Taking string arguments in Rust

Posted on Tue 24 December 2019 in Code • Tagged with Rust, strings, arguments, borrowing, ownershipLeave a comment

Strings of text seem to always be a complicated topic when it comes to programming. This counts double for low-level languages which expose the programmer to the full complexity of memory management and allocation.

Rust is, obviously, one of those languages. Strings in Rust are therefore represented using two distinct types: str (the string slice) and String (the owned/allocated string). Learning how to juggle those types is something you need to do very early if you want to be productive in the language.

But even after you’ve programmed in Rust for some time, you may still trip on some more subtle issues with string handling. In this post, I will concentrate on just one common task: writing a function that takes a string argument. We’ll see that even there, we can encounter a fair number of gotchas.

Just reading it

Let’s start with a simple case: a function which merely reads its string argument:

fn hello(name: &str) {
    println!("Hello, {}!", name);

As you’re probably well aware, using str rather than String is the idiomatic approach here. Because a &str reference is essentially an address + length, it can point to any string wheresoever: a 'static literal, a heap-allocated String, or any portion or substring thereof:

hello(&"Dennis Ritchie"[0..6]);

Contrast this with an argument of type &String:

fn hello(name: &String) {
    println!("Hello, {}!", name);

which mandates an actual, full-blown String object:

// (the other examples won't work)

There are virtually no circumstances when you would want to do this, as it potentially forces the caller to needlessly put the string on the heap. Even if you anticipate all function calls to involve actual String objects, the automatic Deref coercion from &String to &str should still allow you to use the more universal, str-based API.

Hiding the reference

If rustc can successfully turn a &String into &str, then perhaps it should also be possible to simply use String when that’s more convenient?

In general, this kind of “reverse Deref” doesn’t happen in Rust outside of method calls with &self. It seems, however, that it would sometimes be desirable; one reasonable use case involves chains of iterator adapters, most importantly map and for_each:

let strings: Vec<String> = vec!["Alice".into(), "Bob".into()];

Since the compiler doesn’t take advantage ofDeref coercions when inferring closure types, their argument types have to match exactly. As a result, we often need explicit |x| foo(x) closures which suffer from poorer readability in long Iterator or Stream-based expressions.

We can make the above code work — and also retain the ability to make calls like hello("Charlie"); — by using one of the built-in traits that generalize over the borrowing relationships. The one that works best for accepting string arguments is called AsRef1:

fn hello<N: AsRef<str>>(name: N) {
    println!("Hello, {}!", name.as_ref());

Its sole method, AsRef::as_ref, returns a reference to the trait’s type parameter. In the case above, that reference will obviously be of type &str, which circles back to our initial example, one with a direct &str argument.

The difference is, however, that AsRef<str> is implemented for all interesting string types — both in their owned and borrowed versions. This obviates the need for Deref coercions and makes the API more convenient.

Own it

Things get a little more complicated when the string parameter is needed for more than just reading. For storage and potential mutation, a &str reference is not enough: you need an actual, full-blown String object.

Now, you may think this is not a huge obstacle. After all, it’s pretty easy to “turn” &str into a String:

struct Greetings {
    Vec<String> names,

impl Greetings {
    // Don't do this!
    pub fn hello(&mut self, name: &str) {

But I strongly advise against this practice, at least in public APIs. If you expose such function to your users, you are essentially tricking them into thinking their input will only ever be read, not copied, which has implications on both performance and memory usage.

Instead, if you need to take ownership of the resulting String, it is much better to indicate this in the function signature directly:

pub fn hello(&mut self, name: String) {

This shifts the burden on creating the String onto the caller, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. On their side, the added boilerplate can pretty minimal:

let mut greetings = Greetings::new();
grettings.hello(String::from("Dylan"));  // uhm...
greetings.hello("Eva".to_string());      // somewhat better...
grettings.hello("Frank".to_owned());     // not too bad
greetings.hello("Gene".into());          // good enough

while clearly indicating where does the memory allocation happen.

  1. It is also idiomatically used for functions taking Path parameters, i.e. AsRef<Path>

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str.startswith() with tuple argument

Posted on Tue 28 June 2016 in Code • Tagged with Python, strings, tuplesLeave a comment

Here’s a little known trick that’s applicable to Python’s startswith and endswith methods of str (and unicode).

Suppose you’re checking whether a string starts with some prefix:

if s.startswith('http://'):
    # totally an URL

You eventually add more possible prefixes (or suffixes) to your condition:

if s.startswith('http://') or s.startswith('https://'):
    # ...

Later on you notice the repetition and refactor it into something like this:

SCHEMES = ['http://', 'https://', 'ftp://', 'git://']
if any(s.startswith(p) for p in SCHEMES):
    # ...

or if you’re feeling extra functional:

if any(map(s.startswith, SCHEMES)):
    # ...

Turns out, however, that startswith (and endswith) support this use case natively. Rather than passing just a single string as the argument, you can provide a tuple of strings instead:

SCHEMES = ('http://', 'https://', 'ftp://', 'git://')
if s.startswith(SCHEMES):
    # ...

Either method will then check the original string against every element of the passed tuple. Both will only return True if at least one of the strings is recognized as prefix/suffix. As you can see, that’s exactly what we would previously do with any.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, the feature only works for actual tuples. Trying to pass a seemingly equivalent iterable — a list or set, for example — will be met with interpreter’s refusal:

>>> is_jpeg = filename.endswith(['.jpg', '.jpeg'])
TypeError: endswith first arg must be str, unicode, or tuple, not list

If you dig into it, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason for this behavior. The relevant feature request talks about consistency with the built-in isinstance function, but it’s quite difficult to see how those two are related.

In any case, this can be worked around without much difficulty:

PROTOCOLS = ('http', 'https', 'ftp', 'git')
if s.startswith(tuple(p + '://' for p in PROTOCOLS)):
    # ...

though ideally, you’d want to pack the prefixes in a tuple to begin with.

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