Four C Constructs That Need To Die



C++'s compatibility to C is the key feature that got it off the ground. It also makes integrating C libraries into C++ astoundingly easy; which again is key, because all the really interesting libraries are written in C. But if you program C++ there are a few constructs that just need to be purged from any code base. Here are four constructs that have no place in proper hight level C++ code.

Linked Lists

Bad Code:

struct FooNode
    Foo      value;
    FooNode* next;

FooNode* foos = new FooNode;
foos->next = nullptr;

When learning basic algorithms and data structures, the linked list is one of the first construct you learn. The linked list is also the backbone of many containers. The key problem here is, that using it directly is error prone. Unless wrapped in clear access functions, adding and removing items quickly become problematic code. For example, since you are always holding single elements, you never know if you are actually holding the root element and can never be sure if you can just delete the element.

Good Code:

std::list<Foo> foos;

I strongly urge the use of standard containers. Yes the iterator interface is not pretty, but by now everybody has understood it. Using containers is just stupidly simple and since you can choose from the 3 basic containers 'vector', 'list' and 'deque' you get all performance characteristics you like. In addition you also get the simplified wrappers 'stack' and 'queue', for even more convenience.

Dynamic Arrays

Bad Code:

size_t fooCount = 23;
Foo*   foos     = new Foo[fooCount];

delete [] foos;

Dynamic arrays have all the problems of raw pointers with the added uncertainty of what size they are. A real design flaw in C++ is the fact that you can't see from a pointer is it actually points to one element or multiple. Finally the array delete operator is or rather lack lack of one, is a perpetual source of memory leaks.

Good Code:

size_t fooCount = 23;
std::vector<Foo> foos(fooCount);

The vector class actually makes almost all uses of dynamic arrays obsolete. It solves three problems very elegantly, it ensures strict ownership, always know how many elements it contains and will always call the proper delete operators. In addition the vector class also implements efficient resizing, buy you should not do often, so...

Static Arrays

Bad Code:

#define FOO_COUNT 23
Foo foos[FOO_COUNT];

Static arrays are generally a bad idea for entirely different reasons than dynamic arrays. Sure you can still get the count wrong, but the key issue is that in almost all uses they are really inefficient and just inflexible. Ever wonder why Windows restricts directory paths to MAX_PATH(260) chars? Because the path handling functions in windows use a static character array. Most static arrays are a ballpark number of a reasonable maximum element count. But in the general case you will not use that many. This is additionally compounded with the fact that most static arrays are used on the stack, quickly eating up stack space.

Better Code:

std::array<Foo, 23> foos;

The use of the array class solves the issue with many programing pitfalls. By using standard container semantics, you will seldom program a buffer overrun.

Good Code:

std::vector<Foo> foos;

By using the vector class the memory is moved from the stack to the heap. In addition the vector class allows to use exactly the amount of required values and thus reduces the overall memory need for the application.

Raw Strings

Bad Code:

const char* name = "Initial";
char* output = new char[strlen(name)];
strcpy(ouput, name);

Using raw stings has all the issues of dynamic arrays, since they are dynamic character arrays. The C standard has developed a class of functions to work with strings, which alleviates many smaller issues.

But my primary issue with manipulating strings, is that the code just is not readable. Not only do you need to track the memory used, you also have this amalgamation of function calls for simple operations, such as assignment or concatenation.

Good Code:

std::string output = "Initial";

The use of the string class solves almost all readability issues. I will concede that 'string' is not efficient, but neither is your C string manipulation code. (Efficient string manipulation is a different topic.)

Honorable Mentions

There are two constructs that I strongly discourage the use of, but still have some valid use in modern C++ code. These are raw pointers and unions. Finally you should not use 'goto' or 'longjmp', even in C code.