A Tale of Two Languages

Recently, I presented my mysteriously titled talk “A Tale of Two Languages” at our local C++ user group. Before the talk, I was not really sure whether it would resonate with my audience. But it did, and helped to engage people in a healthy discussion about how to use C++.

Essentially, the talk was about how I am using two different modes or dialects of C++ to write and maintain applications. The title suggests two languages – and it sure can be thought of that way, but for now I’m using the word “modes” to distinguish it from the term programming languages.

You write the application in one mode, while keeping the style relatively easy. In the other mode, you make sure that you can write easy and efficient code in the other, while leveraging the full power of C++.

I call the first application mode and the second library mode.

Library mode

As I said before, this the power mode. One of C++’s design paradigms is self-extension. You are extending the language from the language itself. It’s a very powerful mechanism, the same one that drives the standard library. It’s also why C++ does not have the need for a built-in string type.

This power is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows you to adapt the language specifically for your needs, for example with application specific value types. For a 3D application, a well designed 2d vector or point type will make your code easier and probably faster. On the other hand, a badly designed type on this level will haunt your application for years to come. I have seen both.

That’s a simple example though. More powerful primitives, such as domain-specific-language like constructs also belong into this mode. In general, things in this mode are less discoverable and less maintainable, but they strive to improve discoverability, efficiency and maintainability on the other side. As a consequence, this code needs more stringent documentation and specification.

Application mode

This is the mode that you use to write the majority of your application. Application mode is all about agility and leveraging opportunities. You intentionally restrict yourself in order to keep your development speed up. Simplicity trumps most other qualities in this mode. If you need another quality to be the defining factor, for example because you need some code to be a little more complex in order to run faster, you should put it into library mode instead.

Unlike code in library mode, this code needs to speak for itself. Therefore, documentation is usually nothing but a duplication.

One important aspect is that this code should be devoid of all subtleties.

Parameter passing and its consequences

That last bit is especially uncommon in C++, where most decisions are really a catch-22. Hence the resulting code hints at the struggles endured while writing it.

For example, to write an efficient function in C++, you need to decide whether to pass each parameter by value, or by reference, or by a pointer. The decision on which to use depends largely on your implementation, i.e. what you are doing with the parameter after it was passed to the function. That usually couples your implementation too tightly to its interface and degrades programmer productivity by giving too many options.

Using a shared-ownership smart-pointer such as std::shared_ptr by default is a good middle ground here. It does the right thing most of the time and is not to far off at most other times. Many other mainstream languages, such as python, go this route. Some frameworks, such as Qt, use that semantic as well.
Like const-correctness, passing all parameters in a std::shared_ptr is viral. Object thus passed need to be created on a the stack, preferably with std::make_shared. You will also store those smart pointers in other objects, so shared_ptr will have quite a lot of screen space. Therefore I usually make an alias:

template using Ptr = std::shared_ptr;

If it’s going to be the default, it should not clutter your code. Since objects are transported in a Ptr by default, they usually do not even need a copy constructor or other “value-like” semantics. These objects are less about maintaining invariants, and more about implementing abstract interfaces and bundling functionality in maintainable chunks. I usually use boost::noncopyable to mark them, though Herb Sutter’s Metaclasses proposal could make this even nicer.
Note that you can still promote them to value types in library mode, should the need arise. But they will become more costly to maintain.

Other simplifications

There are plenty of other things to avoid in application mode. Writing templated types makes your code inherently non-local and dependent on a type that can be anywhere. Note that instantiation of templates from library mode is fine – at that point, all the facts are known.

Another thing that makes your code non-local, and therefore unfitting for application mode, is overloading. Especially in the presence of ADL. For example, which functions are in your actual overload set depends on which headers you include and which using-directives and declarations are active. Sometimes, that is desirable. But not in application mode.


Since using this “two modes” approach, I have found that my productivity is much higher – even in older code that went through a lot of evolution. The code does not actually get a lot slower, even with all the smart pointers. In fact, I am sure that I could only optimize a few cases because the design in application mode is a lot more flexible, and the structure more visible.


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