What I learn by implementing argparser in Zig


Tags: zig

I've been working on a Zig project in my spare time for the last few weeks:

Here I want to share the experience learned during the development of simargs. Since simargs is my second non-trivial project, and my experience of Zig is limited, so welcome to point out any mistakes I made in this post. Let's begin.

Disclaimer: As a 3-year Rust developer, I will compare Zig with Rust in some sections.

Why reinvent the wheel

First of all, let me introduce the project background. There are actually many similar projects in Zig community, but I'm not very satisfied with them. For example:

  • Hejsil/zig-clap, similar to clap in the Rust ecosystem. But I don't like its usage. The input of the parser is a help string, it parse the help string at comptime to get the option fields that need to be parsed.
  • MasterQ32/zig-args similar to zig-clap, making full use of the comptime. The difference is that its input is struct, not a help string.

      const options = argsParser.parseForCurrentProcess(struct {
          // This declares long options for double hyphen
          output: ?[]const u8 = null,
          @"with-offset": bool = false,
          mode: enum { default, special, slow, fast } = .default,
          // This declares short-hand options for single hyphen
          pub const shorthands = .{
              .S = "intermix-source",
      }, argsAllocator, .print) catch return 1;
      defer options.deinit();
      std.debug.print("executable name: {?s}\n", .{options.executable_name});
      std.debug.print("parsed options:\n", .{});
      inline for (std.meta.fields(@TypeOf(options.options))) |fld| {
          std.debug.print("\t{s} = {any}\n", .{
              @field(options.options, fld.name),

I personally think usage of zig-args is more elegant than zig-clap's, using a big string as config seems not very extensible for me.

However after check zig-args's implementation, I have no interests in using it for my project. Its parsing logic is too complicated and feels very difficult to maintain.

In contrast, the implementation of zig-clap is much more elegant. It internally maintains a state machine to parse the command line arguments.

State machine is very suitable for this kinds of event driven task. In case of readers haven't heard of it, refer following post to learn more about it:

So you can think of simargs is a combination of these two projects:

  • struct-based configuration
  • Take full advantage of the comptime feature
  • Based on state machine, ensure the simplicity of parsing logic

After introduce project background, following sections will mainly summarize experience of coding in Zig.

How to dynamically assign values ​​to struct fields

In general, assignment to a struct field is straightforward, for example:

foo.field = 123;

The first problem encountered in the development of simargs is how to dynamically assign values. The field names of struct are obtained by parsing command line arguments, so it's a runtime value, but we need a comptime field name to set against, how to address this conflict?

The answer is inline for:

    inline for (std.meta.fields(T)) |field| {
        if (std.mem.eql(u8, field.name, long_name)) {
            @field(opt, field.name) = ....;

Compared with for, inline for can unroll the loop body, and the unroll is required for comptime. so snippet above can be rewritten as:

// Suppose T have two fields: A and B
if (std.mem.eql(u8, "A", long_name)) {
    @field(opt, "A") = ....

if (std.mem.eql(u8, "B", long_name)) {
    @field(opt, "B") = ....

If we use for, the compiler will throw following errors:

simargs.zig:507:33: error: values of type '[]const builtin.Type.StructField'
must be comptime-known, but index value is runtime-known
            for (std.meta.fields(T)) |field| {

How to initialize a struct with unknown value

Question above solve how to assign fields dynamically, but there is one more basic question:

How to initialize a struct with unknown value

Only after we have a struct variable, we can assign fields of it. So how to fix this?

The answer is undefined.

undefined is used to deal with the assignment problem when its current value is unknown, users can only ensure its assignment before its first usage.

Access undefined variable is a undefined behavior, which means bug.

As pointed out by andrewrk, the statement above is wrong.

Assign a variable to undefined is a noop in Release mode, it will be whatever in that memory.

As a better C, Zig writes 0xaa bytes to undefined memory in Debug mode in order to catch bugs early, and to help detect use of undefined memory in a debugger.

It needs to be clear that it is impossible to judge whether a variable is undefined or not. So it is necessary to use an additional field to indicate whether a variable is initialized. This is how simargs handle required option

Type as first-class value

In Zig, type is first-class value and can be treated as ordinary data like u8. Zig has three built-ins to operate on it:

  1. @typeInfo(comptime T: type) std.builtin.Type Get concrete information about a type, similar to reflection in other languages. Type is an enumeration value, Users can determine the specific type through pattern matching
  2. @Type(comptime info: std.builtin.Type) type The reverse operation of @typeInfo, which converts Type into an abstract type.
  3. @TypeOf(...) type Get the type of a value

Examples where types are first-class values can be seen all over Zig code, such as initializing a linked list of strings:

std.ArrayList([]const u8).init(allocator);

For Rust, it is


As you can see, special syntax is required to pass in type information in Rust, but there is no such special syntax in Zig.

Dynamic dispatch: interface

In other programming languages, they usually provide a way to dispatch method dynamically, such as interface in Java and trait in Rust. However, there is no support for this in Zig. There have been related issue discussions in the community, but for now it's not supported directly:

But it does not mean that it cannot be implemented at all. In Zig, the type of a function parameter can be anytype, which means that the specific type of this parameter will be deferred when the function is called, similar to the generic in Rust.

test "anytype demo" {
    const a = addFortyTwo(@as(u32, 1));
    try std.testing.expectEqual(u32, @TypeOf(a));
    const b = addFortyTwo(@as(f32, 1));
    try std.testing.expectEqual(f32, @TypeOf(b));

fn addFortyTwo(x: anytype) @TypeOf(x) {
    return x + 42;

The Writer in the standard library is implemented using this feature:

pub fn bufferedWriter(underlying_stream: anytype) BufferedWriter(4096, @TypeOf(underlying_stream)) {
    return .{ .unbuffered_writer = underlying_stream };

However, the usage of anytype is limited, it can only be used in function parameter, cannot be used in field of a struct , which means that we cannot save an "interface" in a struct.

When simargs was first implemented, it used argsWithAllocator to parse the command line parameters, this function would return ArgIterator, but because it is a specific type, it is not very convenient for testing. In order to overcome this, simargs now call std.process.argsAlloctor to get an array [][:0]u8, so I can just construct this array directly in testing.

In deinit, based on how is invoked to determine if it's required to free resources:

if (!@import("builtin").is_test) {
    std.process.argsFree(self.allocator, self.raw_args);

If it's in test, argsFree is ignored, and free is done in the test.

This method is essentially static dispatch, but is enough for simargs. For more information on how to achieve dynamic dispatch in Zig, check post below:

How to debug comptime code

Generally, we can use traditional print for debug, for Zig is std.debug.print. But it doesn't work for comptime.

Zig provides @compileLog to solve the print problem, but it will print []const u8 as ASCII code, which is not very intuitive, we can overcome this using std.fmt.comptimePrint. For example:

@compileLog(comptime std.fmt.comptimePrint("field name:{s}\n", .{field.name}));

How to get mutable pointer

When using a for to loop a slice/array, the captured value is a copy of its value. If you want to modify this value inside the loop, use this:

    var arr = [_]i32{ 1, 2, 3 };

    for (arr) |*item| {
        std.debug.print("{any}\n", .{@TypeOf(item)});

Another thing to note is that after Zig 0.10, taking the address of struct literal will return an immutable pointer.

You need to first declare this struct using var in order to get a mutable pointer:

Awkward expectEqual

When writing tests, expectEqual is a most used function to make assertion, but there is a "bug" in Zig at present:

This means that expectEqual will compare slice by pointer, not content. Others may say just use expectEqualSlices, but what if the slice is a field of a struct?

At this time, we can only compare fields of struct one by one if it contains composite values.


Up to now, the Zig documentation is basically useless, so when developing, it is inevitable to look at the source code of the standard library. Readers should be clear about this.

Fortunately, the quality of the standard library is relatively high, we can learn what idiomatic Zig code looks like when reading.

I usually grep pub fn to see what methods are exposed by a certain file, and I can easily find its usage in unit tests nearby. The packages commonly used in my development are:

  • std.mem, slice related operations
  • std.fmt, format conversion, string splicing

A little trick, for function that returns []u8, there is usually another one returning [:0]u8, this is convenient for interacting with C. For example:

  • std.fmt.allocPrint, std.fmt.allocPrintZ
  • std.mem.join, std.mem.joinZ


Zig is currently the only option for writing Zig with IDE support. Although there are discussions about ctags, but the repository isaachier/ztags has been already archived by the original author.

As pointed out by matu3ba, there is a new project to create ctags for Zig:

Compared with rust-analyzer, ZLS is less stable and practical. It often happens that jump to definition cannot work after some editing. In this case, we can do nothing but restart.

But fortunately, the core developer of rust-analyzer, matklad has started coding in Zig recently, and has begun to contribute to ZLS. I believe that ZLS will become more and more stable in future.


I'm an Emacs user, and luckily there is a zig-mode, but there is one annoying problem with format-on-save. It will hang Emacs when you save, which make editing experience very poor. The corresponding PR has already been created, but it has not been merged into the main branch. You can cherry-pick to your Emacs config if it hurts you:


Generally speaking, the experience of coding in Zig is good. There are various tools for editing/testing/debugging. Although they are not perfect, they do not affect normal use.

Problems may arise, users should be aware of this. After all, Zig is still an unstable language.

Actually, I don't really care when 1.0 will come out, the Zig team are already doing great work, especially the 0.10's self-hosted compiler. I just hope more useful features will be added in the language to avoid bugs such as memory safety and concurrency, which is a big selling-point of Rust.

By implementing simargs, I have a deep understanding of the characteristics of Zig, especially comptime. Only for this point, I feel time of last few weekends is valuable.

If this project can help enrich the Zig ecosystem a little bit, that would be even better.😇

Discussions on Reddit, Lobste and Hacker News.

Further reading