11.4 — Access functions and encapsulation

Why make member variables private?

In the previous lesson, we mentioned that class member variables are typically made private. Developers who are learning about object-oriented programming often have a hard time understanding why you’d want to do this. To answer that question, let’s start with an analogy.

In modern life, we have access to many electronic devices. Your TV has a remote control that you can use to turn the TV on/off. You drive a car (or scooter) to work. You take a picture on your smartphone. All three of these things use a common pattern: They provide a simple interface for you to use (a button, a steering wheel, etc…) to perform an action. However, how these devices actually operate is hidden away from you. When you press the button on your remote control, you don’t need to know what it’s doing to communicate with your TV. When you press the gas pedal on your car, you don’t need to know how the combustion engine makes the wheels turn. When you take a picture, you don’t need to know how the sensors gather light into a pixellated image. This separation of interface and implementation is extremely useful because it allows us to use objects without understanding how they work. This vastly reduces the complexity of using these objects, and increases the number of objects we’re capable of interacting with.

For similar reasons, the separation of implementation and interface is useful in programming.


In object-oriented programming, Encapsulation (also called information hiding) is the process of keeping the details about how an object is implemented hidden away from users of the object. Instead, users of the object access the object through a public interface. In this way, users are able to use the object without having to understand how it is implemented.

In C++, we implement encapsulation via access specifiers. Typically, all member variables of the class are made private (hiding the implementation details), and most member functions are made public (exposing an interface for the user). Although requiring users of the class to use the public interface may seem more burdensome than providing public access to the member variables directly, doing so actually provides a large number of useful benefits that help encourage class re-usability and maintainability.

Note: The word encapsulation is also sometimes used to refer to the packaging of data and functions that work on that data together. We prefer to just call that object-oriented programming.

Benefit: encapsulated classes are easier to use and reduce the complexity of your programs

With a fully encapsulated class, you only need to know what member functions are publicly available to use the class, what arguments they take, and what values they return. It doesn’t matter how the class was implemented internally. For example, a class holding a list of names could have been implemented using a dynamic array of C-style strings, std::array, std::vector, std::map, std::list, or one of many other data structures. In order to use the class, you don’t need to know (or care) which. This dramatically reduces the complexity of your programs, and also reduces mistakes. More than any other reason, this is the key advantage of encapsulation.

All of the classes in the C++ standard library are encapsulated. Imagine how much more complicated C++ would be if you had to understand how std::string, std::vector, or std::cout were implemented in order to use them!

Benefit: encapsulated classes help protect your data and prevent misuse

Global variables are dangerous because you don’t have strict control over who has access to the global variable, or how they use it. Classes with public members suffer from the same problem, just on a smaller scale.

For example, let’s say we were writing a string class. We might start out like this:

These two variables have an intrinsic connection: m_length should always equal the length of the string held by m_string (this connection is called an invariant). If m_length were public, anybody could change the length of the string without changing m_string (or vice-versa). This would put the class into an inconsistent state, which could cause all sorts of bizarre problems. By making both m_length and m_string private, users are forced to use whatever public member functions are available to work with the class (and those member functions can ensure that m_length and m_string are always set appropriately).

We can also help protect the user from mistakes in using our class. Consider a class with a public array member variable:

If users can access the array directly, they could subscript the array with an invalid index, producing unexpected results:

However, if we make the array private, we can force the user to use a function that validates that the index is valid first:

In this way, we’ve protected the integrity of our program. As a side note, the at() functions of std::array and std::vector do something very similar!

Benefit: encapsulated classes are easier to change

Consider this simple example:

While this program works fine, what would happen if we decided to rename m_value1, or change its type? We’d break not only this program, but likely most of the programs that use class Something as well!

Encapsulation gives us the ability to change how classes are implemented without breaking all of the programs that use them.

Here is the encapsulated version of this class that uses functions to access m_value1:

Now, let’s change the class’s implementation:

Note that because we did not alter the prototypes of any functions in our class’s public interface, our program that uses the class continues to work without any changes.

Similarly, if gnomes snuck into your house at night and replaced the internals of your TV remote with a different (but compatible) technology, you probably wouldn’t even notice!

Benefit: encapsulated classes are easier to debug

And finally, encapsulation helps you debug the program when something goes wrong. Often when a program does not work correctly, it is because one of our member variables has an incorrect value. If everyone is able to access the variable directly, tracking down which piece of code modified the variable can be difficult (it could be any of them, and you’ll need to breakpoint them all to figure out which). However, if everybody has to call the same public function to modify a value, then you can simply breakpoint that function and watch as each caller changes the value until you see where it goes wrong.

Access functions

Depending on the class, it can be appropriate (in the context of what the class does) for us to be able to directly get or set the value of a private member variable.

An access function is a short public function whose job is to retrieve or change the value of a private member variable. For example, in a String class, you might see something like this:

getLength() is an access function that simply returns the value of m_length.

Access functions typically come in two flavors: getters and setters. Getters (also sometimes called accessors) are functions that return the value of a private member variable. Setters (also sometimes called mutators) are functions that set the value of a private member variable.

Here’s a sample class that has getters and setters for all of its members:

The Date class above is essentially an encapsulated data struct with a trivial implementation, and a user of the class might reasonably expect to be able to get or set the day, month, or year.

The MyString class above isn’t used just to transport data -- it has more complex functionality and has an invariant that needs to be maintained. No setter was provided for variable m_length because we don’t want the user to be able to set the length directly (length should only be set whenever the string is changed). In this class, it does make sense to allow the user to get the string length directly, so a getter for the length was provided.

Getters should provide “read-only” access to data. Therefore, the best practice is that they should return by value or const reference (not by non-const reference). A getter that returns a non-const reference would allow the caller to modify the actual object being referenced, which violates the read-only nature of the getter (and violates encapsulation).

Best practice

Getters should return by value or const reference.

Access functions concerns

There is a fair bit of discussion around in which cases access functions should be used or avoided. Although they don’t violate encapsulation, some developers would argue that use of access functions violates good OOP class design (a topic that could easily fill an entire book).

For now, we’ll recommend a pragmatic approach. As you create your classes, consider the following:

  • If nobody outside your class needs to access a member, don’t provide access functions for that member.
  • If someone outside your class needs to access a member, think about whether you can expose a behavior or action instead (e.g. rather than a setAlive(bool) setter, implement a kill() function instead).
  • If you can’t, consider whether you can provide only a getter.


As you can see, encapsulation provides a lot of benefits for just a little bit of extra effort. The primary benefit is that encapsulation allows us to use a class without having to know how it was implemented. This makes it a lot easier to use classes we’re not familiar with.

11.5 -- Constructors
11.3 -- Public vs private access specifiers

138 comments to 11.4 — Access functions and encapsulation

  • Spectrillius

    This, in practice, would make data more secure too right?
    For example, if I had an int variable

    it would probably be in the better interest of the games security to put it in a private class, as it would make sure playerHealth is edited by in-game events as opposed to any external script right?  

    I'm not a game developer or a game hacker, but as far as I can tell it seems a better practice to place that in a private class or is it of no consequence as far as security against malicious forces go?

    • nascardriver

      Member variables should be all private or all public most of the time.
      Member variables should only be public if the class can handle external modifications. Usually this means if your class has member functions, the member variables should be private.
      Access specifiers are a compile-time concept, they have no effect on run-time security.

  • Rostyslav

    class IntArray
        int m_array[10]; // user can not access this directly any more

        void setValue(int index, int value)
            // If the index is invalid, do nothing
            if (index < 0 || index >= m_array.size())

            m_array[index] = value;
    You probably intended to use `std::array<int,10>` for `m_array`.

  • Rico Groth

    Shouldn't the 4th example after "Benefit: encapsulated classes help protect your data and prevent misuse" use

    instead of


  • Incubbus

    Regarding "Access functions concerns".

    in the second bullet point it would be nice to have this written in a way, that the reader is encouraged to think about, wether their "getter"/"setter" provides any additional value, except from blindy following possibly outdated principles. (Yes, yes, this is a page about c++ not generic programming principles. But since those concerns have been risen already in this article, why not give them a little nudge.)

  • Cube

    Shouldn't the "Best practice: Getters should return by value or const reference" be wrapped in a green box?

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