Compile-time format string checks

Compile-time validation of format strings in various forms is one of the most requested features in the fmt project on GitHub (#62, #166, #295, #467, #492, #544, #546) and a major request from the C++ standards committee after the review of my formatting paper. In 2015 I came up with an unsatisfactory solution to this problem that only worked with printf syntax and involved macros. But inspired by recent progress in constexpr support in modern compilers and the work of various people, most importantly, Michael Park’s cool MPark.Format project as well as Ben Deane & Jason Turner’s illuminating talk constexpr ALL the Things!”, I decided to give it another go.

After some struggling with compilers and their various degrees of constexpr-readiness, I am finally happy to announce that the std branch of the fmt library now implements compile-time format string checks!

First, let’s take a look at a simple example (

#include <fmt/format.h>

int main() {
  using namespace fmt::literals;
  std::string s = "{2}"_format(42);

and try compiling it:

$ g++ -Iinclude -std=c++14
In file included from
include/fmt/format.h:3857:20: error: constexpr variable 'invalid_format' must be initialized by a constant expression
    constexpr bool invalid_format = check_format<Args...>(s);
                   ^                ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ note: in instantiation of function template specialization 'fmt::internal::udl_formatter<char, '{', '2', '}'>::operator()<int>' requested here
  std::string s = "{2}"_format(42);
include/fmt/format.h:3838:7: note: non-constexpr function 'on_error' cannot be used in a constant expression
      on_error("argument index out of range");

The first part of the error about initialization of invalid_format variable is pretty generic and not very useful, but then we get the exact cause of the error:

on_error("argument index out of range");

because we passed 2 as the argument index while provided only 1 argument. Also we get the error location: note: in instantiation of function template specialization 'fmt::internal::udl_formatter<char, '{', '2', '}'>::operator()<int>' requested here
  std::string s = "{2}"_format(42);

So we have all we need to quickly navigate to the problematic line and fix it:

std::string s = "{0}"_format(42);

OK, this is nice but we’ve seen it before. What’s so special about the new implementation?

First, the format string parsing code is the same between runtime and compile time. The code is super readable and doesn’t have any recursive templates or value-encoded types that were often needed to workaround lack of proper constexpr function parameters:

template <typename Iterator, typename Handler>
constexpr void parse_format_string(Iterator it, Handler &&handler) {
  using char_type = typename std::iterator_traits<Iterator>::value_type;
  auto start = it;
  while (*it) {
    char_type ch = *it++;
    if (ch != '{' && ch != '}') continue;
    if (*it == ch) {
      handler.on_text(start, it);
      start = ++it;
    if (ch == '}') {
      handler.on_error("unmatched '}' in format string");
    handler.on_text(start, it - 1);
    // parse format specs
    start = ++it;
  handler.on_text(start, it);

Second, full Python-esque format string syntax is supported and not just some basic subset of it. Argument types are taken into account as well, for example


will give you an error because precision (.2) is not allowed for integral types. At the same time


will pass the checks because 4.2 is a floating-point number and can be formatted with precision.

And last, but not least, this functionality is available for user-defined types, so if a user-provided format spec parsing function is constexpr, compile-time checks will Just Work (tm) for it as well:

// Checked at compile time provided that formatter<Date>::parse is constexpr.
"{:YYYY-mm-dd}"_format(Date(2012, 12, 9));

To the best of my knowledge fmt is the first C++ formatting library with this capability (but correct me if I’m wrong in the comments below). I’ll cover support for user-defined types in more details in a separate post since it’s a big topic on its own.

This functionality is still experimental and, although parsing is fully implemented, some errors are not reported yet which will be addressed shortly. The compile-time checks work on GCC and Clang only, because they require user-defined literal templates which is a GCC extension. The code is compatible with Visual C++ but gracefully degrades with compile-time checks replaced with runtime ones.

This is not the end though. Compile-time parsing of format strings can be used not just for checks but, as pointed out by Louis Dionne, the author of the famous Boost.Hana library, also to generate optimal formatting code. This will make the separate write API unnecessary and make fmt even easier to use.

Thanks to the C++ Library Evolution Working Group members for encouraging me working on this. Special thanks to Zach Laine for the initial feedback and providing a code example of constexpr compile-time parsing.

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