How does Windows decide whether a newly-created window should use LTR or RTL layout?

Raymond Chen

You can specify in a window’s extended styles whether it follows left-to-right (LTR) or right-to-left (RTL) layout. The right-to-left layout is used in languages that are written from right to left, of which the most widely used today are probably Arabic and Hebrew. You can request right-to-left layout by setting the WS_EX_LAYOUTRTL extended style.

If you don’t specify the WS_EX_LAYOUTRTL extended style, the system may still apply that style automatically, based on the following rules:

Scenario Rule
Child window Parent omits WS_EX_NO­INHERIT­LAYOUT Inherit WS_EX_LAYOUTRTL from parent.
Top-level window Owned window Remain LTR.
Unowned window Follow Get­Process­Default­Layout.

In the case of a top-level unowned window, the WS_EX_LAYOUTRTL extended style is automatically set if the process default layout has the LAYOUT_RTL bit set.

As I noted some time ago, if a process never calls Set­Process­Default­Layout, then the initial process default layout is inferred by inspecting the FileDescription version property of the primary executable: If it begins with two left-to-right marks (LRMs, represented by Unicode code point U+200E), then the process default layout is set to LAYOUT_RTL.

I also noted some time ago that you can ask Get­Locale­Info­Ex for the LOCALE_IREADING­LAYOUT to determine whether any particular language is LTR or RTL.

// Direction values:
// 0 = left to right (e.g., English)
// 1 = right to left (e.g., Arabic)
// 2 = top to bottom, right to left (e.g., classical Chinese)
// 3 = top to bottom, left to right (e.g., Mongolian)

int GetLanguageReadingLayout(PCWSTR languageName)
    int direction = 0;
                        sizeof(direction) / sizeof(wchar_t)));
    return direction;

int GetSystemDefaultLanguageReadingLayout()
    return GetLanguageReadingLayout(LOCALE_NAME_SYSTEM_DEFAULT);

int GetUserDefaultLanguageReadingLayout()
    return GetLanguageReadingLayout(LOCALE_NAME_USER_DEFAULT);

You typically are interested in the primary language for the current thread, since that’s the one that most influences which language resources your program will use. You can use Get­Thread­Preferred­UI­Languages to get all the languages that apply to the current thread, and then pass the first one to Get­Language­Reading­Layout. Calling the Get­Thread­Preferred­UI­Languages function is a bit frustrating because the list of applicable languages can change asynchronously (if another thread calls Set­Process­Preferred­UI­Languages It is double annoying because the wil helper function Adapt­Fixed­Size­To­Allocated­Result assumes null-terminated strings and doesn’t support double-null-terminated strings, so we have to write out the loop manually.

namespace wil
    template<typename string_type, size_t stackBufferLength = 40>
    HRESULT GetThreadPreferredUILanguages(DWORD flags,
        _Out_ PULONG languageCount, string_type& result)
        wchar_t stackBuffer[stackBufferLength];
        ULONG required = ARRAYSIZE(stackBuffer);
        if (::GetThreadPreferredUILanguages(flags, languageCount,
                                         stackBuffer, &required))
            result = make_unique_string_nothrow<string_type>
                                             (nullptr, required);
            memcpy(result.get(), stackBuffer,
                   required * sizeof(wchar_t));
            return S_OK;
        DWORD error = ::GetLastError();
        while (error == ERROR_INSUFFICIENT_BUFFER)
            result = make_unique_string_nothrow<string_type>
                                             (nullptr, required);
            if (::GetThreadPreferredUILanguages(flags,
                         languageCount, result.get(), &required))
                return S_OK;
            error = ::GetLastError();

    template <typename string_type = wil::unique_cotaskmem_string,
              size_t stackBufferLength = 40>
    string_type GetThreadPreferredUILanguages(DWORD flags,
        _Out_ PULONG languageCount)
        string_type result;
            string_type, stackBufferLength>
            (flags, languageCount, result)));
        return result;

We can now plug this into our existing function.

int GetDefaultThreadLanguageReadingLayout()
    ULONG count;
    return GetLanguageReadingLayout(
        wil::GetThreadPreferredUILanguages(MUI_LANGUAGE_NAME |
            MUI_MERGE_UI_FALLBACK, &count).get());

Sorry it’s such a pain.

Bonus chatter: All of this logic assumes that your program has been translated into RTL languages in the first place. If your program is English-only, don’t display your English strings in RTL. As I noted in that article, you can leave a breadcrumb in the resources to tell you which direction the resources expect strings to read.


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