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Entities or no entities

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Entities in principle are similar to simple C macros. An entity defines an abbreviation for a given string that you can reuse many times throughout the content of your document. Entities are especially useful when a given string may occur frequently within a document, or to confine the change needed to a document to a restricted area in the internal subset of the document (at the beginning). Example:

1 <?xml version="1.0"?>
2 <!DOCTYPE EXAMPLE SYSTEM "example.dtd" [
3 <!ENTITY xml "Extensible Markup Language">
4 ]>
6    &xml;

Line 3 declares the xml entity. Line 6 uses the xml entity, by prefixing its name with '&' and following it by ';' without any spaces added. There are 5 predefined entities in libxml2 allowing you to escape characters with predefined meaning in some parts of the xml document content: &lt; for the character '<', &gt; for the character '>', &apos; for the character ''', &quot; for the character '"', and &amp; for the character '&'.

One of the problems related to entities is that you may want the parser to substitute an entity's content so that you can see the replacement text in your application. Or you may prefer to keep entity references as such in the content to be able to save the document back without losing this usually precious information (if the user went through the pain of explicitly defining entities, he may have a a rather negative attitude if you blindly substitute them as saving time). The xmlSubstituteEntitiesDefault() function allows you to check and change the behaviour, which is to not substitute entities by default.

Here is the DOM tree built by libxml2 for the previous document in the default case:

/gnome/src/gnome-xml -> ./xmllint --debug test/ent1
       content=Extensible Markup Language

And here is the result when substituting entities:

/gnome/src/gnome-xml -> ./tester --debug --noent test/ent1
     content=     Extensible Markup Language

So, entities or no entities? Basically, it depends on your use case. I suggest that you keep the non-substituting default behaviour and avoid using entities in your XML document or data if you are not willing to handle the entity references elements in the DOM tree.

Note that at save time libxml2 enforces the conversion of the predefined entities where necessary to prevent well-formedness problems, and will also transparently replace those with chars (i.e. it will not generate entity reference elements in the DOM tree or call the reference() SAX callback when finding them in the input).

WARNING: handling entities on top of the libxml2 SAX interface is difficult!!! If you plan to use non-predefined entities in your documents, then the learning curve to handle then using the SAX API may be long. If you plan to use complex documents, I strongly suggest you consider using the DOM interface instead and let libxml deal with the complexity rather than trying to do it yourself.

Daniel Veillard