Bert's blog

Input and output with strings, part 3: input with C(++)

A while ago I described how to read values from strings using Python, and I introduced the concept of regular expression parsing for this purpose. In this post I will describe how to achieve the same using C and C++. Surprisingly, it will turn out that these things are actually easier to do in C(++) than in Python, which is not usually what happens. There are however a few pitfalls that can make things very complicated very quickly (again).


I will start off with C++, as this is by far the most intuitive. As for its output, C++ uses streams for input, and these input streams are quite powerful. Consider the following example:

#include <iostream>
#include <sstream>
#include <string>

int main(int argc, char **argv){

  const std::string text = "100 3.14e-8";

  std::istringstream istream(text);
  int a;
  double b;

  istream >> a >> b;

  std::cout << a << " " << b << std::endl;

  return 0;

Our example string contains two numbers: an integer and a floating point value. By creating a istringstream (an input stream - istream - based on a single string) from this string, we can read these into variables a and b with those corresponding types. The istream will automatically take care of all necessary conversions; it recognises the exponent in the floating point value and knows how to deal with it.

The istream will also detect the end of each of the numbers in the string, based on the whitespace it encounters. If all numbers have clear types and are nicely separated by whitespace, then this approach will work very well.

There are a few caveats though. First of all, the istream conversion for integers is not as powerful as you might want: if we were to replace the 100 in the example with the equivalent 1e2, then the parsing of the integer will fail. Second, if parsing for one of the values fails, the istream will fail to properly recognise the end of a number, which means that it will also fail to process any subsequent numbers. The replacement mentioned above will hence completely break the example.

You could argue that 1e2 is not a valid way of writing integers (this is what the C++ developers would argue) and that this behaviour is fine. And you could instead be amazed by another feature of istream: it can actually parse things like 0x1a (the number 26 in hexadecimal notation):

const std::string text = "0x26 3.14e-8";
istream >> std::hex >> a >> b;

(only the lines that changes are shown). This is nice, but unfortunately not very flexible; if the first integer is not given in hexadecimal notation, then istream will still parse it as if it were. The number 100 then wrongly parses to 256.

So despite the fact that input streams are incredibly easy to use, they are not quite as powerful as a good regular expression. If you really want to parse numbers with an unexpected format, then you need to write your own parser (this is what I did for CMacIonize).


C has a number of functions for input that are the counterparts of the output functions we already encountered: scanf to read from the standard input (counterpart of printf), sscanf to read from a (C) string (sprintf) and fscanf (fprintf) to read from a (C) file.

The nice thing about these functions is that they are pretty much the exact counterparts of their respective output functions: they use the same format specifiers and almost the same syntax. The only difference is that while printf and its variants take values as additional arguments, scanf and counterparts take pointers. We can rewrite the C++ example from above as (using an allowed mixture of C and C++):

sscanf(text.c_str(), "%i %lg", &a, &b);
printf("%i %g\n", a, b);

Note that the format specifiers for floating point values are somewhat more restrictive for scanf than for printf: %g will work to output both single and double precision floating point values, but it will not work to read double precision values (you will get a compiler warning if you try this). The reason is that the precision of the value determines the size of the pointer passed on to scanf. If this size does not match what the function expects, undefined behaviour can occur. We can get rid of these compiler warnings by specifying the precision of the value: %lg.

scanf still has the same limitations as istream: it will fail to parse 1e2 as an integer and that replacement will break the parsing of the second value too. scanf also supports hexadecimal notation, but also requires a specific format specifier for this, which means you cannot parse values for which you do not know if they are decimal or hexadecimal. So while scanf feels a bit like the regular expressions you encounter in Python, it really is not as powerful.

Regular expressions

At the start of this post, I might have given the impression that C and C++ have similar capabilities to the regular expressions available in Python. This is not true: while regular expressions can be used to find and parse values anywhere in a string, input in C(++) is much more limited: the available functions can only parse values if they know where in the string those values are and if they know what format to expect for these values.

But this makes sense. C and C++ are low-level languages that are intended to write actual machine code. They contain very detailed instructions about operations and memory management that are then used by a compiler to generate machine instructions that lead to optimal or close to optimal use of the available hardware. Regular expression parsing is a high-level feature, which requires a lot of operations executed according to complicated algorithmic rules. If C(++) were to have actual support for regular expressions, then this would in fact mean that all these complicated operations would need to be provided by the compiler that generates machine code, including all the memory management that goes with parsing the expression. This is not what compilers are made for, and also goes against the whole spirit of C and C++, where the programmer has maximal control over memory allocations and operations.

In other words: C and C++ cannot parse regular expressions in the way Python does, because Python uses a very complicated high-level library to do so. This library uses a lot of internal variables and operations to actually perform the regular expression parsing, all of which is hidden from the user. In C(++) you are not allowed to hide anything from the user, except if the user explicitly decides to do so, for example by using an external library. That is why the standard language does not offer any regular expression capabilities.

The fact that C(++) is not as flexible and forces you to write your own code to parse more complicated values might make you feel like parsing strings in these languages is incredibly inefficient. This is not true: the much more elegant regular expressions you use in Python internally use code that is at least as complicated and inefficient as the code you would write in C(++). But in the end, all this code is converted into very similar machine code, and should have roughly the same speed. This speed is a lot slower than performing some basic mathematical operations. But that is just the nature of strings…

Professional astronomer.