Value category is not lifetime

Here’s another slogan that needs more currency:

Value category is not lifetime.

What I mean by this mantra is probably best shown by example.

Two examples of a common C++ problem

Suppose we design a String class that looks like this:

class String {
    std::string s_;
public:
    explicit String(const char *s) : s_(s) {}
    operator string_view() const { return s_; }
};

And suppose we design a TokenIterator class that looks like this:

class TokenIterator {
    const char *s_;
public:
    explicit TokenIterator(const std::string& s) : s_(s.data()) {}
    auto& operator++() {
        // complicated logic to advance `s_` through the string
    }
};

These are extremely idiomatic C++ classes. But they each suffer from a minor flaw that might gnaw at the writer’s conscience: they’re both prone to dangling references. Consider these two ways of using String’s conversion to string_view:

String s("hi");
std::string_view sv1 = s;  // OK

std::string_view sv2 = String("hi");  // BAD!

The “BAD” snippet creates a string_view that refers to the temporary String("hi") and then immediately destroys that temporary, meaning that any further use of sv2 will dereference a dangling pointer and cause undefined behavior.

For more on string_view in particular, and why I don’t see this as a difficult problem, see my blog post string_view is a borrow type” (2018-03-27).

Or consider these two ways of using TokenIterator:

std::string s("hello world");
auto tk1 = TokenIterator(s);  // OK

auto tk2 = TokenIterator("hello world");  // BAD!

The “BAD” snippet creates a temporary std::string from "hello world"; then creates a TokenIterator referring to that temporary; and then destroys the temporary std::string, meaning that any further use of tk2 will dereference a dangling pointer and cause undefined behavior.

The unfortunate “solution”

Given this problem, some prominent C++ libraries have taken to solving it by the following faulty syllogism:

  • For safety, we want to avoid taking references to objects whose lifetime is shorter than the lifetime of the reference itself.

  • Therefore we should avoid taking references to objects with temporary lifetime.

  • Temporary objects are generally rvalues.

  • Therefore we should reject taking references to things whose value category is rvalue.

This chain of illogic tempts library writers to patch String and TokenIterator like this:

class String {
    std::string s_;
public:
    explicit String(const char *s) : s_(s) {}
    operator string_view() const & { return s_; }
    operator string_view() const && = delete;
};

class TokenIterator {
    explicit TokenIterator(const std::string& s) : s_(s.data()) {}
    explicit TokenIterator(const std::string&&) = delete;
};

We check our examples from earlier and find that they seem to be doing exactly what we want! Our cases that had led to dangling references now get caught at compile time.

String s("hi");
std::string_view sv1 = s;  // still OK

std::string_view sv2 = String("hi");  // Compiler error!

So it seems that we’ve found a neat heuristic to distinguish babies from bathwater. Several prominent C++ libraries — including C++14’s regex_iterator — shipped with heuristics like this, and the technique has been mentioned in places such as “Guidelines For Rvalue References In APIs” (Jonathan Müller, March 2018).

However…

Value category is not lifetime.

Babies that look like bathwater

Suppose we code up our “dangling-reference-proof” String class. And then after it’s shipped, we get a bug report from a user. The following code doesn’t compile anymore:

void print_it(std::string_view param) {
    std::cout << param << std::endl;
}

void test() {
    String hello("hello");
    String world("world");
    print_it(hello + world);
}

See, here the expression hello + " world" yields a temporary String object, and we’re trying to pass that String to a function that takes a string_view parameter. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this code. string_view even seems like the most correct parameter type for print_it — given that print_it is not going to modify its parameter, and doesn’t care what its actual type is, as long as it’s string-ish.

However, the author of String has =deleted the operator string_view() that would have converted this temporary String into a string_view. And so we can’t use temporary Strings with print_it anymore.

What went wrong? Well, we successfully disabled conversion-to-string_view for (some) temporary objects. But just because an object is temporary, doesn’t mean that its lifetime is necessarily shorter than the lifetime of the reference we’d take! In our print_it example, the lifetime of the temporary String is strictly longer than the lifetime of string_view param. So initializing param from a temporary isn’t a source of dangling references in this case.

Our heuristic used value category (rvalue-ness) as a proxy for lifetime (likelihood of dangling). But value category is not lifetime!

Bathwater that looks like babies

We code up our “dangling-reference-proof” TokenIterator class, and trumpet its new easy-to-use, bug-proof interface on our company blog. Then, we get a bug report from a user. The following code compiles and runs for them… and crashes, due to a dangling reference!

TokenIterator make_iterator(const std::string& haystack) {
    return TokenIterator(haystack);
}

void test() {
    auto tk = make_iterator("hello world");
    auto first_token = *tk;  // compiles and CRASH!
}

What went wrong? Well, we successfully disabled construction from rvalue strings. But just because an object is not an rvalue, doesn’t mean that it’s not a temporary! In our make_iterator example, haystack is an lvalue, but the object to which it refers is still a temporary that will be destroyed before the end of tk’s lifetime.

Our heuristic used value category (lvalue-ness) as a proxy for lifetime (likelihood of not-dangling). But value category is not lifetime!


Dangling references are one of the big unsolved problems in C++ programming. It’s an unsolved problem for a reason: there is no silver bullet. In particular, adding =deleted const&&-qualified overloads is not going to magically solve your dangling-reference problem. Adding those deleted overloads is going to make your life more difficult by disabling perfectly reasonable code such as our print_it example, and it’s going to introduce a false sense of security while continuing silently to permit buggy code such as our make_iterator example.

Guideline: Do not assume that “rvalues are short-lived,” nor that “everything sufficiently long-lived must be an lvalue.” Vice versa, do not assume that “lvalues are long-lived,” nor that “everything sufficiently short-lived must appear as an rvalue.”

Value category is not lifetime.

It’s a mantra worth hanging onto!


See also Abseil Tip of the Week #149: “Object Lifetimes vs. =delete (May 2018).

Posted 2019-03-11