing is set in stone, and there may be occasions where it is useful, however we strongly recommend that you consider the “recommended solution” below instead.

Recommended solution:

We recommend that you encode the string before you store it. Then you can save the serialized message anywhere: database, a file, a JSON field, XML field, HL7 field etc.

Serializing a message is quite simple:

  • Save it in a leaf node (of the same type) and encode it by retrieving it using :S()
  • To serialize HL7 messages with non-standard delimiters you can use this code

Good reasons not to use this  method:

  • It is counter-intuitive having to remember to serialize the message when you retrieve it
    • You are creating a confusing “special case leaf node” which requires use of :S() to retrieve (and serialize) the data, rather than using the standard :nodeValue() for retrieval
  • Because :S() applies encoding that matches the node tree type, to use this method you must store the message in the same type of node tree:
    • You can only store an unserialized HL7 message in an HL7 leaf node
      • Because you need :S() to apply HL7 encoding when retrieving the node
    • You can only store an unserialized XML message in an XML leaf node
      • Because you need :S() to apply XML encoding when retrieving the node

Warning! If you store an unserialized message in the wrong type of node tree, then the wrong encoding will be applied when it is retrieved.

For example: If you store an XML message in an HL7 node :S() would apply HL7 encoding to the XML message, or an HL7 message in XML node then XML encoding would be applied.

Note: You can safely store an unserialized message in any tree type so long as you retrieve it in unencoded format using nodeValue() (then you can serialize it separately as required).


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