Is path convertible to string_view?: a war story

This story comes from the libc++ review implementing P1989 “Range constructor for std::string_view 2: Constrain Harder” (Corentin Jabot, March 2021). That paper made std::string_view implicitly convertible-from basically any contiguous range of characters. Which, to be clear, is probably a good thing. But it turned up a really interesting interaction in libc++’s filesystem::path. Somehow, enabling this constructor template in the <string_view> header caused libc++’s filesystem::path to stop being a range!

// Before the patch
#include <filesystem>
#include <ranges>
static_assert(std::ranges::range<const std::filesystem::path>);

// After the patch
#include <filesystem>
#include <ranges>
static_assert(std::ranges::range<std::filesystem::path>);        // OK
static_assert(!std::ranges::range<const std::filesystem::path>); // Wat

I’ll skip over the investigation and jump to the punch line. Consider the following translation unit (Godbolt):


struct StringView {
    StringView(std::ranges::contiguous_range auto r);

struct Path {
    struct Iterator;
    Iterator begin() const;
    Iterator end() const;

    void internalDetail(void*, StringView) const;
    void internalDetail(int, const Path&) const;

    void foo() const {
        internalDetail(ENABLE_FORWARD_RANGE, *this);

struct Path::Iterator {
    using value_type = char;
    using difference_type = int;
    const char& operator*() const;
    Iterator& operator++();
    Iterator operator++(int);
    friend bool operator==(Iterator, Iterator);

static_assert(!std::convertible_to<Path, StringView>);

Observe that Path::Iterator is a forward iterator. Observe that Path is a forward range (because its begin and end return forward iterators). Observe that Path is not convertible to StringView (because although it’s a forward range, it’s not a contiguous range).

But now, let’s change the macro at the top of the code:


Path::Iterator remains a forward iterator, but now our final assertion fails: Path itself is no longer a forward range!

static_assert(std::ranges::forward_range<Path>);  // fails!

What happened here?

The explanation

The answer involves overload resolution on that call to internalDetail.

void internalDetail(void*, StringView) const; // #1
void internalDetail(int, const Path&) const;  // #2

void foo() const {
    internalDetail(ENABLE_FORWARD_RANGE, *this);

When ENABLE_FORWARD_RANGE is 1, internalDetail overload #1 is knocked out of contention immediately, because the caller’s first argument (1) is not convertible to this overload’s first parameter type (void*). That leaves only overload #2, which is viable, so it gets used. Nothing weird is happening in this case.

But when ENABLE_FORWARD_RANGE is 0, the compiler sees that 0 is convertible to void* (because it’s a null pointer constant). So the compiler must look at the second argument (*this) and decide whether it’s convertible to the overload’s second parameter type (StringView). So we look at StringView’s constructor template. It works only for contiguous ranges. Does Path satisfy contiguous_range? Well, no:

  • contiguous_range<Path> subsumes range<Path>
  • range<Path> requires path.begin()’s return type to satisfy input_or_output_iterator
  • Path::Iterator at this point is an incomplete type

and an incomplete type cannot satisfy input_or_output_iterator. So that leaves only overload #2, which is viable, so it gets used.

It seems as if the same thing happened in both cases, doesn’t it? But in the ENABLE_FORWARD_RANGE=0 case, the overload resolution had a side effect: it evaluated range<Path> to false! So, later on in the translation unit, when we ask whether Path satisfies forward_range:

  • forward_range<Path> subsumes range<Path>
  • range<Path> is already known to be false

Of course we humans know that range<Path> is actually true, but the compiler has memoized the false result from earlier, and nothing we do at this point will ever convince it to re-evaluate that belief.

In the ENABLE_FORWARD_RANGE=1 case, we never tricked the compiler into memoizing the wrong value for range<Path>, and so forward_range<Path> correctly yields true.

Notice that the value of convertible_to<Path, StringView> is invariably false throughout the whole translation unit. The problem is that evaluating that false claim causes the compiler to pre-commit to the falseness of other things that later turn out to be true.

The (code) solution

The solution to libc++’s path problem was simply to change some internal details from

__lhs->compare(__rhs)  // overloaded for string_view and path


__lhs->__compare(__rhs.__pn_)  // only for string_view

This is a specific application of two of my general mantras:

  • Don’t give two things the same name without a good reason. (In libc++, path::compare is overloaded, like the toy example’s Path::internalDetail. path::__compare is non-overloaded, so the compiler doesn’t have to do as much work. It turns out that some of the work it gets to skip is work that was actively harmful to us.)

  • Explicit is better than implicit. (We’re actually still implicitly converting string __pn_ to string_view here, but at least we’ve removed one layer of implicitness; and that turns out to be the layer that matters.)

The (standardization) solution

GCC wisely emits an error message whenever it detects that a concept’s truth value has changed over the course of a translation unit. Like most template error messages, it’s really messy (large swaths redacted here); but it does get the point across eventually.

bits/ranges_base.h: In substitution of 'template<class _Tp>
  requires (__maybe_borrowed_range<_Tp>) && ((is_array_v<typename std::remove_reference<_Tp>::type>)
        || (__member_begin<_Tp>) || (__adl_begin<_Tp>))
  constexpr auto std::ranges::__cust_access::_Begin::operator()(_Tp&&) const
  [with _Tp = Path&]':
bits/iterator_concepts.h:945:32: error: satisfaction value of atomic constraint
  'requires(_Tp& __t) {{std::ranges::__cust_access::__decay_copy(__t->begin())}
  -> decltype(auto) [requires std::input_or_output_iterator<<placeholder>, >];}
  [with _Tp = Path&]' changed from 'false' to 'true'
  945 |       concept __member_begin = requires(_Tp& __t)
  946 |         {
  947 |           { __decay_copy(__t.begin()) } -> input_or_output_iterator;
  948 |         };
bits/ranges_base.h:581:22: note: satisfaction value first evaluated to 'false' from here
  581 |         ranges::begin(__t);

I’d like to see Clang and MSVC gain similar error messages; and in fact I’d like the C++ Standard itself to specify that any constraint shall produce the same truth value every time it’s evaluated for the same inputs, or else the program is ill-formed and the compiler must produce a diagnostic. (That is, I’d like WG21 to standardize GCC’s behavior here and force the other vendors to follow suit.)

Violations of this rule that span translation units — for example if a.cpp includes an extra specialization of enable_view, such that std::ranges::view<Path> is true in a.o but false in b.o — would naturally continue to be IFNDR.

Philosophical aside: It’s pretty weird that the static properties of types can change over the course of compilation; it kind of subverts the entire point of static typing. I wish C++20 Concepts didn’t suffer from this issue at all. But that ship has certainly sailed, and besides, I don’t know what the fix would have been, other than the ill-formedness I propose above.

For now, my advice for working programmers continues to be:

Don’t use constrained templates for everyday stuff.

I used to say that simply because constrained templates are slower to compile than unconstrained ones, and tend to give worse error messages (because when misused they’ll quietly drop out of overload resolution instead of giving you an error message on the exact line that fails). But now there’s this additional reason: Every call to a constrained template has side effects, and can cause the compiler to memoize the wrong truth value for a constraint. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it won’t cause the compiler to memoize anything wrong; but it’s just one more arcane subtlety for the working programmer to worry about. Drop the constraints and save yourself some brain cells.

In libc++ we have to use constrained templates because the Standard mandates it; but in code that you control, please use them sparingly, if at all! And specifically beware of calling constrained templates from within inline member functions, or from header files, or anywhere else where a relevant class type might be “not quite complete yet.”

Posted 2021-11-21