Sat 17 March 2018

Filed under C++

Tags c++ language

The story

Consider the following code snippet:

#include <iostream>

class A;

class B { 
        B() {} 

        B(A &) { // conversion constructor that takes cv-unqualified A
            std::cout << "called B's conversion constructor" << std::endl; 

class A { 
        operator B() const { // conversion operator that takes cv-qualified A
            std::cout << "called A's conversion operator" << std::endl; 
            return B(); 

int main() {
    A a;
    B bb = static_cast<B>(a); // who gets called here? <case 1>
    B b = A();                // who gets called here? <case 2>
    return 0;

The output for the above code snippet is:

called B's conversion constructor
called A's conversion operator

The exhibited behaviour completely blew me down. Why does a cast call the conversion constructor and an initialization call the conversion operator? Isn't the expected behaviour completely the reverse? After some analysis, this became clear, though in an unexpected way.

Case 1

This case is fairly simple.

[expr.static.cast/4] (this is clickable; so are other specification references):

An expression e can be explicitly converted to a type T if [...] overload resolution for a direct-initialization of an object or reference of type T from e would find at least one viable function ([over.match.viable]). If T is a reference type, the effect is the same as performing the declaration and initialization

T t(e);

for some invented temporary variable t ([dcl.init]) and then using the temporary variable as the result of the conversion. Otherwise, the result object is direct-initialized from e.

Thus static_cast<B>(a) results in A's conversion constructor getting called, regardless of presence of the conversion operator; while if the conversion constructor B::B(A &) gets deleted, the following rule regarding the conversion functions apply:


A member function of a class X having no parameters with a name of the form

conversion-function-id: operator conversion-type-id conversion-type-id: type-specifier-seq conversion-declarator_(opt) conversion-declarator: ptr-operator conversion-declarator_(opt)

specifies a conversion from X to the type specified by the conversion-type-id. Such functions are called conversion functions.

Thus A::operator B() gets called.

Case 2

This gets a little bit complicated. Note that in

    B b = A();

A() is an rvalue reference. And, for the purpose of overload resolution, there's an implicit object parameter for A::operator B(), whose type is cv A&. This parameter is special that it can be bound to an rvalue even if it's an lvalue reference to non-const type, according to the following:


During overload resolution, the implied object argument is indistinguishable from other arguments. The implicit object parameter, however, retains its identity since no user-defined conversions can be applied to achieve a type match with it. For non-static member functions declared without a ref-qualifier, an additional rule applies:

even if the implicit object parameter is not const-qualified, an rvalue can be bound to the parameter as long as in all other respects the argument can be converted to the type of the implicit object parameter. [ Note: The fact that such an argument is an rvalue does not affect the ranking of implicit conversion sequences. — end note ]

and [over.match.copy/1]:

Under the conditions specified in [dcl.init], as part of a copy-initialization of an object of class type, a user-defined conversion can be invoked to convert an initializer expression to the type of the object being initialized. Overload resolution is used to select the user-defined conversion to be invoked. [ Note: The conversion performed for indirect binding to a reference to a possibly cv-qualified class type is determined in terms of a corresponding non-reference copy-initialization. — end note ] Assuming that “cv1 T” is the type of the object being initialized, with T a class type, the candidate functions are selected as follows:

The converting constructors of T are candidate functions.

When the type of the initializer expression is a class type “cv S”, the non-explicit conversion functions of S and its base classes are considered. When initializing a temporary object ([class.mem]) to be bound to the first parameter of a constructor where the parameter is of type “reference to possibly cv-qualified T” and the constructor is called with a single argument in the context of direct-initialization of an object of type “cv2 T”, explicit conversion functions are also considered. Those that are not hidden within S and yield a type whose cv-unqualified version is the same type as T or is a derived class thereof are candidate functions. Conversion functions that return “reference to X” return lvalues or xvalues, depending on the type of reference, of type X and are therefore considered to yield X for this process of selecting candidate functions.

together with [over.ics.ref/3]:

Except for an implicit object parameter, for which see [over.match.funcs], a standard conversion sequence cannot be formed if it requires binding an lvalue reference other than a reference to a non-volatile const type to an rvalue or binding an rvalue reference to an lvalue other than a function lvalue. [ Note: This means, for example, that a candidate function cannot be a viable function if it has a non-const lvalue reference parameter (other than the implicit object parameter) and the corresponding argument would require a temporary to be created to initialize the lvalue reference (see [dcl.init.ref]). — end note ]

So if the conversion constructor takes a non-const parameter, it is not viable; while the conversion operator is always viable, which makes overload resolution always choose the conversion operator.

If we want to use temporaries for initializing via the conversion constructor, a constructor that takes an rvalue reference will be needed, like this:

        B(A &&) { // conversion constructor that takes cv-unqualified A as rvalue reference
            std::cout << "called B's conversion constructor - rvalue reference" << std::endl; 

Rank (precedence) between conversion sequences

Another aspect to take into consideration is the rank between the conversion sequences.


Standard conversion sequence S1 is a better conversion sequence than standard conversion sequence S2 if


S1 and S2 are reference bindings, and the types to which the references refer are the same type except for top-level cv-qualifiers, and the type to which the reference initialized by S2 refers is more cv-qualified than the type to which the reference initialized by S1 refers. [ Example: ... — end example ]

So, for the rvalue reference version of conversion constructor and the conversion operator,

  • B::B(A &&) gets chosen instead of A::operator B() const,
  • A::operator B() gets chosen instead of B::B(const A &&),
  • B::B(A &&) with A::operator B() / B::B(const A &&) with A::operator B() const both result in ambiguity.

Personal details (portrait, CV) © Pengcheng Xu All Rights Reserved; articles licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
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