C Format Specifiers for printf and scanf

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In the previous chapter of this C tutorial about input/output statement, we've learnt about format specifiers being used as part of printf and scanf function. In this chapter let's learn about the format specifiers in detail.

We've seen that, format specifiers have a leading "%" character followed by a conversion character (a letter). Different conversion characters are used for different data types.

Conversion Characters Used for Each Data Type

Below table specifies the conversion character associated with each data type in C language.

Format SpecifierAssociated DatatypeDescription
%c char Used to format single character
%d or %i int Used to format a signed integer
%u int Used to format an unsigned integer in decimal form
%o int Used to format an unsigned integer in octal form
%x or %X int Used to format an unsigned integer in hex form
%h int Used to format an short integer
%e or %E float or double Used to format a float or double in exponential form
%f float or double Used to format a float or double in decimal format
%s char[] Used to format a string/character sequence

Example of Print Format Specfiers

Now that we know how to print any data type, let's take a look at a simple example.

#include <stdio.h>

int main()
	int i = 30;
	char c = 'z';
	float f = 5.67;
	char s[] = "This is a string";
	printf("i=%d, c=%c, f=%f, s=%s", i,c,f,s);
	return 0;

i=30, c=z, f=5.670000, s=This is a string

In this program, we've got some familiar variable declaration; one int, one char one float and one string (char[]). After declaring and assigning values to the variables, we invoked a printf statement which print contents between two double inverted commas to the standard output or the screen. The contents are written in the screen using print format specifiers, which replace the values of the variables that appears after closing '"'.

Here %d is replaced by decimal value of the variable 'i' which is 30, %c is replaced by the character stored in variable 'c', %f is replaced by the floating point value with variable 'f' and %s is replaced by the string represented by array 's'. Note the order of the print format specifiers are same as the order of variables appearing in the printf statement. The order of declaration does not matter as long as you declare the variables before you print them.

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Scanf Format Specifier

The above mapping of data types and corresponding format specifiers is also applicable to scanf function. The %c format specifier is used to read a single character from the standard input, %s specifier allows to read a string with a whitespace character as terminating character (space, line feed, carriage return etc.) and similar with other datatypes.

There is a difference in the use of gets and scanf with %s specifier. If you use scanf, it will read a string from input until a whitespace character is read. But gets will read a string until a newline character (\n) is reached. So if you use scanf("%s", line), where the line is a character array, and your input is a string "Nice C tutorial", after execution of this this statement you will get string "Nice" in the variable line. Because "Nice" is followed by a whitespace character (blank space). But using gets will populate the variable line with the whole string.

We can also specify maximum field width in the scanf. It is done by adding a number after % and before the specifier to limit the width of the input. Let's take a look at it with the help of an example,

#include <stdio.h>

int main(void) {
	int a;
	printf("Enter number: ");
	scanf("%5d", &a);
	printf("Formatted number is: %d", a);
	return 0;

Enter number: 123456
Formatted number is: 12345

In the above program, the format specifier used with scanf statement is %5d. This means, only the first 5 characters will be read into the variable. So the input '123456' is trimmed down to '12345'.

This can be applied to printf as well. But the result is quite different. If a variable has the value '123' and you use %5d in a printf statement, you will get 5 characters as output with leading two blank space and then three digit, but if you use %2d it will print all 3 digits.

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Assignment Suppression Character

Sometimes an unnecessary character in the input can lead to wrong value population in the variables when using scanf. For example, if we are trying to get an hour and minute of the day in hh:mm format using scanf. We have written our scanf like

scanf("%d%d", &hour, &minute)

But we overlooked the character ":" in our input. It will lead to the assignment of hourly value to variable hour variable and ":" to minutes, which will lead to error. To solve this problem, we can use assignment suppression character. The assignment suppression character is % sign followed by an asterisk (*) and followed by appropriate specifier. Then we can use it like -

scanf("%d%*c%d", &hour, &temp, &minute);

Similar problem can happen when we want to read two characters from input with statement like scanf("%c%c", &first, &second), and the input has a blank space in between two characters. It will lead to population of variable first with first character and second with blank space. We can avoid this by using %1s in scanf like scanf("%c%1s", &first, &second). It will populate variables first and second with proper inputs. There is another alternative too, using scanf("%c %c", &first, &second) also gets the job done.

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