Blog 2022 04 27 The 4 use of using in C++
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The 4 use of using in C++

When I write code I don’t only want to write code that is correct. I also want to write code that is understandable, and maintainable. I want to deliver code that is easy to read not only for the compiler but also for other human beings. After all, humans will read my code more frequently than compilers.

I have been thinking what are the single most important keywords that help us write readable code. Probably this question doesn’t make much sense, but const and using are definitely among these. We already discussed const a lot, this time it’s time to see how using using can improve our code.

We are going to review the 4 ways we can use it:

  • type aliasing with using
  • introducing complete namespaces with using-directive
  • introducing members of another namespace with using-declaration
  • importing class members with using-declaration

Aliasing

In old C++ we could use typedef to give another name, to give an alias for our types. Sometimes you might want to use it instead of strong typing, just to benefit from more meaningful names like int.

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typedef int Horsepower;

Other times you want to shorten long types for easier usage:

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typedef std::vector<std::string>::iterator Iterator;

Since C++11 we can use using instead of typedef to achieve the same results.

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using Horsepower = int;
using Iterator = std::vector<std::string>::iterator;

Why would you use using over the good old typedef? Just read the above statements! Exactly like the T.43 core guideline says, it’s more readable! The keyword has a very clear meaining, then the name comes first and the old comes after a =.

Besides, using can be used more generally. It can be used for template aliases where typedef would lead to a compilation error.

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template<typename T>
typedef std::map<int, T> MapT;      // error

template<typename T>
using MapT = std::map<int, T>;   // OK

Using-directive in namespace and block scope

You’ve probably seen many code examples that right after the #include statements contain the line using namespace std.

You’ve probably seen lots of such application code.

You’ve probably been told that it’s bad.

It’s particularly bad if you do in at the global scope in a header file, just like [SF.7 from the Core Guidelines says]:

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// bad.h
#include <iostream>
using namespace std; // bad 

// user.cpp
#include "bad.h"

// some function that happens to be named copy
bool copy(/*... some parameters ...*/);

int main()
{
  // now overloads local ::copy and std::copy, could be ambiguous
  copy(/*...*/);
}

In my opinion, even the fact that as a reader you cannot be sure where a function comes from is bad. This is a simplistic example, but when you use using namespace in a long .cpp file it’s hard to keep track of where certain objects come from. I prefer having using-declarations instead and I also often introduce alias namespaces.

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//some.h
#include <other.h>

using mcs = mynamespace::component::subcomponent;

msc::Class foo();
//some.cpp
msc::Class foo() {
  using msc::AnotherClass;
  AnotherClass bar;
  // ...
}

As such, I don’t pollute the global namespace. What you have to keep in find is that when you introduce a using-directive into a header file at the global namespace header, you don’t just mess things up in the current scope.

If you include the header file in other files, you’ll also bring the inclusion of all those introduced symbols. If you introduce different header files with different global levels using-directives, the situation becomes even worse and the results of name lookup might depend on the order of inclusion.

To avoid all such problems, just follow SF.7 and don’t write using namespace at global scope in a header file.

Using-declaration in namespace and block scope

While the using-directive brings all the symbols of a namespace into the current scope, a using-declaration will bring only one item!

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using std::string;
string foo{"bar"};

In the above example, we just demonstrated how it works. After using std::string, we can refer to std::string without mentioning the std namespace.

It’s still something not to overuse! A using-declaration may also expand an overload set. It’s less dangerous to use it at a file scope than having a using-directive at the same scope, but risks still remain.

Starting from C++20, you can also introduce scoped enumerators into a namespace of block scope!

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enum class Color { red, green, blue };

class MyClass {
  using Color::red;
  Color c = red; // This is OK from C++20
};

In fact, it would also work with the old-style unscoped enum, but why would we do that?

Importing base class members with using-declaration

With using-declaration, you can introduce base class members - including constructors - into derived classes. It’s an easy way of exposing protected base class members as public in the derived class. It can be used both for functions and variables.

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#include <iostream>

class Base {
 protected:
  void foo() {
    std::cout << "Base::foo()\n";
  }
 
 int m_i = 42; 
};


class Derived : public Base {
 public:
  using Base::foo;
  using Base::m_i;
};

int main() {
  Derived d;
  d.foo();
  std::cout << d.m_i << '\n';
}
/*
Base::foo()
42
*/

If you try to modify the above example and remove any of the two using-declarations, you’ll see the compilation failing.

If the derived class already has a member with the same name, the compilation will not. The imported symbol from the base class will be hidden.

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#include <iostream>

class Base {
 protected:
  void foo() {
    std::cout << "Base::foo()\n";
  }
};


class Derived : public Base {
 public:
  using Base::foo;
  
  void foo() {
    std::cout << "Derived::foo()\n";
  }
};

int main() {
  Derived d;
  d.foo();
}
/*
Derived::foo()
*/

I find this technique really useful for unit testing. When you’re writing a mock by hand, you often have to expose protected member functions from the base class, from the class that you are about to mock.

One way of doing it is forwarding the call.

Hopefully, the function’s name in the mock is not changed, but I’ve seen it a couple of times. It really puts an extra burden on the maintainers when they realize that there is a better option.

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class ClassUnderTest {
 public:
  virtual void testMe() {
  }
  
  virtual void testMeToo() {
  }
};

class MockClassUnderTest : public ClassUnderTest {
 public:
  void testMe() override {
     ClassUnderTest::testMe(); 
  }
  
  void mockedTestMeToo() {
      ClassUnderTest::testMeToo(); 
  } 
};

Apart from tying a lot of unnecessary code, the problem above is that if the parameter list of testMe or testMeToo changes, you’ll also have to update MockClassUnderTest. You can get rid of that need by using using.

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class MockClassUnderTest : public ClassUnderTest {
 public:
  using ClassUnderTest::testMe; 
  using ClassUnderTest::testMeToo;
};

Now we have less code and it’s more understandable what’s happening. As a bonus, even the maintenance is simplified.

Conclusion

In this article, we discussed the 4 different ways that we can use the using keyword. It’s the right way to create aliases and import base class members in derived classes. At the same time, they can be also used to introduce whole namespaces into the current scope which can be particularly dangerous. Last but not least, using can also introduce single types to the current scope which is a less dangerous option than introducing whole namespaces, still, it should be used with care.

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