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I'm buying a few C++ books after moving from Java. I obviously want to read the reference manual from the man himself, though I cannot tell the difference between these two editions. The special edition is ten pages shorter than the third edition. However, the special edition is recommended over the third edition and it seems this version covers the ISO standard when the other edition does not.

Can anyone shed a bit of light on this?

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ASCII is a 7-bit character encoding. You probably mean ANSI, but actually the C++ standard is issued by ISO -- and both editions cover the ISO C++ standard (though not the latest version of it). FYI, the fourth edition is due 2013-03-25. –  Keith Thompson Oct 14 '12 at 19:55
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up vote 6 down vote accepted

From Stroustrup's own homepage (right at the top):

The "special edition" is the hardcover version of the 3rd edition. It differs from the early printings of the 3rd edition by about 1,000 corrections and clarifications, by two new appendices (just over 100 pages; also available online, see below), and by an improved index. The only difference between the current printings of the special edition and the 3rd edition is the cover (and the price difference implied by that stronger cover).

(The bold emphasis is mine.)

A little more from his FAQ section:

Should I buy the "Special Edition" of "The C++ Programming Language"?

Sure! Buy it early and often :-)

Seriously, the difference between the current printings of the special edition and the 3rd edition is just the hard cover (and the price difference implied by that stronger cover).

If I were a C++ programmer who hadn't read The C++ Programming Language (3rd Edition), I'd buy and read either the 3rd edition or the special edition. If I used my textbooks and references heavily, I'd choose the hard cover. The cover on the 3rd is the best soft cover available, but it doesn't equal the special edition's hard cover.

If I already had the 3rd edition, I'd buy the SE if my current copy were fraying or if my copy were an early printing (the 3rd now has about 30 printings and SE about 20).

Compared to the first printing, the special edition and the most recent printings of the 3rd edition have 1,000+ corrections and clarifications. As a heavy C++ user, I find that significant. There are also the two new appendices (just over 100 pages; available for download: Locales and Standard-Library Exception Safety).

Existing material has not moved around so page numbers can be used to refer to material in old printings, new printings of the 3rd edition, and in the SE.

The SE also has an improved index.

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