Feb 14, 2017 7:00:51 AM | Ruby Exception Handling: InvalidByteSequenceError

A look at Ruby's InvalidByteSequenceError, which is raised when a string contains an invalid byte for the particular encoding converters being used.

Moving right along through our in-depth Ruby Exception Handling series, today we're going to examine the InvalidByteSequenceError. An InvalidByteSequenceError is raised when utilizing Ruby's internal Encoding or Stringmethods to transcode a string that contains an invalid byte for the particular encoding converters being utilized.

Throughout this article we'll examine the InvalidByteSequenceError class, look at where it sits within Ruby's Exception class hierarchy, and also explore how to deal with any InvalidByteSequenceErrors you may come across in your own coding endeavors. Let's the adventure begin!

The Technical Rundown

  • All Ruby exceptions are descendants of the Exception class, or a subclass therein.
  • StandardError is a direct descendant of the Exception class, and is also a superclass with many descendants of its own.
  • EncodingError is a direct descendant of the StandardError class, and is also a superclass with a handful of descendants of its own.
  • InvalidByteSequenceError is a direct descendant of the EncodingError class.

When Should You Use It?

As we explored in our ConverterNotFoundError article, Ruby's Encoding namespace houses the majority of all encoding and transcoding functionality within Ruby, allowing us to easily convert from one type of encoding to another. However, in some instances, there may be a part of a string that cannot be converted for one reason or another.

In the case of the InvalidByteSequenceError, the reason for the encoding failure is because the provided string contains at least one byte sequence that is unable to be encoded or decoded, by either the source encoding (the format the string started in), or the target encoding (the format the string is being converted into).

A byte sequence in Ruby is simply a hexadecimal representation of a character. For example, the byte representation of the letter a is simply the ordinal 97, which can be discovered by calling the .ord() method on that string:

=> 97

However, to indicate the hexadecimal value of the byte, we can use the special \x escape character prior to the hexadecimal value of our character. In this case, for the letter a, we'd use \x61.

=> 97
=> "a"

We also called the .chr() method to verify we've got the correct character for our byte.

We can also represent multiple characters by chaining together an entire byte sequence. This is done either through a single string (e.g. "\x01\x02\x03") or within an array, which is then .joined into a string. Here we're taking a byte sequence of five characters and joining them together, then outputting the result:

["\x68", "\x65", "\x6c", "\x6c", "\x6f"].join
=> "hello"

Armed with this basic understanding of how bytes are used in Ruby, we can see what might cause an InvalidByteSequenceError to occur. Specifically, as the name implies, the InvalidByteSequenceError pops up when we attempt to use an escaped byte string (e.g. "\x01") that is invalid for the current type of encoding.

There are multiple reasons that a byte could be invalid for an encoding. Since most text is already encoded using UTF-8, we'll take a look at some examples converting from UTF-8 to ASCII.

Here we are simply trying to convert the byte \xC0 from UTF-8 to ASCII:

def print_exception(exception, explicit)
puts "[#{explicit ? 'EXPLICIT' : 'INEXPLICIT'}] #{exception.class}: #{exception.message}"
puts exception.backtrace.join("\n")

# Generates InvalidByteSequenceError
puts "\xC0".encode("ASCII")
rescue Encoding::InvalidByteSequenceError => e
print_exception(e, true)
rescue => e
print_exception(e, false)

This byte value of \xC0 (and \xC1, in fact) are restricted and should never appear in valid UTF-8 sequences because they could only (theoretically) be used for overlong encodings, meaning an attempt to encode a 7-bit ASCII character using two bytes instead of one. The result is that Ruby's attempt to encode this byte returns a baseline InvalidByteSequenceError:

[EXPLICIT] Encoding::InvalidByteSequenceError: "\xC0" on UTF-8
code.rb:12:in `encode'
code.rb:12:in `<main>'

Once we get into higher byte representations beyond \xC1, we start to produce slightly different InvalidByteSequenceErrorsif our byte sequence isn't correct. For example, let's try using \xC2 with nothing else:


The result tells us that our sequence is incomplete; that something must follow our byte:

[EXPLICIT] Encoding::InvalidByteSequenceError: incomplete "\xC2" on UTF-8
code.rb:12:in `encode'
code.rb:12:in `<main>'

As it happens, bytes like \xC2 are leading bytes, meaning they prefix other bytes to create a valid byte sequence. We could resolve this by adding a second byte into the sequence, such as \xC2\x80, though we wouldn't produce any valid output since ASCII doesn't have that character.

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Written By: Frances Banks