Some notes on reviewing what C++ changed since the introduction of C++11. Mostly comes from reading GotW: casting, smart pointers, auto types, initialization, temporaries, class structure and owning pointers, const correctness, dependencies and pimpl


There are four different ways of casting in C++ now. Traditional way is new_type(expr) or (new_type)expr but the intention is ambiguous. The new ways are:

1. const_cast


to remove const or volatility, e.g.

struct type {
    type() :i(3) {}
    void m1(int v) const {
        // this->i = v;                 // compile error: this is a pointer to const
        const_cast<type*>(this)->i = v; // OK as long as the type object isn't const
    int i;

This casting is resolved in compile time.

2. static_cast


cannot remove const or volatility. Perform implicit conversion from expr to new_type, using user-defined conversions if possible.

union U { int a; double b; } u;
void* x = &u;                        // x's value is "pointer to u"
double* y = static_cast<double*>(x); // y's value is "pointer to u.b"
char* z = static_cast<char*>(x);     // z's value is "pointer to u"
int n = static_cast<int>(3.14);      // type conversion

This casting also resolved in compile time.

3. dynamic_cast


cannot remove const or volatility. Perform conversion from expr to new_type with runtime check, especially when downcasting a base class pointer to derived class pointer

return new_type if successful or otherwise, return a null pointer or throws an exception if new_type is a reference. Thus we should catch or check for null in casting result.

struct V {
    virtual void f() {};  // must be polymorphic to use runtime-checked dynamic_cast
struct A : virtual V {};
struct B : virtual V {
  B(V* v, A* a) {
    // casts during construction (see the call in the constructor of D below)
    dynamic_cast<B*>(v); // well-defined: v of type V*, V base of B, results in B*
    dynamic_cast<B*>(a); // undefined behavior: a has type A*, A not a base of B

This is the only type of casting that needs runtime code to determine the result.

4. reinterpret_cast


returns a value of new_type. It is purely a compiler directive to treat expr as a different type and does not compile to any CPU instructions. cannot remove const or volatility.

Smart pointers

There are three kinds of smart pointers in modern C++: unique_ptr, shared_ptr, and weak_ptr. (The fourth, auto_ptr, is deprecated in C++17)

When in doubt, use unique_ptr

  • you can still use it in a container, e.g. vector<unique_ptr<widget> >, like raw pointer
  • more efficient than shared_ptr for no reference count and control block
  • can always convert to other type when needed
  • create one by make_unique
    • instead of unique_ptr<T>{new T{}}, avoids explicit new

if needs shared ownership, use make_shared to create shared_ptr

  • if custom allocator is needed, use allocate_shared
  • if a raw pointer is given, pass it to constructor of shared_ptr directly
  • shared_ptr keeps two ref counts:
    • strong reference count to track the number of shared_ptr keeping the object alive
    • weak reference count to track the nubmer of weak_ptr observing the object
      • use weak_ptr only when we need to observe an object but do not require it to remain alive
    • using make_shared reduces memory fragmentation and allocation overhead, improves locality

Smart pointer as return type of factories

Factory should not return pointer to object:

widget* load_widget( widget::id desired );

for this will never know who owns the object as pointed by the returned pointer. Risk of memory leak. As a factory function, it should return a unique_ptr or shared_ptr. Indeed, unique_ptr is the better choice and caller can convert it into shared_ptr if needed:

// Accept as a unique_ptr (by default)
auto up = load_widget(1);

// Accept as a shared_ptr (if desired)
auto sp = shared_ptr<widget>{ load_widget(2) };

// Accept as your own smart pointer (if desired)
auto msp = my::smart_ptr<widget>{ load_widget(3).release() };

If the factory is not producing a polymorphic type, we can simply return the movable object by value. Instead of this C++98 code:

vector<gadget>* load_gadgets() {
    vector<gadget>* ret = new vector<gadget>();
    // ... populate *ret ...
    return ret;

// Obsolete calling code (note: NOT exception-safe) 
vector<gadget>* p = load_gadgets();
if(p) use(*p);
delete p;

do this:

vector<gadget> load_gadgets() {
    vector<gadget> ret;
    // ... populate ret ...
    return ret;

// Calling code (exception-safe)
auto v = load_gadgets();

if the factory may return null, use optional. It has operator bool and therefore supports `if` construct to test for null:

optional<vector<gadget>> load_gadgets() noexcept {
    vector<gadget> ret;
    // ... populate ret ...
    if( success )            // return vector (might be empty)
        return move(ret);    // note: move() here to avoid a silent copy
        return {};           // not returning anything

// Calling code (exception-safe)
auto v = load_gadgets();
if(v) use(*v);

A factory that produces a non-reference type should return a value by default, and throw an exception if it fails to create the object. If not creating the object can be a normal result, return an optional<> value.

Smart pointer as argument to functions

void f( shared_ptr<widget> );

This function, when called, will have the shared_ptr copy-constructed, and destroyed on function exit. Ref count on shared_ptr is atomic shared variable, all read-modify-write is synchronized.

If we’re using the widget, we prefer to pass the object by value, *, or &, not by smart pointer.

Consider these:

void f( widget* );              (a)
void f( widget& );              (b)
void f( unique_ptr<widget> );   (c)
void f( unique_ptr<widget>& );  (d)
void f( shared_ptr<widget> );   (e)
void f( shared_ptr<widget>& );  (f)

(a) and (b) are preferred way to pass normal object parameters, and the pointer is not an “owning” raw pointer. In both case, the use of object is usually shorter than the lifetime of the object. Use (a) if we may pass NULL, otherwise use reference to object (b)

(c) is a sink, i.e. consume the object widget. By calling the function, object is moved from the caller to callee and takes ownership away from the caller. Any pointer can be converted to unique_ptr with explicit conversion but doing so will transfer ownership. Consider these:

void good_sink( unique_ptr<widget> p );

widget* pw = ... ; 
good_sink( unique_ptr<widget>{pw} );  // need explicit conversion: good

unique_ptr<widget> pw = ... ;
good_sink( move(pw) );       // compiles: crystal clear what's going on

The last example need explicit move() because we cannot pass a unique_ptr by value as another unique_ptr without explicitly showing our intention of transferring ownership. Or make it implicit in the function declaration to avoid calling move() every time:

void good_sink(unique_ptr<widget>&& p);

(d) should be used only when the function is supposed to take an existing unique_ptr and modify it to refer to a different object. Use a non-const unique_ptr& parameter only to modify the unique_ptr. And use widget* instead of const unique_ptr& as a parameter. Because it is unnecessary to ask the callee to manage widget’s lifetime as the caller already manages it. Also make the function not limited to unique_ptr.

(e) implies taking shared ownership, recommended only when the function wants to retain a copy.

(f) same as (d), should be used only then the function is supposed to modify shared_ptr itself. Use a non-const shared_ptr& parameter only to modify the shared_ptr. Use a const shared_ptr& as a parameter only if you’re not sure whether or not you’ll take a copy and share ownership; otherwise use widget* instead (or if not nullable, a widget&).


Initialization should be done using braces:

// initialization with default constructor
widget w;
widget w();     // wrong: this is a function declaration!
widget w{};     // modern c++

// direct initialization
widget w(x);
widget w{x};    // modern c++

// copy initialization: same as direction initialization
widget w = x;
widget w = {x}; // modern c++

// prefered way
auto w = widget{w};

Modern C++ introduces {} for initialization. It can guard against lossy, narrowing implicit conversion, e.g., this will fail because it narrowing a float to int:

int i{1.234};       // narrowing error
int i = int{1.234}; // narrowing error

But initialization list may mean different things, especially in containers:

vector<int> v(10, 20);   // 10 copies of 20
vector<int> v{10, 20};   // two int: 10 and 20

using initializer list can make the following neat:

rectangle foo(rectangle x)
    // ...
    return {width, height}; // pass to rectangle constructor implicitly

y = foo({w, h});  // create rectangle implicitly and pass to function

nullptr, lambda, and move

Never use NULL again. Use nullptr instead when a null pointer is needed (as placeholder or otherwise):

// c++98
int* p = 0;
// c++11
int* p = nullptr;

Many STL supports using lambda. Compare:

// c++98, naked loop is the easiest
vector<int>::iterator i = v.begin(); // preserve i after the loop
for( ; i != v.end(); ++i ) {
    if( *i > x && *i < y ) break;
// c++11, using std::find_if and lambda
auto i = find_if(begin(v), end(v), [=](int i) { return i > x && i < y; });

and with lambda, we can apply lock:

// c++11 without lambdas
    lock_guard<mutex> hold { mut_x };
    // use x
// c++11 with lambdas
// Algorithm: template<typename T> void lock( T& t, F f ) { lock_guard hold(t); f(); }
lock( mut_x, [&]{
  // use x

Move semantics makes return-by-value more optimized:

// old way to avoid copying: use pointers or reference
vector<int>* make_big_vector(); // pointer
vector<int>* result = make_big_vector();
void make_big_vector( vector<int>& out ); // return by reference
vector<int> result;
make_big_vector( result );
// c++11 use move
vector<int> make_big_vector();
auto result = make_big_vector(); // if move is possible, no copy

In class, we can define a move constructor and move assignment:

class T {
    T(T&& x) noexcept :

    T& operator=(T&& x) noexcept {
        this->~T(); // clean up of myself
        // move member vars from x to this
        return *this;


Try to avoid temporaries. Prefer passing a read-only parameter by const& if you are only going to read from it.

Prefer declaring variables using auto. Among other reasons to do so, it naturally guarantees zero extra temporaries due to implicit conversions.

Postincrement T T::operator++(int) is usually less efficient than preincrement T T::operator++(void) because it has to remember and return its original value. Prefer preincrement. Only use postincrement if you’re going to use the original value.

if( *i == name )

Watch out for hidden temporaries created by implicit conversions. One good way to avoid this is to make constructors and conversion operators explicit by default unless implicit conversions are really desirable.

Return string& instead of string: Pitfall of returning a dangling reference to a local or temporary object. To avoid this, have to declare the return object as static:

static const string empty;
return empty;

Using ranged-based loop make temporary value due to comparison or preincrement irrelevant. See on how to implement the data structure that supports range-based for-loop. (Range-based for-loop calls non-member begin(x) and end(x) to determine the range).


// iterator loop:
for( auto i = begin(emps); i != end(emps); i++ ) {
    if( *i == name ) {
        return i->addr;

// range-based for loop:
for( const auto& e : emps ) {
    if( e == name ) {
        return e.addr;

Class structure and owning pointers

Once we supply a user-written constructor, we suppress the implicit generation of the default constructor.

class complex {
    complex(double re, double im); // user-defined ctor
    complex() = default;           // explicitly request to generate default ctor or we won't have it

Besides = default above, we can also = delete to remove some particular default members. For example, this make the class cannot create by copy construction or overwritten by assginment:

class complex {
    complex(complex const&) = delete;
    complex& operator= (complex const&) = delete;

Prefer passing a read-only parameter by const& if you are only going to read from it (not make a copy of it).

Instead of returning void, operator+ should return an object containing the sum and not modify this object’s value. That is, we should not implement it as a member function.

If you supply a standalone version of an operator (e.g., operator+), always supply an assignment version of the same operator (e.g., operator+=) and prefer implementing the former in terms of the latter. Also, always preserve the natural relationship between op and op= (where op stands for any operator):

T& T::operator+=( const T& other ) {
    return *this;
T operator+( T a, const T& b ) {
    a += b;
    return a;

if you’re going to copy from a parameter anyway, it’s often better to pass it by value, (see a above in contrast with b) which will naturally enable a move operation if the caller passes a temporary object such as in expressions like (val1 * val2) + val3.

Prefer these guidelines for making an operator a member vs. nonmember function: unary operators are members; =, (), [], and -> must be members; the assignment operators (+=, –=, /=, *=, etc.) must be members; all other binary operators are nonmembers. Member binary operator can only define the class as left-hand argument, making the operator not commutative.

Always return stream references (i.e., ostream&) from operator<< and operator>>.

When you return *this, the return type should usually be a reference.

For consistency, always implement postincrement in terms of preincrement, otherwise your users will get surprising (and often unpleasant) results.

In C++11 we have final and override keyword to explicitly declare intention to make a member function not overridable by derived class, or make a member function to be overriding the counterpart in base class. Fail to meet the intention is a compile error

class B final : public A  // class B has no derived class
    void foo() override;  // foo() is overriding A::foo()
    void bar() final;     // bar() shall not be overrided by derived class

In C++11, we should not use new, delete, and owning * pointers except in rare cases of implementing low-level data structure:

// instead of
base*   pb = new derived;
delete pb;
// prefer
auto pb = unique_ptr<base>{ make_unique<derived>() };
    // make_unique<>() returns a unique_ptr<>, then transfer ownership to pointer of base class
    // above is equiv to `unique_ptr<base> pb = make_unique<derived>()`

Base class destructors should be public and virtual or protected and nonvirtual. Corruption may happen when deleting derived object via pointer-to-base as the wrong destructor will be called. Public virtual destructor allows deleting via pointer-to-base and protected nonvirtual destructor requires derived class to call base destructor explicitly.

When providing a non-overridden function with the same name as an inherited function, be sure to bring the inherited functions into scope with a using-declaration if you don’t want to hide them.

class base
    virtual void f(int);
    virtual void f(int, int);
class derived : public base
  using base::f; // all f in base are exposed
  virtual void f(double);

Cleaner interface: prefer to have a class contains only public virtual functions, or no public virtual functions other than the destructor. A pure abstract base class should have only public virtual functions.

Const correctness

Shared variables are those accessed from more than one thread.

Keyword const on a shared variable means read-only for the purposes of concurrency, i.e. safe to use without external synchronization. A const member function is either (1) perform no writes to object’s data or (2) internally synchronized

Keyword mutable on a variable means the variable is writable but logically const, i.e. (1) can be used safely by concurrent const operations, and (2) some const operations may actually the writers of the shared variable, so it should be protected with a mutex or made atomic<>

In C++98, the const keyword means only logically const (but not physically or bitwise const) in a single-threaded code.

void add_point(const point p); // unnecessary to declare const

Objects passed by value to a function do not need to be const. If that is needed, it should be in the definition, not declaration of the function. It only hints the compiler of the const nature in the definition of function.

int f(int);
int f(const int);  // same function for value params

int g(int&);
int g(const int&); // different function for non-value params

A member function that does not change the state of the object should mark const. If variable should be allowed to change in const function, it should be marked mutable (as well as synchronized, e.g., atomic):

class X {
    mutable atomic<double> area;

An iterator that do not change the state of the collection should be a const_iterator. Using auto type will do this automatically for a const function.

An binary operation should be defined as lhs passed by value and rhs passed by const reference, i.e.

T operator+(T lhs, const T& rhs);

A local variable should also be declared const if it is not changed

Never cast away const with const_cast, behaviour undefined.

A reference cannot be const

T& const x; // not allowed, as all ref cannot be reseated to ref to different obj

Dependencies and pimpl

Forward declaration just introduces a name. It is sufficient for a header until something is defined. For example, instead of #include<iostream>, we can just declare ostream by including iosfwd, which is a lighter header.

// #include <iostream>
#include <iosfwd>  // when forward declaration is suffice

Using forward declaration can avoid a lot of header include.

Another way to clean up interdependencies in code is to use pimpl pointer: Insulate clients from a class’ private implementation details

  • use an opaque pointer (point to a declared but undefined helper class)

For example, instead of this:

// file widget.h
class widget {
    // public and protected members
    // private members; whenever these change,
    // all client code must be recompiled

do this:

// file widget.h
#include <memory>

class widget {
    // public and protected members
    struct impl;
    std::unique_ptr<impl> pimpl;   // ptr to a forward-declared class

// file widget.cpp
#include "widget.h"

struct widget::impl {
    // private members; fully hidden, can be
    // changed at will without recompiling clients

widget::widget() : pimpl{ make_unique<widget::impl>(/*...*/) } { }
widget::~widget() =default;

This idiom breaks the caller’s dependency on the private details

  • eliminate extra includes
  • implementation can be changed without recompiling client code
  • cost on performance:
    • alloc/dealloc of memory on each construction/destruction
    • extra indirection for each access of a hidden member

Pimpl should factor all private nonvirtual members into the pointed implementation and make their access private. If the implementation needs to reference to the public object, we can consider passing this into the function: pimpl->func(this, args)

Never inherit when composition is sufficient . For example, instead of deriving X from class A privately and using its functions, we can have pimpl to class A instance.

auto type

auto in C++ perform the same type deduction as function template would do. But it will not be top level const, volatile, &, or && unless declared explicitly


int&        ir  = val;
auto        e   = ir;  // int

int*        ip  = &val; 
auto        f   = ip;  // int*

const int   ci  = val;
auto        g   = ci;  // int

const int&  cir = val;
auto        h   = cir; // int

const int*  cip = &val;
auto        i   = cip; // const int*

int* const  ipc = &val;
auto        j   = ipc; // int*

const int* const cipc = &val;
auto             k    = cipc; // const int*

Variable e is of type int, not a reference. To make it a reference, we have to declare it as auto&. Variable g is similarly, also int.

Variable i is const int* because the const is for int, not pointer. Hence it is not top level const. Variable j is int* because the const is for pointer, i.e., top level.

But in this case:

int val = 0;
auto a { val };
auto b = { val };

both a and b are of type std::initializer_list<int>

declaring variable as auto, and lambda type

Prefer to declare local variables using auto x = expr; when you don’t need to explicitly commit to a type. It is efficient by default and guarantees that no implicit conversions or temporary objects will occur.

Consider declaring local variables auto x = type{ expr }; when you do want to explicitly commit to a type. It is self-documenting to show that the code is explicitly requesting a conversion.

// if you don't need an explicit type
auto w = get_gadget();
// if you do need to commit to an explicit type
auto w = widget{ get_gadget() };

Correct way to hold a lambda is using auto, which binds to the exact (compiler-generated) type of the lambda. Use std::function<...> name = only when you need to rebind it to another target or pass it to another function that needs a std::function<>. Moreover, in lambda, argument type can be auto to make it a templated function call operator. Return type of lambda is implicitly auto.

// not this
function<void(vector<int>)> get_size
    = [](const vector<int>& x) { return x.size(); };
// but this
auto get_size = [](const auto& x) { return x.size(); };
// or this if give up const-enforcement
auto get_size = [](auto&& x) { return x.size(); };

If we creates an object, prefer use auto to make our intention explicit:

T w;          // w might be uninitialized (if T is built-in type of
              // aggregate type, its members won't get initialized)
auto w = T{}; // w guaranteed to be initialized

auto can also help avoid narrowing, e.g., assigning an unsigned int to signed int and lost the MSB. (see cstdint header for portable sized type names, e.g. uint64_t) However, auto can’t help for combining (e.g. subtraction) signed and unsigned, we should use as_signed:

// bad
unsigned long x    = 42;
signed short  y    = 43;
auto          diff = x - y;   // one actual result: 18446744073709551615

// good
auto x = as_signed(integer_expr);
auto x = as_unsigned(integer_expr);

type conversion in auto: use {} for explicit type, but () for narrowing:

auto i = 1.0 * 42.0;        // get float type
auto i = int{ 1.0 * 42.0 }; // error for narrowing conversion
auto i = int( 1.0 * 42.0 ); // explicit narrowing

Use auto almost always.

Write code against interfaces, not implementations

  • encapsulation to hide code, caller knows only the function signature
  • hide data: caller does not, and should not, commit to knowledge of the current internal data or code
  • hide type (runtime polymorphism): OO is separation of interfaces to hide type, caller does not, and should not, commit to a single concrete type, which would make the caller’s code less general and less able to be reused with new types.
  • hide type (compile time polymorphism): Templates as a separation of interfaces to hide type. Callers knows duck-typed set of operations only.

Using auto is:

  • motivated primarily by correctness, performance, maintainability, and robustness and only lastly about typing convenience.
  • still valid for commitment, use auto x = type{ init }; instead of type x{init};
  • does not hurt readability by not knowing the exact type:
    • if such knowledge is needed, it is code against implementations, not interfaces
    • Overcommitting to explicit types makes code less generic and more interdependent, and therefore more brittle and limited

Comparing classic and modern C++

// Classic C++ declaration order     // Modern C++ style

// variable declaration
const char* s = "Hello";             auto s = "Hello";
widget w = get_widget();             auto w = get_widget();

employee e{ empid };                 auto e = employee{ empid };
widget w{ 12, 34 };                  auto w = widget{ 12, 34 };

// heap allocation
widget* w = new widget{};            /* auto w = new widget{}; */
unique_ptr<widget> w                 auto w = make_unique<widget>();
  = make_unique<widget>();

// literal suffix
int x = 42;                          auto x = 42;
float x = 42.;                       auto x = 42.f;
unsigned long x = 42;                auto x = 42ul;
std::string x = "42";                auto x = "42"s;   // C++14, user-defined
chrono::nanoseconds x{ 42 };         auto x = 42ns;    // C++14, user-defined

// lambda functions
int f( double );                     auto f (double) -> int;
…                                    auto f (double) { /*...*/ };
…                                    auto f = [=](double) { /*...*/ };

// template alias
typedef set<string> dict;            using dict = set<string>;

template<class T> struct myvec {     template<class T>
  typedef vector<T,myalloc> type;    using myvec = vector<T,myalloc>;

Literal suffix, see for examples

C++ is moving to the declaration style of the form

<category> <name> = <type and/or initializer>;

where category can be auto or using.

There is a case that we cannot declare with auto:

auto lock = lock_guard<mutex>{ m };  // error, not moveable
auto ai   = atomic<int>{};           // error, not moveable
auto x = long long{ 42 };            // error, multi-word "long long"
auto y = class X{1,2,3};             // error, multi-word "class X"

New containers and algorithms


  • unordered_set
  • unordered_multiset
  • unordered_map
  • unordered_multimap
  • forward_list: singly-linked list but no random access to elements
  • array: stores n elements of type T contiguously in memory. It differs from a vector as it cannot be resized once created.


  • all_of: returns true if all the values in the range satisfy a predicate or the range is empty
  • any_of: returns true if any of the values in the range satisfy a predicate or the range is empty
  • none_of: returns true if none of the values in the range satisfy a predicate, or the range is empty
  • find_if_not: returns an iterator to the first value that causes a predicate to be false. This uses linear search. Similar to partition_point
  • copy_if: copies all elements that satisfy a predicate into another range.
  • copy_n: copies n elements from a range into another range.
  • uninitialized_copy_n: Similar to uninitialized_copy, except that it works for n elements.
  • move: moves elements from one range into another.
  • move_backward: moves elements from one range into another, reversing the order of the move.
  • is_partitioned: returns true if all of the elements in a range that satisfy a predicate are before all of those that do not, or the range is empty.
  • partition_copy: copies elements from a source range into two separate destination ranges based on whether the elements satisfy a predicate or not.
  • partition_point: returns an iterator to the first value that causes a predicate to be false. This uses binary search. Similar to find_if_not
  • iota: creates a range of sequentially increasing values, making use of the pre-increment operator (++i) to create the sequence.

Sort-related algorithms (can use optional sorting comparison operator):

  • partial_sort_copy: copies all sorted elements from a source to a range. The number of elements copied is determined by the smaller of the sorted source range and the result range
  • is_sorted: returns true if the range is sorted
  • is_sorted_until: This returns an iterator to the last position for which the range is sorted
  • is_heap: returns true if the range is a heap, i.e. the first element is the largest
  • is_heap_until: returns an iterator to the last position for which the range is a heap
  • min: Finds the smallest value in the parameter list
  • max: Finds the largest value in the parameter list
  • minmax: This returns a pair of the smallest and largest elements
  • minmax_element: This returns two iterators, one pointing to the smallest element in the range and the other pointing to the largest element in the range