Implicit and Explicit Conversions

Document number: P0705R0
Date: 2017-06-19
Audience: LEWG
Reply-to: Tony Van Eerd. conversions at

Note: This paper intentionally left unfinished - I would like to get feedback before continuing.

Three Types of Conversions

Let's be explicit about the different conversions:

1. Implicit Constructor and/or Implicit Cast

struct Int
   operator int() { return 17; }

Int J = 17;  // Int(17) constructor
int k = J;   // J.operator int()

2. Explicit Constructor and/or Explicit Cast

struct Ent
   explicit Ent(int) {};
   explicit operator int() { return 23; }

// three "spellings" for calling Ent(int)
Ent E = Ent(17);
Ent F = (Ent)17;
Ent G = static_cast<Ent>(17);

// three "spellings" for calling operator int()
int x = int(E);
int y = (int)E;
int z = static_cast<int>(E);

P.S. I find it weird and unfortunate that casting and construction are the same. ie:

class Image {
    Image(char const * filename) { ... }
Image x = (Image)"foo.png";  // cast a string to an Image???

3. “Named” Conversion

struct Nnt
    // inside class...
    static Nnt from_int(int) { return Nnt(); }
    int to_int() { return 31; }

// ...or free functions:
Nnt to_Nnt(int) { return Nnt(); }
int to_int(Nnt) { return 13; }

Nnt N = Nnt::from_int(5);
Nnt M = to_Nnt(7);

int w = N.to_int();
int v = to_int(N);  // more generic

Which should be used When, and Why?

When determining whether to use implicit, explicit, or named conversions, there are some aspects to consider. Answering these questions can help decide which type of conversion should be used.

If we are to form general LEWG guidelines, we need to decide which of these are worth considering, and to what extent.

Same “Platonic” Thing

Many C++ objects attempt to represent objects or ideas outside of the language. ie, things such as “numbers” and “dates”. For example, both int and long attempt to represent numbers and their operations, but can’t represent all numbers. The term “platonic” is used here in reference to Plato’s Theory of Forms. When converting from one type to another, it is important to ask whether both types represent the same platonic thing, and thus whether the conversion is “natural”. Converting from int to long both represent numbers, so is “natural”. But int and string do not represent the same platonic thing.

Some types are obviously not attempting to model the same “thing”. An Image class may have a constructor like Image(file_system::path const & file), but obviously an Image does not attempt to model the same thing as a file_system::path.

This is probably the number one criteria for deciding implicit vs explicit - is it the same platonic thing.

Implicit conversons must just “do the right thing” - ie std::chrono seconds to minutes. Whereas int to seconds is explicit because int is models a Number, and seconds models a Duration - not the same Thing.

Information Fidelity

When considering the platonic form, we also need to consider how well the platonic is represented and preserved. Is there information loss? int represents fewer numbers than long does (typically). char * cannot have embedded nulls, string_view and string can. string cannot separate “empty” from “null/invalid”, char * (null vs “”) and string_view (.data()==nullptr vs .length()==0) can (although you may argue whether should be used that way).


Performance is always important in C++. A conversion could have both time and space performance considerations. Most programmers may expect implicit conversions to take “no time”. Hiding lots of code behind overloaded operators is a common complaint about C++. Maybe complexity could be a separate category - developers expect implicit conversions to be “simple”. You don’t want to be forced to trace into implicit conversions when debugging - they are too easy to skip over.

Note, however, that things like string(string const &), vector(vector const &), etc are implicit copy constructors, and they have performance impacts.


Does the conversion throw? Does it allocate memory? Can it fail?
Note, however, that things like string(string const &), vector(vector const &), etc are implicit copy constructors, and yet they throw.


Some conversions are platonic, fast, don’t throw, etc, yet are dangerous. ie converting a std::string to a char *. We could make this implicit, but instead made it a named conversion c_str(). Why? Because the pointer could be left dangling - it is too easy to be dangerous.

Code Review

This is somewhat a collection of the other properties. If the conversion is dangerous or lossy or throws, etc, then maybe you want to be able to easily police it during code reviews, and easily spot it when debugging. Implicit conversions are hardest to spot, named conversions easiest.

Generic Code

How would this work in generic code?

Each type of conversion interacts differently with generic code. Be careful with explicit casts when you don’t actually know the types involved (ie due to templates) - you don’t know what you are being explicit about.
User code should avoid using explicit casts/constructors - if all code is explicit, explicit == implicit.

template <class Duration1, class Duration2>
nanoseconds average(Duration1 d1, Duration2 d2)
    // whoops: explicit ctor used
    auto ns = nanoseconds{d1 + d2};
    return ns/2;

// much later...
int i = ...;
int j = ...;
nanoseconds a = average(i, j);


template <class Duration1, class Duration2>
nanoseconds average(Duration1 d1, Duration2 d2)
    nanoseconds ns = d1 + d2;
    return ns/2;

If you know you want to work with disparate (not same-platonic-thing) types, pick a named function (like to_string) and make it a requirement on your concept. This aspect is more about what you expect templates to look like, than what your conversion looks like.

Named free-function conversions can be good extension points.
However, they do require agreement on the name - which is fine for STL, but harder for independent libraries.
ie my library called it to_int but your library called it to_integer. De facto standands - plural. :-(

Note: Extensions points in STL have their own problems. ADL, using std::swap. etc.

Modifying Existing Classes

Constructors and casts are not free functions. Named conversions can be. Thus only named conversions are possible for classes that you can’t modify. We can modify existing STL classes, but we need to be careful about code breakage. We can, of course, modify newly-proposed STL classes.

If In Doubt

Although the language rule is implicit-by-default, as a coding guideline, I think the default should be explicit. ie suggestion:

All new STL classes should have explicit constructors unless there is _motivation to make it otherwise._

Given the above considerations, we can express this in a table. There’s always a table

How to read this table.

Think of a conversion. Answer the questions along the left column. The rightmost column that gets a “check” for your conversion is the type of conversion you should choose (except the ‘generic code’ column). Thus only choose implicit if ALL checks are in the implicit column. “generic code” exception: you could choose Named in addition to Implicit/Explicit if you are choosing Named just as an extension point. (ie string can still have a to_string function). And yes, the differences between Explicit and Named are not always cut and dry.

Consideration Your Class? Your Class? Your Class?
same platonic thing? yes no[1] -
info fidelity no loss some loss more loss
performance penalty? little/no some yes
throws? noexcept?/rarely?/ same as copyctor? yes -
danger? (dangling, etc) no yes -
code review? no need self-policed[2] greppable / policeable
generic code? strict less strict “extension point”
can modify class? yes yes no
are you sure? yes no -
Result Implicit ctor/cast Explicit cast/ctor Named

1. If not the same platonic thing, you can have an explicit constructor, but you shouldn’t have a cast at all
2. ‘self-policed’ - Explicit conversions are more for situations where you want the developer to stop for a second and think about the conversion, but have enough faith in the average developer to make a good choice, and don’t feel it typically needs much further policing. You can see it in a code review, but harder to grep for.

How are we (std::) doing?


Other Things to Consider

We need guidelines that also cover these issues:


Howard Hinnant knows this better than I do, and gave me lots of input and examples. Such as chrono, which is one big example of explicit vs implicit. I also appreciate the encouragement I received from Jeffrey, Gaby, and others.