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Never Call Virtual Functions during Construction or Destruction
An Excerpt from Effective C++, Third Edition
by Scott Meyers
June 6, 2005
Summary
The third edition of Scott Meyers' popular book, Effective C++, was recently published. In this excerpt from the new edition, Meyers explains why you should never call virtual functions during object construction and destruction.

This article is an excerpt from Scott Meyers's new book, Effective C++, Third Edition: 55 Specific Ways to Improve Your Programs and Designs. Reprinted with permission.

Item 9: Never call virtual functions during construction or destruction.

I'll begin with the recap: you shouldn't call virtual functions during construction or destruction, because the calls won't do what you think, and if they did, you'd still be unhappy. If you're a recovering Java or C# programmer, pay close attention to this Item, because this is a place where those languages zig, while C++ zags.

Suppose you've got a class hierarchy for modeling stock transactions, e.g., buy orders, sell orders, etc. It's important that such transactions be auditable, so each time a transaction object is created, an appropriate entry needs to be created in an audit log. This seems like a reasonable way to approach the problem:

class Transaction {
public: 
    Transaction();
    virtual void logTransaction() const = 0;

    ...
};

Transaction::Transaction()
{
    ...
    logTransaction();
}

class BuyTransaction: public Transaction {
public:
    virtual void logTransaction() const;

    ...
};

class SellTransaction: public Transaction {
public:
    virtual void logTransaction() const;

    ...
};
    
// base class for all
// transactions

// make type-dependent
// log entry



// implementation of
// base class ctor

// as final action, log this
// transaction

// derived class

// how to log trans-
// actions of this type



// derived class

// how to log trans-
// actions of this type


Consider what happens when this code is executed:

BuyTransaction b;

Clearly a BuyTransaction constructor will be called, but first, a Transaction constructor must be called; base class parts of derived class objects are constructed before derived class parts are. The last line of the Transaction constructor calls the virtual function logTransaction, but this is where the surprise comes in. The version of logTransaction that's called is the one in Transaction, not the one in BuyTransaction—even though the type of object being created is BuyTransaction. During base class construction, virtual functions never go down into derived classes. Instead, the object behaves as if it were of the base type. Informally speaking, during base class construction, virtual functions aren't.

There's a good reason for this seemingly counterintuitive behavior. Because base class constructors execute before derived class constructors, derived class data members have not been initialized when base class constructors run. If virtual functions called during base class construction went down to derived classes, the derived class functions would almost certainly refer to local data members, but those data members would not yet have been initialized. That would be a non-stop ticket to undefined behavior and late-night debugging sessions. Calling down to parts of an object that have not yet been initialized is inherently dangerous, so C++ gives you no way to do it.

It's actually more fundamental than that. During base class construction of a derived class object, the type of the object is that of the base class. Not only do virtual functions resolve to the base class, but the parts of the language using runtime type information (e.g., dynamic_cast (see Item 27) and typeid) treat the object as a base class type. In our example, while the Transaction constructor is running to initialize the base class part of a BuyTransaction object, the object is of type Transaction. That's how every part of C++ will treat it, and the treatment makes sense: the BuyTransaction-specific parts of the object haven't been initialized yet, so it's safest to treat them as if they didn't exist. An object doesn't become a derived class object until execution of a derived class constructor begins.

The same reasoning applies during destruction. Once a derived class destructor has run, the object's derived class data members assume undefined values, so C++ treats them as if they no longer exist. Upon entry to the base class destructor, the object becomes a base class object, and all parts of C++—virtual functions, dynamic_casts, etc.—treat it that way.

In the example code above, the Transaction constructor made a direct call to a virtual function, a clear and easy-to-see violation of this item's guidance. The violation is so easy to see, some compilers issue a warning about it. (Others don't. See Item 53 for a discussion of warnings.) Even without such a warning, the problem would almost certainly become apparent before runtime, because the logTransaction function is pure virtual in Transaction. Unless it had been defined (unlikely, but possible—see Item 34), the program wouldn't link: the linker would be unable to find the necessary implementation of Transaction::logTransaction.

It's not always so easy to detect calls to virtual functions during construction or destruction. If Transaction had multiple constructors, each of which had to perform some of the same work, it would be good software engineering to avoid code replication by putting the common initialization code, including the call to logTransaction, into a private nonvirtual initialization function, say, init:

class Transaction {
public:
    Transaction()
    { init(); }

    virtual void logTransaction() const = 0;
    ...

private:
    void init()
    {
        ...
        logTransaction(); 
    }
};
    



// call to non-virtual...








// ...that calls a virtual!


This code is conceptually the same as the earlier version, but it's more insidious, because it will typically compile and link without complaint. In this case, because logTransaction is pure virtual in Transaction, most runtime systems will abort the program when the pure virtual is called (typically issuing a message to that effect). However, if logTransaction were a "normal" virtual function (i.e., not pure virtual) with an implementation in Transaction, that version would be called, and the program would merrily trot along, leaving you to figure out why the wrong version of logTransaction was called when a derived class object was created. The only way to avoid this problem is to make sure that none of your constructors or destructors call virtual functions on the object being created or destroyed and that all the functions they call obey the same constraint.

But how do you ensure that the proper version of logTransaction is called each time an object in the Transaction hierarchy is created? Clearly, calling a virtual function on the object from the Transaction constructor(s) is the wrong way to do it.

There are different ways to approach this problem. One is to turn logTransaction into a non-virtual function in Transaction, then require that derived class constructors pass the necessary log information to the Transaction constructor. That function can then safely call the nonvirtual logTransaction. Like this:

class Transaction {
public:
    explicit Transaction(const std::string& logInfo);
    void logTransaction(const std::string& logInfo) const;

    ...
};

Transaction::Transaction(const std::string& logInfo)
{
    ...
    logTransaction(logInfo);
}

class BuyTransaction: public Transaction {
public:
    BuyTransaction( parameters)
    : Transaction(createLogString( parameters))
    { ... }
    ...

private:
    static std::string createLogString( parameters);
};
 



// now a non-
// virtual func






// now a non-
// virtual call




// pass log info
// to base class
// constructor



In other words, since you can't use virtual functions to call down from base classes during construction, you can compensate by having derived classes pass necessary construction information up to base class constructors instead.

In this example, note the use of the (private) static function createLogString in BuyTransaction. Using a helper function to create a value to pass to a base class constructor is often more convenient (and more readable) that going through contortions in the member initialization list to give the base class what it needs. By making the function static, there's no danger of accidentally referring to the nascent BuyTransaction object's as-yet-uninitialized data members. That's important, because the fact that those data members will be in an undefined state is why calling virtual functions during base class construction and destruction doesn't go down into derived classes in the first place.

Things to Remember

Talk Back!

Discuss this book excerpt in the Articles Forum topic, Never Call Virtual Functions during Construction or Destruction.

Resources

Scott Meyers is the author of Effective C++, the third edition of which has just been published. It is available on Amazon.com at:
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0321334876/

Scott Meyers is also the author of More Effective C++, which is available on Amazon.com at:
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/020163371X/

Scott Meyers is also the author of Effective STL, which is available on Amazon.com at:
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0201749629/

Scott Meyer's home page:
http://www.aristeia.com/

About the Author

Scott Meyers is one of the world's foremost experts on C++ software development. He wrote the best-selling Effective C++ series (Effective C++, More Effective C++, and Effective STL), wrote and designed the innovative Effective C++ CD, is consulting editor for Addison Wesley's Effective Software Development Series, and is a member of the advisory boards for Software Development and The C++ Source magazines. He also sits on technical advisory boards for several start-up companies. A programmer since 1972, he holds an M.S. in Computer Science from Stanford University and a Ph.D. from Brown University.

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