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Templates and Duck Typing

June, 2005: Templates and Duck Typing

Andrew Koenig is a former AT&T researcher and programmer. He is author of C Traps and Pitfalls and, with Barbara, coauthor of Ruminations on C++ and Accelerated C++. Barbara Moo is an independent consultant with 20 years of experience in the software field.

C++ offers two kinds of polymorphism—runtime polymorphism, which is based on virtual functions and is the foundation of object-oriented programming, and compile-time polymorphism, which is based on templates and is the foundation of generic programming. When we wish to select from a set of classes at runtime, C++ requires that those classes be related by inheritance. When we wish to select from a set of types at compile time, the relationship between those types is more subtle. The types need be related only indirectly, and only by their behavior.

The C++ community does not have a generally accepted term for this kind of behavior-based relationship between types. Accordingly, people first learning about C++ generic programming are tempted to think that inheritance is involved somehow, just as it is for object-oriented programming. For example, on several occasions we have seen questions such as "Why isn't a bidirectional iterator derived from a forward iterator?" A student who asks that question has probably already formed a significant misconception about how templates deal with types.

One way to avoid such misconceptions is to adopt a term for the kind of type relationships that we find in generic programs. Giving names to concepts often makes the concepts easier to understand and remember. The C++ community does not appear to have such a term, so we would like to borrow a term from the Python community and call such relationships "duck typing." The idea, of course, is that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck; then it's a duck.


Suppose you have two classes related by inheritance:

class Employee { /* ... */ };

class Manager: public Employee { /* ... */ };<br>

and another class with a member that accepts one of these classes as an argument:

class Payroll_handler {
// ...
void generate_paycheck(Employee&);
// ...

You also have an object that represents a manager and another that represents a payroll handler:

Manager m;
Payroll_handler p;

then you expect to be able to generate m's paycheck by executing


even though the generate_paycheck function expects an Employee, rather than a Manager. Why? Because Manager has Employee as a base class, so a Manager "is-a" Employee.

In other words, you know that a function that expects an Employee& will accept a Manager argument because of inheritance.

Now consider this example:

int x[100];
std::fill(x, x+100, 42);

The call to std::fill sets all the elements of x to 42. If you look at the definition of fill, you find that it expects its first two arguments to be forward iterators. You know that x and x+100 are forward iterators because—why?

Unlike the case with virtual functions, you can tell that x and x+100 are forward iterators only by looking at their behavior in context. In particular, you need to know not only that x is a pointer, but also a pointer to an element of an array. Unless a pointer points to an array element, you cannot meaningfully apply ++ to it—an operation that is required of every forward iterator.

In other words, if x looks like a forward iterator, it is a forward iterator—regardless of the type that x actually has. Claiming that x is a forward iterator is a prime example of duck typing.

As another example, when the description of a container says that the container's elements must be assignable and copy constructable, that description is using duck typing. It doesn't care what the types actually are; it cares only that they support particular operations. It is not always even necessary for a type to support specific operations in a specific way to be considered a particular kind of duck. For example, for an object to be considered an output iterator, it is required to support the ++ and = operations only in a very restricted form. The ostream_iterator classes meet this requirement by making ++ do nothing at all!

As another example, consider the accumulate function from the Standard Library. If you call accumulate(p, q, x), the accumulate function initializes a local variable to be a copy of x. Let's call that variable acc. After initializing acc, the accumulate function looks at each iterator it in the range [p, q) and effectively executes the statement:

acc = acc + *it;

This execution might take place in more than one way, depending on the types of acc and *it. For example, acc could be of a type that has an operator+ member. Alternatively, there could be an operator+ defined separately that accepts, as arguments, values of the types of acc and *it. The specification of accumulate doesn't care; all it requires is that acc and *it quack in the right dialect.

Useful Ducks

Python takes advantage of duck typing in contexts that C++ programmers may find surprising. For example, the normal Python way of printing the value of an expression on the standard output stream is:

print "Hello, world!"

By default, the destination is the standard output stream and the output is followed by a newline. If you want to print the same message on the standard error stream, you do so this way:

import sys
print >>sys.stderr, "Hello, world"

So far, these examples don't look much different from their C++ counterparts:

std::cout << "Hello, world!\n";


std::cerr << "Hello, world!\n";

The difference is that in C++, std::cout and std::cerr are objects with << members that, in turn, accept string literals. In Python, what follows the >> is an object of any type that happens to have a method named write.

Suppose that for some reason, you want to make it easy to write the same text on both the standard output and standard error files. Doing so in Python is easy:

import sys
class DualWriter:
   def write(self, x):

Now you can create a DualWriter object:

dual = DualWriter()

and then whenever you execute

print >>dual, x

the value of x appears on both the standard output and standard error streams. Because you know that the >> mechanism assumes only the existence of the write method, you could define a tiny class that >> would accept because of duck typing. Suppose we wanted to do something similar in C++. It might appear at first to be impossible, because << is a member of the ostream library classes, and you cannot easily define such a class of your own. However, when you write an expression such as:

dual << "Hello, world!\n"

in C++, you don't actually require dual to be a member of the ostream hierarchy. It suffices for our purposes that dual support a << member that can handle the right types. What are the right types? Whatever it takes to make our class look like a duck.

Here's a start:

class DualWriter {
   DualWriter(std::ostream& s1, std::ostream& s2):
      s1(s1), s2(s2) { }
   template<class T> DualWriter& operator<<(const T& t) {
      s1 << t;
      s2 << t;
      return *this;
   std::ostream& s1;
   std::ostream& s2;

We have defined a tiny class named DualWriter that encapsulates references to two output streams. When you construct a DualWriter object, you say what those streams are. The only other work that a DualWriter object will do is to implement a << operator that takes a (const reference to an) object of any type and calls each ostream's << operator with that object. In effect, you're saying that as far as the << operation is concerned, a DualWriter is the same kind of duck as an ostream, whatever kind of duck that might be.

Of course, you can extend this class to support other operations as needed. However, it is useful even in its current sketchy form:

DualWriter dual(std::cout, std::cerr);
dual << "Hello, world!\n";

will say Hello, world! on both the standard output and standard error streams.


The distinction in C++ between duck typing and inheritance comes from C++'s static type system and is part of the price we pay for having C++ programs run as quickly as they do. Runtime duck typing is expensive, so C++ doesn't support it. When a C++ program executes obj.f(x), and obj is a reference to a base class with a virtual function f, C++'s inheritance requirements ensure that obj actually refers to an object that has a member function named f, and that function's return type has the same internal representation, regardless of which derived class f is actually called.

In contrast, compile-time duck typing doesn't cost anything during runtime. Indeed, it is duck typing that makes it possible for the C++ library to define a single vector template that allows vector<T> for any suitable type T, rather than requiring T to be derived from a class such as vector_element. The standard containers require their element types to be "assignable" and "copy constructible," but those notions are just ways of describing particular kinds of ducks. It is these notions' lack of inheritance requirements that lets us use types such as vector<int>, even though int is not part of any inheritance hierarchy.

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