MATLAB Gotchas: Adding whitespace in strcat()

strcat() is a very handy function in MATLAB that allows you to combine strings using a mixture of cellstr() and char strings and it will auto-expand the char strings to match the cellstr() if necessary.

However, by design intention, strcat() removes trailing white spaces by internally applying deblank() to all char string inputs. It does NOT deblank cellstr() inputs. So if you want to combine date and time with a space, you have to use {‘ ‘} instead of ‘ ‘:

date = '2000-01-01';
time = '00:00:01';
>> strcat(date, ' ', time)  % The ' ' is ignored
ans =
2000-01-0100:00:01
>> strcat(date, {' '}, time)  % The ' ' is ignored
ans = 
    '2000-01-01 00:00:01'
>>

I find this more confusing than helpful. Including myself and other users, we naturally resort to processing line by line using cellfun() or other tricks just to get around the deblank() problem without taking a second look at the documentation because

  • rolling our own implementation is marginally as annoying as the deblank()
  • we expect cellstr() to match the dimensions without auto-expanding. I naturally thought it would expand only if it’s a char string.

Well, somebody asked this question on the newsgroup before, so obviously it’s not an intuitive design. It make sense to do it the way MATLAB designed strcat() because we need some way to tell MATLAB whether I want my inputs deblanked or not.

I think it’s more intuitive to have MATLAB’s default strcat() not to deblank() char strings at all and have a strcat_deblanked() that deblanks the inputs before feeding into strcat().

Unfortunately this behavior is there for a long time, so it’s too late to change it without affecting compatibility. Might as well live with it, but this is one of the very few unnatural (or slightly illogical design choice) of MATLAB to keep in mind.

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