Tip of the Week #215: Stringifying Custom Types with AbslStringify()

Originally posted as TotW #215 on November 2, 2022

By Phoebe Liang

Updated 2022-11-16

Quicklink: abseil.io/tips/215

Abseil now contains a new lightweight mechanism, AbslStringify(), that allows users to format user-defined types as strings. User-defined types that are extended using AbslStringify() work out of the box with absl::StrFormat, absl::StrCat and absl::Substitute.

As with most type extensions, you should own the type you wish to extend.

Let’s say that we have a simple Point struct:

struct Point {
  int x;
  int y;

If we want a Point to be formattable with absl::StrFormat(), absl::StrCat() and absl::Substitute(), we add a friend function template named AbslStringify():

struct Point {
  template <typename Sink>
  friend void AbslStringify(Sink& sink, const Point& p) {
    absl::Format(&sink, "(%d, %d)", p.x, p.y);

  int x;
  int y;

Note: AbslStringify() utilizes a generic “sink” buffer to construct its string. This sink has an interface similar to absl::FormatSink, but does not support PutPaddedString().

Now absl::StrCat("The point is ", p) and absl::Substitute("The point is $0", p) will just work.

Note: absl::StrFormat() also provides a more customizable extension point AbslFormatConvert() that is not supported by absl::StrCat().

Type Deduction with the %v Specifier

But what if we want to format our type using absl::StrFormat()? absl::StrFormat()’s existing type specifiers don’t support user-defined types extended with AbslStringify(), so we would have to do something like this:

absl::StrFormat("The point is (%d, %d)", p.x, p.y)

This is obviously not ideal. It doesn’t make use of the extension at all and it duplicates the format string used in the AbslStringify() definition. Instead, we can use the new type specifier %v:

absl::StrFormat("The point is %v", p)

%v uses type deduction to format an argument. %v supports the formatting of most primitive types, as well as any types extended using AbslStringify(). You can think of %v as a generic way to format a “value” of any type that absl::StrFormat() can deduce. %v can also be used directly within AbslStringify() definitions.

The %v specifier deduces the following types:

  • d for signed integral values
  • u for unsigned integral values
  • g for floating point values
    • double
    • float
    • long double
  • s for string values
    • std::string
    • absl::string_view
    • std::string_view
    • absl::Cord

NOTE: const char* is not supported. See below for more information.

Some examples:

absl::StrFormat("%v", std::string{"hello"})    -> "hello"
absl::StrFormat("%v", 42)    -> "42"
absl::StrFormat("%v", uint64_t{16})    -> "16"
absl::StrFormat("%v", 1.6)  -> "1.6"
absl::StrFormat("%v", true) -> "true"

Types With Special Handling

%v intentionally does not support char and const char* due to ambiguity in the desired output format. Boolean values are printed as "true" and "false" rather than "1" and "0", which is how absl::StrFormat() and absl::StrCat() print booleans otherwise.

Integration With Other Libraries

AbslStringify() has additional support throughout other Abseil libraries.


Types that define AbslStringify() are directly loggable:

struct Point {
  template <typename Sink>
  friend void AbslStringify(Sink& sink, const Point& p) {
    absl::Format(&sink, "(%v, %v)", p.x, p.y);

  int x = 10;
  int y = 20;

Point p;

LOG(INFO) << p;

This code will produce a message in the logs like:

I0926 09:00:00.000000   12345 main.cc:10] (10, 20)

It is recommended that custom types be made loggable by implementing AbslStringify() rather than operator<< as it is a universal stringification extension that also enables absl::StrFormat, absl::StrCat and absl::Substitute support.

Protocol Buffer Types

Protocol buffers are formattable using AbslStringify(). Since AbslStringify() provides an overall smoother user experience over DebugString(), it is recommended that users use AbslStringify() when formatting protos as strings.

message MyProto {
  optional string my_string = 1

MyProto my_proto;
my_proto.set_my_string("hello world");

absl::StrCat("My proto is: ", my_proto);
absl::StrFormat("My proto is: %v", my_proto);
LOG(INFO) << my_proto;

Closing Words

Aside from user-defined types where its use is required, the %v type specifier is intended for use in cases where the precise formatting is not important. It is essentially a catch-all “just print it in a human readable manner” specifier. If you require any other guarantees beyond that, please use one of the more specific type specifiers.

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