Document numberP3223R0
ProjectProgramming Language C++, Library Evolution Working Group
Reply-toJonathan Wakely <>

Making std::basic_istream::ignore less surprising

Revision History


std::istream::ignore(n, delim) has surprising behaviour if delim is a char with a negative value. We can remove the surprise and make code more robust.


A negative delim value passed to std::istream::ignore can never match any character in the stream's input sequence, because the comparison is done using traits_type::eq_int_type(rdbuf()->sgetc(), delim) and sgetc() never returns negative values (except at EOF). sgetc() extracts a character c from the input sequence and then calls traits_type::to_int_type(c) to convert it to int_type, which produces a non-negative value.

The std::char_traits<char>::to_int_type(char c) function converts the character c to a non-negative integer, as if by (int)(unsigned char)c. This allows the value (int_type)-1 to be reserved for EOF without worrying about whether char is signed and whether (char)-1 can equal EOF. But it means that any code dealing with raw char values from the stream must consistently use to_int_type to convert the (possibly negative) char value into a non-negative int_type so that all characters are represented in the same form and can be compared like-for-like.

So if a negative delimiter char can never match, this means that users should call std::cin.ignore(n, std::char_traits<char>::to_int_type(c)) or std::cin.ignore(n, (unsigned char)c) in case char is signed on their platform, and c happens to have the most significant bit set, i.e., is a negative value. For example, on a typical x86_64 Linux system where char is signed, std::cin.ignore(std::numeric_limits<std::streamsize>::max(), '\x80') will always discard all input up to EOF, even if \x80 is present in the input.

In generic code that works with streams of either char or wchar_t you need to use the more verbose to_int_type form rather than casting to unsigned char, because casting a wchar_t to unsigned char would be wrong. That's unfortunate, because std::char_traits<wchar_t>::to_int_type doesn't have the same "cast to unsigned" behaviour, and so passing a wchar_t directly to std::wistream::ignore without conversion works correctly. But to work with both char and wchar_t, generic code must assume the worst and defend against the signed char trap.

Even in non-generic code that only works with char, you still need to remember that the trap exists, and remember to avoid it. It's rare that I see anybody get that right for std::isalpha(c) et al, and I wasn't even aware of the need to do it for ignore until this week.

I suspect that most users are not aware of the need to use to_int_type here, which means that the very useful ignore function is surprisingly fragile. It's also quite ugly to have to cast or deal with the traits type directly in a high-level istream API like ignore, which is not a low-level streambuf member function. The other unformatted input functions that take a delimiter (get and getline) take a char_type, so they are agnostic about whether char is signed or unsigned, and any conversion to int_type is done by the stream, not expected to be done by the caller.

Possible solutions

Change ignore to handle negative delim values

We could modify the spec for basic_istream::ignore so that negative values (except for -1 which must be reserved for EOF) are automatically fed through to_int_type to "clean" them, so that they're in the same domain as the values returned by sgetc().

The GNU C library takes this approach for its <ctype.h> functions, which are specified to take int, but which have undefined behaviour if the argument is not an unsigned char value or EOF. So isalpha('\x80') has undefined behaviour if char is signed. But with Glibc, it works. Values in the range [-128,-1) are handled as if converted to unsigned char automatically, so that negative char values don't produce undefined behaviour. Obviously it's still possible to misuse those functions, e.g., by passing an int value outside the range of char or unsigned char, e.g., isalpha(1000). But the apparently simple isalpha(c) for a char value isn't undefined just because c happens to be a negative value of a signed type.

Taking the same approach for ignore would remove the trap for cases like cin.ignore(n, '\x80'), making it behave as cin.ignore(n, std::char_traits<char>::to_int_type('\x80')). However, it would also "fix" cases like cin.ignore(n, -10) which are less likely to be correct. There would be no way to tell the difference between a char with the value -10 and an int with the value -10, but the latter seems odd, and possibly a bug. Depending how we specified it, this solution might also give defined behaviour to cin.ignore(n, +1000) and cin.ignore(n, -9999) which are just nonsense.

The other downside of this solution is that it only fixes negative delimiters less than or equal to -2, because -1 still has to be reserved to mean EOF. So on a platform where char is signed, cin.ignore(n, '\xfe') would work, but cin.ignore(n, '\xff') would not, because that value is traits_type::eof(). On a platform where char is unsigned, both work. So this solution removes most surprises, but not all, and doesn't have portable guarantees. Users should really still use in.ignore(n, std::char_traits<char>::to_int_type(c)) to work with arbitrary delimiter characters on arbitrary platforms.

Split ignore into two functions and change delim to char_type

We could change delim to char_type and make ignore convert that to int_type internally by using to_int_type.

    basic_istream& ignore(streamsize n = 1, int_type = traits_type::eof());
    basic_istream& ignore(streamsize n, char_type delim);

This would preserve the same behaviour for in.ignore(n), i.e., ignore up to n characters or up to EOF, whichever happens first. But it would break explicit uses of eof as the second argument, e.g., in.ignore(n, traits::eof()). This would implicitly convert the eof() value to char_type and treat is as a delimiter. If (char)-1 happens to be present in the next n characters of the input sequence, it would match and we would stop ignoring too soon. This would break too much code, and we can do better.

Add an overload of ignore that takes a char_type

We don't need to change the existing ignore, we can just add an overload that does the correct conversion to int_type:

    basic_istream& ignore(streamsize n, char_type delim)
    { return ignore(n, traits_type::to_int_type(delim)); }

This does exactly what users expect when calling ignore(n, c) with a char_type argument (even (char)-1), with no alarms and no surprises. The behaviour is entirely consistent for signed or unsigned char and always matches the given delim if it occurs in the input sequence.

The downside of this solution is that calls that pass a delimiter that is neither int_type nor char_type become ambiguous, e.g. std::cin.ignore(n, 1ULL) is valid today but would become ambiguous with this new overload. Arguably, that's a good thing. What is this code trying to do? What if it passes a value that doesn't even fit in int_type, e.g. numeric_limits<int_type>::max()+1LL? Maybe it's good for such calls to not compile.

Since the problem only exists for char istreams and not wchar_t, this new overload could be specified as present only when char_type is char. That would avoid introducing any ambiguities for std::wistream.

As above, but constrain the new overload to prevent ambiguties

    basic_istream& ignore(streamsize n, same_as<char_type> auto delim)
    { return ignore(n, traits_type::to_int_type(delim)); }

This will only be selected by overload resolution when called with an argument of type char_type. For all other argument types, the existing overload will be selected and if the argument isn't of type int_type it will implicitly convert to int_type, exactly as happens today.

This doesn't change the meaning of any existing code, except for calls with negative char_type values which would start to work as users probably expected them to all along. The downside is the additional complexity of using a constrained overload, which would need to be emulated with SFINAE if vendors wanted to backport this fix to older standards modes.

Personally, I think the non-constrained overload is the best option, and that the cases which become ambiguous should probably be fixed to clarify what they're intending to do. Making the conversion to int_type explicit (and using to_int_type if appropriate) would probably be an improvement.

Do nothing

Boo! Users deserve better. Well, most of them. Some don't.

Proposed wording

Modify the class synopsis in [istream.general] as shown:

    // [istream.unformatted], unformatted input
    streamsize gcount() const;
    int_type get();
    basic_istream& get(char_type& c);
    basic_istream& get(char_type* s, streamsize n);
    basic_istream& get(char_type* s, streamsize n, char_type delim);
    basic_istream& get(basic_streambuf<char_type, traits>& sb);
    basic_istream& get(basic_streambuf<char_type, traits>& sb, char_type delim);

    basic_istream& getline(char_type* s, streamsize n);
    basic_istream& getline(char_type* s, streamsize n, char_type delim);

    basic_istream& ignore(streamsize n = 1, int_type delim = traits::eof());
    basic_istream& ignore(streamsize n, char_type delim);
    int_type       peek();
    basic_istream& read(char_type* s, streamsize n);
    streamsize     readsome(char_type* s, streamsize n);

Modify [istream.unformatted] as shown:

basic_istream& ignore(streamsize n = 1, int_type delim = traits::eof());

-25- Effects: Behaves as an unformatted input function (as described above). After constructing a sentry object, extracts characters and discards them. Characters are extracted until any of the following occurs:

(25.1) — n != numeric_limits<streamsize>::max() ([numeric.limits]) and n characters have been extracted so far ;
(25.2) — end-of-file occurs on the input sequence (in which case the function calls setstate(eofbit), which may throw ios_base::failure ([iostate.flags]));
(25.3) — traits::eq_int_type(traits::to_int_type(c), delim) for the next available input character c (in which case c is extracted).

[Note 1: The last condition will never occur if traits::eq_int_type(delim, traits::eof()). — end note]

-26- Returns: *this.

basic_istream& ignore(streamsize n = 1, char_type delim);

-?- Effects: Equivalent to: return ignore(n, traits_type::to_int_type(delim));


Thanks to Iain Sandoe and Ulrich Drepper for inspiring this.


N4971, Working Draft - Programming Languages -- C++, Thomas Köppe, 2023.