Chances are you recently came across the definition of the ToOwned trait to realize it is a generalization of the Clone trait? If so, what is the difference between the two traits? more specifically, what is the difference between .clone() and .to_owned() if they work the same?

A generalization of Clone to borrowed data.

https://doc.rust-lang.org/std/borrow/trait.ToOwned.html#tymethod.to_owned

The difference between .clone() and .to_owned() occurs when applying either of the two methods on slices such as string slice &str or arrays with undefined capacity like &[i8] or &[u32], in their borrowed state (&T):

  • .clone() generates a duplicate of types such as&str or &[u8] with the same type in its borrowed state (&T). This means using .clone() on &str and &[u8] will generate &str and [u8] respectively.
let str = "a"; // type &str 
let cloned_str = str.clone(); // type &str

let array:&[u8] = &[1, 2, 3];
 // type &[u8]
let cloned_array = array.clone(); type &[u8]
  • .to_owned() generates a duplicate of types such as &str or &[u8] with types that have ownership. This means using .to_owned() on &str and &[u8] will generate a String and a Vec<u8> respectively.
let array:&[u8] = &[1, 2, 3];
let cloned_array = array.to_owned();

You probably had to read twice the previous answer to understand the difference between .clone() and .to_owned(). In fact, it might still not be clear the difference.

Don’t worry.

This article will explain with examples the difference between .clone() and .to_owned() methods. You will get an overall understanding of how each method works. Then, you will understand why .to_owned() generates a String from a &str .

Understanding more about the .clone() method

As the name suggests, the .clone() method generates a duplicate of an object similar to the Copy trait. The difference between Copy and Clone is that Copy duplicates bits stored in the stack, while Clone might involve copying heap data, which could or not result in a more expensive operation.

Accessible with the Clone trait

The .clone() method is available to all types deriving the Clone trait. By default, all the primitive types (str, i8,u8, char,array, bool, etc), have access to the .clone() method.

    let str = "a";
    let cloned_str = str.clone();

    let number: u8 = 10;
    let cloned_number = number.clone();

    let borrowed_number:&u8 = &10;
    let cloned_borrowed_number = borrowed_number.clone();

    let array: [&str; 3] = ["a", "b", "c"];
    let cloned_array = array.clone();

    let borrowed_array: &[&str; 3] = &["a", "b", "c"];
    let cloned_borrowed_array = borrowed_array.clone();

    let string: String = String::from("Hello, world!");
    let cloned_string = string.to_owned();

If you are defining a struct and want to have access the .clone() method, you must make sure:

  1. Every field in the struct is clonable
  2. To Add the Clone derive attribute

To make this clear, if you create a MyObject struct like the following:

struct MyObject {
    first_name: String,
    last_name: String,
    age: u8,
}

impl MyObject {
    pub const fn new() -> MyObject {
        MyObject {
            first_name: String::new(),
            last_name: String::new(),
            age: 0,
        }
    }
}

and later in your code you decide to create a variable storing an MyObject data type,

let my_object = MyObject::new();

you won’t have access to the .clone() method. Hence, my_object variable won’t have .clone() method and it will throw the following error if you attempt to use it.

// this will throw the following error:
// error[E0599]: no method named `clone` found for struct `MyObject` in the current scope
let cloned_my_object = my_object.clone(); 

To solve this issue, adding the Clone derive in the struct MyObject

#[derive(Clone)]
struct MyObjectOne {
    first_name: String,
    last_name: String,
    age: u8,
}

will give access to the .clone() method:

let my_object = MyObject::new();
let cloned_my_object = my_object.clone(); // this will work!

Generating a duplicate with the same type

The .clone() generates a duplicate of an object T with the same type T, meaning if

  • a is u8, the duplicate will be a u8
  • a is String, the duplicate will be a String
  • a is &[&str], the duplicate will be a &[&str]
  • a is MyObject, the duplicate will be a MyObject
    let number:u8 = 10; // type u8
    let cloned_number = number.clone(); // type u8

    let array: &[&str] = &["a", "b", "c"]; // type &[&str]
    let cloned_array = array.clone(); // type &[&str]

    let string: String = String::from("Hello, world!"); // type String
    let cloned_string = string.to_owned(); // type String

    let my_object = MyObject::new(); // type MyObject
    let cloned_my_object = my_object.clone(); // type MyObject

It is possible to duplicate values with known size at compile time in their borrowed state &T to generate a duplicate in the owned state T using the .clone() method.

    let borrowed_number: &u8 = &10; // type &u8
    let cloned_borrowed_number = borrowed_number.clone(); // type u8

    let borrowed_array: &[&str; 3] = &["a", "b", "c"]; // type &[&str; 3]
    let cloned_borrowed_array = borrowed_array.clone(); // type [&str; 3]

    let string: &String = &String::from("Hello, world!"); // type &String
    let cloned_string = string.clone(); // type String

Generates a duplicate of &T as T for scalar types and tuples

Rust has four primary scalar types:

  • Integers
  • Floating-point numbers
  • Booleans
  • Characters

They represent a single value. This means the all integers (12), floating-point numbers (3.4 ), booleans ( true,false ), and characters ('a', 'z') a the same value no matter how many times you use them. It is because of this, that it makes it possible to generate an owned duplicate from a borrowing state. In other words, going from &T to T.

let integer: &u8 = &1; // type is &u8
let cloned_integer = integer.clone(); // type is u8

let floating_number = &2.3; // type is &f64
let cloned_floating_number = floating_number.clone(); // type is f64

let boolean = &true; // type is &boolean
let cloned_boolean = boolean.clone(); // type is boolean

let character = &'a'; // type is &char
let cloned_character = character.clone(); // type is char

Generates a duplicate of &[T] as [T] for arrays with a defined length

The .clone() method can duplicate of array when the original array has ownership, meaning going from [T] to [T]:

let owned_array: [i32; 3] = [1, 2, 3];
let cloned_owned_array = owned_array.clone(); // type is [i32; 3]

However, .clone() can also go from &[T] to [T] as long as the array capacity is defined.

let borrowed_array: &[i32; 3] = &[1, 2, 3];
let cloned_borrowed_array = borrowed_array.clone(); // type is [i32; 3]

The array capacity will also be implicitly defined even when you don’t assign a type definition (&[T]). In the following example, the duplicate generated is [T] from [T].

let borrowed_array = &[1, 2, 3]; // it will implicitly define the type as &[i32; 3]
let cloned_borrowed_array = borrowed_array.clone(); // type is [i32; 3]

However, if you define the type is of variable is an array without explicitly defining the capacity, .clone() will still generate a duplicate. However, this new duplicate will be still in a borrowing state. Hence, it will go from &[T] to &[T].

The .clone() not go from &[T] to [T] on arrays without a specified capacity

If you define the type of variable is an array without explicitly defining its capacity, .clone() will still generate a duplicate. However, this new duplicate will be still in a borrowing state. Hence, it will go from &[T] to &[T].

let numbers: &[i32] = &[1, 2, 3];
let cloned_numbers = numbers.clone(); // type is [&i32]

let strs: &[&str] = &["asfa", "saf", "asfas"];
let cloned_strs = strs.clone(); // type is &[&str]

Understanding more about the .to_owned() method

As the Rust documentation states, the .to_owned() method is a generalization of the Clone trait to borrowed data. This means, .to_owned() generates a duplicate value. Hence, if you apply .to_owned() on T , the duplicate will be T .

let number:u8 = 10; // type u8
let to_owned_number = number.to_owned(); // type u8

let string: String = String::from("Hello, world!"); // type String
let to_owned_string = string.to_owned(); // type String

let my_object = MyObject::new(); // type MyObject
let to_owned_my_object = my_object.to_owned(); // type MyObject

One key aspect of .to_owned() is that this method is capable of constructing owned data from any borrow of a given type. This means, if you apply .to_owned() on any &T, the duplicate will be T.

let number: &u8 = &10; // type u8
let cloned_number = number.to_owned(); // type u8

let string: &String = &String::from("Hello, world!"); // type &String
let cloned_string = string.to_owned(); // type String

let my_object: &MyObject = &MyObject::new(); // type &MyObject
let cloned_my_object = my_object.to_owned(); // type MyObject

The .to_owned() method generates a String from &str

One question that comes for many Rust developers is: How come the .clone() method generates a similar data type when cloning a string slice reference (&str) and the .to_owned() method generates a String?

To answer this question, you must understand the concepts of ownership and borrowing. The string slice reference &str is in its borrowed state. That means, that whichever variable stores the string slice reference does not own the value.

In the previous section you learned the .clone() method can still convert from &T to T where T could be a primitive type such as a boolean or a number or a custom struct such as MyObject. What is the difference with a str?

The string slice is not a primitive type but a sequence of characters. In other words, an array of characters [T]. A characteristic of the string slice is that doesn’t have ownership. The .clone() method attempts to make it possible to go from borrowed to owned, but that doesn’t mean always happens. As you know, that’s the case of the string slice reference &str .

Hence, the .clone() method does generate a duplicate of a string slice reference without ownership. That’s where the .to_owned() method differs from .clone().

The .to_owned() “generalizes” the Clone trait to construct data from borrow of a give type. This implies that the core functionality of to_owned() is to make sure the duplicate value will always have ownership, even if this means having to allocate the values in a data type different from the original.

By generating a String from a string slice reference &str , to_owned() meats the criteria of providing ownership. As you should remember, a String value can have ownership. If you look at the definition of the String, you will find it is a struct based on a vector.

pub struct String {
    vec: Vec<u8>
}

The .to_owned() method generates a Vector from a reference array with undefined capacity

There is another interesting case of using the .to_owned() method results in a duplicate of a different type. This happens when applying .to_owned() to reference arrays with undefined capacity, such as,

  • &[i8]
  • &[i16]
  • &[i32]
  • &[i64]
  • &[i128]
  • &[u8]
  • &[u16]
  • &[u32]
  • &[u64]
  • &[u128]

generates a vector

  • Vec<i8>
  • Vec<i16>
  • Vec<i32>
  • Vec<i64>
  • Vec<i128>
  • Vec<u8>
  • Vec<u16>
  • Vec<u32>
  • Vec<u64>
  • Vec<u128>

respectively.

let array_i8: &[i8] = &[1, 2, 3];
let cloned_array_i8 = array_i8.to_owned(); // type is Vec<i8>

let array_i16: &[i16] = &[1, 2, 3];
let cloned_array_i16 = array_i16.to_owned(); // type is Vec<i16>

let array_i32: &[i32] = &[1, 2, 3];
let cloned_array_i32 = array_i32.to_owned(); // type is Vec<i32>

let array_i64: &[i64] = &[1, 2, 3];
let cloned_array_i64 = array_i64.to_owned(); // type is Vec<i64>

let array_i128: &[i128] = &[1, 2, 3];
let cloned_array_i128 = array_i128.to_owned(); // type is Vec<i128>

let array_u8: &[u8] = &[1, 2, 3];
let cloned_array_u8 = array_u8.to_owned(); // type is Vec<u8>

let array_u16: &[u16] = &[1, 2, 3];
let cloned_array_u16 = array_u16.to_owned(); // type is Vec<u16>

let array_u32: &[u32] = &[1, 2, 3];
let cloned_array_u32 = array_u32.to_owned(); // type is Vec<u32>

let array_u64: &[u64] = &[1, 2, 3];
let cloned_array_u64 = array_u64.to_owned(); // type is Vec<u64>

let array_u128: &[u128] = &[1, 2, 3];
let cloned_array_u128 = array_u128.to_owned(); // type is Vec<u128>

Conclusion

In this article, you learned the difference between .clone() and .to_owned() despite them being similar in their functionality. The key difference to remember is that while .clone() attempts to go from borrowed to owned state, that is not always possible as Clone works only from &T to T.

On the other hand, to_owned() makes sure the duplicate value has ownership even if that means having to use a different data type such as a String or a Vec<u8> when generating a duplicate for a &str or a &[u8] .

Was this a tough concept, right?

Indeed it is, and it takes a decent amount of time to understand concepts in Rust. Hopefully, this article helped you have more clarity on these two methods (.clone() and to_owned() ).

Let me know what you thought of this article by replying us in Twitter of Become a Better Programmer or to my personal account.

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