The printf() method allows one to send formatted output to an output stream. At a minimum, the printf() method accepts a format string. It may also accept a list of additional parameters that will be inserted into the format string. Here is a simple example:

public static void main(String[] ignored) {
  String pluralNoun = "cows";
  String noun = "cabbage";
  String color = "red";
  int quantity = 5;
  double percentage = 33.84;
  System.out.printf("The %d %s painted%n%f %% of the %s %s.",
            quantity, pluralNoun, percentage, noun, color);

which produces:

The 5 cows painted
33.840000 % of the cabbage red.

A brief glance at the example likely has you thinking that there is something special about the % symbol, when used in a printf string. That's a good thought. The % symbol is the first character in a format specifier. In its simpliest form, the format specifier consists of the percent symbol and a conversion type character. The example above makes use of the following conversion type characters:

  • %d — A signed decimal integer
  • %s — A string
  • %f — A real (floating point) number
  • %n — A line feed (move to the next line)
  • %% — A literal '%'

When the printf() statement is executed, the value(s) of the argument(s) passed to printf() are inserted into the formatted string.

These are the simpliest forms of format specifiers. There are additional components that can be added to make produce a more specific form of output.

Specifying Minimum Width

We can specify a minimum width for each format specifier like this:

public static void main(String[] ignored) {
  System.out.printf("[%4d]%n", 13);
  System.out.printf("[%4d]%n", 13000);
  System.out.printf("[%8s]%n", "fun");
  System.out.printf("[%4f]%n", Math.PI);
  System.out.printf("[%18f]%n", Math.PI);

which produces:

[  13]
[     fun]
[          3.141593]

The width specifier sets the minimum width to be used by the data inserted into the output stream.

  • The 13 is shifted two spaces to the right in order to expand the width to four characters.
  • The 13000 is already wider than four characters, so no modification is made.
  • Five spaces are added to fun so that it takes up 8 characters.
  • Math.PI defaults to taking up 8 characters, so no characters are added when a width of 4 is specified, but additional characters are added when a width of 18 is specified.

Specifying Precision

By default, printf() displays floating point numbers (%f) with six digits after the decimal place. This can be changed by including a precision specifier:

System.out.printf("%6.2f%n", 5.5555);
System.out.printf("%.14f%n", Math.PI);


  • Although it is called the precision modifier, it just controls the number of digits to the right of the decimal place.
  • The number displayed is rounded appropriately (notice how, 5.5555 got rounded to 5.56).

Specifying Precision

The format of the output can be further specified using one of the following flags:

  • - — left-justify result
  • + — include + sign for positive values
  • 0 — zero-pad result
  • ( — enclose negative values in parentheses


System.out.printf("[%-6.2f]%n", 5.55555);
System.out.printf("[%+6.2f]%n", 5.55555);
System.out.printf("[%06.2f]%n", 5.55555);
System.out.printf("[%(6.2f]%n", 5.55555);
System.out.printf("[%(6.2f]%n", -5.55555);
[5.56  ]
[ +5.56]
[  5.56]


The format specifier is generally shown as follows:


The items shown between square brackets are optional. As a result, our format specifiers can be as simple as %d or as complicated as %2$+13.7f. (Note: I'm using the optional argument_index$ specifier even though we didn't go over it here.)

This page touches on just a few of the possibilities available with printf(). You can find out a lot more about formatting output here.

Last modified: Thursday, 08-Oct-2015 08:33:43 CDT