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Thinking in C++, 2nd ed. Volume 1

©2000 by Bruce Eckel

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9: Inline Functions

One of the important features C++ inherits from C is efficiency. If the efficiency of C++ were dramatically
less than C, there would be a significant contingent of programmers who couldn’t justify its use.

In C, one of the ways to preserve efficiency is through the use of macros, which allow you to make what looks like a function call without the normal function call overhead. The macro is implemented with the preprocessor instead of the compiler proper, and the preprocessor replaces all macro calls directly with the macro code, so there’s no cost involved from pushing arguments, making an assembly-language CALL, returning arguments, and performing an assembly-language RETURN. All the work is performed by the preprocessor, so you have the convenience and readability of a function call but it doesn’t cost you anything.

There are two problems with the use of preprocessor macros in C++. The first is also true with C: a macro looks like a function call, but doesn’t always act like one. This can bury difficult-to-find bugs. The second problem is specific to C++: the preprocessor has no permission to access class member data. This means preprocessor macros cannot be used as class member functions.

To retain the efficiency of the preprocessor macro, but to add the safety and class scoping of true functions, C++ has the inline function. In this chapter, we’ll look at the problems of preprocessor macros in C++, how these problems are solved with inline functions, and guidelines and insights on the way inlines work.

Preprocessor pitfalls

The key to the problems of preprocessor macros is that you can be fooled into thinking that the behavior of the preprocessor is the same as the behavior of the compiler. Of course, it was intended that a macro look and act like a function call, so it’s quite easy to fall into this fiction. The difficulties begin when the subtle differences appear.

As a simple example, consider the following:

#define F (x) (x + 1)

Now, if a call is made to F like this


the preprocessor expands it, somewhat unexpectedly, to the following:

(x) (x + 1)(1)

The problem occurs because of the gap between F and its opening parenthesis in the macro definition. When this gap is removed, you can actually call the macro with the gap

F (1)

and it will still expand properly to

(1 + 1)

The example above is fairly trivial and the problem will make itself evident right away. The real difficulties occur when using expressions as arguments in macro calls.

There are two problems. The first is that expressions may expand inside the macro so that their evaluation precedence is different from what you expect. For example,

#define FLOOR(x,b) x>=b?0:1

Now, if expressions are used for the arguments

if(FLOOR(a&0x0f,0x07)) // ...

the macro will expand to


The precedence of & is lower than that of >=, so the macro evaluation will surprise you. Once you discover the problem, you can solve it by putting parentheses around everything in the macro definition. (This is a good practice to use when creating preprocessor macros.) Thus,

#define FLOOR(x,b) ((x)>=(b)?0:1)

Discovering the problem may be difficult, however, and you may not find it until after you’ve taken the proper macro behavior for granted. In the un-parenthesized version of the preceding macro, most expressions will work correctly because the precedence of >= is lower than most of the operators like +, /, – –, and even the bitwise shift operators. So you can easily begin to think that it works with all expressions, including those using bitwise logical operators.

The preceding problem can be solved with careful programming practice: parenthesize everything in a macro. However, the second difficulty is subtler. Unlike a normal function, every time you use an argument in a macro, that argument is evaluated. As long as the macro is called only with ordinary variables, this evaluation is benign, but if the evaluation of an argument has side effects, then the results can be surprising and will definitely not mimic function behavior.

For example, this macro determines whether its argument falls within a certain range:

#define BAND(x) (((x)>5 && (x)<10) ? (x) : 0)

As long as you use an “ordinary” argument, the macro works very much like a real function. But as soon as you relax and start believing it is a real function, the problems start. Thus:

//: C09:MacroSideEffects.cpp
#include "../require.h"
#include <fstream>
using namespace std;

#define BAND(x) (((x)>5 && (x)<10) ? (x) : 0)

int main() {
  ofstream out("macro.out");
  assure(out, "macro.out");
  for(int i = 4; i < 11; i++) {
    int a = i;
    out << "a = " << a << endl << '\t';
    out << "BAND(++a)=" << BAND(++a) << endl;
    out << "\t a = " << a << endl;
} ///:~

Notice the use of all upper-case characters in the name of the macro. This is a helpful practice because it tells the reader this is a macro and not a function, so if there are problems, it acts as a little reminder.

Here’s the output produced by the program, which is not at all what you would have expected from a true function:

a = 4
   a = 5
a = 5
   a = 8
a = 6
   a = 9
a = 7
   a = 10
a = 8
   a = 10
a = 9
   a = 11
a = 10
   a = 12

When a is four, only the first part of the conditional occurs, so the expression is evaluated only once, and the side effect of the macro call is that a becomes five, which is what you would expect from a normal function call in the same situation. However, when the number is within the band, both conditionals are tested, which results in two increments. The result is produced by evaluating the argument again, which results in a third increment. Once the number gets out of the band, both conditionals are still tested so you get two increments. The side effects are different, depending on the argument.

This is clearly not the kind of behavior you want from a macro that looks like a function call. In this case, the obvious solution is to make it a true function, which of course adds the extra overhead and may reduce efficiency if you call that function a lot. Unfortunately, the problem may not always be so obvious, and you can unknowingly get a library that contains functions and macros mixed together, so a problem like this can hide some very difficult-to-find bugs. For example, the putc( ) macro in cstdio may evaluate its second argument twice. This is specified in Standard C. Also, careless implementations of toupper( ) as a macro may evaluate the argument more than once, which will give you unexpected results with toupper(*p++).[45]

Macros and access

Of course, careful coding and use of preprocessor macros is required with C, and we could certainly get away with the same thing in C++ if it weren’t for one problem: a macro has no concept of the scoping required with member functions. The preprocessor simply performs text substitution, so you cannot say something like

class X {
  int i;
#define VAL(X::i) // Error

or anything even close. In addition, there would be no indication of which object you were referring to. There is simply no way to express class scope in a macro. Without some alternative to preprocessor macros, programmers will be tempted to make some data members public for the sake of efficiency, thus exposing the underlying implementation and preventing changes in that implementation, as well as eliminating the guarding that private provides.

Inline functions

In solving the C++ problem of a macro with access to private class members, all the problems associated with preprocessor macros were eliminated. This was done by bringing the concept of macros under the control of the compiler where they belong. C++ implements the macro as inline function, which is a true function in every sense. Any behavior you expect from an ordinary function, you get from an inline function. The only difference is that an inline function is expanded in place, like a preprocessor macro, so the overhead of the function call is eliminated. Thus, you should (almost) never use macros, only inline functions.

Any function defined within a class body is automatically inline, but you can also make a non-class function inline by preceding it with the inline keyword. However, for it to have any effect, you must include the function body with the declaration, otherwise the compiler will treat it as an ordinary function declaration. Thus,

inline int plusOne(int x);

has no effect at all other than declaring the function (which may or may not get an inline definition sometime later). The successful approach provides the function body:

inline int plusOne(int x) { return ++x; }

Notice that the compiler will check (as it always does) for the proper use of the function argument list and return value (performing any necessary conversions), something the preprocessor is incapable of. Also, if you try to write the above as a preprocessor macro, you get an unwanted side effect.

You’ll almost always want to put inline definitions in a header file. When the compiler sees such a definition, it puts the function type (the signature combined with the return value) and the function body in its symbol table. When you use the function, the compiler checks to ensure the call is correct and the return value is being used correctly, and then substitutes the function body for the function call, thus eliminating the overhead. The inline code does occupy space, but if the function is small, this can actually take less space than the code generated to do an ordinary function call (pushing arguments on the stack and doing the CALL).

An inline function in a header file has a special status, since you must include the header file containing the function and its definition in every file where the function is used, but you don’t end up with multiple definition errors (however, the definition must be identical in all places where the inline function is included).

Inlines inside classes

To define an inline function, you must ordinarily precede the function definition with the inline keyword. However, this is not necessary inside a class definition. Any function you define inside a class definition is automatically an inline. For example:

//: C09:Inline.cpp
// Inlines inside classes
#include <iostream>
#include <string>
using namespace std;

class Point {
  int i, j, k;
  Point(): i(0), j(0), k(0) {}
  Point(int ii, int jj, int kk)
    : i(ii), j(jj), k(kk) {}
  void print(const string& msg = "") const {
    if(msg.size() != 0) cout << msg << endl;
    cout << "i = " << i << ", "
         << "j = " << j << ", "
         << "k = " << k << endl;

int main() {
  Point p, q(1,2,3);
  p.print("value of p");
  q.print("value of q");
} ///:~

Here, the two constructors and the print( ) function are all inlines by default. Notice in main( ) that the fact you are using inline functions is transparent, as it should be. The logical behavior of a function must be identical regardless of whether it’s an inline (otherwise your compiler is broken). The only difference you’ll see is in performance.

Of course, the temptation is to use inlines everywhere inside class declarations because they save you the extra step of making the external member function definition. Keep in mind, however, that the idea of an inline is to provide improved opportunities for optimization by the compiler. But inlining a big function will cause that code to be duplicated everywhere the function is called, producing code bloat that may mitigate the speed benefit (the only reliable course of action is to experiment to discover the effects of inlining on your program with your compiler).

Access functions

One of the most important uses of inlines inside classes is the access function. This is a small function that allows you to read or change part of the state of an object – that is, an internal variable or variables. The reason inlines are so important for access functions can be seen in the following example:

//: C09:Access.cpp
// Inline access functions

class Access {
  int i;
  int read() const { return i; }
  void set(int ii) { i = ii; }

int main() {
  Access A;
  int x = A.read();
} ///:~

Here, the class user never has direct contact with the state variables inside the class, and they can be kept private, under the control of the class designer. All the access to the private data members can be controlled through the member function interface. In addition, access is remarkably efficient. Consider the read( ), for example. Without inlines, the code generated for the call to read( ) would typically include pushing this on the stack and making an assembly language CALL. With most machines, the size of this code would be larger than the code created by the inline, and the execution time would certainly be longer.

Without inline functions, an efficiency-conscious class designer will be tempted to simply make i a public member, eliminating the overhead by allowing the user to directly access i. From a design standpoint, this is disastrous because i then becomes part of the public interface, which means the class designer can never change it. You’re stuck with an int called i. This is a problem because you may learn sometime later that it would be much more useful to represent the state information as a float rather than an int, but because int i is part of the public interface, you can’t change it. Or you may want to perform some additional calculation as part of reading or setting i, which you can’t do if it’s public. If, on the other hand, you’ve always used member functions to read and change the state information of an object, you can modify the underlying representation of the object to your heart’s content.

In addition, the use of member functions to control data members allows you to add code to the member function to detect when that data is being changed, which can be very useful during debugging. If a data member is public, anyone can change it anytime without you knowing about it.

Accessors and mutators

Some people further divide the concept of access functions into accessors (to read state information from an object) and mutators (to change the state of an object). In addition, function overloading may be used to provide the same function name for both the accessor and mutator; how you call the function determines whether you’re reading or modifying state information. Thus,

//: C09:Rectangle.cpp
// Accessors & mutators

class Rectangle {
  int wide, high;
  Rectangle(int w = 0, int h = 0)
    : wide(w), high(h) {}
  int width() const { return wide; } // Read
  void width(int w) { wide = w; } // Set
  int height() const { return high; } // Read
  void height(int h) { high = h; } // Set

int main() {
  Rectangle r(19, 47);
  // Change width & height:
  r.height(2 * r.width());
  r.width(2 * r.height());
} ///:~

The constructor uses the constructor initializer list (briefly introduced in Chapter 8 and covered fully in Chapter 14) to initialize the values of wide and high (using the pseudoconstructor form for built-in types).

You cannot have member function names using the same identifiers as data members, so you might be tempted to distinguish the data members with a leading underscore. However, identifiers with leading underscores are reserved so you should not use them.

You may choose instead to use “get” and “set” to indicate accessors and mutators:

//: C09:Rectangle2.cpp
// Accessors & mutators with "get" and "set"

class Rectangle {
  int width, height;
  Rectangle(int w = 0, int h = 0)
    : width(w), height(h) {}
  int getWidth() const { return width; }
  void setWidth(int w) { width = w; }
  int getHeight() const { return height; }
  void setHeight(int h) { height = h; }

int main() {
  Rectangle r(19, 47);
  // Change width & height:
  r.setHeight(2 * r.getWidth());
  r.setWidth(2 * r.getHeight());
} ///:~

Of course, accessors and mutators don’t have to be simple pipelines to an internal variable. Sometimes they can perform more sophisticated calculations. The following example uses the Standard C library time functions to produce a simple Time class:

//: C09:Cpptime.h
// A simple time class
#ifndef CPPTIME_H
#define CPPTIME_H
#include <ctime>
#include <cstring>

class Time {
  std::time_t t;
  std::tm local;
  char asciiRep[26];
  unsigned char lflag, aflag;
  void updateLocal() {
    if(!lflag) {
      local = *std::localtime(&t);
  void updateAscii() {
    if(!aflag) {
  Time() { mark(); }
  void mark() {
    lflag = aflag = 0;
  const char* ascii() {
    return asciiRep;
  // Difference in seconds:
  int delta(Time* dt) const {
    return int(std::difftime(t, dt->t));
  int daylightSavings() {
    return local.tm_isdst;
  int dayOfYear() { // Since January 1
    return local.tm_yday;
  int dayOfWeek() { // Since Sunday
    return local.tm_wday;
  int since1900() { // Years since 1900
    return local.tm_year;
  int month() { // Since January
    return local.tm_mon;
  int dayOfMonth() {
    return local.tm_mday;
  int hour() { // Since midnight, 24-hour clock
    return local.tm_hour;
  int minute() {
    return local.tm_min;
  int second() {
    return local.tm_sec;
#endif // CPPTIME_H ///:~

The Standard C library functions have multiple representations for time, and these are all part of the Time class. However, it isn’t necessary to update all of them, so instead the time_t t is used as the base representation, and the tm local and ASCII character representation asciiRep each have flags to indicate if they’ve been updated to the current time_t. The two private functions updateLocal( ) and updateAscii( ) check the flags and conditionally perform the update.

The constructor calls the mark( ) function (which the user can also call to force the object to represent the current time), and this clears the two flags to indicate that the local time and ASCII representation are now invalid. The ascii( ) function calls updateAscii( ), which copies the result of the Standard C library function asctime( ) into a local buffer because asctime( ) uses a static data area that is overwritten if the function is called elsewhere. The ascii( ) function return value is the address of this local buffer.

All the functions starting with daylightSavings( ) use the updateLocal( ) function, which causes the resulting composite inlines to be fairly large. This doesn’t seem worthwhile, especially considering you probably won’t call the functions very much. However, this doesn’t mean all the functions should be made non-inline. If you make other functions non-inline, at least keep updateLocal( ) inline so that its code will be duplicated in the non-inline functions, eliminating extra function-call overhead.

Here’s a small test program:

//: C09:Cpptime.cpp
// Testing a simple time class
#include "Cpptime.h"
#include <iostream>
using namespace std;

int main() {
  Time start;
  for(int i = 1; i < 1000; i++) {
    cout << i << ' ';
    if(i%10 == 0) cout << endl;
  Time end;
  cout << endl;
  cout << "start = " << start.ascii();
  cout << "end = " << end.ascii();
  cout << "delta = " << end.delta(&start);
} ///:~

A Time object is created, then some time-consuming activity is performed, then a second Time object is created to mark the ending time. These are used to show starting, ending, and elapsed times.

Stash & Stack with inlines

Armed with inlines, we can now convert the Stash and Stack classes to be more efficient:

//: C09:Stash4.h
// Inline functions
#ifndef STASH4_H
#define STASH4_H
#include "../require.h"

class Stash {
  int size;      // Size of each space
  int quantity;  // Number of storage spaces
  int next;      // Next empty space
  // Dynamically allocated array of bytes:
  unsigned char* storage;
  void inflate(int increase);
  Stash(int sz) : size(sz), quantity(0),
    next(0), storage(0) {}
  Stash(int sz, int initQuantity) : size(sz), 
    quantity(0), next(0), storage(0) { 
  Stash::~Stash() {
    if(storage != 0) 
      delete []storage;
  int add(void* element);
  void* fetch(int index) const {
    require(0 <= index, "Stash::fetch (-)index");
    if(index >= next)
      return 0; // To indicate the end
    // Produce pointer to desired element:
    return &(storage[index * size]);
  int count() const { return next; }
#endif // STASH4_H ///:~

The small functions obviously work well as inlines, but notice that the two largest functions are still left as non-inlines, since inlining them probably wouldn’t cause any performance gains:

//: C09:Stash4.cpp {O}
#include "Stash4.h"
#include <iostream>
#include <cassert>
using namespace std;
const int increment = 100;

int Stash::add(void* element) {
  if(next >= quantity) // Enough space left?
  // Copy element into storage,
  // starting at next empty space:
  int startBytes = next * size;
  unsigned char* e = (unsigned char*)element;
  for(int i = 0; i < size; i++)
    storage[startBytes + i] = e[i];
  return(next - 1); // Index number

void Stash::inflate(int increase) {
  assert(increase >= 0);
  if(increase == 0) return;
  int newQuantity = quantity + increase;
  int newBytes = newQuantity * size;
  int oldBytes = quantity * size;
  unsigned char* b = new unsigned char[newBytes];
  for(int i = 0; i < oldBytes; i++)
    b[i] = storage[i]; // Copy old to new
  delete [](storage); // Release old storage
  storage = b; // Point to new memory
  quantity = newQuantity; // Adjust the size
} ///:~

Once again, the test program verifies that everything is working correctly:

//: C09:Stash4Test.cpp
//{L} Stash4
#include "Stash4.h"
#include "../require.h"
#include <fstream>
#include <iostream>
#include <string>
using namespace std;

int main() {
  Stash intStash(sizeof(int));
  for(int i = 0; i < 100; i++)
  for(int j = 0; j < intStash.count(); j++)
    cout << "intStash.fetch(" << j << ") = "
         << *(int*)intStash.fetch(j)
         << endl;
  const int bufsize = 80;
  Stash stringStash(sizeof(char) * bufsize, 100);
  ifstream in("Stash4Test.cpp");
  assure(in, "Stash4Test.cpp");
  string line;
  while(getline(in, line))
  int k = 0;
  char* cp;
  while((cp = (char*)stringStash.fetch(k++))!=0)
    cout << "stringStash.fetch(" << k << ") = "
         << cp << endl;
} ///:~

This is the same test program that was used before, so the output should be basically the same.

The Stack class makes even better use of inlines:

//: C09:Stack4.h
// With inlines
#ifndef STACK4_H
#define STACK4_H
#include "../require.h"

class Stack {
  struct Link {
    void* data;
    Link* next;
    Link(void* dat, Link* nxt): 
      data(dat), next(nxt) {}
  }* head;
  Stack() : head(0) {}
  ~Stack() {
    require(head == 0, "Stack not empty");
  void push(void* dat) {
    head = new Link(dat, head);
  void* peek() const { 
    return head ? head->data : 0;
  void* pop() {
    if(head == 0) return 0;
    void* result = head->data;
    Link* oldHead = head;
    head = head->next;
    delete oldHead;
    return result;
#endif // STACK4_H ///:~

Notice that the Link destructor that was present but empty in the previous version of Stack has been removed. In pop( ), the expression delete oldHead simply releases the memory used by that Link (it does not destroy the data object pointed to by the Link).

Most of the functions inline quite nicely and obviously, especially for Link. Even pop( ) seems legitimate, although anytime you have conditionals or local variables it’s not clear that inlines will be that beneficial. Here, the function is small enough that it probably won’t hurt anything.

If all your functions are inlined, using the library becomes quite simple because there’s no linking necessary, as you can see in the test example (notice that there’s no Stack4.cpp):

//: C09:Stack4Test.cpp
//{T} Stack4Test.cpp
#include "Stack4.h"
#include "../require.h"
#include <fstream>
#include <iostream>
#include <string>
using namespace std;

int main(int argc, char* argv[]) {
  requireArgs(argc, 1); // File name is argument
  ifstream in(argv[1]);
  assure(in, argv[1]);
  Stack textlines;
  string line;
  // Read file and store lines in the stack:
  while(getline(in, line))
    textlines.push(new string(line));
  // Pop the lines from the stack and print them:
  string* s;
  while((s = (string*)textlines.pop()) != 0) {
    cout << *s << endl;
    delete s; 
} ///:~

People will sometimes write classes with all inline functions so that the whole class will be in the header file (you’ll see in this book that I step over the line myself). During program development this is probably harmless, although sometimes it can make for longer compilations. Once the program stabilizes a bit, you’ll probably want to go back and make functions non-inline where appropriate.

Inlines & the compiler

To understand when inlining is effective, it’s helpful to know what the compiler does when it encounters an inline. As with any function, the compiler holds the function type (that is, the function prototype including the name and argument types, in combination with the function return value) in its symbol table. In addition, when the compiler sees that the inline’s function type and the function body parses without error, the code for the function body is also brought into the symbol table. Whether the code is stored in source form, compiled assembly instructions, or some other representation is up to the compiler.

When you make a call to an inline function, the compiler first ensures that the call can be correctly made. That is, all the argument types must either be the exact types in the function’s argument list, or the compiler must be able to make a type conversion to the proper types and the return value must be the correct type (or convertible to the correct type) in the destination expression. This, of course, is exactly what the compiler does for any function and is markedly different from what the preprocessor does because the preprocessor cannot check types or make conversions.

If all the function type information fits the context of the call, then the inline code is substituted directly for the function call, eliminating the call overhead and allowing for further optimizations by the compiler. Also, if the inline is a member function, the address of the object (this) is put in the appropriate place(s), which of course is another action the preprocessor is unable to perform.


There are two situations in which the compiler cannot perform inlining. In these cases, it simply reverts to the ordinary form of a function by taking the inline definition and creating storage for the function just as it does for a non-inline. If it must do this in multiple translation units (which would normally cause a multiple definition error), the linker is told to ignore the multiple definitions.

The compiler cannot perform inlining if the function is too complicated. This depends upon the particular compiler, but at the point most compilers give up, the inline probably wouldn’t gain you any efficiency. In general, any sort of looping is considered too complicated to expand as an inline, and if you think about it, looping probably entails much more time inside the function than what is required for the function call overhead. If the function is just a collection of simple statements, the compiler probably won’t have any trouble inlining it, but if there are a lot of statements, the overhead of the function call will be much less than the cost of executing the body. And remember, every time you call a big inline function, the entire function body is inserted in place of each call, so you can easily get code bloat without any noticeable performance improvement. (Note that some of the examples in this book may exceed reasonable inline sizes in favor of conserving screen real estate.)

The compiler also cannot perform inlining if the address of the function is taken implicitly or explicitly. If the compiler must produce an address, then it will allocate storage for the function code and use the resulting address. However, where an address is not required, the compiler will probably still inline the code.

It is important to understand that an inline is just a suggestion to the compiler; the compiler is not forced to inline anything at all. A good compiler will inline small, simple functions while intelligently ignoring inlines that are too complicated. This will give you the results you want – the true semantics of a function call with the efficiency of a macro.

Forward references

If you’re imagining what the compiler is doing to implement inlines, you can confuse yourself into thinking there are more limitations than actually exist. In particular, if an inline makes a forward reference to a function that hasn’t yet been declared in the class (whether that function is inline or not), it can seem like the compiler won’t be able to handle it:

//: C09:EvaluationOrder.cpp
// Inline evaluation order

class Forward {
  int i;
  Forward() : i(0) {}
  // Call to undeclared function:
  int f() const { return g() + 1; }
  int g() const { return i; }

int main() {
  Forward frwd;
} ///:~

In f( ), a call is made to g( ), although g( ) has not yet been declared. This works because the language definition states that no inline functions in a class shall be evaluated until the closing brace of the class declaration.

Of course, if g( ) in turn called f( ), you’d end up with a set of recursive calls, which are too complicated for the compiler to inline. (Also, you’d have to perform some test in f( ) or g( ) to force one of them to “bottom out,” or the recursion would be infinite.)

Hidden activities in constructors & destructors

Constructors and destructors are two places where you can be fooled into thinking that an inline is more efficient than it actually is. Constructors and destructors may have hidden activities, because the class can contain subobjects whose constructors and destructors must be called. These subobjects may be member objects, or they may exist because of inheritance (covered in Chapter 14). As an example of a class with member objects:

//: C09:Hidden.cpp
// Hidden activities in inlines
#include <iostream>
using namespace std;

class Member {
  int i, j, k;
  Member(int x = 0) : i(x), j(x), k(x) {}
  ~Member() { cout << "~Member" << endl; }

class WithMembers {
  Member q, r, s; // Have constructors
  int i;
  WithMembers(int ii) : i(ii) {} // Trivial?
  ~WithMembers() {
    cout << "~WithMembers" << endl;

int main() {
  WithMembers wm(1);
} ///:~

The constructor for Member is simple enough to inline, since there’s nothing special going on – no inheritance or member objects are causing extra hidden activities. But in class WithMembers there’s more going on than meets the eye. The constructors and destructors for the member objects q, r, and s are being called automatically, and those constructors and destructors are also inline, so the difference is significant from normal member functions. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should always make constructor and destructor definitions non-inline; there are cases in which it makes sense. Also, when you’re making an initial “sketch” of a program by quickly writing code, it’s often more convenient to use inlines. But if you’re concerned about efficiency, it’s a place to look.

Reducing clutter

In a book like this, the simplicity and terseness of putting inline definitions inside classes is very useful because more fits on a page or screen (in a seminar). However, Dan Saks[46] has pointed out that in a real project this has the effect of needlessly cluttering the class interface and thereby making the class harder to use. He refers to member functions defined within classes using the Latin in situ (in place) and maintains that all definitions should be placed outside the class to keep the interface clean. Optimization, he argues, is a separate issue. If you want to optimize, use the inline keyword. Using this approach, the earlier Rectangle.cpp example becomes:

//: C09:Noinsitu.cpp
// Removing in situ functions

class Rectangle {
  int width, height;
  Rectangle(int w = 0, int h = 0);
  int getWidth() const;
  void setWidth(int w);
  int getHeight() const;
  void setHeight(int h);

inline Rectangle::Rectangle(int w, int h)
  : width(w), height(h) {}

inline int Rectangle::getWidth() const {
  return width;

inline void Rectangle::setWidth(int w) {
  width = w;

inline int Rectangle::getHeight() const {
  return height;

inline void Rectangle::setHeight(int h) {
  height = h;

int main() {
  Rectangle r(19, 47);
  // Transpose width & height:
  int iHeight = r.getHeight();
} ///:~

Now if you want to compare the effect of inline functions to non-inline functions, you can simply remove the inline keyword. (Inline functions should normally be put in header files, however, while non-inline functions must reside in their own translation unit.) If you want to put the functions into documentation, it’s a simple cut-and-paste operation. In situ functions require more work and have greater potential for errors. Another argument for this approach is that you can always produce a consistent formatting style for function definitions, something that doesn’t always occur with in situ functions.

More preprocessor features

Earlier, I said that you almost always want to use inline functions instead of preprocessor macros. The exceptions are when you need to use three special features in the C preprocessor (which is also the C++ preprocessor): stringizing, string concatenation, and token pasting. Stringizing, introduced earlier in the book, is performed with the # directive and allows you to take an identifier and turn it into a character array. String concatenation takes place when two adjacent character arrays have no intervening punctuation, in which case they are combined. These two features are especially useful when writing debug code. Thus,

#define DEBUG(x) cout << #x " = " << x << endl

This prints the value of any variable. You can also get a trace that prints out the statements as they execute:

#define TRACE(s) cerr << #s << endl; s

The #s stringizes the statement for output, and the second s reiterates the statement so it is executed. Of course, this kind of thing can cause problems, especially in one-line for loops:

for(int i = 0; i < 100; i++)

Because there are actually two statements in the TRACE( ) macro, the one-line for loop executes only the first one. The solution is to replace the semicolon with a comma in the macro.

Token pasting

Token pasting, implemented with the ## directive, is very useful when you are manufacturing code. It allows you to take two identifiers and paste them together to automatically create a new identifier. For example,

#define FIELD(a) char* a##_string; int a##_size
class Record {
  // ...

Each call to the FIELD( ) macro creates an identifier to hold a character array and another to hold the length of that array. Not only is it easier to read, it can eliminate coding errors and make maintenance easier.

Improved error checking

The require.h functions have been used up to this point without defining them (although assert( ) has also been used to help detect programmer errors where it’s appropriate). Now it’s time to define this header file. Inline functions are convenient here because they allow everything to be placed in a header file, which simplifies the process of using the package. You just include the header file and you don’t need to worry about linking an implementation file.

You should note that exceptions (presented in detail in Volume 2 of this book) provide a much more effective way of handling many kinds of errors – especially those that you’d like to recover from – instead of just halting the program. The conditions that require.h handles, however, are ones which prevent the continuation of the program, such as if the user doesn’t provide enough command-line arguments or if a file cannot be opened. Thus, it’s acceptable that they call the Standard C Library function exit( ).

The following header file is placed in the book’s root directory so it’s easily accessed from all chapters.

//: :require.h
// Test for error conditions in programs
// Local "using namespace std" for old compilers
#ifndef REQUIRE_H
#define REQUIRE_H
#include <cstdio>
#include <cstdlib>
#include <fstream>
#include <string>

inline void require(bool requirement, 
  const std::string& msg = "Requirement failed"){
  using namespace std;
  if (!requirement) {
    fputs(msg.c_str(), stderr);
    fputs("\n", stderr);

inline void requireArgs(int argc, int args, 
  const std::string& msg = 
    "Must use %d arguments") {
  using namespace std;
   if (argc != args + 1) {
     fprintf(stderr, msg.c_str(), args);
     fputs("\n", stderr);

inline void requireMinArgs(int argc, int minArgs,
  const std::string& msg =
    "Must use at least %d arguments") {
  using namespace std;
  if(argc < minArgs + 1) {
    fprintf(stderr, msg.c_str(), minArgs);
    fputs("\n", stderr);
inline void assure(std::ifstream& in, 
  const std::string& filename = "") {
  using namespace std;
  if(!in) {
    fprintf(stderr, "Could not open file %s\n",

inline void assure(std::ofstream& out, 
  const std::string& filename = "") {
  using namespace std;
  if(!out) {
    fprintf(stderr, "Could not open file %s\n", 
#endif // REQUIRE_H ///:~

The default values provide reasonable messages that can be changed if necessary.

You’ll notice that instead of using char* arguments, const string& arguments are used. This allows both char* and strings as arguments to these functions, and thus is more generally useful (you may want to follow this form in your own coding).

In the definitions for requireArgs( ) and requireMinArgs( ), one is added to the number of arguments you need on the command line because argc always includes the name of the program being executed as argument zero, and so always has a value that is one more than the number of actual arguments on the command line.

Note the use of local “using namespace std” declarations within each function. This is because some compilers at the time of this writing incorrectly did not include the C standard library functions in namespace std, so explicit qualification would cause a compile-time error. The local declaration allows require.h to work with both correct and incorrect libraries without opening up the namespace std for anyone who includes this header file.

Here’s a simple program to test require.h:

//: C09:ErrTest.cpp
//{T} ErrTest.cpp
// Testing require.h
#include "../require.h"
#include <fstream>
using namespace std;

int main(int argc, char* argv[]) {
  int i = 1;
  require(i, "value must be nonzero");
  requireArgs(argc, 1);
  requireMinArgs(argc, 1);
  ifstream in(argv[1]);
  assure(in, argv[1]); // Use the file name
  ifstream nofile("nofile.xxx");
  // Fails:
//!  assure(nofile); // The default argument
  ofstream out("tmp.txt");
} ///:~

You might be tempted to go one step further for opening files and add a macro to require.h:

#define IFOPEN(VAR, NAME) \
  ifstream VAR(NAME); \
  assure(VAR, NAME);

Which could then be used like this:

IFOPEN(in, argv[1])

At first, this might seem appealing since it means there’s less to type. It’s not terribly unsafe, but it’s a road best avoided. Note that, once again, a macro looks like a function but behaves differently; it’s actually creating an object (in) whose scope persists beyond the macro. You may understand this, but for new programmers and code maintainers it’s just one more thing they have to puzzle out. C++ is complicated enough without adding to the confusion, so try to talk yourself out of using preprocessor macros whenever you can.


It’s critical that you be able to hide the underlying implementation of a class because you may want to change that implementation sometime later. You’ll make these changes for efficiency, or because you get a better understanding of the problem, or because some new class becomes available that you want to use in the implementation. Anything that jeopardizes the privacy of the underlying implementation reduces the flexibility of the language. Thus, the inline function is very important because it virtually eliminates the need for preprocessor macros and their attendant problems. With inlines, member functions can be as efficient as preprocessor macros.

The inline function can be overused in class definitions, of course. The programmer is tempted to do so because it’s easier, so it will happen. However, it’s not that big of an issue because later, when looking for size reductions, you can always change the functions to non-inlines with no effect on their functionality. The development guideline should be “First make it work, then optimize it.”


Solutions to selected exercises can be found in the electronic document The Thinking in C++ Annotated Solution Guide, available for a small fee from www.BruceEckel.com.

  1. Write a program that uses the F( ) macro shown at the beginning of the chapter and demonstrates that it does not expand properly, as described in the text. Repair the macro and show that it works correctly.
  2. Write a program that uses the FLOOR( ) macro shown at the beginning of the chapter. Show the conditions under which it does not work properly.
  3. Modify MacroSideEffects.cpp so that BAND( ) works properly.
  4. Create two identical functions, f1( ) and f2( ). Inline f1( ) and leave f2( ) as an non-inline function. Use the Standard C Library function clock( ) that is found in <ctime> to mark the starting point and ending points and compare the two functions to see which one is faster. You may need to make repeated calls to the functions inside your timing loop in order to get useful numbers.
  5. Experiment with the size and complexity of the code inside the functions in Exercise 4 to see if you can find a break-even point where the inline function and the non-inline function take the same amount of time. If you have them available, try this with different compilers and note the differences.
  6. Prove that inline functions default to internal linkage.
  7. Create a class that contains an array of char. Add an inline constructor that uses the Standard C library function memset( ) to initialize the array to the constructor argument (default this to ‘ ’), and an inline member function called print( ) to print out all the characters in the array.
  8. Take the NestFriend.cpp example from Chapter 5 and replace all the member functions with inlines. Make them non-in situ inline functions. Also change the initialize( ) functions to constructors.
  9. Modify StringStack.cpp from Chapter 8 to use inline functions.
  10. Create an enum called Hue containing red, blue, and yellow. Now create a class called Color containing a data member of type Hue and a constructor that sets the Hue from its argument. Add access functions to “get” and “set” the Hue. Make all of the functions inlines.
  11. Modify Exercise 10 to use the “accessor” and “mutator” approach.
  12. Modify Cpptime.cpp so that it measures the time from the time that the program begins running to the time when the user presses the “Enter” or “Return” key.
  13. Create a class with two inline member functions, such that the first function that’s defined in the class calls the second function, without the need for a forward declaration. Write a main that creates an object of the class and calls the first function.
  14. Create a class A with an inline default constructor that announces itself. Now make a new class B and put an object of A as a member of B, and give B an inline constructor. Create an array of B objects and see what happens.
  15. Create a large quantity of the objects from the previous Exercise, and use the Time class to time the difference between non-inline constructors and inline constructors. (If you have a profiler, also try using that.)
  16. Write a program that takes a string as the command-line argument. Write a for loop that removes one character from the string with each pass, and use the DEBUG( ) macro from this chapter to print the string each time.
  17. Correct the TRACE( ) macro as specified in this chapter, and prove that it works correctly.
  18. Modify the FIELD( ) macro so that it also contains an index number. Create a class whose members are composed of calls to the FIELD( ) macro. Add a member function that allows you to look up a field using its index number. Write a main( ) to test the class.
  19. Modify the FIELD( ) macro so that it automatically generates access functions for each field (the data should still be private, however). Create a class whose members are composed of calls to the FIELD( ) macro. Write a main( ) to test the class.
  20. Write a program that takes two command-line arguments: the first is an int and the second is a file name. Use require.h to ensure that you have the right number of arguments, that the int is between 5 and 10, and that the file can successfully be opened.
  21. Write a program that uses the IFOPEN( ) macro to open a file as an input stream. Note the creation of the ifstream object and its scope.
  22. (Challenging) Determine how to get your compiler to generate assembly code. Create a file containing a very small function and a main( ) that calls the function. Generate assembly code when the function is inlined and not inlined, and demonstrate that the inlined version does not have the function call overhead.

[45]Andrew Koenig goes into more detail in his book C Traps & Pitfalls (Addison-Wesley, 1989).

[46] Co-author with Tom Plum of C++ Programming Guidelines, Plum Hall, 1991.

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Last Update:09/27/2001