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Slices

Another data type that does not have ownership is the slice. Slices let you reference a contiguous sequence of elements in a collection rather than the whole collection.

Here’s a small programming problem: write a function that takes a string and returns the first word it finds in that string. If the function doesn’t find a space in the string, it means the whole string is one word, so the entire string should be returned.

Let’s think about the signature of this function:

fn first_word(s: &String) -> ?

This function, first_word, has a &String as a parameter. We don’t want ownership, so this is fine. But what should we return? We don’t really have a way to talk about part of a string. However, we could return the index of the end of the word. Let’s try that as shown in Listing 4-10:

Filename: src/main.rs

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
fn first_word(s: &String) -> usize {
    let bytes = s.as_bytes();

    for (i, &item) in bytes.iter().enumerate() {
        if item == b' ' {
            return i;
        }
    }

    s.len()
}

#}

Listing 4-10: The first_word function that returns a byte index value into the String parameter

Let’s break down this code a bit. Because we need to go through the String element by element and check whether a value is a space, we’ll convert our String to an array of bytes using the as_bytes method:

let bytes = s.as_bytes();

Next, we create an iterator over the array of bytes using the iter method :

for (i, &item) in bytes.iter().enumerate() {

We’ll discuss iterators in more detail in Chapter 13. For now, know that iter is a method that returns each element in a collection, and enumerate wraps the result of iter and returns each element as part of a tuple instead. The first element of the returned tuple is the index, and the second element is a reference to the element. This is a bit more convenient than calculating the index ourselves.

Because the enumerate method returns a tuple, we can use patterns to destructure that tuple, just like everywhere else in Rust. So in the for loop, we specify a pattern that has i for the index in the tuple and &item for the single byte in the tuple. Because we get a reference to the element from .iter().enumerate(), we use & in the pattern.

We search for the byte that represents the space by using the byte literal syntax. If we find a space, we return the position. Otherwise, we return the length of the string by using s.len():

    if item == b' ' {
        return i;
    }
}
s.len()

We now have a way to find out the index of the end of the first word in the string, but there’s a problem. We’re returning a usize on its own, but it’s only a meaningful number in the context of the &String. In other words, because it’s a separate value from the String, there’s no guarantee that it will still be valid in the future. Consider the program in Listing 4-11 that uses the first_word function from Listing 4-10:

Filename: src/main.rs

# fn first_word(s: &String) -> usize {
#     let bytes = s.as_bytes();
#
#     for (i, &item) in bytes.iter().enumerate() {
#         if item == b' ' {
#             return i;
#         }
#     }
#
#     s.len()
# }
#
fn main() {
    let mut s = String::from("hello world");

    let word = first_word(&s); // word will get the value 5.

    s.clear(); // This empties the String, making it equal to "".

    // word still has the value 5 here, but there's no more string that
    // we could meaningfully use the value 5 with. word is now totally invalid!
}

Listing 4-11: Storing the result from calling the first_word function then changing the String contents

This program compiles without any errors and also would if we used word after calling s.clear(). word isn’t connected to the state of s at all, so word still contains the value 5. We could use that value 5 with the variable s to try to extract the first word out, but this would be a bug because the contents of s have changed since we saved 5 in word.

Having to worry about the index in word getting out of sync with the data in s is tedious and error prone! Managing these indices is even more brittle if we write a second_word function. Its signature would have to look like this:

fn second_word(s: &String) -> (usize, usize) {

Now we’re tracking a start and an ending index, and we have even more values that were calculated from data in a particular state but aren’t tied to that state at all. We now have three unrelated variables floating around that need to be kept in sync.

Luckily, Rust has a solution to this problem: string slices.

String Slices

A string slice is a reference to part of a String, and looks like this:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
let s = String::from("hello world");

let hello = &s[0..5];
let world = &s[6..11];

#}

This is similar to taking a reference to the whole String but with the extra [0..5] bit. Rather than a reference to the entire String, it’s a reference to a portion of the String. The start..end syntax is a range that begins at start and continues up to, but not including, end.

We can create slices using a range within brackets by specifying [starting_index..ending_index], where starting_index is the first position included in the slice and ending_index is one more than the last position included in the slice. Internally, the slice data structure stores the starting position and the length of the slice, which corresponds to ending_index minus starting_index. So in the case of let world = &s[6..11];, world would be a slice that contains a pointer to the 6th byte of s and a length value of 5.

Figure 4-12 shows this in a diagram.

world containing a pointer to the 6th byte of String s and a length 5

Figure 4-12: String slice referring to part of a String

With Rust’s .. range syntax, if you want to start at the first index (zero), you can drop the value before the two periods. In other words, these are equal:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
let s = String::from("hello");

let slice = &s[0..2];
let slice = &s[..2];

#}

By the same token, if your slice includes the last byte of the String, you can drop the trailing number. That means these are equal:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
let s = String::from("hello");

let len = s.len();

let slice = &s[3..len];
let slice = &s[3..];

#}

You can also drop both values to take a slice of the entire string. So these are equal:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
let s = String::from("hello");

let len = s.len();

let slice = &s[0..len];
let slice = &s[..];

#}

With all this information in mind, let’s rewrite first_word to return a slice. The type that signifies “string slice” is written as &str:

Filename: src/main.rs

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
fn first_word(s: &String) -> &str {
    let bytes = s.as_bytes();

    for (i, &item) in bytes.iter().enumerate() {
        if item == b' ' {
            return &s[0..i];
        }
    }

    &s[..]
}

#}

We get the index for the end of the word in the same way as we did in Listing 4-10, by looking for the first occurrence of a space. When we find a space, we return a string slice using the start of the string and the index of the space as the starting and ending indices.

Now when we call first_word, we get back a single value that is tied to the underlying data. The value is made up of a reference to the starting point of the slice and the number of elements in the slice.

Returning a slice would also work for a second_word function:

fn second_word(s: &String) -> &str {

We now have a straightforward API that’s much harder to mess up, since the compiler will ensure the references into the String remain valid. Remember the bug in the program in Listing 4-11, when we got the index to the end of the first word but then cleared the string so our index was invalid? That code was logically incorrect but didn’t show any immediate errors. The problems would show up later if we kept trying to use the first word index with an emptied string. Slices make this bug impossible and let us know we have a problem with our code much sooner. Using the slice version of first_word will throw a compile time error:

Filename: src/main.rs

fn main() {
    let mut s = String::from("hello world");

    let word = first_word(&s);

    s.clear(); // Error!
}

Here’s the compiler error:

17:6 error: cannot borrow `s` as mutable because it is also borrowed as
            immutable [E0502]
    s.clear(); // Error!
    ^
15:29 note: previous borrow of `s` occurs here; the immutable borrow prevents
            subsequent moves or mutable borrows of `s` until the borrow ends
    let word = first_word(&s);
                           ^
18:2 note: previous borrow ends here
fn main() {

}
^

Recall from the borrowing rules that if we have an immutable reference to something, we cannot also take a mutable reference. Because clear needs to truncate the String, it tries to take a mutable reference, which fails. Not only has Rust made our API easier to use, but it has also eliminated an entire class of errors at compile time!

String Literals Are Slices

Recall that we talked about string literals being stored inside the binary. Now that we know about slices, we can properly understand string literals:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
let s = "Hello, world!";

#}

The type of s here is &str: it’s a slice pointing to that specific point of the binary. This is also why string literals are immutable; &str is an immutable reference.

String Slices as Parameters

Knowing that you can take slices of literals and Strings leads us to one more improvement on first_word, and that’s its signature:

fn first_word(s: &String) -> &str {

A more experienced Rustacean would write the following line instead because it allows us to use the same function on both Strings and &strs:

fn first_word(s: &str) -> &str {

If we have a string slice, we can pass that directly. If we have a String, we can pass a slice of the entire String. Defining a function to take a string slice instead of a reference to a String makes our API more general and useful without losing any functionality:

Filename: src/main.rs

# fn first_word(s: &str) -> &str {
#     let bytes = s.as_bytes();
#
#     for (i, &item) in bytes.iter().enumerate() {
#         if item == b' ' {
#             return &s[0..i];
#         }
#     }
#
#     &s[..]
# }
fn main() {
    let my_string = String::from("hello world");

    // first_word works on slices of `String`s
    let word = first_word(&my_string[..]);

    let my_string_literal = "hello world";

    // first_word works on slices of string literals
    let word = first_word(&my_string_literal[..]);

    // since string literals *are* string slices already,
    // this works too, without the slice syntax!
    let word = first_word(my_string_literal);
}

Other Slices

String slices, as you might imagine, are specific to strings. But there’s a more general slice type, too. Consider this array:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
let a = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5];

#}

Just like we might want to refer to a part of a string, we might want to refer to part of an array and would do so like this:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
let a = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5];

let slice = &a[1..3];

#}

This slice has the type &[i32]. It works the same way as string slices do, by storing a reference to the first element and a length. You’ll use this kind of slice for all sorts of other collections. We’ll discuss these collections in detail when we talk about vectors in Chapter 8.

Summary

The concepts of ownership, borrowing, and slices are what ensure memory safety in Rust programs at compile time. The Rust language gives you control over your memory usage like other systems programming languages, but having the owner of data automatically clean up that data when the owner goes out of scope means you don’t have to write and debug extra code to get this control.

Ownership affects how lots of other parts of Rust work, so we’ll talk about these concepts further throughout the rest of the book. Let’s move on to the next chapter and look at grouping pieces of data together in a struct.