C++ Antipatterns: The Java constructor (and final vs const)

It seems Java (or C#) constructors are becoming increasingly pervasive in novice C++ code. A demo of what I mean:

class Point {
  public:
    Point(int a, int b) {
      this->x_ = a;
      this->y_ = b;
    }
    //...
  private:
    int x_;
    int y_;
};

This looks normal for programmers coming from a java background, but for those with C++ experience, it’s awkward that the variables x_ and y_ are initialized inside the constructor body. C++ constructors using initialization lists are more correct. They go between the ) and { of the constructor, begin with a colon, and have each part separated by a comma. They style I lean towards is as follows:

Point(int a, int b)
    : x_{a},
    y_{b}
{ }

The difference is that rather than having x_ and y_ be default constructed, then assigned, they are copy-constructed with the values of a and b. These x_ and y_ values must have been constructed because upon entering the body of the constructor, the this object must exist.

Performance

Okay, so dealing with a couple of ints, no big deal. Let’s look at a class with a string

class Person {
  public:
    Person(const std::string& n) {
      this->name_ = n;
    }
  private:
    std::string name_;
};

The semantics of this are different from what novices often think. What happens is that name_ is default constructed, and is then assigned to, and overwritten, upon entering the constructor. This means that before being assigned n, name_ already has a value! It’s the empty string! Constructing and assigning is slower than just copy constructing, so there’s a slight performance hit.

The correct constructor is, as expected

Person(const std::string& n)
    : name_{n}
{ }

Objects without default constructors

Novices don’t care too much up to this point because strings and ints both can be default constructed, and strings behave very much like POD objects. However there are many objects in C++ which don’t have default constructors at all! An example? the Person class we just made!

How about a class which has a Person in it?

class Couple {
  public:
    // fails before entering { }
    Couple(const Person& p1, const Person& p2) {
      this->person1_ = p1;
      this->person2_ = p2;
    }
  private:
    Person person1_;
    Person person2_;
};

This can’t work, because the Person class doesn’t have a default constructor. the compiler error will resemble error: no matching function for call to Person::Person(). The assignments are valid in this case, but the construction just doesn’t work. We have to use C++ style:

Couple(const Person& p1, const Person& p2)
    : person1_{p1}, // works, uses implicit copy ctor
    person2_{p2}
{ }

Beautiful!

const, and why it’s different from final

Another case to consider, in java one may have a final instance variable, signalling that once the reference has been assigned (by the constructor) it cannot be reassigned. Some incorrectly draw a parallel between const and final, they aren’t the same.

Let’s consider a Person class where we also have a string for their social security number. This number can’t change, so we want it to be const. The java-style constructor fails here.

class Person {
  public:
   Person(const std::string& n, const std::string& s) {
     this->name_ = n;
     this->ssn_ = s; //fails, can't assign to const var
   }
  private:
   std::string name_;
   const std::string ssn_;
};

Remember, the semantics differ, this code default constructs ssn_ and then assigns to it. However, we can’t assign to const variables, we can only construct them (or if you prefer, initialize them). Instead we must use the correct C++ constructor style.

Person(const std::string& n, const std::string& s)
    : name_{n},
    ssn_{s} // works, construction not assignment!
{ }

Since C++ novices often don’t care about constness, it’s hard to convince them to take this seriously last one seriously.

Other cases

There are other types of objects that cause problems. One is the class of objects without an assignment operator (such as the Person with a const ssn), objects where default construction followed by assignment does get expensive (std::array for example), objects that can be moved but not copied need to be handled differently, etc.

This is not an academic exercise, the problems with java-style constructors are very real.

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