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Learning Standard C++ as a New Language

May 1999/Learning Standard C++ as a New Language


To get the most out of Standard C++ [1], we must rethink the way we write C++ programs. An approach to such a "rethink" is to consider how C++ can be learned (and taught). What design and programming techniques do we want to emphasize? What subsets of the language do we want to learn first? What subsets of the language do we want to emphasize in real code?

This article compares a few simple C++ programs, written in a modern style using the standard library, to traditional C-style solutions. It argues briefly that lessons from these simple examples are relevant to large programs. More generally, this article argues for a use of C++ as a higher-level language that relies on abstraction to provide elegance without loss of efficiency compared to lower-level styles.

We want our programs to be easy to write, correct, maintainable, and acceptably efficient. It follows that we ought to use C++ — and any other programming language — in ways that most closely approximate this ideal. It is my conjecture that the C++ community has yet to internalize the facilities offered by Standard C++; major improvements relative to the ideal can be obtained by reconsidering our style of C++ use. This article focuses on the styles of programming that the facilities offered by Standard C++ support — not the facilities themselves.

The key to major improvements is a reduction of the size and complexity of the code we write through the use of libraries. Below, I demonstrate and quantify these reductions for a couple of simple examples such as might be part of an introductory C++ course.

By reducing size and complexity, we reduce development time, ease maintenance, and decrease the cost of testing. Importantly, we also simplify the task of learning C++. For toy programs and for students who program only to get a good grade in a nonessential course, this simplification would be sufficient. However, for professional programmers efficiency is a major issue. Only if efficiency isn't sacrificed can we expect our programming styles to scale to the data volumes and real-time requirements of modern services and businesses. Consequently, I present measurements that demonstrate that the reduction in complexity can be obtained without loss of efficiency. Finally, I discuss the implications of this view on approaches to learning and teaching C++


Consider a fairly typical second exercise in using a programming language:

    write a prompt "Please enter your name"
    read the name
    write out "Hello <name>"

In Standard C++, the obvious solution is:

#include<iostream> // get standard I/O facilities
#include<string>   // get standard string facilities

int main()
   // gain access to standard library
   using namespace std; 

   cout << "Please enter your name: \n";
   string name;
   cin >> name;
   cout << "Hello" << name << '\n';

For a real novice, we need to explain the "scaffolding." What is main()? What does #include mean? What does using do? In addition, we need to understand all the "small" conventions, such as what \n does, where semicolons are needed, etc.

However, the main part of the program is conceptually simple and differs only notationally from the problem statement. We have to learn the notation, but doing so is relatively simple: string is a string, cout is output, << is the operator we use write to output, etc.

To compare, consider a traditional C-style solution [Note 1]:

#include<stdio. h> // get standard I/O facilities

int main()
   const int max = 20; // maximum name length is 19
   char name[max];
   printf("Please enter your name: \n");

   // read characters into name
   scanf( "%s" , name); 
   printf( "Hello %s\n" ,name);
   return 0;

Objectively, the main logic here is slightly — but only slightly — more complicated than the C++-style version because we have to explain about arrays and the magic %s. The main problem is that this simple C-style solution is shoddy. If someone enters a first name that is longer than the magic number 19 (the stated number 20 minus one for a C-style string null termination), the program is corrupted.

It can be argued that this kind of shoddiness is harmless as long as a proper solution is presented "later on." However, that line of argument is at best "acceptable" rather than "good." Ideally, a novice user isn't presented with a program that brittle.

What would a C-style program that behaved as reasonably as the C++-style one look like? As a first attempt we could simply prevent the array overflow by using scanf in a more appropriate manner:

#include<stdio. h> // get standard I/O facilities

int min()
    const int max 20;
    char name [max];
    printf( "Please enter your first name: \n");
    scanf( "%19s", name); // read at most 19 chars
    printf( "Hello %s\n", name);
    return 0;

There is no standard way of directly using the symbolic form of the buffer size, max, in the scanf format string, so I had to use the integer literal. That is bad style and a maintenance hazard. The expert-level alternative is not one I'd care to explain to novices:

char fmt[10];
// create a format string. plain %s can overflow
sprintf(fmt, "%%%ds", max-1);
// read at most max-1 characters into name
scanf(fmt, name);

Furthermore, this program throws "surplus" characters away. What we want is for the string to expand to cope with the input. To achieve that, we have to descend to a lower level of abstraction and deal with individual characters:


void quit()
    // write error message and quit
    fprintf( stderr, "memory exhausted\n");
    exit (1);

int main()
    int max= 20;
    // allocate buffer:
    char* name = (char*) malloc(max);
    if (name ==0) quit();
    printf( "Please enter your first name: \n");
    // skip leading whitespace
    while (true) {
        int c = getchar();
        if (c = EOF) break;     // end of file
        if (!isspace(c)) {
            ungetc (c, stdin);

    int i = 0;
    while (true) {
        int c = getchar();
        if (c == '\n' || c == EOF) {
            // at end, add terminating zero
            name[i] = 0;
        name[i] = c;
        if (i == max-1) {       // buffer full
            max = max+max;
            name = (char*) realloc(name, max);
            if (name == 0) quit();

    printf( "Hello %s\n", name);
    free(name);                 // release memory
    return 0;

Compared to the previous versions, this version seems rather complex. I feel a bit bad adding the code for skipping whitespace because I didn't explicitly require that in the original problem statement. However, skipping initial whitespace is the norm and the other versions of the program skip whitespace.

One could argue that this example isn't all that bad. Most experienced C and C++ programmers would — in a real program — probably (hopefully?) have written something equivalent in the first place. We might even argue that if you couldn't write that program, you shouldn't be a professional programmer. However, consider the added conceptual load on a novice. This variant uses seven different standard library functions, deals with character-level input in a rather detailed manner, uses pointers, and explicitly deals with free store. To use realloc while staying portable, I had to use malloc (rather than new). This brings the issues of sizes and casts [Note 2] into the picture. It is not obvious what is the best way to handle the possibility of memory exhaustion in a small program like this. Here, I simply did something obvious to avoid the discussion going off on another tangent. Someone using the C-style approach would have to carefully consider which approach would form a good basis for further teaching and eventual use.

To summarize, to solve the original simple problem, I had to introduce loops, tests, storage sizes, pointers, casts, and explicit free-store management in addition to whatever a solution to the problem inherently needs. This style is also full of opportunity for errors. Thanks to long experience, I didn't make any of the obvious off-by-one or allocation errors. Having primarily worked with stream I/O for a while, I initially made the classical beginner's error of reading into a char (rather that into an int) and forgetting to check for EOF. In the absence of something like the C++ standard library, it is no wonder that many teachers stick with the "shoddy" solution and postpone these issues until later. Unfortunately, many students simply note that the shoddy style is "good enough" and quicker to write than the (non-C++ style) alternatives. Thus they acquire a habit that is hard to break and leave a trail of buggy code behind.

This last C-style program is 41 lines compared to 10 lines for its functionally equivalent C++-style program. Excluding "scaffolding," the difference is 30 lines vs 4. Importantly, the C++-style lines are also shorter and inherently easier to understand. The number and complexity of concepts needed to be explained for the C++-style and C-style versions are harder to measure objectively, but I suggest a 10-to-1 advantage for the C++-style version.


Efficiency is not an issue in a trivial program like the one above. For such programs, simplicity and (type) safety is what matters. However, real systems often consist of parts in which efficiency is essential. For such systems, the question becomes "can we afford a higher level of abstraction?"

Consider a simple example of the kind of activity that occurs in programs where efficiency matters:

    read an unknown number of elements
    do something to each element
    do something with all elements

The simplest specific example I can think of is a program to find the mean and median of a sequence of double-precision floating-point numbers read from input. A conventional C-style solution would be:

// C-style solution:
// comparison function for use by qsort()
int compare (const void* p, const void* q)
    register double p0 = * (double* )p;
    register double q0 = * (double*)q;
    if (p0 > q0) return 1;
    if (pO < qO) return -1;
    return 0;
void quit()
    fprintf(stderr, "memory exhausted\n");

int main(int argc, char*argv[])
    int res = 1000;     // initial allocation
    char* file = argv[2];
    double* buf= (double*) malloc(sizeof(double) * res);
    if (buf == 0) quit();
    double median = 0;
    double mean = 0;
    int n = 0;
    FILE* fin = fopen(file, "r");   // openfile for reading
    double d;
    while (fscanf(fin, "%lg", &d) == 1) {
        if(n == res) {
            res += res;
            buf = (double*) realloc(buf, sizeof(double) * res);
            if (buf == 0) quit();
        buf[n++] = d;
        // prone to rounding errors
        mean = (n==1) ? d : mean+(d-mean)/n;

    qsort(buf, n, sizeof(double), compare);
    if (n) {
        int mid=n/2;
        median = (n%2) ? buf[mid] : (buf[mid-1]+buf[mid])/2;
    printf( "number of elements=%d, median=%g, mean=%g\n",
            n, median, mean);

To compare, here is an idiomatic C++ solution.

// Solution using the Standard C++ library:

#include <vector>
#include <fstream>
#include <algorithm>

using namespace std;

main(int argc, char*argv[])
    char* file = argv[2];
    vector<double> buf;
    double median = 0;
    double mean = 0;
    fstream fin(file,ios::in);
    double d;
    while (fin >> d) {
        mean = (buf.size() == 1) ?
            d : mean+(d-mean)/buf.size();
    if (buf.size()) {
        int mid = buf.size() /2;
        median =
            (buf.size() % 2) ?
                buf[mid] : (buf[mid-1] + buf[mid] )/2;
    cout << "number of elements = " << buf.size()
         << ", median = " << median << ", mean = "
         >> mean >> '\n';

The size difference is less dramatic than in the previous example (43 vs. 24 non-blank lines). Excluding irreducible common elements such as the declaration of main() and the calculation of the median (13 lines), the difference is 20 lines vs 11. The critical input-and-store loop and the sort are both significantly shorter in the C++-style program (nine vs. four lines for the read-and-store loop, and nine lines vs. one line for the sort). More importantly, the logic contained in each line is far simpler in the C++ version — and therefore far easier to get right.

Again, memory management is implicit in the C++-style program; a vector grows as needed when elements are added using push_back. In the C-style program, memory management is explicit using realloc. Basically, the vector constructor and push_back in the C++-style program does what malloc, realloc, and the code tracking the size of allocated memory does in the C-style program. In the C++-style program, I rely on the exception handling to report memory exhaustion. In the C-style program, I added explicit tests to avoid the possibility of memory corruption.

Not surprisingly, the C++ version was easier to get right. I constructed this C++-style version from the C-style version by cut-and-paste. I forgot to include <algorithm>; I left n in place rather than using buf.size twice; and my compiler didn't support the local using-directive, so I had to move it outside main. On the other hand, after fixing these four errors, the program ran correctly the first time.

To a novice, qsort is "odd." Why do you have to give the number of elements? (Because the array doesn't know it.) Why do you have to give the size of a double? (Because qsort doesn't know that it is sorting doubles.) Why do you have to write that ugly function to compare doubles? (Because qsort needs a pointer to function because it doesn't know the type of the elements that it is sorting.) Why does qsort's comparison function take const void* arguments rather than char* arguments? (Because qsort can sort based on non-string values.) What is a void* and what does it mean for it to be const? ("Eh, hmmm, we'll get to that later.") Explaining this to a novice without getting a blank stare of wonderment over the complexity of the answer is not easy. Explaining sort(v.begin( ), v.end()) is comparatively easy: "Plain sort(v) would have been simpler in this case, but sometimes we want to sort part of a container, so it's more general to specify the beginning and end of what we want to sort."

To compare efficiencies, I first determined how much input was needed to make an efficiency comparison meaningful. For 50,000 numbers the programs ran in less than half a second each, so I chose to compare runs with 500,000 and 5,000,000 input values. The results appear in Table 1.

The key numbers are the ratios; a ratio larger than one means that the C++-style version is faster. Comparisons of languages, libraries, and programming styles are notoriously tricky, so please do not draw sweeping conclusions from these simple tests. The numbers are averages of several runs on an otherwise quiet machine. The variance between different runs of an example was less than 1 percent. I also ran strictly ISO C conforming versions of the C-style programs. As expected there were no performance differences between those programs and their C-style C++ equivalents.

I had expected the C++-style program to be only slightly faster. Checking other C++ implementations, I found a surprising variance in the results. In some cases, the C-style version even outperformed the C++- style version for small data sets. However, the point of this example is that a higher level of abstraction and a better protection against errors can be affordable given current technology. The implementation I used is widely available and cheap — not a research toy. Implementations that claim higher performance are also available.

It is not unusual to find people willing to pay a factor of 3, 10, or even 50 for convenience and better protection against errors. Getting these benefits together with a doubling or quadrupling of speed is spectacular. These figures should be the minimum that a C++ library vendor would be willing to settle for. To get a better idea of where the time was spent, I ran a few additional tests (see Table 2).

Naturally, "read" simply reads the data and "read&sort" reads the data and sorts it but doesn't produce output. To get a better feel for the cost of input, "generate" produces random numbers rather than reading.

From other examples and other implementations, I had expected C++ stream I/O to be somewhat slower than stdio. That was actually the case for a previous version of this program which used cin rather than a file stream. It appears that on some C++ implementations, file I/O is much faster than cin. The reason is at least partly poor handling of the tie between cin and cout. However, these numbers demonstrate that C++-style I/O can be as efficient as C-style I/O.

Changing the programs to read and sort integers instead of floating-point values did not change the relative performance — though it was nice to note that making that change was much simpler in the C++-style program (two edits as compared to twelve for the C-style program). That is a good omen for maintainability. The differences in the "generate" tests reflect a difference in allocation costs. A vector plus push_back ought to be exactly as fast as an array plus malloc/free, but it wasn't. The reason appears to be failure to optimize away calls of initializers that do nothing. Fortunately, the cost of allocation is (always) dwarfed by the cost of the input that caused the need for the allocation. As expected, sort was noticeably faster than qsort. The main reason is that sort inlines its comparison operations whereas qsort must call a function.

It is hard to choose an example to illustrate efficiency issues. One comment I had from a colleague was that reading and comparing numbers wasn't realistic. I should read and sort strings. So I tried this program:


using namespace std;

int main(int argc, char* argv[])
    char* file = argv[2];   // input file name
    char* ofile = argv[3];  // output file name

    vector<string> buf;
    fstream fin (file,ios::in);
    string d;
    while (getline (fin, d))
        buf.push_back (d);
    sort(buf.begin(), buf.end());
    fstream fout (ofile, ios: out);
    copy(buf.begin(), buf.end(),
        ostream_iterator<string> (fout, "\n"));

I transcribed this into C and experimented a bit to optimize the reading of characters. The C++-style code performs well even against hand-optimized C-style code that eliminates copying of strings. For small amounts of output there is no significant difference, and for larger amounts of data, sort again beats qsort because of its better inlining (see Table 3).

I used two million strings because I didn't have enough main memory to cope with five million strings without paging.

To get an idea of where time was spent, I also ran the program with the sort omitted (see Table 4). The strings were relatively short (seven characters on average).

Note that string is a perfectly ordinary user-defined type that just happens to be part of the standard library. What we can do efficiently and elegantly with a string, we can do efficiently and elegantly with many other user-defined types.

Why do I discuss efficiency in the context of programming style and teaching? The styles and techniques we teach must scale to real-world problems. C++ is — among other things — intended for large-scale systems and systems with efficiency constraints. Consequently, I consider it unacceptable to teach C++ in a way that leads people to use styles and techniques that are effective for toy programs only; that would lead people to failure and to abandon what was taught. The measurements above demonstrate that a C++ style relying heavily on generic programming and concrete types to provide simple and type-safe code can be efficient compared to traditional C styles. Similar results have been obtained for object-oriented styles.

It is a significant problem that the performance of different implementations of the standard library differ dramatically. For a programmer who wants to rely on standard libraries (or widely distributed libraries that are not part of the standard), it is often important that a programming style that delivers good performance on one system give at least acceptable performance on another. I was appalled to find examples where my test programs ran twice as fast in the C++ style compared to the C style on one system and only half as fast on another. Programmers should not have to accept a variability of a factor of four between systems. As far as I can tell, this variability is not caused by fundamental reasons, so consistency should be achievable without heroic efforts from the library implementers. Better optimized libraries may be the easiest way to improve both the perceived and actual performance of Standard C++. Compiler implementers work hard to eliminate minor performance penalties compared with other compilers. I conjecture that the scope for improvements is larger in the standard library implementations.

Clearly, the simplicity of the C++-style solutions above compared to the C-style solutions was made possible by the C++ standard library. Does that make the comparison unrealistic or unfair? I don't think so. One of the key aspects of C++ is its ability to support libraries that are both elegant and efficient. The advantages demonstrated for the simple examples hold for every application area where elegant and efficient libraries exist or could exist. The challenge to the C++ community is to extend the areas where these benefits are available to ordinary programmers. That is, we must design and implement elegant and efficient libraries for many more application areas and we must make these libraries widely available.

Learning C++

Even for the professional programmer, it is impossible to first learn a whole programming language and then try to use it. A programming language is learned in part by trying out its facilities for small examples. Consequently, we always learn a language by mastering a series of subsets. The real question is not "should I learn a subset first?" but "which subset should I learn first?"

One conventional answer to the question "which subset of C++ should I learn first?" is "the C subset of C++." In my considered opinion, that's not a good answer. The C-first approach leads to an early focus on low-level details. It also obscures programming style and design issues by forcing the student to face many technical difficulties to express anything interesting. The examples in the previous two sections illustrate this point. C++'s better support of libraries, better notational support, and better type checking are decisive against a "C first" approach. However, note that my suggested alternative isn't "pure Object-Oriented Programming first." I consider that the other extreme.

For programming novices, learning a programming language should support the learning of effective programming techniques. For experienced programmers who are novices at C++, the learning should focus on how effective programming techniques are expressed in C++ and on techniques that are new to the programmer. For experienced programmers, the greatest pitfall is often to concentrate on using C++ to express what was effective in some other language. The emphasis for both novices and experienced programmers should be concepts and techniques. The syntactic and semantic details of C++ are secondary to an understanding of design and programming techniques that C++ supports.

Teaching is best done by starting from well-chosen concrete examples and proceeding towards the more general and more abstract. This is the way children learn and it is the way most of us grasp new ideas. Language features should always be presented in the context of their use. Otherwise, the programmer's focus shifts from the production of systems to delight over technical obscurities. Focusing on language technical details can be fun but it is not effective education.

On the other hand, treating programming as merely the handmaiden of analysis and design doesn't work either. The approach of postponing actual discussion of code until every high-level and engineering topic has been thoroughly presented has been a costly mistake for many. That approach drives people away from programming and leads many to seriously underestimate the intellectual challenge in the creation of production-quality code.

The extreme opposite to the "design first" approach is to get a C++ compiler and start coding. When encountering a problem, point and click to see what the online help has to offer. The problem with this approach is that it is completely biased towards the understanding of individual features and facilities. General concepts and techniques are not easily learned this way. For experienced programmers, this approach has the added problem of reinforcing the tendency to think in a previous language while using C++ syntax and library functions. For the novice, the result is a lot of if-then-else code mixed with code snippets inserted using cut-and-paste from vendor-supplied examples. Often the purpose of the inserted code is obscure to the novice and the method by which it achieves its effect completely beyond comprehension. This is the case even for clever people. This "poking around approach" can be most useful as an adjunct to good teaching or a solid textbook, but on its own it is a recipe for disaster.

To sum up, I recommend an approach that

  • proceeds from the concrete to the abstract,
  • presents language features in the context of the programming and design techniques that they exist to support,
  • presents code relying on relatively high-level libraries before going into the lower-level details (necessary to build those libraries),
  • avoids techniques that do not scale to real-world applications,
  • presents common and useful techniques and features before details, and
  • focuses on concepts and techniques (rather than language features).

No. I don't consider this approach particularly novel or revolutionary. Mostly, I see it as common sense. However, common sense often gets lost in heated discussion about more specific topics such as whether C should be learned before C++, whether you must write Smalltalk to really understand Object-Oriented programming, whether you must start learning programming in a pure-OO fashion (whatever that means), and whether a thorough understanding of the software development process is necessary before trying to write code.

Fortunately, the C++ community has had some experience with approaches that meet my criteria. My favorite approach is to start teaching the basic language concepts such as variables, declarations, loops, etc. together with a good library. The library is essential to enable to students to concentrate on programming rather than the intricacies of, say, C-style strings. I recommend the use of the C++ standard libraries or a subset of those. This is the approach taken by the Computer Science Advanced Placement course taught in American high schools [2]. A more advanced version of that approach aimed at experienced programmers has also proved successful; for example, see [3].

A weakness of these specific approaches is the absence of a simple graphics library and graphical user interfaces early on. This could (easily?) be compensated for by a very simple interface to commercial libraries. By "very simple," I mean usable by students on day two of a C++ course. However, no such simple graphics and graphical user interface C++ library is widely available.

After the initial teaching/learning that relies on libraries, a course can proceed in a variety of ways based on the needs and interests of the students. At some point, the messier and lower-level features of C++ will have to be examined. One way of teaching/learning about pointers, casting, allocation, etc. is to examine the implementation of the classes used to learn the basics. For example, the implementation of string, vector, and list classes are excellent contexts for discussions of language facilities from the C subset of C++ that are best left out of the first part of a course.

Classes such as vector and string, which manage variable amounts of data, require the use of free store and pointers in their implementation. Before introducing those features, classes that don't require them — concrete classes such as a Date, a Point, and a Complex type — can be used to to introduce the basics of class implementation.

I tend to present abstract classes and class hierarchies after the discussion of containers and the implementation of containers, but there are many alternatives here. The actual ordering of topics should depend on the libraries used. For example, a course using a graphics library relying on class hierarchies will have to explain the basics of polymorphism and the definition of derived classes relatively early.

Finally, please remember there is no one right way to learn and teach C++ and its associated design and programming techniques. The aims and backgrounds of students differ and so does the backgrounds and experience of their teachers and textbook writers.


We want our C++ programs to be easy to write, correct, maintainable, and acceptably efficient. To do that, we must design and program at a higher level of abstraction than has typically been done with C and early C++. Through the use of libraries, this ideal is achievable without loss of efficiency compared to lower-level styles. Thus, work on more libraries, on more consistent implementation of widely-used libraries (such as he standard library), and on making libraries more widely available can yield great benefits to the C++ community.

Education must play a major role in this move to cleaner and higher-level programming styles. The C++ community doesn't need another generation of programmers who by default use the lowest level of language and library facilities available out of misplaced fear of inefficiencies. Experienced C++ programmers as well as C++ novices must learn to use Standard C++ as a new and higher-level language as a matter of course, and descend to lower levels of abstraction only where absolutely necessary. Using Standard C++ as a glorified C or glorified C with Classes would only be to waste the opportunities offered by Standard C++.


Thanks to Chuck Allison for suggesting that I write an article on learning Standard C++. Thanks to Andrew Koenig and Mike Yang for constructive comments on earlier drafts. My examples were compiled using Cygnus' EGCS 1.1 and run on a Sun Ultrasparc 10. The programs I used can be found on my homepages:


[1] For aesthetic reasons, I use C++-style symbolic constants and C++-style // comments. To get strictly conforming ISO C programs, use #define and /* */ comments.

[2] I know that C allows this to be written without explicit casts. However, that is done at the cost of allowing unsafe implicit conversion of a void* to an arbitrary pointer type. Consequently, C++ requires that cast.


[1] X3 Secretariat. Standard The C++ Language. ISO/IEC 14882:1998(E). Information Technology Council (NCITS). Washington, DC, USA. (See

[2] Susan Horwitz. Addison-Wesley's Review for the Computer Science AP Exam in C++ (Addison-Wesley, 1999). ISBN 0-201-35755-0.

[3] Andrew Koenig and Barbara Moo. "Teaching Standard C++," Parts 1-4, Journal of Object-Oriented Programming, Vol 11 (8,9) 1998 and Vol 12 (1,2) 1999.

[4] Bjarne Stroustrup. The C++ Programming language (Third Edition) (Addison-Wesley, 1997). ISBN 0-201-88954-4.

Bjarne Stroustrup is the designer and original implementer of C++. He is the author of The C++ Programming Language and The Design and Evolution of C++. His research interests include distributed systems, operating systems, simulation, design, and programming. He is an AT&T Fellow and the head of AT&T Lab's Large-scale Programming Research department. He is actively involved in the ANSI/ISO standardization of C++. He is a recipient of the 1993 ACM Grace Murray Hopper award and an ACM fellow.

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