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8.5 — Constructors

When all members of a class (or struct) are public, we can use aggregate initialization to initialize the class (or struct) directly using an initialization list or uniform initialization:

However, as soon as we make any member variables private, we’re no longer able to initialize classes in this way. It does make sense: if you can’t directly access a variable (because it’s private), you shouldn’t be able to directly initialize it.

So then how do we initialize a class with private member variables? The answer is through constructors.

Constructors

A constructor is a special kind of class member function that is automatically called when an object of that class is instantiated. Constructors are typically used to initialize member variables of the class to appropriate default or user-provided values, or to do any setup steps necessary for the class to be used (e.g. open a file or database).

Unlike normal member functions, constructors have specific rules for how they must be named:

  1. Constructors must have the same name as the class (with the same capitalization)
  2. Constructors have no return type (not even void)

Default constructors

A constructor that takes no parameters (or has parameters that all have default values) is called a default constructor. The default constructor is called if no user-provided initialization values are provided.

Here is an example of a class that has a default constructor:

This class was designed to hold a fractional value as an integer numerator and denominator. We have defined a default constructor named Fraction (the same as the class).

Because we’re instantiating an object of type Fraction with no arguments, the default constructor will be called immediately after memory is allocated for the object, and our object will be initialized.

This program produces the result:

0/1

Note that our numerator and denominator were initialized with the values we set in our default constructor! Without a default constructor, the numerator and denominator would have garbage values until we explicitly assigned them reasonable values, or initialize them by other means (remember: fundamental variables aren’t initialized by default).

Direct and uniform initialization using constructors with parameters

While the default constructor is great for ensuring our classes are initialized with reasonable default values, often times we want instances of our class to have specific values that we provide. Fortunately, constructors can also be declared with parameters. Here is an example of a constructor that takes two integer parameters that are used to initialize the numerator and denominator:

Note that we now have two constructors: a default constructor that will be called in the default case, and a second constructor that takes two parameters. These two constructors can coexist peacefully in the same class due to function overloading. In fact, you can define as many constructors as you want, so long as each has a unique signature (number and type of parameters).

So how do we use this constructor with parameters? It’s simple! We can use brace or direct initialization:

Since C++11, we prefer brace initialization. There is another special constructor that might make brace initialization do something different, in that case we have to use direct initialization. We’ll talk about these constructors later.

Note that we have given the second parameter of the constructor with parameters a default value, so the following is also legal:

Default values for constructors work exactly the same way as with any other functions, so in the above case where we call six{ 6 }, the Fraction(int, int) function is called with the second parameter defaulted to value 1.

Rule

Favor brace initialization to initialize class objects.

Copy initialization using equals with classes

Optional reading

This section is only relevant if you’re using a standard older than C++11.

Much like with fundamental variables, it’s also possible to initialize classes using copy initialization:

However, we recommend you avoid this form of initialization with classes, as it may be less efficient. Although direct initialization, uniform initialization, and copy initialization all work identically with fundamental types, copy-initialization does not work the same with classes (though the end-result is often the same). We’ll explore the differences in more detail in a future chapter.

Reducing your constructors

In the above two-constructor declaration of the Fraction class, the default constructor is actually somewhat redundant. We could simplify this class as follows:

Although this constructor is still a default constructor, it has now been defined in a way that it can accept one or two user-provided values as well.

When implementing your constructors, consider how you might keep the number of constructors down through smart defaulting of values.

A reminder about default parameters

The rules around defining and calling functions that have default parameters (described in lesson 7.7 -- Default arguments) apply to constructors too. To recap, when defining a function with default parameters, all default parameters must follow any non-default parameters, ie. there cannot be a non-defaulted parameters after a defaulted parameter.

This may produce unexpected results for classes that have multiple default parameters of different types. Consider:

With s4, we’ve attempted to construct a Something by providing only a double. This won’t compile, as the rules for how arguments match with default parameters won’t allow us to skip a non-rightmost parameter (in this case, the leftmost int parameter).

If we want to be able to construct a Something with only a double, we’ll need to add a second (non-default) constructor:

An implicitly generated default constructor

If your class has no constructors, C++ will automatically generate a public default constructor for you. This is sometimes called an implicit constructor (or implicitly generated constructor).

Consider the following class:

This class has no constructor. Therefore, the compiler will generate a constructor that allows us to create a Date object without arguments.

This particular implicit constructor allows us to create a Date object with no arguments, but doesn’t initialize any of the members (because all of the members are fundamental types, and those don’t get initialized upon creation). If Date had members that are class-types themselves, for example std::string, the constructors of those members would be called automatically.

To make sure the member variables get initialized, we can initialize them at their declaration.

Although you can’t see the implicitly generated constructor, you can prove it exists:

The above code compiles, because the date object will use the implicit constructor (which is public).

If your class has any other constructors, the implicitly generated constructor will not be provided. For example:

To allow construction of a Date without arguments, either add default arguments to the constructor, add an empty default constructor, or explicitly add a default constructor:

Using = default is almost the same as adding a default constructor with an empty body. The only difference is that = default allows us the safely initialize member variables even if they don’t have an initializer:

Using = default is longer than writing a constructor with an empty body, but expresses better what your intentions are (To create a default constructor), and it’s safer. = default also works for other special constructors, which we’ll talk about in the future.

Rule

If you have constructors in your class and need a default constructor that does nothing, use = default.

Classes containing classes

A class may contain other classes as member variables. By default, when the outer class is constructed, the member variables will have their default constructors called. This happens before the body of the constructor executes.

This can be demonstrated thusly:

This prints:

A
B

When variable b is constructed, the B() constructor is called. Before the body of the constructor executes, m_a is initialized, calling the class A default constructor. This prints “A”. Then control returns back to the B constructor, and the body of the B constructor executes.

This makes sense when you think about it, as the B() constructor may want to use variable m_a -- so m_a had better be initialized first!

The difference to the last example in the previous section is that m_a is a class-type. class-type members get initialized even if we don’t explicitly initialize them.

In the next lesson, we’ll talk about how to initialize these class member variables.

Constructor notes

Many new programmers are confused about whether constructors create the objects or not. They do not -- the compiler sets up the memory allocation for the object prior to the constructor call.

Constructors actually serve two purposes. First, constructors determine who is allowed to create an object. That is, an object of a class can only be created if a matching constructor can be found.

Second, constructors can be used to initialize objects. Whether the constructor actually does an initialization is up to the programmer. It’s syntactically valid to have a constructor that does no initialization at all (the constructor still serves the purpose of allowing the object to be created, as per the above).

However, much like it is a best practice to initialize all local variables, it’s also a best practice to initialize all member variables on creation of the object. This can be done either via a constructor, or via other means we’ll show in future lessons.

Best practice

Always initialize all member variables in your objects.

Finally, constructors are only intended to be used for initialization when the object is created. You should not try to call a constructor to re-initialize an existing object. While it may compile, the results will not be what you intended (instead, the compiler will create a temporary object and then discard it).

Quiz time

Question #1


Write a class named Ball. Ball should have two private member variables with default values: m_color (“black”) and m_radius (10.0). Ball should provide constructors to set only m_color, set only m_radius, set both, or set neither value. For this quiz question, do not use default parameters for your constructors. Also write a function to print out the color and radius of the ball.

The following sample program should compile:

and produce the result:

color: black, radius: 10
color: blue, radius: 10
color: black, radius: 20
color: blue, radius: 20

Show Solution

b) Update your answer to the previous question to use constructors with default parameters. Use as few constructors as possible.

Show Solution

Question #2

What happens if you don’t declare a default constructor?

Show Solution


8.5a -- Constructor member initializer lists
Index
8.4 -- Access functions and encapsulation

408 comments to 8.5 — Constructors

  • p1

    So what is the use of constructors against making your own functions?I just see more confusion in naming stuff the same as the class and making my own function which would do constructor things seems pretty easy,and cleaner to read.

  • gbstrcl

    Under Implicit constructors section

    Did you mean the compiler generates a default constructor?

  • MCG

    I think the constructor of the date2 class was misspelled (line 24)

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