Summary

Today's Show trait will be tasked with the purpose of providing the ability to inspect the representation of implementors of the trait. A new trait, String, will be introduced to the std::fmt module to in order to represent data that can essentially be serialized to a string, typically representing the precise internal state of the implementor.

The String trait will take over the {} format specifier and the Show trait will move to the now-open {:?} specifier.

Motivation

The formatting traits today largely provide clear guidance to what they are intended for. For example the Binary trait is intended for printing the binary representation of a data type. The ubiquitous Show trait, however, is not quite well defined in its purpose. It is currently used for a number of use cases which are typically at odds with one another.

One of the use cases of Show today is to provide a "debugging view" of a type. This provides the easy ability to print some string representation of a type to a stream in order to debug an application. The Show trait, however, is also used for printing user-facing information. This flavor of usage is intended for display to all users as opposed to just developers. Finally, the Show trait is connected to the ToString trait providing the to_string method unconditionally.

From these use cases of Show, a number of pain points have arisen over time:

  1. It's not clear whether all types should implement Show or not. Types like Path quite intentionally avoid exposing a string representation (due to paths not being valid UTF-8 always) and hence do not want a to_string method to be defined on them.
  2. It is quite common to use #[deriving(Show)] to easily print a Rust structure. This is not possible, however, when particular members do not implement Show (for example a Path).
  3. Some types, such as a String, desire the ability to "inspect" the representation as well as printing the representation. An inspection mode, for example, would escape characters like newlines.
  4. Common pieces of functionality, such as assert_eq! are tied to the Show trait which is not necessarily implemented for all types.

The purpose of this RFC is to clearly define what the Show trait is intended to be used for, as well as providing guidelines to implementors of what implementations should do.

Detailed Design

As described in the motivation section, the intended use cases for the current Show trait are actually motivations for two separate formatting traits. One trait will be intended for all Rust types to implement in order to easily allow debugging values for macros such as assert_eq! or general println! statements. A separate trait will be intended for Rust types which are faithfully represented as a string. These types can be represented as a string in a non-lossy fashion and are intended for general consumption by more than just developers.

This RFC proposes naming these two traits Show and String, respectively.

The String trait

A new formatting trait will be added to std::fmt as follows:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
pub trait String for Sized? {
    fn fmt(&self, f: &mut Formatter) -> Result;
}
#}

This trait is identical to all other formatting traits except for its name. The String trait will be used with the {} format specifier, typically considered the default specifier for Rust.

An implementation of the String trait is an assertion that the type can be faithfully represented as a UTF-8 string at all times. If the type can be reconstructed from a string, then it is recommended, but not required, that the following relation be true:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
assert_eq!(foo, from_str(format!("{}", foo).as_slice()).unwrap());
#}

If the type cannot necessarily be reconstructed from a string, then the output may be less descriptive than the type can provide, but it is guaranteed to be human readable for all users.

It is not expected that all types implement the String trait. Not all types can satisfy the purpose of this trait, and for example the following types will not implement the String trait:

  • Path will abstain as it is not guaranteed to contain valid UTF-8 data.
  • CString will abstain for the same reasons as Path.
  • RefCell will abstain as it may not be accessed at all times to be represented as a String.
  • Weak references will abstain for the same reasons as RefCell.

Almost all types that implement Show in the standard library today, however, will implement the String trait. For example all primitive integer types, vectors, slices, strings, and containers will all implement the String trait. The output format will not change from what it is today (no extra escaping or debugging will occur).

The compiler will not provide an implementation of #[deriving(String)] for types.

The Show trait

The current Show trait will not change location nor definition, but it will instead move to the {:?} specifier instead of the {} specifier (which String now uses).

An implementation of the Show trait is expected for all types in Rust and provides very few guarantees about the output. Output will typically represent the internal state as faithfully as possible, but it is not expected that this will always be true. The output of Show should never be used to reconstruct the object itself as it is not guaranteed to be possible to do so.

The purpose of the Show trait is to facilitate debugging Rust code which implies that it needs to be maximally useful by extending to all Rust types. All types in the standard library which do not currently implement Show will gain an implementation of the Show trait including Path, RefCell, and Weak references.

Many implementations of Show in the standard library will differ from what they currently are today. For example str's implementation will escape all characters such as newlines and tabs in its output. Primitive integers will print the suffix of the type after the literal in all cases. Characters will also be printed with surrounding single quotes while escaping values such as newlines. The purpose of these implementations are to provide debugging views into these types.

Implementations of the Show trait are expected to never panic! and always produce valid UTF-8 data. The compiler will continue to provide a #[deriving(Show)] implementation to facilitate printing and debugging user-defined structures.

The ToString trait

Today the ToString trait is connected to the Show trait, but this RFC proposes wiring it to the newly-proposed String trait instead. This switch enables users of to_string to rely on the same guarantees provided by String as well as not erroneously providing the to_string method on types that are not intended to have one.

It is strongly discouraged to provide an implementation of the ToString trait and not the String trait.

Drawbacks

It is inherently easier to understand fewer concepts from the standard library and introducing multiple traits for common formatting implementations may lead to frequently mis-remembering which to implement. It is expected, however, that this will become such a common idiom in Rust that it will become second nature.

This RFC establishes a convention that Show and String produce valid UTF-8 data, but no static guarantee of this requirement is provided. Statically guaranteeing this invariant would likely involve adding some form of TextWriter which we are currently not willing to stabilize for the 1.0 release.

The default format specifier, {}, will quickly become unable to print many types in Rust. Without a #[deriving] implementation, manual implementations are predicted to be fairly sparse. This means that the defacto default may become {:?} for inspecting Rust types, providing pressure to re-shuffle the specifiers. Currently it is seen as untenable, however, for the default output format of a String to include escaped characters (as opposed to printing the string). Due to the debugging nature of Show, it is seen as a non-starter to make it the "default" via {}.

It may be too ambitious to define that String is a non-lossy representation of a type, eventually motivating other formatting traits.

Alternatives

The names String and Show may not necessarily imply "user readable" and "debuggable". An alternative proposal would be to use Show for user readability and Inspect for debugging. This alternative also opens up the door for other names of the debugging trait like Repr. This RFC, however, has chosen String for user readability to provide a clearer connection with the ToString trait as well as emphasizing that the type can be faithfully represented as a String. Additionally, this RFC considers the name Show roughly on par with other alternatives and would help reduce churn for code migrating today.

Unresolved Questions

None at this time.