String vs &str in Rust

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Most likely, soon after you’ve started your Rust journey, you ran into this scenario where you tried to work with string types (or should I say, you thought you were?), and the compiler refused to compile your code because of something that looks like a string, actually isn’t a string.

For example, let’s take a look at this super simple function greet(name: String) which takes something of type String and prints it to screen using the println!() macro:

fn main() {
  let my_name = "Pascal";

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

Compiling this code will result in a compile error that looks something like this:

error[E0308]: mismatched types
 --> src/
3 |     greet(my_name);
  |           ^^^^^^^
  |           |
  |           expected struct `std::string::String`, found `&str`
  |           help: try using a conversion method: `my_name.to_string()`

error: aborting due to previous error

For more information about this error, try `rustc --explain E0308`.

You can see this behaviour in action here. Just hit the “Run” button and look at the compiler output.

Luckily, Rust’s compiler is very good at telling us what’s the problem. Clearly, we’re dealing with two different types here: std::string::String, or short String, and &str. While greet() expects a String, apparently what we’re passing to the function is something of type &str. The compiler even provides a hint on how it can be fixed. Changing line 3 to let my_name = "Pascal".to_string(); fixes the issue.

What’s going on here? What is a &str? And why do we have to perform an explicit conversion using to_string()?

Understanding the String type

To answer these questions, it’s beneficial to have a good understanding of how Rust stores data in memory. If you haven’t read our article on Taking a closer look at Ownership in Rust yet, I highly recommend checking it out first.

Let’s take the example from above and look at how my_name is stored in memory, assuming that it’s of type String (e.g we’ve used .to_string() as the compiler suggested):

                   /   capacity
                 /   /  length
               /   /   /
stack frame │ • │ 8 │ 6 │ <- my_name: String
            [–│–––––––– capacity –––––––––––]
       heap │ P │ a │ s │ c │ a │ l │   │   │

            [––––––– length ––––––––]

Rust will store the String object for my_name on the stack. The object comes with a pointer to a heap-allocated buffer which holds the actual data, the buffer’s capacity and the length of the data that is being stored. Given this, the size of the String object itself is always fixed and three words long.

One of the things that make a String a String, is the capability of resizing its buffer if needed. For example, we could use its .push_str() method to append more text, which potentially causes the underlying buffer to increase in size (notice that my_name needs to be mutable to make this work):

let mut my_name = "Pascal".to_string();
my_name.push_str( " Precht");

In fact, if you’re familiar with Rust’s Vec<T> type, you already know what a String is because it’s essentially the same in behaviour and characteristics, just with the difference that it comes with guarantees of only holding well-formed UTF-8 text.

Understanding string slices

String slices (or str) are what we work with when we either reference a range of UTF-8 text that is “owned” by someone else, or when we create them using string literals.

If we were only interested in the last name stored in my_name, we can get a reference to that part of the string like this:

let mut my_name = "Pascal".to_string();
my_name.push_str( " Precht");

let last_name = &my_name[7..];

By specifying the range from the 7th byte (because there’s a whitespace) until the end of the buffer (”..”), last_name is now a string slice referencing text owned by my_name. It borrows it. Here’s what it looks like in memory:

            my_name: String   last_name: &str
            [––––––––––––]    [–––––––]
stack frame │ • │ 16 │ 13 │   │ • │ 6 │ 
              │                 │
              │                 +–––––––––+
              │                           │
              │                           │
              │                         [–│––––––– str –––––––––]
       heap │ P │ a │ s │ c │ a │ l │   │ P │ r │ e │ c │ h │ t │   │   │   │

Notice that last_name does not store capacity information on the stack. This is because it’s just a reference to a slice of another String that manages its capacity. The string slice, or str itself, is what’s considered ”unsized”. Also, in practice string slices are always references so their type will always be &str instead of str.

Okay, this explains the difference between String, &String and str and &str, but we haven’t actually created such a reference in our original example, did we?

Understanding string literals

As mentioned earlier, there are two cases when we’re working with string slices: we either create a reference to a sub string, or we use string literals.

A string literal is created by surrounding text with double quotes, just like we did earlier:

let my_name = "Pascal Precht"; // This is a `&str` not a `String`

The next question is, if a &str is a slice reference to a String owned by someone else, who is the owner of that value given that the text is created in place?

It turns out that string literals are a bit special. They are string slices that refer to “preallocated text” that is stored in read-only memory as part of the executable. In other words, it’s memory that ships with our program and doesn’t rely on buffers allocated in the heap.

That said, there’s still an entry on the stack that points to that preallocated memory when the program is executed:

            my_name: &str
stack frame │ • │ 6 │ 
 preallocated  +–V–+–––+–––+–––+–––+–––+
 read-only     │ P │ a │ s │ c │ a │ l │
 memory        +–––+–––+–––+–––+–––+–––+

With a better understanding of the difference between String and &str, there’s probably another question that comes up.

Which one should be used?

Obviously, this depends on a number of variables, but generally, it’s safe to say that, if the API we’re building doesn’t need to own or mutate the text it’s working with, it should take a &str instead of a String. This means, an improved version of the original greet() function would look like this:

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

Wait, but what if the caller of this API really only has a String and can’t convert it to a &str for unknown reasons? No problem at all. Rust has this super powerful feature called deref coercing which allows it to turn any passed String reference using the borrow operator, so &String, to a &str before the API is executed. This will be covered in more detail in another article.

Our greet() function therefore will work with the following code:

fn main() {
  let first_name = "Pascal";
  let last_name = "Precht".to_string();

  greet(&last_name); // `last_name` is passed by reference

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

See it in action here!

That’s it! I hope this article was useful. There’s an interesting discussion on Reddit about this content as well! Let me know what you think or what you would like to learn about next on twitter or sign up for the Rust For JavaScript Developers mailing list!

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Written by  Author

Pascal Precht