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pinFrom Mechanism to Method

Overload Journal #40 - Dec 2000 + Programming Topics   Author: Kevlin Henney

Valued Conversions

"How would you like to pay for that?" Good question. Digging deep into pockets, wallets, and bags uncovered a wealth of possibilities, a handful of different currencies and mechanisms to choose from: credit cards, debit cards, coins, bills, and a couple of IOUs. Each form in some way substitutable for another when realizing monetary value.

Cash is the simplest, least troublesome form for small amounts and quick transactions. However, sifting through the metal and paper it seemed that my currencies were no good. Well, that's not strictly true: The currencies were fine, just for somewhere else not here. Like any form of use, appropriate use of currency is context sensitive, requiring explicit conversion (typically incurring an overhead) for use elsewhere. The same was true of the debit cards I had, so I settled on one of the credit cards. Relatively transparent use, with all the mechanism of billing and conversion safely hidden behind a signature and a smile.

As the assistant struggled with the point-of-sale system, my thoughts inevitably turned to software. Substitutability in programming is often associated with good practice use of inheritance in object-oriented development [Liskov1987, Coplien1992], providing a thorough is-a-kind-of litmus test for structural relationships between classes. In this sense it gives purpose and some sense of quality to what is otherwise simply a language mechanism; of itself inheritance is neither good nor bad.

Generally we can see substitutability as a measure of fit between expectation, mechanism, and actual use. It is a more general principle than simply an inheritance recommendation, applying equally well to other mechanisms - of which C++ has many. Where practice makes sense of mechanism, thinking about substitutability offers an alternative way of thinking about language features. Table 1 identifies types of substitutability in C++ we may consider useful in reasoning about our types and functions [Henney2000].

<colgroup> <col> <col></colgroup> <thead> </thead> <tbody> </tbody>
Substitutability Mechanisms
Conversions Implicit and explicit conversions
Overloading Overloaded functions and operators, often in combination with conversions
Derivation Inheritance
Mutability Qualification (typically const) and the use of conversions, overloading, and derivation
Genericity Templates and the use of conversions, overloading, derivation, and mutability

Table 1. Different kinds of substitutability in C++.

Where a type defines a set of operations - not necessarily member functions [Sutter2000, Meyers2000] - applicable to a type, a type hierarchy defines the fit between types, and may or may not be associated with a class hierarchy. In the case of payment we can see that there is no useful structural relationship between the types that leads us to any concrete form of inheritance.

Substitutability here is based on values and conversions between values. Sometimes the use is implicit, at other times it must be made explicit. Conversions can be fully value preserving, widening, or narrowing. Widening conversions are always safe and typically acceptable (e.g. tipping), whereas narrowing conversions may not be (e.g. short-changing tends to lead to exceptional or even undefined behaviour).

Rescuing me from further metaphor stretch, the point-of-sale system and assistant's smile kicked into life.

Value Classes

Values are strongly informational objects for which identity is not significant, i.e. the focus is principally on their state content and any behaviour organized around that. Another distinguishing features of values is their granularity: They are typically fine-grained objects, representing simple concepts in the system such as quantities [Bäumer-1998].

In C++, values are associated with an idiomatic set of capabilities and conventions. The emphasis of a value lies in its state not its identity. Thus values can be copied and typically assigned one to another, requiring the explicit or implicit definition of a public copy constructor and public assignment operator. Values typically live within other scopes, i.e. within objects or blocks, rather than on the heap. Values are therefore normally passed around and manipulated directly as variables or through references, but not as pointers that emphasize identity and indirection. As a consequence of this immediacy, indirection transparency, and granularity, operator overloading and conversions often make sense for value classes where they do not for more granular, heap-based objects manipulated through pointers.

All Things to All People

There are times when a generic (in the sense of general rather than template-based programming) type is needed, accommodating values of many other more specific types rather than C++'s normal strict and static types. We can distinguish three basic kinds of generic type:

  • Converting types that can hold one of a number of possible value types, e.g. int and string, and freely convert between them, for instance interpreting 5 as "5" or vice-versa. Such types are common in scripting and other interpreted languages. In implementation are often interpreted strings, encapsulated unions of a fixed set of types that freely support the required conversions, or closed class hierarchies [Coplien2000, Sommerlad-1999].

  • Discriminated types that contain values of different types but do not attempt conversion between them, i.e. 5 is held strictly as an int and is not implicitly convertible either to "5" or to 5.0. Their indifference to interpretation but awareness of type effectively makes them safe, generic containers of single values, with no scope for surprises from ambiguous conversions. In implementation these are often held either as encapsulated, discriminated unions of a fixed set of types or through a combination of void * and a known type code.

  • Indiscriminate types that can refer to anything but are oblivious to the actual underlying type, entrusting all forms of access and interpretation to the programmer. This niche is dominated by void *, which offers plenty of scope for surprising, undefined behaviour.

State of the Union

In demonstrating substitutability concepts - conversions in particular - the remainder of this article is going to explore a generalized, discriminated union type named any.

Working from the inside out, how can a generic value contain any arbitrary value safely? A conventional union is out of the question as these alias only a predefined, fixed set of types. A next guess might land on a void * and const type_info * pairing. This seems to allow easy creation and querying, but falls down on type-safe copying and destruction: How can you correctly copy or delete an instance of a type of which you are unaware? From this question comes the seed of a solution: Inheritance and runtime polymorphism offer a form of substitutability between types that allows us to work safely through a common interface while ignoring the differences we can neither know nor manage. A virtual destructor provides the mechanism for safe deletion, and a virtual clone function offers a route for safe copying - effectively a Virtual Copy Constructor [Coplien1992, Gamma-1995]. However, this requires that value types inherit from a common base - not possible for pre-existing types - and would defeat the original objective of the any class.

Template classes provide a mechanism for defining arbitrary containers. Combining templates with derivation reveals a solution (see Listing 1). A generalized base class, placeholder, offers the required copying, querying, and deletable interface. From this, the templated holder class fills in the details for any arbitrary type. This example mixes derivation substitutability and generic substitutability. The generic interface requirement is that contained values must be CopyConstructible [ISO1998]. Clients of any remain blissfully unaware of all this encapsulated detail. This design is most generally an example of the Adapter pattern [Gamma-1995], and more specifically the External Polymorphism pattern [Cleeland-1998].

Inward Conversions

An implicit conversion from one or more other types into one we are developing can be supported by the introduction of one or more single argument, converting constructors on a class. Such conversions should be used in support of making conceptually similar types substitutable, emphasizing their commonality, and allowing an existing type to be used where a new one is expected. For instance, string and char * are each different realizations of the concept of a character string. They are not perfect substitutes for one another, but there is an implied level of equivalence in meaning that should be respected and supported by the developer. Where single constructor arguments are needed, but equivalence does not make sense, the explicit keyword should be used. For instance, a file object may be initialised from a string representing its pathname, but it cannot be considered a realization of strings.

A degenerate form of conversion is the identity conversion, i.e. where an instance of a type can be converted into another instance of the same type. The copy constructor and assignment operator express this concept. An overloaded assignment operator can be used to optimise any use of a converting constructor followed by a copy assignment. For a string class, this means:

class string
  string(const char *);
  string(const string &);
  string &operator=(const string &);
  string &operator=(const char *);

Providing converting constructor also provides the developer with a cast form for a type. It is not possible to define a literal form for a new type, but the constructor expression syntax comes close, e.g. string("theory"). This is stylistically preferable to using static_cast as the conversions are well-defined - as opposed to a potentially dangerous conversion that must be highlighted in the source code - and corresponds well to the idea of constructing a new value. The preferred "constructor literal" style also means that code appears consistent when used with other multiple argument constructed forms, e.g. string(5, '*').


Considering what inward conversions are reasonable to support can flesh the any class out further (see Listing 2). Certainly copying one any to another by construction or by assignment is essential for any value class. The copy constructor takes advantage of the representation's clone function to perform polymorphic copying, and a non-throwing swap function allows for an exception and self-assignment safe copy assignment operator [Henney1998, Sutter2000].

Employing the member template mechanism supports implicit conversion from values of an arbitrary type into an any. This is used in the converting constructor and the templated assignment operator, allowing values of any type to be used where an any is expected.

Outward Conversions

An implicit conversion from another type into a type we are defining can be provided through a user defined conversion operator (UDC). However, UDCs should be treated with some caution; they are typically far less appropriate than a corresponding inward conversion. For instance, although a const char * can be reasonably passed where a string object is expected, the converse is not true:

class string
  operator const char *() const;

Because of the lifetime of temporary objects, the following would result in undefined behaviour:

string prefix, suffix;
const char *whole = prefix + suffix;
cout << whole << endl;

This is the reason that std::string does not support such a conversion.

Truth and Beauty

Whereas a conversion from any type into an any type is widening, and therefore always safe, a conversion outward is narrowing, and therefore potentially unsafe - all types can be used where an any is expected but not vice-versa. Alas, the absence of explicit UDCs in the language means we cannot retain uniform usage syntax for casts whilst also preserving the constraint of explicitness. We must resort to a more conservative approach, such as the named to_ptr member template function (see Listing 3).

There is one query, however, that may be conveniently expressed through a UDC: Does an any hold a value? For many classes this immediately translates to operator bool. However, in many cases it turns out that bool is not the safest realization of a Boolean type. It introduces a number of subtle conversion problems for many classes, such as smart pointers [Meyers1996] or IOStreams, which at one stage in their standardization sported such an operator. These problems stem typically from bool's underlying integer nature: Its eagerness to participate in all kinds of (surprising) arithmetic and comparison. In contrast to bool, a const void * is positively hermit-like in its interactions with other types and operators.

Custom Keyword Casts

How can an explicit outward conversion be provided for a type, or for a conversion between two existing types using a particular conversion method not already implemented by either type? The omission of explicit UDCs from the language closes one avenue, but the inclusion of templates and, in particular, explicit template function qualification opens another.

The keyword casts - e.g. dynamic_cast - are template-like in appearance. It is possible to emulate them with template functions, idiomatically defining new custom keyword casts that provide new kinds of named, explicit conversion [Stroustrup1997, Boost]. For instance, the following offers a simple approach for converting between any two types that support streaming:

template<typename result_type, 
                  typename arg_type>
    interpret_cast(const arg_type &arg)
  std::stringstream interpreter;
  interpreter << arg;
  result_type result = result_type();
  interpreter >> result;
  return result;

This makes script-like interpretation of values a convenience in C++, e.g.

  forty = interpret_cast<string>(40);
int two = interpret_cast<int>("2");

Cast out of the Union

Based on the to_ptr member template, it is possible to provide a checking cast, any_cast, that may be used to extract value's of a particular type from an any (see Listing 3).


Money is a mechanism. As parents, partners, and both public and private enterprise will recognize, understanding the mechanism does not necessarily impart wisdom as to its best use. The same can be said of C++'s many features: Knowledge of denomination does not necessarily settle design issues. Principles and practices associated that conceptually organize features into a more coherent whole can assist the programmer.


[Bäumer-1998] Dirk Bäumer, Dirk Riehle, Wolf Siberski, Carola Lilienthal, Daniel Megert, Karl-Heinz Sylla, and Heinz Züllighoven, "Values in Object Systems", Ubilab Technical Report 98.10.1, 1998.

[Boost] Boost library website,

[Cleeland-1998] Chris Cleeland, Douglas C Schmidt, and Tim Harrison, "External Polymorphism", Pattern Languages of Program Design 3, edited by Robert Martin, Dirk Riehle, and Frank Buschmann, Addison-Wesley, 1998.

[Coplien1992] James O Coplien, Advanced C++: Programming Styles and Idioms, Addison-Wesley, 1992.

[Coplien2000] James O Coplien, "C++ Idioms", Pattern Languages of Program Design 4, edited by Neil Harrison, Brian Foote, and Hans Rohnert, Addison-Wesley, 2000.

[Gamma-1995] Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, and John Vlissides, Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, Addison-Wesley, 1995.

[Henney1998] Kevlin Henney, "Creating Stable Assignments", C++ Report 10(6), June 1998.

[Henney2000] Kevlin Henney, "From Mechanism to Method: Substitutability", C++ Report 12(5), May 2000.

[ISO1998] International Standard: Programming Language - C++, ISO/IEC 14882:1998(E), 1998.

[Liskov1987] Barbara Liskov, "Data Abstraction and Hierarchy", OOPSLA '87 Addendum to the Proceedings, October 1987.

[Meyers1996] Scott Meyers, More Effective C++: 35 New Ways to Improve Your Programs and Designs, Addison-Wesley, 1996.

[Meyers2000] Scott Meyers, "How Non-Member Functions Improve Encapsulation", C/C++ Users Journal, February 2000.

[Sommerlad-1999] Peter Sommerlad and Marcel Rüedi, "Do-it-yourself Reflection", Proceedings of the 3rd European Conference of Patterns Languages of Programming and Computing 1998, edited by Jens Coldeway and Paul Dyson, 1999.

[Stroustrup1997] Bjarne Stroustrup, C++ Programming Language, 3rd edition, Addison-Wesley, 1997.

[Sutter2000] [Sutter2000] Herb Sutter, Exceptional C++, Addison-Wesley, 2000.

Overload Journal #40 - Dec 2000 + Programming Topics