# On function_ref and string_view

At C++Now 2018, I wrote three blog posts during the conference. This year I was somehow so busy at C++Now that I merely wrote a list of things I ought to blog about once I got the time. So here’s the first one.

On Wednesday afternoon, Vittorio Romeo gave a very good summary of his proposed function_ref. It’s a very well-defined type; because it is non-owning and trivially copyable, it can sidestep the majority of design decisions that are the bugbear of std::function’s awkward design. (See “The space of design choices for std::function,” 2019-03-27.)

However, during the talk, David Sankel made an interesting observation. Consider:

template<class T>
T one(std::reference_wrapper<T> arg) {
T local = arg;
return local;
}

int main() {
std::string s = one("hello"s);
std::cout << s << "\n";
}


arg is a reference to a temporary, but by converting it to T local, we get a copy by value.

Or consider:

std::string two(std::string_view arg) {
std::string local(arg);
return local;
}

int main() {
std::string s = two("hello"s);
std::cout << s << "\n";
}


arg is a view to a temporary, but by converting it to std::string local, we get a copy by value. (Notice that this conversion is marked explicit, so std::string local = arg; won’t compile — thanks to Jason Cobb for the correction!)

But consider:

std::function<int()> three(std::function_ref<int()> arg) {
std::function<int()> local = arg;
return local;
}

int main() {
std::function<int()> f = three([x=42](){ return x; });
std::cout << f() << "\n";
}


arg is a view to a temporary. By converting it to std::function<int()> local, we get a copy of the view — the resulting std::function has reference semantics, and when we call it on the last line of main, we dereference a dangling reference and produce undefined behavior.

This interaction is cute, but I definitely don’t want to imply that function_ref (or function) should be derailed over it. The conclusion falls out fairly intuitively from the fact that string_view is a view over data, whereas function_view is a view over code.

Data can be serialized; therefore it can be copied, and also compared for equality (remember, “copies compare equal”). Therefore the conversion from string_view to string has value semantics, and both string and string_view provide an operator==.

Code cannot be serialized; therefore it cannot be copied, nor can it be compared for equality. Therefore the conversion from function_ref to function (or from reference_wrapper to function) has reference semantics, and neither function nor function_ref provide an operator==.

So, to a first approximation, function_ref is to function as string_view is to string — both are parameter-only types with reference semantics. But watch out for the inherent difference between “views over data” and “views over code”!

Posted 2019-05-10