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5.5 — Comma and conditional operators

The comma operator

Operator Symbol Form Operation
Comma , x, y Evaluate x then y, returns value of y

The comma operator (,) allows you to evaluate multiple expressions wherever a single expression is allowed. The comma operator evaluates the left operand, then the right operand, and then returns the result of the right operand.

For example:

First the left operand of the comma operator is evaluated, which increments x from 1 to 2. Next, the right operand is evaluated, which increments y from 2 to 3. The comma operator returns the result of the right operand (3), which is subsequently printed to the console.

Note that comma has the lowest precedence of all the operators, even lower than assignment. Because of this, the following two lines of code do different things:

This makes the comma operator somewhat dangerous to use.

In almost every case, a statement written using the comma operator would be better written as separate statements. For example, the above code could be written as:

Most programmers do not use the comma operator at all, with the single exception of inside for loops, where its use is fairly common. We discuss for loops in future lesson 5.7 -- For statements [1].

Best practice

Avoid using the comma operator, except within for loops.

Comma as a separator

In C++, the comma symbol is often used as a separator, and these uses do not invoke the comma operator. Some examples of separator commas:

There is no need to avoid separator commas (except when declaring multiple variables, which you should not do).

The conditional operator

Operator Symbol Form Operation
Conditional ?: c ? x : y If c is nonzero (true) then evaluate x, otherwise evaluate y

The conditional operator (?:) (also sometimes called the “arithmetic if” operator) is a ternary operator (it takes 3 operands). Because it has historically been C++’s only ternary operator, it’s also sometimes referred to as “the ternary operator”. However, do not call it this, as C++20 is adding a second ternary operator (the three-way comparison operator, also known as the “spaceship operator”).

The ?: operator provides a shorthand method for doing a particular type of if/else statement. Please review lesson 4.10 -- Introduction to if statements [2] if you need a brush up on if/else before proceeding.

An if/else statement takes the following form:

if (condition)
    statement1;
else
    statement2;

If condition evaluates to true, then statement1 is executed, otherwise statement2 is executed.

The ?: operator takes the following form:

(condition) ? expression1 : expression2;

If condition evaluates to true, then expression1 is executed, otherwise expression2 is executed. Note that expression2 is not optional.

Consider an if/else statement that looks like this:

can be rewritten as:

In such uses, the conditional operator can help compact code without losing readability.

Parenthesization of the conditional operator

It is common convention to put the conditional part of the operation inside of parenthesis, both to make it easier to read, and also to make sure the precedence is correct. The other operands evaluate as if they were parenthesized, so explicit parenthesization is not required for those.

Note that the ?: operator has a very low precedence. If doing anything other than assigning the result to a variable, the whole ?: operator also needs to be wrapped in parenthesis.

For example, to print the larger of values x and y to the screen, we could do this:

Or we could use the conditional operator to do this:

Let’s examine what happens if we don’t parenthesize the whole conditional operator in the above case.

Because the << operator has higher precedence than the ?: operator, the statement:

would evaluate as:

That would print 1 (true) if x > y, or 0 (false) otherwise!

Best practice

Always parenthesize the conditional part of the conditional operator, and consider parenthesizing the whole thing as well.

The conditional operator evaluates as an expression

Because the conditional operator operands are expressions rather than statements, the conditional operator can be used in some places where if/else can not.

For example, when initializing a const variable:

There’s no satisfactory if/else statement for this. You might think to try something like this:

However, this won’t compile, and you’ll get an error message that classSize isn’t defined. Much like how variables defined inside functions die at the end of the function, variables defined inside an if or else statement die at the end of the if or else statement. Thus, classSize has already been destroyed by the time we try to print it.

If you want to use an if/else, you’d have to do something like this:

This one works because we’re not defining variables inside the if or else, we’re just returning a value back to the caller, which can then be used as the initializer.

That’s a lot of extra work!

The type of the expressions must match or be convertible

To properly comply with C++’s type checking, both expressions in a conditional statement must either match, or the second expression must be convertible to the type of the first expression.

So while you might expect to be able to do something like this:

The above example won’t compile. One of the expressions is an integer, and the other is a string literal. The compiler will try to find a way to convert the string literal to an integer, but since it doesn’t know how, it will give an error. In such cases, you’ll have to use an if/else.

So when should you use the conditional operator?

The conditional operator gives us a convenient way to compact some if/else statements. It’s most useful when we need a conditional initializer (or assignment) for a variable, or to pass a conditional value to a function.

It should not be used for complex if/else statements, as it quickly becomes both unreadable and error prone.

Best practice

Only use the conditional operator for simple conditionals where it enhances readability.


5.6 -- Relational operators and floating point comparisons [3]
Index [4]
5.4 -- Increment/decrement operators, and side effects [5]