A recent RFC split what was previously fmt::Show into two traits, fmt::Show and fmt::String, with format specifiers {:?} and {} respectively.

That RFC did not, however, establish complete conventions for when to implement which of the traits, nor what is expected from the output. That's what this RFC seeks to do.

It turns out that, due to the suggested conventions and other concerns, renaming the traits is also desirable.


Part of the reason for splitting up Show in the first place was some tension around the various use cases it was trying to cover, and the fact that it could not cover them all simultaneously. Now that the trait has been split, this RFC aims to provide clearer guidelines about their use.

Detailed design

The design of the conventions stems from two basic desires:

  1. It should be easy to generate a debugging representation of essentially any type.

  2. It should be possible to create user-facing text output via convenient interpolation.

Part of the premise behind (2) is that user-facing output cannot automatically be "composed" from smaller pieces of user-facing output (via, say, #[derive]). Most of the time when you're preparing text for a user consumption, the output needs to be quite tailored, and interpolation via format is a good tool for that job.

As part of the conventions being laid out here, the RFC proposes to:

  1. Rename fmt::Show to fmt::Debug, and
  2. Rename fmt::String to fmt::Display.

Debugging: fmt::Debug

The fmt::Debug trait is intended for debugging. It should:

  • Be implemented on every type, usually via #[derive(Debug)].
  • Never panic.
  • Escape away control characters.
  • Introduce quotes and other delimiters as necessary to give a clear representation of the data involved.
  • Focus on the runtime aspects of a type; repeating information such as suffixes for integer literals is not generally useful since that data is readily available from the type definition.

In terms of the output produced, the goal is make it easy to make sense of compound data of various kinds without overwhelming debugging output with every last bit of type information -- most of which is readily available from the source. The following rules give rough guidance:

  • Scalars print as unsuffixed literals.
  • Strings print as normal quoted notation, with escapes.
  • Smart pointers print as whatever they point to (without further annotation).
  • Fully public structs print as you'd normally construct them: MyStruct { f1: ..., f2: ... }
  • Enums print as you'd construct their variants (possibly with special cases for things like Option and single-variant enums?).
  • Containers print using some notation that makes their type and contents clear. (Since we lack literals for all container types, this will be ad hoc).

It is not a requirement for the debugging output to be valid Rust source. This is in general not possible in the presence of private fields and other abstractions. However, when it is feasible to do so, debugging output should match Rust syntax; doing so makes it easier to copy debug output into unit tests, for example.

User-facing: fmt::Display

The fmt::Display trait is intended for user-facing output. It should:

  • Be implemented for scalars, strings, and other basic types.
  • Be implemented for generic wrappers like Option<T> or smart pointers, where the output can be wholly delegated to a single fmt::Display implementation on the underlying type.
  • Not be implemented for generic containers like Vec<T> or even Result<T, E>, where there is no useful, general way to tailor the output for user consumption.
  • Be implemented for specific user-defined types as useful for an application, with application-defined user-facing output. In particular, applications will often make their types implement fmt::Display specifically for use in format interpolation.
  • Never panic.
  • Avoid quotes, escapes, and so on unless specifically desired for a user-facing purpose.
  • Require use of an explicit adapter (like the display method in Path) when it potentially looses significant information.

A common pattern for fmt::Display is to provide simple "adapters", which are types wrapping another type for the sole purpose of formatting in a certain style or context. For example:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
pub struct ForHtml<'a, T>(&'a T);
pub struct ForCli<'a, T>(&'a T);

impl MyInterestingType {
    fn for_html(&self) -> ForHtml<MyInterestingType> { ForHtml(self) }
    fn for_cli(&self) -> ForCli<MyInterestingType> { ForCli(self) }

impl<'a> fmt::Display for ForHtml<'a, MyInterestingType> { ... }
impl<'a> fmt::Display for ForCli<'a, MyInterestingType> { ... }

Rationale for format specifiers

Given the above conventions, it should be clear that fmt::Debug is much more commonly implemented on types than fmt::Display. Why, then, use {} for fmt::Display and {:?} for fmt::Debug? Aren't those the wrong defaults?

There are two main reasons for this choice:

  • Debugging output usually makes very little use of interpolation. In general, one is typically using #[derive(Show)] or format!("{:?}", something_to_debug), and the latter is better done via more direct convenience.

  • When creating tailored string output via interpolation, the expected "default" formatting for things like strings is unquoted and unescapted. It would be surprising if the default specifiers below did not yield `"hello, world!" as the output string.

    # #![allow(unused_variables)]
    #fn main() {
    format!("{}, {}!", "hello", "world")

In other words, although more types implement fmt::Debug, most meaningful uses of interpolation (other than in such implementations) will use fmt::Display, making {} the right choice.

Use in errors

Right now, the (unstable) Error trait comes equipped with a description method yielding an Option<String>. This RFC proposes to drop this method an instead inherit from fmt::Display. It likewise proposes to make unwrap in Result depend and use fmt::Display rather than fmt::Debug.

The reason in both cases is the same: although errors are often thought of in terms of debugging, the messages they result in are often presented directly to the user and should thus be tailored. Tying them to fmt::Display makes it easier to remember and add such tailoring, and less likely to spew a lot of unwanted internal representation.


We've already explored an alternative where Show tries to play both of the roles above, and found it to be problematic. There may, however, be alternative conventions for a multi-trait world. The RFC author hopes this will emerge from the discussion thread.

Unresolved questions

(Previous questions here have been resolved in an RFC update).