Differences Between sizeof Operator and strlen Function for Strings in C++

  1. the sizeof Operator Characteristics and Usage Scenarios
  2. Use the std::string::size Member Function to Retrieve the Number of Characters in Strings

This article will demonstrate multiple differences when using the sizeof operator as opposed to the strlen function with strings in C++.

the sizeof Operator Characteristics and Usage Scenarios

The sizeof operator is a unary operator that retrieves the storage size for the given expression or data type. This operator evaluates the object size in byte units, and sizeof(char) is guaranteed to be 1.

There is a misguided notion that the 1 byte always equals 8 bits, and consequently, we can calculate the object’s size in bits. Actually, a byte is not guaranteed to be 8 bits by the language itself. It depends mainly on an underlying hardware platform. Still, most contemporary general-purpose hardware utilizes 8-bit bytes.

Mind that sizeof operator can’t be applied to the expression that includes a function or an incomplete type or bitfields. In the following example code, we apply the sizeof operator to two arrays of different types, and the results will likely be the same on your platform as well. Since the char is guaranteed to have 1 byte size, 20 character array will take up 20 bytes.

On the other hand, the long long data type is implementation-defined, and in this case, it happens to be 8 bytes. Hence the total array size of 160 bytes. Notice that we can also find the number of elements in the array by dividing the sizeof whole array by the sizeof one element, as shown on the last lines of the next example.

#include <iostream>

using std::cout;
using std::endl;

int main(){
    char arr[20];
    long long arr2[20];

    cout << "sizeof ( array of 20 long longs ) : " << sizeof arr << endl;
    cout << "sizeof ( array of 20 long longs ) : " << sizeof arr2 << endl;
    cout << "length of array of 20 chars)      : " << ((sizeof arr) / (sizeof arr[0])) << endl;
    cout << "length of array of 20 long longs ): " << ((sizeof arr2) / (sizeof arr2[0])) << endl;

    return EXIT_SUCCESS;
}

Output:

sizeof ( array of 20 long longs ) : 20
sizeof ( array of 20 long longs ) : 160
length of array of 20 chars)      : 20
length of array of 20 long longs ): 20

Using the sizeof operator to find the length of the string is wrong. Let’s consider two representation types of strings in C++, a character string and a std::string class. The former one is mostly accessed using the char pointer, and applying the sizeof on it will retrieve the storage size of the pointer itself rather than the whole string.

If we try to retrieve the size of the std::string object using the sizeof operator, we get the object’s storage size, which will not be the number of characters in the string as demonstrated in the below code snippet.

#include <iostream>
#include <string>
#include <cstring>

using std::cout;
using std::endl;
using std::string;

int main(){
    const char *text1 = "arbitrary string value 1";
    string text2 = "arbitrary string value 2";

    cout << "sizeof char* : " << sizeof text1 << endl;
    cout << "sizeof string: " << sizeof text2 << endl;
    cout << "sizeof string.data: " << sizeof text2.data() << endl;

    return EXIT_SUCCESS;
}

Output:

sizeof char* : 8
sizeof string: 32
sizeof string.data: 8

Then we have got the strlen function, which is the remnant of the C string library. It computes the length of the given character string, and the function returns the number of bytes as integral value. strlen can be applied to char pointer where a valid string is stored or to the value returned by std::string::c_str, but it should not be the choice of the C++ programmer.

#include <iostream>
#include <string>
#include <cstring>

using std::cout;
using std::endl;
using std::string;

int main(){
    const char *text1 = "arbitrary string value 1";
    string text2 = "arbitrary string value 2";

    cout << "strlen char* : " << strlen(text1) << endl;
    cout << "strlen string: " << strlen(text2.c_str()) << endl;

    return EXIT_SUCCESS;
}

Output:

strlen char* : 24
strlen string: 24

Use the std::string::size Member Function to Retrieve the Number of Characters in Strings

On the contrary, the C++ programmer should utilize the size member function of the std::string class, as it offers a more safe method for handling strings. Notice that we can even use the size member function if we have a character string. We need to construct a new string object and directly invoke the size function on the returned value. The following code example shows the primary usage for both scenarios.

#include <iostream>
#include <string>
#include <cstring>

using std::cout;
using std::endl;
using std::string;

int main(){
    const char *text1 = "arbitrary string value 1";
    string text2 = "arbitrary string value 2";

    cout << "length char* : " << string(text1).size() << endl;
    cout << "length string: " << text2.size() << endl;

    return EXIT_SUCCESS;
}

Output:

length char* : 24
length string: 24
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