Chapter 9  Strings and things

In Java and other object-oriented languages, an object is a collection of data that provides a set of methods. For example, Scanner, which we saw in Section 3.2, is an object that provides methods for parsing input. System.out and are also objects.

Strings are objects, too. They contain characters and provide methods for manipulating character data. We explore some of those methods in this chapter.

Not everything in Java is an object: int, double, and boolean are so-called primitive types. We will explain some of the differences between object types and primitive types as we go along.

9.1  Characters

Strings provide a method named charAt, which extracts a character. It returns a char, a primitive type that stores an individual character (as opposed to strings of them).

String fruit = "banana"; char letter = fruit.charAt(0);

The argument 0 means that we want the letter at position 0. Like array indexes, string indexes start at 0, so the character assigned to letter is b.

Characters work like the other primitive types we have seen. You can compare them using relational operators:

if (letter == 'a') { System.out.println('?'); }

Character literals, like 'a', appear in single quotes. Unlike string literals, which appear in double quotes, character literals can only contain a single character. Escape sequences, like '\\t', are legal because they represent a single character.

The increment and decrement operators work with characters. So this loop displays the letters of the alphabet:

System.out.print("Roman alphabet: "); for (char c = 'A'; c <= 'Z'; c++) { System.out.print(c); } System.out.println();

Java uses Unicode to represent characters, so strings can store text in other alphabets like Cyrillic and Greek, and non-alphabetic languages like Chinese. You can read more about it at

In Unicode, each character is represented by a “code unit”, which you can think of as an integer. The code units for uppercase Greek letters run from 913 to 937, so we can display the Greek alphabet like this:

System.out.print("Greek alphabet: "); for (int i = 913; i <= 937; i++) { System.out.print((char) i); } System.out.println();

This example uses a type cast to convert each integer (in the range) to the corresponding character.

9.2  Strings are immutable

Strings provide methods, toUpperCase and toLowerCase, that convert from uppercase to lowercase and back. These methods are often a source of confusion, because it sounds like they modify strings. But neither these methods nor any others can change a string, because strings are immutable.

When you invoke toUpperCase on a string, you get a new string object as a return value. For example:

String name = "Alan Turing"; String upperName = name.toUpperCase();

After these statements run, upperName refers to the string "ALAN TURING". But name still refers to "Alan Turing".

Another useful method is replace, which finds and replaces instances of one string within another. This example replaces "Computer Science" with "CS":

String text = "Computer Science is fun!"; text = text.replace("Computer Science", "CS");

This example demonstrates a common way to work with string methods. It invokes text.replace, which returns a reference to a new string, "CS is fun!". Then it assigns the new string to text, replacing the old string.

This assignment is important; if you don’t save the return value, invoking text.replace has no effect.

9.3  String traversal

The following loop traverses the characters in fruit and displays them, one on each line:

for (int i = 0; i < fruit.length(); i++) { char letter = fruit.charAt(i); System.out.println(letter); }

Strings provide a method called length that returns the number of characters in the string. Because it is a method, you have to invoke it with the empty argument list, ().

The condition is i < fruit.length(), which means that when i is equal to the length of the string, the condition is false and the loop terminates.

Unfortunately, the enhanced for loop does not work with strings. But you can convert any string to a character array and iterate that:

for (char letter : fruit.toCharArray()) { System.out.println(letter); }

To find the last letter of a string, you might be tempted to try something like:

int length = fruit.length(); char last = fruit.charAt(length); // wrong!

This code compiles and runs, but invoking the charAt method throws a StringIndexOutOfBoundsException. The problem is that there is no sixth letter in "banana". Since we started counting at 0, the 6 letters are indexed from 0 to 5. To get the last character, you have to subtract 1 from length.

int length = fruit.length(); char last = fruit.charAt(length - 1); // correct

Many string traversals involve reading one string and creating another. For example, to reverse a string, we simply add one character at a time:

public static String reverse(String s) { String r = ""; for (int i = s.length() - 1; i >= 0; i--) { r = r + s.charAt(i); } return r; }

The initial value of r is "", which is the empty string. The loop traverses the letters of s in reverse order. Each time through the loop, it creates a new string and assigns it to r. When the loop exits, r contains the letters from s in reverse order. So the result of reverse("banana") is "ananab".

9.4  Substrings

The substring method returns a new string that copies letters from an existing string, starting at the given index.

  • fruit.substring(0) returns "banana"
  • fruit.substring(2) returns "nana"
  • fruit.substring(6) returns ""

The first example returns a copy of the entire string. The second example returns all but the first two characters. As the last example shows, substring returns the empty string if the argument is the length of the string.

To visualize how the substring method works, it helps to draw a picture like Figure 9.1.

Figure 9.1: State diagram for a String of six characters.

Like most string methods, substring is overloaded. That is, there are other versions of substring that have different parameters. If it’s invoked with two arguments, they are treated as a start and end index:

  • fruit.substring(0, 3) returns "ban"
  • fruit.substring(2, 5) returns "nan"
  • fruit.substring(6, 6) returns ""

Notice that the character indicated by the end index is not included. Defining substring this way simplifies some common operations. For example, to select a substring with length len, starting at index i, you could write fruit.substring(i, i + len).

9.5  The indexOf method

The indexOf method searches for a character in a string.

String fruit = "banana"; int index = fruit.indexOf('a');

This example finds the index of 'a' in the string. But the letter appears three times, so it’s not obvious what indexOf should do. According to the documentation, it returns the index of the first appearance.

To find subsequent appearances, you can use another version of indexOf, which takes a second argument that indicates where in the string to start looking.

int index = fruit.indexOf('a', 2);

This code starts at index 2 (the first 'n') and finds the next 'a', which is at index 3. If the letter happens to appear at the starting index, the starting index is the answer. So fruit.indexOf('a', 5) returns 5.

If the character does not appear in the string, indexOf returns -1. Since indexes cannot be negative, this value indicates the character was not found.

You can also use indexOf to search for a substring, not just a single character. For example, the expression fruit.indexOf("nan") returns 2.

9.6  String comparison

To compare two strings, it may be tempting to use the == and != operators.

String name1 = "Alan Turing"; String name2 = "Ada Lovelace"; if (name1 == name2) { // wrong! System.out.println("The names are the same."); }

This code compiles and runs, and most of the time it gets the answer right. But it is not correct, and sometimes it gets the answer wrong. The problem is that the == operator checks whether the two variables refer to the same object (by comparing the references). If you give it two different strings that contain the same letters, it yields false.

The right way to compare strings is with the equals method, like this:

if (name1.equals(name2)) { System.out.println("The names are the same."); }

This example invokes equals on name1 and passes name2 as an argument. The equals method returns true if the strings contain the same characters; otherwise it returns false.

If the strings differ, we can use compareTo to see which comes first in alphabetical order:

int diff = name1.compareTo(name2); if (diff == 0) { System.out.println("The names are the same."); } else if (diff < 0) { System.out.println("name1 comes before name2."); } else if (diff > 0) { System.out.println("name2 comes before name1."); }

The return value from compareTo is the difference between the first characters in the strings that differ. If the strings are equal, their difference is zero. If the first string (the one on which the method is invoked) comes first in the alphabet, the difference is negative. Otherwise, the difference is positive.

In the preceding code, compareTo returns positive 8, because the second letter of "Ada" comes before the second letter of "Alan" by 8 letters.

Both equals and compareTo are case-sensitive. The uppercase letters come before the lowercase letters, so "Ada" comes before "ada".

9.7  String formatting

In Section 3.6, we learned how to use printf to display formatted output. Sometimes programs need to create strings that are formatted a certain way, but not display them immediately, or ever. For example, the following method returns a time string in 12-hour format:

public static String timeString(int hour, int minute) { String ampm; if (hour < 12) { ampm = "AM"; if (hour == 0) { hour = 12; // midnight } } else { ampm = "PM"; hour = hour - 12; } return String.format("%02d:%02d %s", hour, minute, ampm); }

String.format takes the same arguments as System.out.printf: a format specifier followed by a sequence of values. The main difference is that System.out.printf displays the result on the screen; String.format creates a new string, but does not display anything.

In this example, the format specifier \%02d means “two digit integer padded with zeros”, so timeString(19, 5) returns the string "07:05 PM".

9.8  Wrapper classes

Primitive values (like ints, doubles, and chars) do not provide methods. For example, you can’t call equals on an int:

int i = 5; System.out.println(i.equals(5)); // compiler error

But for each primitive type, there is a corresponding class in the Java library, called a wrapper class. The wrapper class for char is called Character; for int it’s called Integer. Other wrapper classes include Boolean, Long, and Double. They are in the java.lang package, so you can use them without importing them.

Each wrapper class defines constants MIN_VALUE and MAX_VALUE. For example, Integer.MIN_VALUE is -2147483648, and Integer.MAX_VALUE is 2147483647. Because these constants are available in wrapper classes, you don’t have to remember them, and you don’t have to include them in your programs.

Wrapper classes provide methods for converting strings to other types. For example, Integer.parseInt converts a string to (you guessed it) an integer:

String str = "12345"; int num = Integer.parseInt(str);

In this context, parse means something like “read and translate”.

The other wrapper classes provide similar methods, like Double.parseDouble and Boolean.parseBoolean. They also provide toString, which returns a string representation of a value:

int num = 12345; String str = Integer.toString(num);

The result is the string "12345".

9.9  Command-line arguments

Now that you know about arrays and strings, we can finally explain the args parameter for main that we have been ignoring since Chapter 1. If you are unfamiliar with the command-line interface, please read or review Appendix A.3.

Continuing an earlier example, let’s write a program to find the largest value in a sequence of numbers. Rather than read the numbers from, we’ll pass them as command-line arguments. Here is a starting point:

public class Max { public static void main(String[] args) { System.out.println(Arrays.toString(args)); } }

You can run this program from the command line by typing:

java Max

The output indicates that args is an empty array; that is, it has no elements:


But if you provide additional values on the command line, they are passed as arguments to main. For example, if you run it like this:

java Max 10 -3 55 0 14

The output is:

[10, -3, 55, 0, 14]

But remember that the elements of args are strings. To find the maximum number, we have to convert the arguments to integers.

The following fragment uses an enhanced for loop to parse the arguments (using the Integer wrapper class) and find the largest value:

int max = Integer.MIN_VALUE; for (String arg : args) { int value = Integer.parseInt(arg); if (value > max) { max = value; } } System.out.println("The max is " + max);

The initial value of max is the smallest (most negative) number an int can represent, so any other value is greater. If args is empty, the result is MIN_VALUE.

9.10  Vocabulary

A collection of related data that comes with a set of methods that operate on it.
A data type that stores a single value and provides no methods.
A standard for representing characters in most of the world’s languages.
An object that, once created, cannot be modified. Strings are immutable by design.
empty string:
The string "", which contains no characters and has a length of zero.
wrapper class:
Classes in java.lang that provide constants and methods for working with primitive types.
To read a string and interpret or translate it.
empty array:
An array with no elements and a length of zero.

9.11  Exercises

The code for this chapter is in the ch09 directory of ThinkJavaCode. See page ?? for instructions on how to download the repository. Before you start the exercises, we recommend that you compile and run the examples.

Exercise 1  

The point of this exercise is to explore Java types and fill in some of the details that aren’t covered in the chapter.

  1. Create a new program named and write a main method that contains expressions that combine various types using the + operator. For example, what happens when you “add” a String and a char? Does it perform character addition or string concatenation? What is the type of the result? (How can you determine the type of the result?)
  2. Make a bigger copy of the following table and fill it in. At the intersection of each pair of types, you should indicate whether it is legal to use the + operator with these types, what operation is performed (addition or concatenation), and what the type of the result is.
     boolean char   int  doubleString
  3. Think about some of the choices the designers of Java made when they filled in this table. How many of the entries seem unavoidable, as if there was no other choice? How many seem like arbitrary choices from several equally reasonable possibilities? Which entries seem most problematic?
  4. Here’s a puzzler: normally, the statement x++ is exactly equivalent to x = x + 1. But if x is a char, it’s not exactly the same! In that case, x++ is legal, but x = x + 1 causes an error. Try it out and see what the error message is, then see if you can figure out what is going on.
  5. What happens when you add "" (the empty string) to the other types, for example, "" + 5?
  6. For each data type, what types of values can you assign to it? For example, you can assign an int to a double but not vice versa.
Exercise 2   Write a method called letterHist that takes a string as a parameter and returns a histogram of the letters in the string. The zeroth element of the histogram should contain the number of a’s in the string (upper- and lowercase); the 25th element should contain the number of z’s. Your solution should only traverse the string once.
Exercise 3  

The purpose of this exercise is to review encapsulation and generalization (see Section 7.3). The following code fragment traverses a string and checks whether it has the same number of open and close parentheses:

String s = "((3 + 7) * 2)"; int count = 0; for (int i = 0; i < s.length(); i++) { char c = s.charAt(i); if (c == '(') { count++; } else if (c == ')') { count--; } } System.out.println(count);
  1. Encapsulate this fragment in a method that takes a string argument and returns the final value of count.
  2. Now that you have generalized the code so that it works on any string, what could you do to generalize it more?
  3. Test your method with multiple strings, including some that are balanced and some that are not.
Exercise 4  

Create a program called and type in the following methods:

/** * Returns the first character of the given String. */ public static char first(String s) { return s.charAt(0); }
/** * Returns all but the first letter of the given String. */ public static String rest(String s) { return s.substring(1); }
/** * Returns all but the first and last letter of the String. */ public static String middle(String s) { return s.substring(1, s.length() - 1); }
/** * Returns the length of the given String. */ public static int length(String s) { return s.length(); }
  1. Write some code in main that tests each of these methods. Make sure they work, and you understand what they do.
  2. Using these methods, and without using any other String methods, write a method called printString that takes a string as a parameter and that displays the letters of the string, one on each line. It should be a void method.
  3. Again using only these methods, write a method called printBackward that does the same thing as printString but that displays the string backward (again, one character per line).
  4. Now write a method called reverseString that takes a string as a parameter and that returns a new string as a return value. The new string should contain the same letters as the parameter, but in reverse order.
    String backwards = reverseString("coffee"); System.out.println(backwards);

    The output of this example code should be:


  5. A palindrome is a word that reads the same both forward and backward, like “otto” and “palindromeemordnilap”. Here’s one way to test whether a string is a palindrome:
    A single letter is a palindrome, a two-letter word is a palindrome if the letters are the same, and any other word is a palindrome if the first letter is the same as the last and the middle is a palindrome.

    Write a recursive method named isPalindrome that takes a String and returns a boolean indicating whether the word is a palindrome.

Exercise 5  

A word is said to be “abecedarian” if the letters in the word appear in alphabetical order. For example, the following are all six-letter English abecedarian words:

abdest, acknow, acorsy, adempt, adipsy, agnosy, befist, behint, beknow, bijoux, biopsy, cestuy, chintz, deflux, dehors, dehort, deinos, diluvy, dimpsy

Write a method called isAbecedarian that takes a String and returns a boolean indicating whether the word is abecedarian. Your method can be iterative or recursive.

Exercise 6  

A word is said to be a “doubloon” if every letter that appears in the word appears exactly twice. Here are some example doubloons found in the dictionary:

Abba, Anna, appall, appearer, appeases, arraigning, beriberi, bilabial, boob, Caucasus, coco, Dada, deed, Emmett, Hannah, horseshoer, intestines, Isis, mama, Mimi, murmur, noon, Otto, papa, peep, reappear, redder, sees, Shanghaiings, Toto

Write a method called isDoubloon that takes a string and checks whether it is a doubloon. To ignore case, invoke the toLowerCase method before checking.

Exercise 7  

Two words are anagrams if they contain the same letters and the same number of each letter. For example, “stop” is an anagram of “pots” and “allen downey” is an anagram of “well annoyed”.

Write a method that takes two strings and checks whether they are anagrams of each other.

Exercise 8  

In Scrabble1 each player has a set of tiles with letters on them. The object of the game is to use those letters to spell words. The scoring system is complex, but longer words are usually worth more than shorter words.

Imagine you are given your set of tiles as a string, like "quijibo", and you are given another string to test, like "jib".

Write a method called canSpell that takes two strings and checks whether the set of tiles can spell the word. You might have more than one tile with the same letter, but you can only use each tile once.

Scrabble is a registered trademark owned in the USA and Canada by Hasbro Inc., and in the rest of the world by J. W. Spear & Sons Limited of Maidenhead, Berkshire, England, a subsidiary of Mattel Inc.
Text © Allen Downey and Chris Mayfield. Interactive HTML © Trinket. Both provided under a CC-NC-BY license. Book version 6.1.3.