Text Parsing

Published Proposal,

This version:
ISO/IEC 14882 Programming Languages — C++, ISO/IEC JTC1/SC22/WG21


This paper discusses a new text parsing facility to complement the text formatting functionality of std::format, proposed in [P0645].

1. Revision history

1.1. Changes since R2

1.2. Changes since R1

2. Introduction

With the introduction of std::format [P0645], standard C++ has a convenient, safe, performant, extensible, and elegant facility for text formatting, over std::ostream and the printf-family of functions. The story is different for simple text parsing: the standard only provides std::istream and the scanf family, both of which have issues. This asymmetry is also arguably an inconsistency in the standard library.

According to [CODESEARCH], a C and C++ codesearch engine based on the ACTCD19 dataset, there are 389,848 calls to sprintf and 87,815 calls to sscanf at the time of writing. So although formatted input functions are less popular than their output counterparts, they are still widely used.

The lack of a general-purpose parsing facility based on format strings has been raised in [P1361] in the context of formatting and parsing of dates and times.

This paper explores the possibility of adding a symmetric parsing facility, to complement the std::format family, called std::scan. This facility is based on the same design principles and shares many features with std::format.

This facility is not a parser per se, as it is probably not sufficient for parsing something more complicated, e.g. JSON. This is not a parser combinator library. This is intended to be an almost-drop-in replacement for sscanf, capable of being a building block for a more complicated parser.

3. Examples

3.1. Basic example

if (auto result = std::scan<std::string, int>("answer = 42", "{} = {}")) {
  //                        ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~   ~~~~~~~~~~~    ~~~~~~~
  //                          output types        input        format
  //                                                           string

  const auto& [key, value] = result->values();
  //           ~~~~~~~~~~
  //            scanned
  //            values

  // result == true
  // result->range() gives an empty range (result->begin() == result->end())
  // key == "answer"
  // value == 42
} else {
  // We’ll end up here if we had an error
  // Inspect the returned scan_error with result.error()

3.2. Reading multiple values at once

auto input = "25 54.32E-1 Thompson 56789 0123";

auto result = std::scan<int, float, string_view, int, float, int>(
  input, "{:d}{:f}{:9}{:2i}{:g}{:o}");

// result is a std::expected, operator-> will throw if it doesn’t contain a value
auto [i, x, str, j, y, k] = result->values();

// i == 25
// x == 54.32e-1
// str == "Thompson"
// j == 56
// y == 789.0
// k == 0123

3.3. Reading from an arbitrary range

std::string input{"123 456"};
if (auto result = std::scan<int>(std::views::reverse(input), "{}")) {
  // If only a single value is returned, it can be inspected with result->value()
  // result->value() == 654

3.4. Reading multiple values in a loop

std::vector<int> read_values;
std::ranges::forward_range auto range = ...;

auto input = std::ranges::subrange{range};

while (auto result = std::scan<int>(input, "{}")) {
  input = result->range();

3.5. Alternative error handling

// Since std::scan returns a std::expected,
// its monadic interface can be used

auto result = std::scan<int>(..., "{}")
  .transform([](auto result) {
    return result.value();
if (!result) {
  // handle error
int num = *result;

// With [P2561]:
int num = std::scan<int>(..., "{}").try?.value();

3.6. Scanning an user-defined type

struct mytype {
  int a{}, b{};

// Specialize std::scanner to add support for user-defined types
// Inherit from std::scanner<string> to get format string parsing (scanner::parse()) from it
template <>
struct std::scanner<mytype> : std::scanner<std::string> {
  template <typename Context>
  auto scan(mytype& val, Context& ctx) const
      -> std::expected<typename Context::iterator, std::scan_error> {
    return std::scan<int, int>(ctx.range(), "[{}, {}]")
      .transform([&val](const auto& result) {
        std::tie(val.a, val.b) = result.values();
        return result.begin();

auto result = std::scan<mytype>("[123, 456]", "{}");
// result->value().a == 123
// result->value().b == 456

4. Design

The new parsing facility is intended to complement the existing C++ I/O streams library, integrate well with the chrono library, and provide an API similar to std::format. This section discusses the major features of its design.

4.1. Overview

The main user-facing part of the library described in this paper, is the function template std::scan, the input counterpart of std::format. The signature of std::scan is as follows:

template <class... Args, scannable_range<char> Range>
auto scan(Range&& range, format_string<Args...> fmt)
  -> expected<scan_result<ranges::borrowed_ssubrange_t<Range>, Args...>, scan_error>;

template <class... Args, scannable_range<wchar_t> Range>
auto scan(Range&& range, wformat_string<Args...> fmt)
  -> expected<scan_result<ranges::borrowed_ssubrange_t<Range>, Args...>, scan_error>;

std::scan reads values of type Args... from the range it’s given, according to the instructions given to it in the format string, fmt. std::scan returns a std::expected, containing either a scan_result, or a scan_error. The scan_result object contains a subrange pointing to the unparsed input, and a tuple of Args..., containing the scanned values.

4.2. Format strings

As with printf, the scanf syntax has the advantage of being familiar to many programmers. However, it has similar limitations:

Therefore, we propose a syntax based on std::format and [PARSE]. This syntax employs '{' and '}' as replacement field delimiters instead of '%'. It will provide the following advantages:

At the same time, most of the specifiers will remain quite similar to the ones in scanf, which can simplify a, possibly automated, migration.

Maintaining similarity with scanf, for any literal non-whitespace character in the format string, an identical character is consumed from the input range. For whitespace characters, all available whitespace characters are consumed.

In this proposal, "whitespace" is defined to be the Unicode code points with the Pattern_White_Space property, as defined by UAX #31 (UAX31-R3a). Those code points are currently:

Unicode defines a lot of different things in the realm of whitespace, all for different kinds of use cases. The Pattern_White_Space-property is chosen for its stability (it’s guaranteed to not change), and because its intended use is for classifying things that should be treated as whitespace in machine-readable syntaxes. std::isspace is insufficient for usage in a Unicode world, because it only accepts a single code unit as input.

auto r0 = std::scan<char>("abcd", "ab{}d"); // r0->value() == 'c'

auto r1 = std::scan<string, string>("abc \n def", "{} {}");
const auto& [s1, s2] = r1->values(); // s1 == "abc", s2 == "def"

As mentioned above, the format string syntax consists of replacement fields delimited by curly brackets ({ and }). Each of these replacement fields corresponds to a value to be scanned from the input range. The replacement field syntax is quite similar to std::format, as can be seen in the table below. Elements that are in one but not the other are highlighted.

scan replacement field syntax format replacement field syntax
replacement-field ::= '{' [arg-id] [':' format-spec] '}'
format-spec       ::= [fill-and-align]
                      ['L'] [type]
fill-and-align    ::= [fill] align
fill              ::= any character other than
                      '{' or '}'
align             ::= one of '<' '>' '^'

width             ::= positive-integer

type              ::= one of
                      'a' 'A'
                      'b' 'B'
                      'e' 'E'
                      'f' 'F'
                      'g' 'G'
                      'x' 'X'
replacement-field ::= '{' [arg-id] [':' format-spec] '}'
format-spec       ::= [fill-and-align]
                      [sign] ['#'] ['0']
                      [width] [precision]
                      ['L'] [type]
fill-and-align    ::= [fill] align
fill              ::= any character other than
                      '{' or '}'
align             ::= one of '<' '>' '^'
sign              ::= one of '+' '-' ' '
width             ::= positive-integer
                      OR '{' [arg-id] '}'
precision         ::= '.' nonnegative-integer
                      OR '.' '{' [arg-id] '}'
type              ::= one of
                      'a' 'A'
                      'b' 'B'
                      'e' 'E'
                      'f' 'F'
                      'g' 'G'
                      'x' 'X'

4.3. Format string specifiers

Below is a somewhat detailed description of each of the specifiers in a std::scan replacement field. This design attempts to maintain decent compatibility with std::format whenever practical, while also bringing in some ideas from scanf.

4.3.1. Manual indexing

replacement-field ::= '{' [arg-id] [':' format-spec] '}'

Like std::format, std::scan supports manual indexing of arguments in format strings. If manual indexing is used, all of the argument indices have to be spelled out. The same index can only be used once.

auto r = std::scan<int, int, int>("0 1 2", "{1} {0} {2}");
auto [i0, i1, i2] = r->values();
// i0 == 1, i1 == 0, i2 == 2

4.3.2. Fill and align

fill-and-align  ::= [fill] align
fill            ::= any character other than
                    '{' or '}'
align           ::= one of '<' '>' '^'

The fill and align options are valid for all argument types. The fill character is denoted by the fill-option, or if it is absent, the space character ' '. The fill character can be any single Unicode scalar value. The field width is determined the same way as it is for std::format.

If an alignment is specified, the value to be parsed is assumed to be properly aligned with the specified fill character.

If a field width is specified, it will be the maximum number of characters to be consumed from the input range. In that case, if no alignment is specified, the default alignment for the type is considered (see std::format).

For the '^' alignment, the number of fill characters needs to be the same as if formatted with std::format: floor(n/2) characters before, ceil(n/2) characters after the value, where n is the field width. If no field width is specified, an equal number of alignment characters on both sides are assumed.

This spec is compatible with std::format, i.e., the same format string (wrt. fill and align) can be used with both std::format and std::scan, with round-trip semantics.

Note: For format type specifiers other than 'c' (default for char and wchar_t, can be specified for basic_string and basic_string_view), leading whitespace is skipped regardless of alignment specifiers.

auto r0 = std::scan<int>("   42", "{}"); // r0->value() == 42, r0->range() == ""
auto r1 = std::scan<char>("   x", "{}"); // r1->value() == ' ', r1->range() == "  x"
auto r2 = std::scan<char>("x   ", "{}"); // r2->value() == 'x', r2->range() == "   "

auto r3 = std::scan<int>("    42", "{:6}");  // r3->value() == 42, r3->range() == ""
auto r4 = std::scan<char>("x     ", "{:6}"); // r4->value() == 'x', r4->range() == ""

auto r5 = std::scan<int>("***42", "{:*>}");  // r5->value() == 42
auto r6 = std::scan<int>("***42", "{:*>5}"); // r6->value() == 42
auto r7 = std::scan<int>("***42", "{:*>4}"); // r7->value() == 4
auto r8 = std::scan<int>("42", "{:*>}");     // r8->value() == 42
auto r9 = std::scan<int>("42", "{:*>5}");    // ERROR (mismatching field width)

auto rA = std::scan<int>("42***", "{:*<}");  // rA->value() == 42, rA->range() == ""
auto rB = std::scan<int>("42***", "{:*<5}"); // rB->value() == 42, rB->range() == ""
auto rC = std::scan<int>("42***", "{:*<4}"); // rC->value() == 42, rC->range() == "*"
auto rD = std::scan<int>("42", "{:*<}");     // rD->value() == 42
auto rE = std::scan<int>("42", "{:*<5}");    // ERROR (mismatching field width)

auto rF = std::scan<int>("42", "{:*^}");    // rF->value() == 42, rF->range() == ""
auto rG = std::scan<int>("*42*", "{:*^}");  // rG->value() == 42, rG->range() == ""
auto rH = std::scan<int>("*42**", "{:*^}"); // rH->value() == 42, rH->range() == "*"
auto rI = std::scan<int>("**42*", "{:*^}"); // ERROR (not enough fill characters after value)

auto rJ = std::scan<int>("**42**", "{:*^6}"); // rJ->value() == 42, rJ->range() == ""
auto rK = std::scan<int>("*42**", "{:*^5}");  // rK->value() == 42, rK->range() == ""
auto rL = std::scan<int>("**42*", "{:*^6}"); // ERROR (not enough fill characters after value)
auto rM = std::scan<int>("**42*", "{:*^5}"); // ERROR (not enough fill characters after value)

Note: This behavior, while compatible with std::format, is very complicated, and potentially hard to understand for users. Since scanf doesn’t support parsing of fill characters this way, it’s possible to leave this feature out for v1, and come back to this later: it’s not a breaking change to add formatting specifiers that add new behavior.

4.3.3. Sign, #, and 0

format-spec ::= ...
                [sign] ['#'] ['0']
sign        ::= one of '+' '-' ' '

These flags would have no effect in std::scan, so they are disabled. Signs (both + and -), base prefixes, trailing decimal points, and leading zeroes are always allowed for arithmetic values. Disabling them would be a bad default for a higher-level facility like std::scan, so flags explicitly enabling them are not needed.

Note: This is incompatible with std::format format strings.

4.3.4. Width and precision

width     ::= positive-integer
              OR '{' [arg-id] '}'
precision ::= '.' nonnegative-integer
              OR '.' '{' [arg-id] '}'

The width specifier is valid for all argument types. The meaning of this specifier somewhat deviates from std::format. The width and precision specifiers of it are combined into a single width specifier in std::scan. This specifier indicates the expected field width of the value to be scanned, taking into account possible fill characters used for alignment. If no fill characters are expected, it specifies the maximum width for the field.

To clarify, in std::format the width-field provides the minimum, and the precision-field the maximum width for a value. In std::scan, the width-field provides the maximum.
auto str = std::format("{:2}", 123);
// str == "123"
// because only the minimum width was set by the format string

auto result = std::scan<int>(str, "{:2}");
// result->value() == 12
// result->range() == "3"
// because the maximum width was set to 2 by the format string

For compatibility with std::format, the width specifier is in field width units, which is specified to be 1 per Unicode (extended) grapheme cluster, except some grapheme clusters are 2 ([format.string.std] ¶ 13):

For a sequence of characters in UTF-8, UTF-16, or UTF-32, an implementation should use as its field width the sum of the field widths of the first code point of each extended grapheme cluster. Extended grapheme clusters are defined by UAX #29 of the Unicode Standard. The following code points have a field width of 2:

The field width of all other code points is 1.

For a sequence of characters in neither UTF-8, UTF-16, nor UTF-32, the field width is unspecified.

This essentially maps 1 field width unit = 1 user perceived character. It should be noted, that with this definition, grapheme clusters like emoji have a field width of 2. This behavior is present in std::format today, but can potentially be surprising to users.

Other options can be considered, if compatibility with std::format can be set aside. These options include:

Specifying the width with another argument, like in std::format, is disallowed.

4.3.5. Localized (L)

format-spec ::= ...

Enables scanning of values in locale-specific forms. Design discussion: Thousands separator grouping checking

As proposed, when using localized scanning, the grouping of thousands separators in the input must exactly match the value retrieved from numpunct::grouping. This behavior is consistent with iostreams. It may, however, be undesirable: it is possible, that the user would supply values with incorrect thousands separator grouping, but that may need not be an error. The number is still unambiguously parseable, with the check for grouping only done after parsing.

struct custom_numpunct : std::numpunct<char> {
  std::string do_grouping() const override {
    return "\3";

  char do_thousands_sep() const override {
    return ',';

auto loc = std::locale(std::locale::classic(), new custom_numpunct);

// As proposed:
// Check grouping, error if invalid
auto r0 = std::scan<int>(loc, "123,45", "{:L}");
// r0.has_value() == false

// Do not check grouping, only skip it
auto r1 = std::scan<int>(loc, "123,45", "{:L}");
// r1.has_value() == true
// r1->value() == 12345

// Current proposed behavior, _somewhat_ consistent with iostreams:
istringstream iss{"123,45"};
iss.imbue(locale(locale::classic(), new custom_numpunct));

int i{};
iss >> i;
// i == 12345
// iss.fail() == !iss == true

This highlights a problem with using std::expected: we can either have a value, or an error. IOStreams can both return an error, and a value. This issue is also present with range errors with ints and floats, see § 4.6.2 Design discussion: Additional information for more. Design discussion: Separate flag for thousands separators

It may also be desirable to split up the behavior of skipping and checking of thousands separators from the realm of localization. For example, in the POSIX-extended version of sscanf, there’s the ' format specifier, which allows opting-into reading of thousands separators.

When a locale isn’t used, a set of options similar to the thousands separator options used with the en_US locale (i.e. , with "\3" grouping). This would enable skipping of thousands separators without involving locale.

// hypothetical example, with a ' format specifier

auto r = std::scan<int>("123,456", "{:'}");
// r->value() == 123456

4.3.6. Type specifiers: strings

Type Meaning
none, s Copies from the input until a whitespace character is encountered.
? Copies an escaped string from the input.
c Copies from the input until the field width is exhausted. Does not skip preceding whitespace. Errors, if no field width is provided.
The s specifier is consistent with std::istream and std::string:
std::string word;
std::istringstream{"Hello world"} >> word;
// word == "Hello"

auto r = std::scan<string>("Hello world", "{:s}");
// r->value() == "Hello"

Note: The c specifier is consistent with scanf, but is not supported for strings by std::format.

4.3.7. Type specifiers: integers

Integer values are scanned as if by using std::from_chars, except:

Type Meaning
b, B from_chars with base 2. The base prefix is 0b or 0B.
o from_chars with base 8. For non-zero values, the base prefix is 0.
x, X from_chars with base 16. The base prefix is 0x or 0X.
d from_chars with base 10. No base prefix.
u from_chars with base 10. No base prefix. No - sign allowed.
i Detect base from a possible prefix, default to decimal.
c Copies a character from the input.
none Same as d

Note: The flags u and i are not supported by std::format. These flags are consistent with scanf.

4.3.8. Type specifiers: CharT

Type Meaning
none, c Copies a character from the input.
b, B, d, i, o, u, x, X Same as for integers.
? Copies an escaped character from the input.
This is not encoding or Unicode-aware. Reading a CharT with the c type specifier will just read a single code unit of type CharT. This can lead to invalid encoding in the scanned values.
// As proposed:
// U+12345 is 0xF0 0x92 0x8D 0x85 in UTF-8
auto r = std::scan<char, std::string>("\u{12345}", "{}{}");
auto& [ch, str] = r->values();
// ch == '\xF0'
// str == "\x92\x8d\x85" (invalid utf-8)

// This is the same behavior as with iostreams today

4.3.9. Type specifiers: bool

Type Meaning
s Allows for textual representation, i.e. true or false
b, B, d, o, u, x, X Allows for integral representation, i.e. 0 or 1
none Allows for both textual and integral representation: i.e. true, 1, false, or 0.

4.3.10. Type specifiers: floating-point types

Similar to integer types, floating-point values are scanned as if by using std::from_chars, except:

Type Meaning
a, A from_chars with chars_format::hex, with 0x/0X-prefix allowed.
e, E from_chars with chars_format::scientific.
f, F from_chars with chars_format::fixed.
g, G from_chars with chars_format::general.
none from_chars with chars_format::general | chars_format::hex, with 0x/0X-prefix allowed.

4.4. Ranges

We propose, that std::scan would take a range as its input. This range should satisfy the requirements of std::ranges::forward_range to enable look-ahead, which is necessary for parsing.

template <class Range, class CharT>
concept scannable_range =
  ranges::forward_range<Range> && same_as<ranges::range_value_t<Range>, CharT>;

For a range to be a scannable_range, its character type (range value_type, code unit type) needs to also be correct, i.e. it needs to match the character type of the format string. Mixing and matching character types between the input range and the format string is not supported.

scan<int>("42", "{}");   // OK
scan<int>(L"42", L"{}"); // OK
scan<int>(L"42", "{}");  // Error: wchar_t[N] is not a scannable_range<char>

It should be noted, that standard range facilities related to iostreams, namely std::istreambuf_iterator, model input_iterator. Thus, they can’t be used with std::scan, and therefore, for example, stdin, can’t be read directly using std::scan. The reference implementation deals with this by providing a range type, that wraps a std::basic_istreambuf, and provides a forward_range-compatible interface to it. At this point, this is deemed out of scope for this proposal.

To prevent excessive code bloat, implementations are encouraged to type-erase the range provided to std::scan, in a similar fashion as inside std::format_to. This can be achieved with something similar to any_view from Range-v3. The reference implementation does something similar to this, inside the implementation of vscan, where ranges that are both contiguous and sized are internally passed along as string_views, and as type-erased forward_ranges otherwise.

It should be noted, that if the range is not type-erased, the library internals need to be exposed to the user (in a header), and be instantiated for every different kind of range type the user uses.

4.5. Argument passing, and return type of scan

In an earlier revision of this paper, output parameters were used to return the scanned values from std::scan. In this revision, we propose returning the values instead, wrapped in an expected.

// R2 (current)
auto result = std::scan<int>(input, "{}");
auto [i] = result->values();
// or:
auto i = result->value();

// R1 (previous)
int i;
auto result = std::scan(input, "{}", i);

The rationale behind this change is as follows:

The return type of scan, scan_result, contains a subrange over the unparsed input. With this, a new type alias is introduced, ranges::borrowed_ssubrange_t, that is defined as follows:

template <typename R>
using borrowed_ssubrange_t = std::conditional_t<
  ranges::subrange<ranges::iterator_t<R>, ranges::sentinel_t<R>>,

Note: The name borrowed_ssubrange_t is absolutely horrendeous, and is begging for a better alternative.

Compare this with borrowed_subrange_t, which is defined as ranges::subrange<ranges::iterator_t<R>, ranges::iterator_t<R>>, when the range models borrowed_range.

This is novel in the Ranges space: previously all algorithms have either returned an iterator, or a subrange of two iterators. We believe that std::scan warrants a diversion: if (for I = ranges::iterator_t<R> and S = ranges::sentinel_t<R>) std::random_access_iterator<I> || std::sized_sentinel_for<I> || std::assignable_from<I&, S> is false, std::scan will need to go through the rest of the input, in order to get an the end iterator to return. A superior alternative is to simply return the sentinel, since that’s always correct (the leftover range always has the same end as the source range) and requires no additional computation.

See this StackOverflow answer by Barry Revzin for more context: [BARRY-SO-ANSWER].

4.5.1. Design alternatives

As proposed, std::scan returns an expected, containing either an iterator and a tuple, or a scan_error.

An alternative could be returning a tuple, with a result object as its first (0th) element, and the parsed values occupying the rest. This would enable neat usage of structured bindings:

// NOT PROPOSED, design alternative
auto [r, i] = std::scan<int>("42", "{}");

However, there are two possible issues with this design:

  1. It’s easy to accidentally skip checking whether the operation succeeded, and access the scanned values regardless. This could be a potential security issue (even though the values would always be at least value-initialized, not default-initialized). Returning an expected forces checking for success.

  2. The numbering of the elements in the returned tuple would be off-by-one compared to the indexing used in format strings:

    auto r = std::scan<int>("42", "{0}");
    // std::get<0>(r) refers to the result object
    // std::get<1>(r) refers to {0}

For the same reason as enumerated in 2. above, the scan_result type as proposed doesn’t follow the tuple protocol, so that structured bindings can’t be used with it:

auto result = std::scan<int>("42", "{0}");
// std::get<0>(*result) would refer to the iterator
// std::get<1>(*result) would refer to {0}

4.6. Error handling

Contrasting with std::format, this proposed library communicates errors with return values, instead of throwing exceptions. This is because error conditions are expected to be much more frequent when parsing user input, as opposed to text formatting. With the introduction of std::expected, error handling using return values is also more ergonomic than before, and it provides a vocabulary type we can use here, instead of designing something novel.

std::scan_error holds an enumerated error code value, and a message string. The message is used in the same way as the message in std::exception: it gives more details about the error, but its contents are unspecified.

// Not a specification, just exposition
class scan_error {
  enum code_type {

    // EOF:
    // tried to read from an empty range,
    // or the input ended unexpectedly.
    // Naming alternative: end_of_input




  constexpr scan_error() = default;
  constexpr scan_error(code_type, const char*);

  constexpr explicit operator bool() const noexcept;

  constexpr code_type code() const noexcept;
  constexpr const char* msg() const;

4.6.1. Design discussion: Essence of std::scan_error

The reason why we propose adding the type std::scan_error instead of just using std::errc is, that we want to avoid losing information. The enumerators of std::errc are insufficient for this use, as evident by the table below: there are no clear one-to-one mappings between scan_error::code_type and std::errc, but std::errc::invalid_argument would need to cover a lot of cases.

The const char* in scan_error is extremely useful for user code, for use in logging and debugging. Even with the scan_error::code_type enumerators, more information is often needed, to isolate any possible problem.

Possible mappings from scan_error::code_type to std::errc could be:

scan_error::code_type errc
scan_error::good std::errc{}
scan_error::end_of_range std::errc::invalid_argument
scan_error::value_out_of_range std::errc::result_out_of_range

There are multiple dimensions of design decisions to be done here:

  1. Should scan_error use a custom enumeration?
    1. Yes. (currently proposed, our preference)

    2. No, use std::errc. Loses precision in error codes

  2. Should scan_error contain a message?
    1. Yes, a const char*. (currently proposed, weak preference)

    2. Yes, a std::string. Potentially more expensive.

    3. No. Worse user experience for loss of diagnostic information

4.6.2. Design discussion: Additional information

Only having value_out_of_range does not give a way to differentiate between different kinds of out-of-range errors, like overflowing (absolute value too large, either positive or negative), or underflowing (value not representable, between zero and the smallest subnormal).

Both std::istream (through std::num_get), and the std::strto* family of functions support differentiating between differentiating between different kinds of overflow and underflow, through the magnitude of the returned value. std::from_chars currently does not (see [LWG3081]). std::scanf does not, either.

// larger than INT32_MAX
std::string source{"999999999999999999999999999999"};

  std::istringstream iss{source};
  int i{};
  iss >> i;
  // iss.fail() == true
  // i == INT32_MAX

  // (assuming sizeof(long) == 4)
  auto i = std::strtol(source.c_str(), nullptr, 10);
  // i == LONG_MAX
  // errno == ERANGE

  int i{};
  auto [ec, ptr] = std::from_chars(source.data(), source.data() + source.size(), i);
  // ec == std::errc::result_out_of_range
  // i == 0 (!)

  int i{};
  auto r = std::sscanf(source.c_str(), "%d", &i);
  // r == 1  (?)
  // i == -1 (?)
  // errno == ERANGE

This is predicated on an issue with using std::expected: we can only ever either return an error, or a value. Those aforementioned facilities can both return an error code, while simultaneously communicating additional information about possible errors through the scanned value.

Nevertheless, there’s a simple reason for using std::expected: it prevents user errors. Because an expected can indeed only hold either a value or an error, there’s never a situation where an user accidentally forgets to check for an error, and mistakenly uses the scanned value directly instead:

int i{};
std::cin >> i;
// We would need to check std::cin.operator bool() first,
// to determine whether <code data-opaque bs-autolink-syntax='`i`'>i</code> was successfully read:
// that’s very easy to forget

auto r = std::scan<int>(..., "{}");
int i = r->value();
//        ^
//      dereference
// does not allow for accidentally accessing the value if we had an error

It’s a tradeoff. Either we allow for an additional avenue for error reporting through the scanned value, or we use expected to prevent reading the values during an error. Currently, this paper propses doing the latter.

4.7. Binary footprint and type erasure

We propose using a type erasure technique to reduce the per-call binary code size. The scanning function that uses variadic templates can be implemented as a small inline wrapper around its non-variadic counterpart:

template<scannable_range<char> Range>
auto vscan(Range&& range,
           string_view fmt,
           scan_args_for<Range> args)
  -> expected<ranges::borrowed_ssubrange_t<Range>, scan_error>;

template <typename... Args, scannable_range<char> SourceRange>
auto scan(SourceRange&& source, format_string<Args...> format)
    -> expected<scan_result<ranges::borrowed_ssubrange_t<SourceRange>, Args...>, scan_error> {
  auto args = make_scan_args<SourceRange, Args...>();
  auto result = vscan(std::forward<SourceRange>(range), format, args);
  return make_scan_result(std::move(result), std::move(args));

As shown in [P0645] this dramatically reduces binary code size, which will make scan comparable to scanf on this metric.

make_scan_args type erases the arguments that are to be scanned. This is similar to std::make_format_args, used with std::format.

Note: This implementation of std::scan is more complicated compared to std::format, which can be described as a one-liner calling std::vformat. This is because the scan-arg-store returned by make_scan_args needs to outlive the call to vscan, and then be converted to a tuple and returned from scan. Whereas with std::format, the format-arg-store returned by std::make_format_args is immediately consumed by std::vformat, and not used elsewhere.

4.8. Safety

scanf is arguably more unsafe than printf because __attribute__((format(scanf, ...))) ([ATTR]) implemented by GCC and Clang doesn’t catch the whole class of buffer overflow bugs, e.g.

char s[10];
std::sscanf(input, "%s", s); // s may overflow.

Specifying the maximum length in the format string above solves the issue but is error-prone, especially since one has to account for the terminating null.

Unlike scanf, the proposed facility relies on variadic templates instead of the mechanism provided by <cstdarg>. The type information is captured automatically and passed to scanners, guaranteeing type safety and making many of the scanf specifiers redundant (see § 4.2 Format strings). Memory management is automatic to prevent buffer overflow errors.

4.9. Extensibility

We propose an extension API for user-defined types similar to std::formatter, used with std::format. It separates format string processing and parsing, enabling compile-time format string checks, and allows extending the format specification language for user types. It enables scanning of user-defined types.

auto r = scan<tm>(input, "Date: {0:%Y-%m-%d}");

This is done by providing a specialization of scanner for tm:

template <>
struct scanner<tm> {
  constexpr auto parse(scan_parse_context& ctx)
    -> expected<scan_parse_context::iterator, scan_error>;

  template <class ScanContext>
  auto scan(tm& t, ScanContext& ctx) const
    -> expected<typename ScanContext::iterator, scan_error>;

The scanner<tm>::parse function parses the format-spec portion of the format string corresponding to the current argument, and scanner<tm>::scan parses the input range ctx.range() and stores the result in t.

An implementation of scanner<T>::scan can potentially use the istream extraction operator>> for user-defined type T, if available.

4.10. Locales

As pointed out in [N4412]:

There are a number of communications protocol frameworks in use that employ text-based representations of data, for example XML and JSON. The text is machine-generated and machine-read and should not depend on or consider the locales at either end.

To address this, std::format provided control over the use of locales. We propose doing the same for the current facility by performing locale-independent parsing by default and designating separate format specifiers for locale-specific ones. In particular, locale-specific behavior can be opted into by using the L format specifier, and supplying a std::locale object.


// {} uses no locale
// {:L} uses the global locale
auto r0 = std::scan<double, double>("1.23 4.56", "{} {:L}");
// r0->values(): (1.23, 4.56)

// {} uses no locale
// {:L} uses the supplied locale
auto r1 = std::scan<double, double>(std::locale{"fi_FI"}, "1.23 4,56", "{} {:L}");
// r1->values(): (1.23, 4.56)

4.11. Encoding

In a similar manner as with std::format, input given to std::scan is assumed to be in the (ordinary/wide) literal encoding. Errors in encoding are handled in a "garbage in, garbage out" manner: invalidly encoded code points are treated as if they were the Unicode noncharacter U+FFFF, which doesn’t match any other character or pattern.

Encountering invalid encoding inside std::scan could be a use case for erroneous behavior in the library. That’s because be provide well defined-behavior for handling invalid encoding, but it’s still likely to be an error. As motivation for erroneous behavior, Unicode conformance requirement C.10 says that ill-formed input shall not be treated as a character, and treat it as an error instead.
// Invalid UTF-8
auto r = std::scan<std::string>("a\xc3 ", "{}");
// r->value() == "a\xc3"
// Erroneous behavior?

Other potential options for handling invalid encoding would be:

Note: This topic is under active contention in SG16. See also example in § 4.3.8 Type specifiers: CharT.

4.12. Performance

The API allows efficient implementation that minimizes virtual function calls and dynamic memory allocations, and avoids unnecessary copies. In particular, since it doesn’t need to guarantee the lifetime of the input across multiple function calls, scan can take string_view avoiding an extra string copy compared to std::istringstream. Since, in the default case, it also doesn’t deal with locales, it can internally use something like std::from_chars.

We can also avoid unnecessary copies required by scanf when parsing strings, e.g.

auto r = std::scan<std::string_view, int>("answer = 42", "{} = {}");

This has lifetime implications similar to returning match objects in [P1433] and iterators or subranges in the ranges library and can be mitigated in the same way.

It should be noted, that as proposed, this library does not support checking at compile-time, whether scanning a string_view would dangle, or if it’s possible at all (it’s not possible to read a string_view from a non-contiguous_range). This is the case, because the concept scannable is defined in terms of the scanned type T and the input range character type CharT, not the type of the input range itself.

4.13. Integration with chrono

The proposed facility can be integrated with std::chrono::parse ([P0355]) via the extension mechanism, similarly to the integration between chrono and text formatting proposed in [P1361]. This will improve consistency between parsing and formatting, make parsing multiple objects easier, and allow avoiding dynamic memory allocations without resolving to the deprecated strstream.


std::istringstream is("start = 10:30");
std::string key;
char sep;
std::chrono::seconds time;
is >> key >> sep >> std::chrono::parse("%H:%M", time);


auto result = std::scan<std::string, std::chrono::seconds>("start = 10:30", "{0} = {1:%H:%M}");
const auto& [key, time] = result->values();

Note that the scan version additionally validates the separator.

4.14. Impact on existing code

The proposed API is defined in a new header and should have no impact on existing code.

5. Existing work

[SCNLIB] is a C++ library that, among other things, provides an interface similar to the one described in this paper. As of the publication of this paper, the dev-branch of [SCNLIB] contains the reference implementation for this proposal.

[FMT] has a prototype implementation of an earlier version of the proposal.

6. Future extensions

To keep the scope of this paper somewhat manageable, we’ve chosen to only include functionality we consider fundamental. This leaves the design space open for future extensions and other proposals. However, we are not categorically against exploring this design space, if it is deemed critical for v1.

All of the possible future extensions described below are implemented in [SCNLIB].

6.1. Integration with std::istreams

Today, in C++, standard I/O is largely done with iostreams, and not with ranges. The library proposed in this paper doesn’t support that use case well. The proposed concept of scannable_range requires forward_range, so facilities like istreambuf_iterator, which only models input_iterator, can’t be used.

Integration with iostreams is needed to enable working with files and stdin. This can be worked around with something like std::getline, and using its result with std::scan, but error recovery with that gets very tricky very fast.

A possible solution would be a more robust istream_view, that models at least forward_range, either through caching the read characters in the view itself, or by utilizing the stream buffer. [SCNLIB] implements this by providing a generic caching_view, which wraps an input_range and a buffer, and provides an interface that models bidirectional_range.

6.2. scanf-like [character set] matching

scanf supports the [ format specifier, which allows for matching for a set of accepted characters. Unfortunately, because some of the syntax for specifying that set is implementation-defined, the utility of this functionality is hampered. Properly specified, this could be useful.

auto r = scan<string>("abc123", "{:[a-zA-Z]}"); // r->value() == "abc", r->range() == "123"
// Compare with:
char buf[N];
sscanf("abc123", "%[a-zA-Z]", buf);

// ...

auto _ = scan<string>(..., "{:[^\n]}"); // match until newline

It should be noted, that while the syntax is quite similar, this is not a regular expression. This syntax is intentionally way more limited, as is meant for simple character matching.

[SCNLIB] implements this syntax, providing support for matching single characters/code points ({:[abc]}), code point ranges ({:[a-z]}), and regex-like wildcards ({:[:alpha:]} or {:[\\w]}).

6.3. Reading code points (or even grapheme clusters?)

char32_t in nowadays the type denoting a Unicode code point. Reading individual code points, or even Unicode grapheme clusters, could be a useful feature. Currently, this proposal only supports reading of individual code units (char or wchar_t).

[SCNLIB] supports reading Unicode code points with char32_t.

6.4. Reading strings and chars of different width

In C++, we have character types other than char and wchar_t, too: namely char8_t, char16_t, and char32_t. Currently, this proposal only supports reading strings with the same character type as the input range, and reading wchar_t characters from narrow char-oriented input ranges, as does std::format. scanf somewhat supports this with the l-flag (and the absence of one in wscanf). Providing support for reading differently-encoded strings could be useful.

// Currently supported:
auto r0 = scan<wchar_t>("abc", "{}");

// Not supported:
auto r1 = scan<char>(L"abc", L"{}");
auto r2 =
  scan<string, wstring, u8string, u16string, u32string>("abc def ghi jkl mno", "{} {} {} {} {}");
auto r3 =
  scan<string, wstring, u8string, u16string, u32string>(L"abc def ghi jkl mno", L"{} {} {} {} {}");

6.5. Scanning of ranges

Introduced in [P2286] for std::format, enabling the user to use std::scan to scan ranges, could be useful.

6.6. Default values for scanned values

Currently, the values returned by std::scan are value-constructed, and assigned over if a value is read successfully. It may be useful to be able to provide an initial value different from a value-constructed one, for example, for preallocating a string, and possibly reusing it:

string str;
auto r0 = scan<string>(..., "{}", {std::move(str)});
// ...
auto r1 = scan<string>(..., "{}", {std::move(r0->value())});

6.7. Assignment suppression / discarding values

scanf supports discarding scanned values with the * specifier in the format string. [SCNLIB] provides similar functionality through a special type, scn::discard:

int i;
scanf("%*d", &i);

auto r = scn::scan<scn::discard<int>>(..., "{}");
auto [_] = r->values();

7. Specification

At this point, only the synopses are provided.

Note the similarity with [P0645] (std::format) in some parts.

The changes to the wording include additions to the header <ranges>, and a new header, <scan>.

7.1. Modify "Header <ranges> synopsis" [ranges.syn]

#include <compare>
#include <initializer_list>
#include <iterator>

namespace std::ranges {
  // ...

  template<range R>
    using borrowed_iterator_t = see below;   // freestanding

  template<range R>
    using borrowed_subrange_t = see below;   // freestanding
  template<range R>
    using borrowed_ssubrange_t = see below;  // freestanding

  // ...

7.2. Modify "Dangling iterator handling", paragraph 3 [range.dangling]

For a type R that models range:

7.3. Header <scan> synopsis

#include <expected>
#include <format>
#include <ranges>

namespace std {
  class scan_error;

  template<class Range, class... Args>
    class scan_result;

  template<class Range, class CharT>
    concept scannable_range =
      ranges::forward_range<Range> &&
      same_as<ranges::range_value_t<Range>, CharT>;

  template<class Range, class...Args>
    using scan_result_type = expected<
      scan_result<ranges::borrowed_ssubrange_t<Range>, Args...>,

  template<class... Args, scannable_range<char> Range>
    scan_result_type<Range, Args...> scan(Range&& range, format_string<Args...> fmt);

  template<class... Args, scannable_range<wchar_t> Range>
    scan_result_type<Range, Args...> scan(Range&& range, wformat_string<Args...> fmt);

  template<class... Args, scannable_range<char> Range>
    scan_result_type<Range, Args...> scan(const locale& loc, Range&& range, format_string<Args...> fmt);

  template <class... Args, scannable_range<wchar_t> Range>
    scan_result_type<Range, Args...> scan(const locale& loc, Range&& range, wformat_string<Args...> fmt);

  template<class Range, class CharT>
    class basic_scan_context;
  template<class Context>
    class basic_scan_args;

  template<class Range>
    using scan_args_for = basic_scan_args<basic_scan_context<

  template<class Range>
  using vscan_result_type = expected<ranges::borrowed_ssubrange_t<Range>, scan_error>;

  template<scannable_range<char> Range>
  vscan_result_type<Range> vscan(Range&& range,
                                 string_view fmt,
                                 scan_args_for<Range> args);

  template<scannable_range<wchar_t> Range>
  vscan_result_type<Range> vscan(Range&& range,
                                 wstring_view fmt,
                                 scan_args_for<Range> args);

  template<scannable_range<char> Range>
  vscan_result_type<Range> vscan(const locale& loc,
                                 Range&& range,
                                 string_view fmt,
                                 scan_args_for<Range> args);

  template<scannable_range<wchar_t> Range>
  vscan_result_type<Range> vscan(const locale& loc,
                                 Range&& range,
                                 wstring_view fmt,
                                 scan_args_for<Range> args);

  template<class T, class CharT = char>
    struct scanner;

  template<class T, class CharT>
    concept scannable = see below;
  template<class CharT>
    using basic_scan_parse_context = basic_format_parse_context<CharT>;
  using scan_parse_context = basic_scan_parse_context<char>;
  using wscan_parse_context = basic_scan_parse_context<wchar_t>;

  template<class Context>
    class basic_scan_arg;

  template<class Visitor, class Context>
    decltype(auto) visit_scan_arg(Visitor&& vis, basic_scan_arg<Context> arg);
  template<class Context, class... Args>
    class scan-arg-store; // exposition only

  template<class Range, class... Args>
    constexpr see below make_scan_args();

  template<class Range, class Context, class... Args>
    expected<scan_result<Range, Args...>, scan_error>
      make_scan_result(expected<Range, scan_error>&& source,
                       scan-arg-store<Context, Args...>&& args);

7.4. Class scan_error synopsis

namespace std {
  class scan_error {
    enum code_type {

    constexpr scan_error() = default;
    constexpr scan_error(code_type error_code, const char* message);

    constexpr explicit operator bool() const noexcept;

    constexpr code_type code() const noexcept;
    constexpr const char* msg() const;

    code_type code_;      // exposition only
    const char* message_; // exposition only

7.5. Class template scan_result synopsis

namespace std {
  template<class Range, class... Args>
  class scan_result {
    using range_type = Range;

    constexpr scan_result() = default;
    constexpr ~scan_result() = default;

    constexpr scan_result(range_type r, tuple<Args...>&& values);
    template<class OtherR, class... OtherArgs>
      constexpr explicit(see below) scan_result(OtherR&& it, tuple<OtherArgs...>&& values);

    constexpr scan_result(const scan_result&) = default;
    template<class OtherR, class... OtherArgs>
      constexpr explicit(see below) scan_result(const scan_result<OtherR, OtherArgs...>& other);

    constexpr scan_result(scan_result&&) = default;
    template<class OtherR, class... OtherArgs>
      constexpr explicit(see below) scan_result(scan_result<OtherR, OtherArgs...>&& other);

    constexpr scan_result& operator=(const scan_result&) = default;
    template<class OtherR, class... OtherArgs>
      constexpr scan_result& operator=(const scan_result<OtherR, OtherArgs...>& other);

    constexpr scan_result& operator=(scan_result&&) = default;
    template<class OtherR, class... OtherArgs>
      constexpr scan_result& operator=(scan_result<OtherR, OtherArgs...>&& other);

    constexpr range_type range() const;

    constexpr see below begin() const;
    constexpr see below end() const;

    template<class Self>
      constexpr auto&& values(this Self&&);

    template<class Self>
      requires sizeof...(Args) == 1
      constexpr auto&& value(this Self&&);

    range_type range_;        // exposition only
    tuple<Args...> values_; // exposition only

7.6. Class template basic_scan_context synopsis

namespace std {
  template<class Range, class CharT>
  class basic_scan_context {
    using char_type = CharT;
    using range_type = Range;
    using iterator = ranges::iterator_t<range_type>;
    using sentinel = ranges::sentinel_t<range_type>;
    template<class T> using scanner_type = scanner<T, char_type>;

    constexpr basic_scan_arg<basic_scan_context> arg(size_t id) const noexcept;
    std::locale locale();

    constexpr iterator current() const;
    constexpr range_type range() const;
    constexpr void advance_to(iterator it);

    iterator current_;                         // exposition only
    sentinel end_;                             // exposition only
    std::locale locale_;                       // exposition only
    basic_scan_args<basic_scan_context> args_; // exposition only

7.7. Class template basic_scan_args synopsis

namespace std {
  template<class Context>
  class basic_scan_args {
    size_t size_;                   // exposition only
    basic_scan_arg<Context>* data_; // exposition only

    basic_scan_args() noexcept;

    template<class... Args>
      basic_scan_args(scan-arg-store<Context, Args...>& store) noexcept;

    basic_scan_arg<Context> get(size_t i) noexcept;

  template<class Context, class... Args>
    basic_scan_args(scan-arg-store<Context, Args...>) -> basic_scan_args<Context>;

7.8. Concept scannable

namespace std {
  template<class T, class Context,
           class Scanner = typename Context::template scanner_type<remove_const_t<T>>>
    concept scannable-with =            // exposition only
      semiregular<Scanner> &&
      requires(Scanner& s, const Scanner& cs, T& t, Context& ctx,
               basic_format_parse_context<typename Context::char_type>& pctx)
        { s.parse(pctx) } -> same_as<expected<typename decltype(pctx)::iterator, scan_error>>;
        { cs.scan(t, ctx) } -> same_as<expected<typename Context::iterator, scan_error>>;

  template<class T, class CharT>
    concept scannable =
      scannable-with<remove_reference_t<T>, basic_scan_context<unspecified>>;

7.9. Class template basic_scan_arg synopsis

namespace std {
  template<class Context>
  class basic_scan_arg {
    class handle;

    using char_type = typename Context::char_type;            // exposition only

      signed char*, short*, int*, long*, long long*,
      unsigned char*, unsigned short*, unsigned int*, unsigned long*, unsigned long long*,
      bool*, char_type*, void**,
      float*, double*, long double*,
      basic_string<char_type>*, basic_string_view<char_type>*,
      handle> value;                                          // exposition only

    template<class T> explicit basic_scan_arg(T& v) noexcept; // exposition only

    basic_scan_arg() noexcept;

    explicit operator bool() const noexcept;

7.10. Exposition-only class template scan-arg-store synopsis

namespace std {
  template<class Context, class... Args>
  class scan-arg-store {                                  // exposition only
    tuple<Args...> args;                                  // exposition only
    array<basic_scan_arg<Context>, sizeof...(Args)> data; // exposition only


Informative References

Common Function Attributes. URL: https://gcc.gnu.org/onlinedocs/gcc-8.2.0/gcc/Common-Function-Attributes.html
Why the standard defines `borrowed_subrange_t` as `common_range`. URL: https://stackoverflow.com/a/66819929
Andrew Tomazos. Code search engine website. URL: https://codesearch.isocpp.org
Victor Zverovich et al. The fmt library. URL: https://github.com/fmtlib/fmt
Greg Falcon. Floating point from_chars API does not distinguish between overflow and underflow. Open. URL: https://wg21.link/lwg3081
Jens Maurer. N4412: Shortcomings of iostreams. URL: http://open-std.org/JTC1/SC22/WG21/docs/papers/2015/n4412.html
Howard E. Hinnant; Tomasz Kamiński. Extending <chrono> to Calendars and Time Zones. URL: https://wg21.link/p0355
Victor Zverovich. Text Formatting. URL: https://wg21.link/p0645
Victor Zverovich; Daniela Engert; Howard E. Hinnant. Integration of chrono with text formatting. URL: https://wg21.link/p1361
Hana Dusíková. Compile Time Regular Expressions. URL: https://wg21.link/p1433
Barry Revzin. Formatting Ranges. URL: https://wg21.link/p2286
Barry Revzin. A control flow operator. URL: https://wg21.link/p2561
Python `parse` package. URL: https://pypi.org/project/parse/
Elias Kosunen. scnlib: scanf for modern C++. URL: https://github.com/eliaskosunen/scnlib