Deprecate uses of the comma operator in subscripting expressions

Published Proposal,

This version:
ISO/IEC JTC1/SC22/WG21 14882: Programming Language — C++


We propose to deprecate the use of the comma operator in subscripting expressions as they are not very useful, confusing and limit futures evolutions of the standard.

1. Introduction

This paper proposes that the use of a comma operator within a subscripting expression be deprecated. Doing so opens the door to multidimensional subscript operators for classes such as mdspan.

Current Proposed
array[x]     // Ok
array[(x,y)] // Ok, uses y as index/key
array[x,y]   // Ok, uses y as index/key
array[x]      // Ok
array[(x,y)]  // Ok, uses y as index/key
array[x,y]    // Deprecated, uses y as index/key

2. Motivation

Currently, a comma can appear in subscript expressions such that auto z = foo[x, y] calls the comma operator with y as the argument. While this is currently unambiguous, it is confusing when encountered and error-prone when used.

The authors think this syntax would be more useful and suited to index multidimensional classes such as mdspan.

mdspan<int, array_property::dimension<2, 3, 5>> foo(/*...*/);
int value = foo[1, 2, 3];

We do not propose to make this possible until a reasonable deprecation period has passed.

However [P1277] suggests a shortest depreciation period and provides wording for a multi-dimensional operator subscript.

It is the hope of the authors that mdspan will be able to adopt such an operator in a timely fashionn rather than nastily re-purposing the call operator for lack or a more suitable alternative.

It is important to note that the goal is not to special-casing the meaning of a comma within a subscript expression. Indeed, the standard defines that:

In contexts where comma is given a special meaning, [ Example: in lists of arguments to functions ([expr.call]) and lists of initializers ([dcl.init]) — end example ] the comma operator as described in this subclause can appear only in parentheses.

So simply by supporting multiple parameters, a comma within a subscript operator would serve as an argument separator, without the need for specific wording or parsing.

2.1. The need for a multidimensional subscript operator

The classes that can benefit from a multidimensional subscript operator are higher-dimensions variants of classes that define a single-dimension subscript operator: matrixes, views, geometric entities, graphics APIs...

mdspan comes immediately to mind. Note that because there is no multidimensional subscript operator in the standard, mdspan uses the call operator. While this is functionally equivalent to what a multidimensional subscript operator would be, it does not carry the same semantic, making the code harder to read and reason about. It also encourages non-semantical operator overloading.

2.2. What a multidimensional subscript operator would look like

This paper does not propose a multidimensional subscript operator, yet, it’s interesting to look at what it would look like. The most logical thing to do would be to mirror the call operator syntax.

template <typename DataType>
class mdspan {
  using reference = /*...*/;
  reference operator[]( IndexType ... indices ) const noexcept;

mdspan<int[1][2][3]> foo = /*....*/;
auto bar = foo[0, 1, 2];

This syntax resembles that of a call operator, but with the proper semantics. A similar syntax can be found in popular languages such as Python, D and Ruby.

3. Impact on existing code bases

We analyzed several large open source codebases and did not find a significant use of this pattern. The tool used is available on Github and automatic refactoring of large code bases is possible. In all cases, array[x,y,z] can be refactored in array[(x,y,z)] without alteration of semantics or behavior.

The codebases analyzed include the Linux kernel, Chromium, the LLVM project and the entirety of the Boost test suite. The only instances found were in Boost’s "Spirit Classic" library (deprecated since 2009). A documentation of the offending syntax can be found here.

4. Alternative approaches

4.1. Allow comma expression only in C arrays

To maintain compatibility with C, it would be possible to deprecate the use of the comma operator only in overloaded operators. Example:

int c_array[1];
c_array[1,0];   // not deprecated

std::array<int, 1> cpp_array;
cpp_array[1,0];   // deprecated

However, this would probably lead to more confusion for a feature that is virtually unused.

4.2. Alternative syntax for multidimensional subscript expressions

It has been proposed that array[x][y] should be equivalent to array.operator[](x, y);

mdspan<int, array_property::dimension<2,3>> foo;
auto x = foo[0][0]; //equivalent to foo(0, 0);

However, it’s easy to imagine a scenario such that (array[x])[y] would be a valid expression. For example:

struct row {
    Foo & operator[size_t];
struct grid {
    row & operator[size_t] const;
    const Foo & operator[size_t, size_t] const;
grid g;

In this somewhat artificial example, g[0][0] and (g[0])[0] would be 2 valid, different expressions, which is confusing. Moreover, making this syntax compatible with pack expansion and fold expressions would certainly prove challenging.

On the other hand, this syntax mirror the usage of multidimensional C arrays and is also popular in other languages, such as Perl.

4.3. Other comma expressions

Early feedback on this paper suggested we might want to deprecate comma expressions in more contexts. While the authors of this paper are not suggesting that, for completeness, we analyzed a few open source projects.

Below are tables of contexts in which comma expressions are found in various open source projects. The data was generated with the clang-tidy. It is meant to give a rough idea of the ways comma expressions are used and does not pretend to be completely accurate.

We provide two tables. The first counts each expression encountered throughout a project exactly one and as such gives an idea of the amount of code that would have to be modified to conform to some eventual deprecation.

4.3.1. Without duplication caused by headers included multiple times throughout a project

Parent Expression Boost Chromium Firefox Kernel Libreoffice LLVM Qt Estimated LOC affected*
ParenExpr 958 7717 4360 72 9375 70 1494 24046 0.030%-0.080%
ForStmt 764 2916 1461 565 3275 919 2616 12516 0.016%-0.042%
CompoundStmt 190 239 62 12 182 4 63 752 0.001%-0.003%
ReturnStmt 160 329 53 - 53 6 92 693 0.001%-0.002%
WhileStmt 69 19 4 - 66 - 14 172 ~
IfStmt 31 51 11 - 30 1 - 124 ~
ConditionalOperator 12 17 18 - 36 - 17 100 ~
CaseStmt - 7 - - 20 - - 27 ~
DoStmt 1 10 1 - 1 - - 13 ~
CXXStaticCastExpr 5 - - - - - - 5 ~
ArraySubscriptExpr 11 - - - - - - 11 ~
DefaultStmt - - - - 1 - - 1 ~

Estimated 30 to 80 millions LOC compiled. This is a back of the envelop calculation meant to be an order of magnetude rather that a meaningful, accurate value.

4.3.2. Non-Deduplicated results.

This second table represents the number of warnings that would be emitted following some eventual deprecation.

Parent Expression Boost Chromium Firefox Kernel Libreoffice LLVM Qt
ParenExpr 167038 69625 100295 924 55551 1451 6045 400929
ForStmt 106372 139460 99515 4114 12876 13343 11464 387144
ReturnStmt 55417 20353 1253 - 455 46 17636 95160
WhileStmt 11179 33 10 - 66 - 8822 20110
ConditionalOperator 11894 17 18 - 182 - 17 12128
CompoundStmt 8995 335 254 12 341 4 314 10255
IfStmt 504 54 26 - 359 1 - 944
CXXStaticCastExpr 653 - - - - - - 653
DoStmt 18 14 34 - 1 - - 67
CaseStmt - 7 - - 35 - - 42
ArraySubscriptExpr 4 1 - - - - - - 41
DefaultStmt - - - - 4 - - 4

1. The only instances found where in boost’s "Spirit Classic" library (deprecated since 2009).A documentation of the offending syntax can be found here.

5. Proposed Wording

In annex D, add a new Paragraph

Comma operator in subscript expressions Comma operator expressions in subscript expressions are deprecated. [Note: a comma appearing in parenthesis is not deprecated]
a[b,c];   //deprecated
a[(b,c)]; // Not deprecated

In 8.5.19 [expr.comma], add a paragraph

[Note: In subscript expressions, the comma operator is deprecated. See [depr.comma-subscript]]

Add a paragraph after [expr.sub]

[Note: In subscript expressions, the comma operator is deprecated. See [depr.comma-subscript]]

6. Acknowledgments

Thanks to Martin Hořeňovský who computed some of the statistics on comma operator usages presented in this paper.

Thanks to Titus Winters and JF Bastien who provided useful feedbacks and criticism.


Informative References

Isabella Muerte. Subscripts On Parade. URL: https://wg21.link/P1277