1.8 — Whitespace and basic formatting

Whitespace is a term that refers to characters that are used for formatting purposes. In C++, this refers primarily to spaces, tabs, and newlines. Whitespace in C++ is generally used for 3 things: separating certain language elements, inside text, and for formatting code.

Some language elements must be whitespace-separated

The syntax of the language requires that some elements are separated by whitespace. This mostly occurs when two keywords or identifiers must be placed consecutively, so the compiler can tell them apart.

For example, a variable declaration must be whitespace separated:

int x; // int and x must be whitespace separated

If we typed intx instead, the compiler would interpret this as an identifier, and then complain it doesn’t know what identifier intx is.

As another example, a function’s return type and name must be whitespace separated:

int main(); // int and main must be whitespace separated

When whitespace is required as a separator, the compiler doesn’t care how much whitespace is used, as long as some exists.

The following variable definitions are all valid:

int x;
int                y;
            int 
z;

In certain cases, newlines are used as a separator. Single-line comments are terminated by a newline.

As an example, doing something like this will get you in trouble:

std::cout << "Hello world!"; // This is part of the comment and
this is not part of the comment

Preprocessor directives (e.g. #include <iostream>) must be placed on separate lines:

#include <iostream>
#include <string>

Quoted text takes the amount of whitespace literally

Inside quoted text, the amount of whitespace is taken literally.

std::cout << "Hello world!";

is different than:

std::cout << "Hello          world!";

Newlines are not allowed in quoted text:

std::cout << "Hello
     world!"; // Not allowed!

Quoted text separated by nothing but whitespace (spaces, tabs, or newlines) will be concatenated:

std::cout << "Hello "
     "world!"; // prints "Hello world!"

Using whitespace to format code

Whitespace is otherwise generally ignored. This means we can use whitespace wherever we like to format our code in order to make it easier to read.

For example, the following is pretty hard to read:

#include <iostream>
int main(){std::cout<<"Hello world";return 0;}

The following is better (but still pretty dense):

#include <iostream>
int main() {
std::cout << "Hello world";
return 0;
}

And the following is even better:

#include <iostream>

int main()
{
    std::cout << "Hello world";

    return 0;
}

Statements may be split over multiple lines if desired:

#include <iostream>

int main()
{
    std::cout
        << "Hello world"; // works fine
    return 0;
}

This can be useful for particularly long statements.

Basic formatting

Unlike some other languages, C++ does not enforce any kind of formatting restrictions on the programmer. For this reason, we say that C++ is a whitespace-independent language.

This is a mixed blessing. On one hand, it’s nice to have the freedom to do whatever you like. On the other hand, many different methods of formatting C++ programs have been developed throughout the years, and you will find (sometimes significant and distracting) disagreement on which ones are best. Our basic rule of thumb is that the best styles are the ones that produce the most readable code, and provide the most consistency.

Here are our recommendations for basic formatting:

  1. It’s fine to use either tabs or spaces for indentation (most IDEs have a setting where you can convert a tab press into the appropriate number of spaces). Developers who prefer spaces tend to do so because it ensures that code is precisely aligned as intended regardless of which editor or settings are used. Proponents of using tabs wonder why you wouldn’t use the character designed to do indentation for indentation, especially as you can set the width to whatever your personal preference is. There’s no right answer here -- and debating it is like arguing whether cake or pie is better. It ultimately comes down to personal preference.

Either way, we recommend you set your tabs to 4 spaces worth of indentation. Some IDEs default to 3 spaces of indentation, which is fine too.

  1. There are two conventional styles for function braces.

Many developers prefer putting the opening curly brace on the same line as the statement:

int main() {
    // statements here
}

The justification for this is that it reduces the amount of vertical whitespace (as you aren’t devoting an entire line to an opening curly brace), so you can fit more code on a screen. This enhances code comprehension, as you don’t need to scroll as much to understand what the code is doing.

However, in this tutorial series, we’ll use the common alternative, where the opening brace appears on its own line:

int main()
{
    // statements here
}

This enhances readability, and is less error prone since your brace pairs should always be indented at the same level. If you get a compiler error due to a brace mismatch, it’s very easy to see where.

  1. Each statement within curly braces should start one tab in from the opening brace of the function it belongs to. For example:
int main()
{
    std::cout << "Hello world!\n"; // tabbed in one tab (4 spaces)
    std::cout << "Nice to meet you.\n"; // tabbed in one tab (4 spaces)
}
  1. Lines should not be too long. Typically, 80 characters has been the de facto standard for the maximum length a line should be. If a line is going to be longer, it should be split (at a reasonable spot) into multiple lines. This can be done by indenting each subsequent line with an extra tab, or if the lines are similar, by aligning it with the line above (whichever is easier to read).
int main()
{
    std::cout << "This is a really, really, really, really, really, really, really, " 
        "really long line\n"; // one extra indentation for continuation line

    std::cout << "This is another really, really, really, really, really, really, really, "
                 "really long line\n"; // text aligned with the previous line for continuation line

    std::cout << "This one is short\n";
}

This makes your lines easier to read. On modern wide-screen monitors, it also allows you to place two windows with similar code side by side and compare them more easily.

Best practice

Consider keeping your lines to 80 chars or less in length.

Tip

Many editors have a built-in feature (or plugin/extension) that will show a line (called a “column guide”) at a given column (e.g. at 80 characters), so you can easily see when your lines are getting too long. To see if your editor supports this, do a search on your editor’s name + “Column guide”.

  1. If a long line is split with an operator (eg. << or +), the operator should be placed at the beginning of the next line, not the end of the current line
    std::cout << 3 + 4
        + 5 + 6
        * 7 * 8;

This helps make it clearer that subsequent lines are continuations of the previous lines, and allows you to align the operators on the left, which makes for easier reading.

  1. Use whitespace to make your code easier to read by aligning values or comments or adding spacing between blocks of code.

Harder to read:

cost = 57;
pricePerItem = 24;
value = 5;
numberOfItems = 17;

Easier to read:

cost          = 57;
pricePerItem  = 24;
value         = 5;
numberOfItems = 17;

Harder to read:

std::cout << "Hello world!\n"; // cout lives in the iostream library
std::cout << "It is very nice to meet you!\n"; // these comments make the code hard to read
std::cout << "Yeah!\n"; // especially when lines are different lengths

Easier to read:

std::cout << "Hello world!\n";                  // cout lives in the iostream library
std::cout << "It is very nice to meet you!\n";  // these comments are easier to read
std::cout << "Yeah!\n";                         // especially when all lined up

Harder to read:

// cout lives in the iostream library
std::cout << "Hello world!\n";
// these comments make the code hard to read
std::cout << "It is very nice to meet you!\n";
// especially when all bunched together
std::cout << "Yeah!\n";

Easier to read:

// cout lives in the iostream library
std::cout << "Hello world!\n";

// these comments are easier to read
std::cout << "It is very nice to meet you!\n";

// when separated by whitespace
std::cout << "Yeah!\n";

We will follow these conventions throughout this tutorial, and they will become second nature to you. As we introduce new topics to you, we will introduce new style recommendations to go with those features.

Ultimately, C++ gives you the power to choose whichever style you are most comfortable with, or think is best. However, we highly recommend you utilize the same style that we use for our examples. It has been battle tested by thousands of programmers over billions of lines of code, and is optimized for success.

One exception: If you are working in someone else’s code base, adopt their styles. It’s better to favor consistency than your preferences.

Best practice

When working in an existing project, be consistent with whatever style has already been adopted.

Automatic formatting

Most modern IDEs will help you format your code as you type it in (e.g. when you create a function, the IDE will automatically indent the statements inside the function body).

However, as you add or remove code, or change the IDE’s default formatting, or paste in a block of code that has different formatting, the formatting can get messed up. Fixing the formatting for part or all of a file can be a headache. Fortunately, modern IDEs typically contain an automatic formatting feature that will reformat either a selection (highlighted with your mouse) or an entire file.

For Visual Studio users

In Visual Studio, the automatic formatting options can be found under Edit > Advanced > Format Document and Edit > Advanced > Format Selection.

For Code::Blocks users

In Code::Blocks, the automatic formatting options can be found under Right mouse click > Format use AStyle.

For easier access, we recommend adding a keyboard shortcut to auto-format the active file.

There are also external tools that can be used to automatically format code. clang-format is a popular one.

Best practice

Using the automatic formatting feature is highly recommended to keep your code’s formatting style consistent.

Style guides

A style guide is a concise, opinionated document containing (sometimes arbitrary) programming conventions, formatting guidelines, and best practices. The goal of a style guide is to ensure that all developers on a project are programming in a consistent manner.

Some commonly referenced C++ style guides include:

We generally favor the C++ Core Guidelines, as they are up to date and widely applicable.

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