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12.4 — Early binding and late binding

In this chapter and the next, we are going to take a closer look at how virtual functions are implemented. While this information is not strictly necessary to effectively use virtual functions, it is interesting. Nevertheless, you can consider both sections optional reading.

When a C++ program is executed, it executes sequentially, beginning at the top of main(). When a function call is encountered, the point of execution jumps to the beginning of the function being called. How does the CPU know to do this?

When a program is compiled, the compiler converts each statement in your C++ program into one or more lines of machine language. Each line of machine language is given its own unique sequential address. This is no different for functions -- when a function is encountered, it is converted into machine language and given the next available address. Thus, each function ends up with a unique machine language address.

Binding refers to the process that is used to convert identifiers (such as variable and function names) into machine language addresses. Although binding is used for both variables and functions, in this lesson we’re going to focus on function binding.

Early binding

Most of the function calls the compiler encounters will be direct function calls. A direct function call is a statement that directly calls a function. For example:

Direct function calls can be resolved using a process known as early binding. Early binding (also called static binding) means the compiler is able to directly associate the identifier name (such as a function or variable name) with a machine address. Remember that all functions have a unique machine address. So when the compiler encounters a function call, it replaces the function call with a machine language instruction that tells the CPU to jump to the address of the function.

Let’s take a look at a simple calculator program that uses early binding:

Because Add(), Subtract(), and Multiply() are all direct function calls, the compiler will use early binding to resolve the Add(), Subtract(), and Multiply() function calls. The compiler will replace the Add() function call with an instruction that tells the CPU to jump to the address of the Add() function. The same holds true for Subtract() and Multiply().

Late Binding

In some programs, it is not possible to know which function will be called until runtime (when the program is run). This is known as late binding (or dynamic binding). In C++, one way to get late binding is to use function pointers. To review function pointers briefly, a function pointer is a type of pointer that points to a function instead of a variable. The function that a function pointer points to can be called by using the function call operator (()) on the pointer.

For example, the following code calls the Add() function:

Calling a function via a function pointer is also known as an indirect function call. The following calculator program is functionally identical to the calculator example above, except it uses a function pointer instead of a direct function call:

In this example, instead of calling the Add(), Subtract(), or Multiply() function directly, we’ve instead set pFcn to point at the function we wish to call. Then we call the function through the pointer. The compiler is unable to use early binding to resolve the function call pFcn(nX, nY) because it can not tell which function pFcn will be pointing to at compile time!

Late binding is slightly less efficient since it involves an extra level of indirection. With early binding, the compiler can tell the CPU to jump directly to the function’s address. With late binding, the program has to read the address held in the pointer and then jump to that address. This involves one extra step, making it slightly slower. However, the advantage of late binding is that it is more flexible than early binding, because decisions about what function to call do not need to be made until run time.

In the next lesson, we’ll take a look at how late binding is used to implement virtual functions.

12.5 -- The virtual table
12.3 -- Virtual destructors, virtual assignment, and overriding virtualization

38 comments to 12.4 — Early binding and late binding

  • Arijit Chattopadhyay

    Good example.. Easy to understand

  • sssss

    very good example

  • gswrg

    Why do you use the “&” in the first example

    but not in the second example?

  • that’s bullshit… it doesn’t work… !! do you know programming at all????? !!!!

    • HJ

      Hey friend,
      please, be gentle on the guy. Atleast, he is doing something you are not doing-giving his idea. kindly state what you saw that is wrong and help others to see it instead of just insulting the guy. thanks

  • Max

    Nice and clear thank you.

  • mak

    the piece of code is an example of late binding itself. Put a code of Virtual functions. Virtual functions are perfect example of late binding or runtime polymorphism.

    these lines are clearly late binding example….

  • it is good example for C++ late binding and early binding

  • Ganesh

    Nice explanation, very easy to understand , I have already saved the web address.

  • nehemiah

    Woooohoooooo ALEX, Till now nobody cleared my doubt regarding even my college professors !!

    Thank you Alex for your mind blowing session !!

  • rahul nagar

    Hi Alex,

    In the tutorial you said that “The compiler is unable to use early binding to resolve the function call pFcn(nX, nY) because it can not tell which function pFcn will be pointing to at compile time!”

    I think the reason for late binding is that the allocation of function pointer pFcn(nX,nY) is at run time(as it is allocated from heap) and hence the function call cannot be resolved at compile time.

    If I change the code to below ::

    switch (nOperation)
    case 0: Add(nX,nY); break;
    case 1: Subtract(nX,nY); break;
    case 2: Multiply(nX,nY); break;

    Will this be late binding or early binding ??

    I feel this is early binding as compiler has the address of the functions and the control can move to the address based on choice of user at run time.

    Kindly suggest on the above.


  • Augustine P A

    Nice explanation, very easy to understand.. But my personal opinion is that function pointers are quite interesting than conventional programming. Function Pointers provide some extremely interesting, e?cient and elegant programming techniques. You can use them to replace switch/if-statements, to realize your own late-binding or to implement callbacks.

  • “The same holds true for for Subtract() and Multiply().”

  • tvyas


    I appreciate your efforts here.

    However, I think the example here is not one of late binding, since a compiler might already create 3 options/paths of codes based on the 3 options (0,1, & 2) at compile time! It is similar situation to the one asked by “Rahul Nagar”:

    In either cases, I believe it is early binding, not a late binding. Instead of this, if the end user is asked to input the address of one of the functions (assuming that their addresses are already output before somewhere), and if that address which is entered by the user is used for calling the function would definitely be a late binding example.

    Please feel free to comment/correct me if I am wrong.

    Thanks in advance.

    -Trilok Vyas.

    • sagar

      I think second one is a example of late binding because while doing a actual function call ie pFcn(nX, nY) the compiler doesn’t know to jump to which address at the time of compilation because it is via function pointer and the value of the function pointer changes with user input. But in case of first one the compiler replaces the function call with proper jump statement to the address where the function is written and this is decided at compile time itself.So it is all about the compiler replacing user written function call with proper jump statement.

  • smru

    precisely explained concept..was very useful..

  • ben

    very help full .nice presentation. Thank you

  • sarthak

    Good explanation

  • vinay vidhani

    which terminology is correct

    when we compile our code then compiler converts the whole code into machine  lang instruction (code convert into machine lang) and each statement carries the next instruction address also , so that when function call encounters the cpu jump on the function address and execute it….. whereas other terminology is when we compile our code the function call statement is replaced with function body and execute line by line

    Please reply if u r sure….

  • someone

    Good explanation!
    What about when I have something like this:
    class A{
        void virtual Foo(){//implementation}
    class B:A{///implementation};

    class C{
        void FooCall(A *a1, A &a2)
            A* a3 = new A();

    Are these static or dynamic bindings?

  • puppi

    hi alex,
    which for reason we use function pointers? can you give us a few another example please?

  • Bunny

    Hi Alex,

    If i am not wrong, function overriding concept will be more apt for explaining the concept of late binding and early binding.

  • Devashish

    Typo: “The same holds true for for Subtract() and Multiply()”
    Multiple “for” in the last sentence of the paragraph under heading “Early binding”.

    A confusion:
    You wrote this in Late binding
    “In some programs, it is not possible to know which function will be called until runtime (when the program is run)” (first line)

    “The compiler is unable to use early binding to resolve the function call pFcn(nX, nY) because it can not tell which function pFcn will be pointing to at compile time!”

    Now I am thinking about Early binding. Isn’t the case is same with the early binding example. Program asks user to input a number (that is going to happen at runtime). User enters a number and then the appropriate function is called. That means compiler doesn’t know (at compile time) which function has to be called, because calling a function is based on user input. Please help me get out of this confusion.

    • Alex

      Thanks for the typo fix. The article may be worded slightly ambiguously.

      As for the late binding, the thing to note here is that the compiler can’t disambiguate which function will be called at compile time.

      In the early binding example, the compiler knows exactly which function will be called for each case (it just doesn’t know whether that case will be executed or not, since that is user-input dependent).
      In the late binding example, the compiler doesn’t know which function will be called, because it doesn’t know what pFcn will be pointing to at the time it is invoked. It could be any function with a compatible prototype.

  • Devashish

    I am trying to clear where things become confusing to me:

    In the early binding example, compiler knows which function would be called in each case.
    calls Add if input is 0, calls Subtract if input is 1 and calls Multiply if input is 2.

    According to you:
    -> In the late binding example, the compiler doesn’t know which function will be called, because it doesn’t know what pFcn will be pointing to at the time it is invoked.

    Code extracted from late binding example. Can’t compiler set a table or something like that to make pFcn point to different functions in those three cases? We are telling it which function should be pointed for each user input. I hope my question is clear.

    • Alex

      In theory, because this example is so simple, a compiler could optimize this code by converting the switch and function call into a direct function call. However, I’m not sure if modern compilers are that smart, and it might not work in more complicated cases.

      I’m not sure how using a table would help. pFcn already points to different functions in those three cases.

  • Naga

    Hi Alex,

    I have a small confusion in your function pointer example.
    int Add(int nX, int nY)
        return nX + nY;

    int main()
        // Create a function pointer and make it point to the Add function
        int (*pFcn)(int, int) = Add;
        cout << pFcn(5, 3) << endl; // add 5 + 3

        return 0;

    In above case, would function call be resolved in Compile time or Run time? I think it would be in compile time because we are directly making the function pointer to point to Add function. So compiler knows which function will be called at compile time and also there are no conditions like switch cases here as in your calculator program to wait for user input. Am I right?

    Hope you got my question.

    • Alex

      Normally, this would be resolved at runtime. However, a modern compiler might be able to optimize this into a call that could be resolved at compile-time. I don’t know whether any modern compilers are smart enough to do this.

  • Matt

    Found a typo ("it’s" that should be "its"): "Each line of machine language is given it’s own unique sequential address."

  • Aashish Raina

    Thanks a Million. Your explanation of concepts are precise and to the point.
    While reading your material, i say to myself , this was the kind of explanation i was looking.

    Keep up the good work

  • GeekPro

    Can function pointer points to a class member function?

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