An easy thing made difficult . . .

Taming the Plus (+) Sign

Conrad Weisert, July 1, 2011

"Until you have inspected your [C++] data types, you have absolutely no idea what + might do to them"

—Poul-Henning Kamp: "Sir, Please Step Away from the ASR-33!", Communications of the ACM, November, 2010, p. 57

Nonsense! We tried to bury that old canard a dozen years ago ("Why Can't Authors Get Operator Overloading Right?"), but it resists rational discussion. We most certainly do have a very clear idea what the plus sign does in any program written by a sane programmer.

Two fundamental meanings

A. Numeric operands

In the expression a+b if a and b are numeric data items, the plus sign means addition. The program reader can depend on the result being the sum of a and b.

Yes, it's possible for a programmer to define + to mean subtraction or maximum, but such bizarre misuse is no more likely than giving a named function a misleading name. A programmer who did either should enjoy a short career.

It's also reasonable to expect that the operation is commutative (a+b = b+a) and (barring overflow) associative (a+(b+c)=(a+b)+c).

B. String operands

When operator overloading was added to C++, an obvious first project was to define a character String class that would liberate programmers from C's ugly and error-prone pseudo character strings. Since a concatenation operator is essential, class developers looked at extended BASIC, which used +, and at PL/I, which used ||. Either would have worked, but || had the wrong precedence relative to the relational operators, so the plus sign was chosen and eventually got into the standard library.

So, in the expression a+b if a and b are String data items, the plus sign means concatenation. The program reader can assume that the result is the right operand appended to the end of the left operand.

We can safely assume that the operation is associative but not commutative.

C. Mixed operands

We see that the quotation at the beginning of this article is invalid when the operands of the + operator are both numeric or both String. But what happens when we have one numeric operand and one String operand?

In Java, the toString function would automatically convert the numeric one to a character string representation, and it's not always possible to convert a string to a number. In C++ you can often mimic that behavior with single-parameter constructors or explicit conversion operators. However, we note an interesting anomaly in both languages:

Oops! Does that mean that associativity doesn't hold for the + operatior? Not at all. An operator denoted by the plus sign is associative in all cases. The confusion arises because two entirely different operators, addition and concatenation, are represented by the same symbol. If the designers of C++ and Java had had a richer character set available, they would have chosen a different symbol.1

An experienced programmer would be well-aware of this, and would avoid confusing the reader (and himself) with s+x+y or similar expressions. Explicit parentheses or separate statements are clearly called for.

Further meanings: Container operands

It's natural to extend the meaning of + to vectors, lists, and other containers. But that runs into a potential conflict:

  1. Analogous with the numeric interpretation, if the containers have compatible dimension, we can specify the result as the same-size container of element-by-element results.2

  2. or analogous with the String interpretation we can specify the result as the linear container formed by appending the right operand to the end of the left operand.

Both interpretations are potentially useful, and one can argue for either. However, alternative a has the clear advantage of being extendable to the other arithmetic operators, which wouldn't make sense for alternative b. It also can support one container operand and one scalar operand in a natural way. Therefore we should prefer a named method for the concatenation alternative, and whenever we see + with container operands, we're justified in assuming an element-by-element operation.

Bizarre misuses

Really strange uses of + pop up more often in articles and textbooks than in the real programs we're trying to read. For example:

Note that those examples are neither commutative nor associative. They're just weird.

Such examples, atrocious as they are, don't justify the quotation at the beginning of this article. We need to be very concerned about the readability of programs written by competent programmers of all skill levels. Let's not worry about programs written by the utterly confused. Misleading operator definition is the least of their problems.

Conclusion and Recommended reading

In a programming language that supports operator overloading, the function of a + operator should be absolutely clear to the source-code reader or maintenance programmer, provided only that the program was written by a minimally competent and sensible programmer.

For the whole story on operator overloading, see Object Oriented Computation in C++ and Java


1—APL used a plus sign inside a circle for concatenation, but that symbol isn't available in the ASCII character set.
2—Pl/I, APL, and a few other languages support that interpretation.

Last modified 1 July 2011

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