The importance of the FORMAT_MESSAGE_IGNORE_INSERTS flag

Raymond Chen

You can use the FormatMessage message with the FORMAT_MESSAGE_FROM_SYSTEM flag to indicate that the message number you passed is an error code and that the message should be looked up in the system message table. This is a specific case of the more general case where you are not in control of the message, and when you are not in control of the message, you had better pass the FORMAT_MESSAGE_IGNORE_INSERTS flag.

Let’s look at what happens when you don’t.

#include <windows.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <tchar.h>
int __cdecl main(int argc, char **argv)
 TCHAR buffer[1024];
 DWORD dwResult = FormatMessage(dwFlags, NULL, dwError,
                                0, buffer, 1024, NULL);
 if (dwResult) {
  _tprintf(_T("Message is \"%s\"\n"), buffer);
 } else {
  _tprintf(_T("Failed! Error code %d\n"), GetLastError());
 return 0;

If you run this program, you’ll get

Failed! Error code 87

Error 87 is ERROR_INVALID_PARAMETER. What went wrong? Let’s pass the FORMAT_MESSAGE_IGNORE_INSERTS flag to see what the message was. Change the value of dwFlags to


and run the program again. This time you get

Message is "%1 is not a valid Win32 application.

Aha, now we see the problem. The message corresponding to ERROR_BAD_EXE_FORMAT contains an insertion %1. If you don’t pass the FORMAT_MESSAGE_IGNORE_INSERTS flag, the FormatMessage function will insert the first parameter in the argument list (or argument array). But we didn’t pass an argument list, so the function fails.

Actually, we got lucky. If we had passed an argument list or argument array, the function would have inserted the corresponding string, even if the argument list we passed didn’t have a string in the first position.

If you are not in control of the format string, then you must pass FORMAT_MESSAGE_IGNORE_INSERTS to prevent the %1 from causing trouble. If somebody was being particularly evil, they might decide to give you a format string that contains a %9, which is almost certainly more insertions than you provided. The result is a buffer overflow and probably a crash.

This may have been obvious to some people, in the same way that you shouldn’t pass a string outside your control as the format string to the printf function, but I felt it worth mentioning.


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