Shafik Yaghmour

Compiler Engineer at Intel. This is a personal blog. The opinions stated here are my own, not those of my company.

Is Zero a Butterfly?

03 Jan 2021 » C++

Is Zero a Butterfly? Wait? What? That sounds like a pretty odd question to ask for C++ but let’s explore a little and see where it takes us.

So what is zero in C++? Perhaps the most obvious answer would be it is an integer and while this is true it misses a bigger story about zeros super powers in C++.

What is super about zero?

Well first some fun trivia. Zero is an octal literal, see the grammar for integer literals:

  octal-literal 'opt octal-digit

It is the only single digit octal literal, it won’t help you do anything special but might impress some of your friends.

Zero is a kind of super-literal (not official terminology), it can be converted to all sort of types, some mundane but many quite surprising. Most would not be surprised that the following code is valid:

void f(int);
f(0); // Zero is an integer, not surprising.
f(1); // Nope, not surprising either.

Zero is an integer after all and we will probably not be surprised the following works either (see it live):

void f1(bool);
void f2(char);
f1(0); // Ok, we are used to non-zero values being true and zero values being false.
f2(0); // Perhaps a little icky but char is an integer type.
f2(1); // Why not 1 as well?

We are probably used to thinking of zero values as converting to false and non-zero values converting to true, so not likely surprising. We might not be as thrilled about zero converting to a char without any explicit conversions but char, signed char and unsigned char are all integer types.

So how about pointers? Is zero a pointer? How about non-zero values? Are non-zero integers also pointers? Are we surprised by the following (see it live)?:

f(int *p);
f(0); // Ok, zero is a null pointer constant.
f(1); // Error, 1 is not a valid pointer constant.
f(reinterpret_cast<int*>(1)); // Ok (although questionable) implementation-defined 
                              // mapping from integer to pointer.

So now we start seeing some interesting behavior (powers), zero is special, [conv.ptr]p1 tells us that:

A null pointer constant is an integer literal ([lex.icon]) with value zero or a prvalue of type std::nullptr_t.

but other integers do not have this super ability and if we want to convert them to pointers we must use reinterpret_cast. This will be a questionable but implementation defined mapping. We inherit this directly from C and pre-C++11 we used to allow constant expressions that evaluated to zero to be also be consider null pointer constants. So the following prior to C++11 was also valid (see it live):

f(int *p);
f( 1 - 1 );  // Ok, prior to C++11, 1-1 is an integral constant expression.           
f( ~-1 );    // Also ok prior to C++11!

How about arrays? Is zero an array (😱) (see it live)?

void f(char arr[5]){} // Identical to
                      // void f(char *arr);
f(0); // Ok, zero is a null pointer constant

Ok, this probably feels like cheating but it works and is likely pretty surprising. Here we are seeing the effect of a parameter of type array of T being adjusted to pointer to T, see [dcl.fct]p5:

After determining the type of each parameter, any parameter of type “array of T” or of function type T is adjusted to be “pointer to T”.

This is another thing that C++ has inherited directly from C. In C++ we can avoid this adjustment by passing array by reference. This is used for example by std::end to determine the size of the array:

template< class T, std::size_t N >
T* end( T (&array)[N] );

but C-style arrays are not idiomatic C++ and we should prefer to use std::array or std::vector but often for generic code we need to support C-style arrays, as the std::end example above.

Ok, so what about std::string? You may be saying, no way, zero can’t be a std::string can it? Let’s see (see it live):

void f(std::string s){}
f(0);             // Ok, zero converts to a const char *, may crash due to undefined behavior
f("hello world"); // Ok, a string literal will decay to a pointer to a const char 
f(reinterpret_cast<const char *>(1)); // Undefined behavior, 1 is not a valid pointer to a const char 

What we are seeing here is that std::string has a constuctor that takes a const char* (I am being lose here, really should be CharT) and copies the contents:

constexpr basic_string( const CharT* s,
                        const Allocator& alloc = Allocator() );

Due to the legacy C conversion of zero to a null pointer constant we can convert zero to a const char* and thus we can call the std::string constructor that expects a null-terminated C-style string to copy the contents of. Worth noting this an easy trap to fall into:

std::string s(0); // Same problem, does not create a std::string
                  // of size one with value char value 0

Ironically the following does not work (see it live):

std::string s;
s=0;  // Ill-formed, ambiguous overload are we passing a char or const char*?
s=65; // Ok, likely will result in string storing character A

Assigning zero to a std::string does not work, it ends up being an ambiguous overload because std::string has an overload to operator= that takes char and an overload that takes const char* and so assigning zero is ambiguous.

One last place where zero is special and that is a declaring pure virtual member functions:

struct A{
  virtual void f() = 0; // Zero yet again!

I am not to happy to report that zero was used to avoid having to add a new keyword so close to release. There was nothing technical preventing an alternative such as pure or abstract other than the difficulty of getting a new keyword accepted so close to release.

So this brings an end to zeros super fun, but it does leave us with one burning question (How does one turn a meme into an article) also see original meme that inspired this post:

Is this a

Thank you to those who provided feedback on or reviewed this write-up: Ólafur Waage and Jan Wilmans.

Of course in the end, all errors are the author’s.