I’ve already blogged about one difference between std::string and C++17’s std::string_view: string is owning and string_view is non-owning (being what I call a “parameter-only type”). Today I’d like to talk about a second difference: string is null-terminated and string_view is not.

const char buffer[] = "abcdefghij";
auto sv = std::string_view(buffer+2, buffer+7);
assert(sv == "cdefg");

By design, string_view is not a null-terminated type. There’s no null byte after that 'g'.

Now, C library functions like strcpy, fopen, atoi, and strtol all expect null-terminated C strings; therefore string_view doesn’t play well with these C library functions. And some C++ library features are built on top of the C ones. Since you can’t use string_view with atoi, you also can’t use it with std::stoi. Since you can’t use string_view with fopen, you also can’t construct a std::fstream with one.

When a function transitively depends on null-termination, you actually don’t want to refactor its interface from const string& to string_view, because eventually you’re just going to have to copy the string back into a null-terminated buffer in order to make use of it.

int parseInt(const std::string& digits) {
    return std::stoi(digits);

int parseInt(std::string_view digits) {
    auto ntdigits = std::string(digits);
    return std::stoi(ntdigits);

.data() versus .c_str()

std::string has two member functions that do basically the same thing: s.data() and s.c_str(). The difference between s.data() and s.c_str() is that s.c_str() connotes null-termination.

FILE *fp = fopen(s.c_str(), "w");
    // fopen requires a null-terminated string
fwrite(s.data(), 1, s.size(), fp);
    // fwrite takes a buffer and a length

std::string_view, which is not null-terminated, deliberately provides .data() but does not provide .c_str().

Even if you don’t use C++17 string_view in your codebase yet, you can prepare for C++17-ification by following good c_str/data hygiene. Here’s an example of bad hygiene:

void one(const std::string& fname) {
    FILE *fp = fopen(fname.data(), "w");  // BAD!

The above function uses .data() in a context that requires null-termination. It’s dangerous because a careless maintainer might “C++17-ify” the code by changing const std::string& to std::string_view

void one(std::string_view fname) {
    FILE *fp = fopen(fname.data(), "w");  // BUGGY!

— and boom, now you have a bug! If the original, pre-C++17 author had used fname.c_str() instead of fname.data(), then not only would the code have been more self-documenting, but the buggy C++17-ification would have failed to compile, because string_view does not provide .c_str().

Here’s another example of bad hygiene:

void two(int fd, const std::string& packet) {
    write(fd, packet.c_str(), packet.length());  // BAD!

This hygiene is bad because the gratuitous use of .c_str() for a buffer that does not need to be null-terminated needlessly thwarts the maintainer’s attempt at C++17-ification:

void two(int fd, std::string_view packet) {
    write(fd, packet.c_str(), packet.length());  // ERROR: no .c_str()

The original author should have used .data() instead, to indicate that null-termination was not required for correctness. (Plus, consistently using size instead of length makes it easier to drop in std::vector<char> or C++20’s std::span<const char>.)

void two(int fd, const std::string& packet) {
    write(fd, packet.data(), packet.size());  // GOOD!

void two(int fd, std::string_view packet) {
    write(fd, packet.data(), packet.size());  // EQUALLY GOOD!

So there you go. Use .c_str() when you mean to rely on a string’s null-termination, and use .data() + .size() when you don’t. Following this rule helps to bring your code’s hidden assumptions to light, and makes it easier to introduce std::string_view later.

Posted 2020-03-20