Flaming Dangerzone

Remastered enable_if

Without the language support for concepts, one cannot directly overload template functions based solely on the properties of type parameters.

template <Scalable T> // pretend concept syntax
T twice(T t) { return 2*t; }

template <typename T>        // assuming non-concept templates are
T twice(T t) { return t+t; } // picked after the ones with concepts

Without concepts, all template type parameters are of the same kind (typename), and that makes the following definitions define the same template:

template <typename Scalable> // name is only descriptive
Scalable twice(Scalable t) { return 2*t; }

template <typename Additive> // name is only descriptive
Additive twice(Additive t) { return t+t; }

To achieve similar behaviour in the current specification of the language, one often takes advantage of particular overload resolutions rules.

Interlude: A brief SFINAE rehash

The idea is very simple: if substituting a template parameter during overload resolution produces invalid code, the compiler simply ignores the offending overload instead of generating an error. This is commonly know as “substitution failure is not an error”, usually abbreviated to SFINAE.

Consider the following example:

template <typename Pointer>
typename std::pointer_traits<Pointer>::element_type foo(Pointer const& p);

template <typename Iterator>
typename std::iterator_traits<Iterator>::value_type foo(Iterator const& it);

std::unique_ptr<int> u;
std::vector<int> v;
int* p;

foo(u);         // (1)
foo(v.begin()); // (2)
foo(p);         // (3)

When the compiler tries to resolve the overload for these functions calls, it will find two foos, deduce the template parameters for them, and then substitute them. For function call (1), that means instantiating std::pointer_traits<std::unique_ptr<int>>::element_type and std::iterator_traits<std::unique_ptr<int>>::value_type. The first one results in the type int, but the second one fails, because std::unique_ptr<T> doesn’t have a specialization of std::iterator_traits. The compiler will discard the second overload and pick the only valid one, the first.

A similar thing happens in call (2), except in this case, it’s the first overload that gets discarded in a similar fashion.

In (3), the substitution process will suceed in both overloads, and the result will be ambiguous because there is no preference between any of the two overloads.

This example shows how one can take advantage of SFINAE to select different templated overloads of a function based on a property of the template parameters. In this case, the property was merely the existence or not of specializations of std::iterator_traits or std::pointer_traits. Often one wants to do the selection based on a boolean value, though.

The archaic std::enable_if

The standard library provides a std::enable_if metafunction that can be used to exploit SFINAE to select overloads based on a boolean condition.

template <bool Condition, typename T = void>
struct enable_if {}; // no members

template <typename T>
struct enable_if<true, T> { using type = T; }; // type member

This metafunction is used by placing an access to its type member somewhere in a function template declaration. When the condition is false, substitution fails (because there’s no type) and the overload is ignored. When the condition is true, it is substituted by the second template parameter.

But where can we place it in a function template declaration?

In C++03, it was often placed in the return type of the function, or as an extra defaulted parameter. None if these is an universal option: the first one is not usable in constructors, because they don’t have a return type; and the second one is not usable in most operator overloads, because the number of arguments is fixed.

We could thus have something like the following:

template <typename T>
typename std::enable_if<is_scalable<T>::value, T>::type
twice(T t) { return 2*t; }

template <typename T>
T twice(T t, typename std::enable_if<!is_scalable<T>::value>::type* = 0) { return t+t; }

We need the two overloads to have disjoint conditions because to avoid ambiguities, only one can be viable.

This style looks very arcane and makes it hard to read the return type in the middle of all that. The extra parameter approach isn’t really much better in terms of readability.


As seen in a previous article, we can make an alias template to get rid of the typename and ::type cruft. Just like in Conditional, I’m changing the boolean parameter to a boolean trait type.

And since we often need a condition on one overload and its negation on another, I’m making a DisableIf alias as well.

template <typename Condition, typename T = void>
using EnableIf = typename std::enable_if<Condition::value, T>::type;

template <typename Condition, typename T = void>
using DisableIf = typename std::enable_if<!Condition::value, T>::type;

This certainly helps in the readability department, but it’s still not universally usable in the same way because we’re still using it on return types or function parameters.

Luckily, there is now a new place where one can place these EnableIf constructs to select overloads. Because function templates can now have default parameters, we can use an extra defaulted template parameter, and leave both the return type and the function parameters free of any cruft.

template <typename T,
          typename = EnableIf<is_scalable<T>>>
T twice(T t) { return 2*t; }

template <typename T,
          typename = DisableIf<is_scalable<T>>>
T twice(T t) { return t+t; }

Notice how the second parameter of EnableIf is no longer relevant here. Previously, we were using it to provide the type that would be in the place we were hijacking for std::enable_if. But now that is no longer necessary.

Unfortunately, this code doesn’t compile anymore. The problem is that substitution only happens upon overload resolution, but the compiler must parse and do non-dependent lookups on the declarations once it sees them. And when it does so, it will think the two declarations are declarations of the same template. To better understand this issue, consider a similar thing with defaulted function parameters:

int foo(int x, int y = 17); // { return x+y; }
int foo(int x, int y = 23); // { return x*y; }

This code is ill-formed: it declares the same function twice, but with different default parameters. The same problem, but at a different level, happens with the templates above: the same function template is declared twice, with different default template parameters. The compiler will reject it even if there are no calls to the functions.

To make the two templates be different, we can do one of two things: change their number, or change their kind.

Changing the number

Changing their number is simple: we just add an extra dummy defaulted parameter to one of them.

If we did so with the foo functions above, we would still be in trouble, because, while the compiler would accept the two declarations as different functions, we wouldn’t be able to call them without ambiguity. But in the case of the templates, we are trying to get one of them to be dropped because of substitution failure, so that won’t be a problem.

template <typename T,
          typename = EnableIf<is_scalable<T>>>
T twice(T t) { return 2*t; }

template <typename T,
          typename = DisableIf<is_scalable<T>>,
          typename /*Dummy*/ = void>
T twice(T t) { return t+t; }

This technique works fine, but it may not be very practical if there are more than two overloads to select from: each one needs one more dummy than the previous one.

Changing the kind

Changing the kind of the parameter where the substitution failure happens means it won’t be a type parameter anymore. The simplest alternative, is to make it a non-type parameter. But of what type should that be? int? bool? Something else entirely?

We can’t make it something like int = ... because that will bring us back to the same problems: we need a different type for each argument.

There is one thing that is different about the two templates that we can use here: the EnableIf expressions themselves. Instead of a type parameter, we can use a non-type parameter whose type is given by EnableIf directly.

template <typename T,
T twice(T t) { return 2*t; }

template <typename T,
T twice(T t) { return t+t; }

For this to actually work, we need to solve a couple problems first. We need to pick a type for the second parameter of EnableIf, and we need to make it so that the calling code doesn’t need to pass something for that parameter.

There are only a handful of types we can use there: integral types, pointers, references, or enumerations. The default void isn’t one of them.

The type we pick needs to be as inocuous as possible. Ideally, it would make it impossible for the user to pass anything for that parameter explicitly, like twice<int, 17>(23). But the best we can achieve is to prevent the user from doing so accidentally (and if they do so on purpose, they get what they deserve), so let’s stick with that.

Of all the types we can pick, a scoped enumeration without any enumerators is probably the best: passing an instance of it requires using its name explicitly, and if we hide the name in the implementation you can’t really do it by accident.

namespace detail {
    enum class enabler {};

We have our type, but how do we make it so the user doesn’t have to provide a value for the extra parameter? There are two options. We can use a default argument; or we can make it a variadic parameter pack, which will be deduced as empty.

If we use a default argument, we need a value. A variadic pack doesn’t need one, so it is a better option. That leaves us with the following implementation and usage:

template <typename Condition>
using EnableIf = typename std::enable_if<Condition::value, detail::enabler>::type;

template <typename T,
T twice(T t) { return 2*t; }

Implementation of DisableIf is left as an exercise for the reader.

In my opinion this is a big improvement over the old style: it’s a universally applicable style; the condition used to select the overload is out of the actual function signature; and it has no cruft, except for the three dots at the end.

The big problem with this is that compilers are not yet perfect in their C++11 support. My tests show that GCC 4.7 is up for the task, but Clang 3.1 isn’t yet. For clang I use the following workaround.

constexpr detail::enabler dummy = {};

template <typename Condition>
using EnableIf = typename std::enable_if<Condition::value, detail::enabler>::type;

template <typename T,
          EnableIf<is_scalable<T>> = dummy>
T twice(T t) { return 2*t; }

And an extra tweak

Since sometimes more than one condition is needed, I like to use a slightly tweaked version.

template <typename... Condition>
using EnableIf = typename std::enable_if<all<Condition...>::value, detail::enabler>::type;

template <typename T,
          EnableIf<is_scalable<T>, is_something_else<T>>...>
T twice(T t) { return 2*t; }