Skip to main content

Magic Conversions in C++

One feature that I like a lot in Rust is return type polymorphism, best exemplified with the following snippet of code:

use std::collections::HashSet;

fn main() {
    let vec: Vec<_> = (0..10).filter(|a| a % 2 == 0).collect();
    let set: HashSet<_> = (0..10).filter(|a| a % 2 == 0).collect();
    println!("vec: {:?}", vec);
    println!("set: {:?}", set); 

We have the same expression ((0..10).filter(|a| a % 2 == 0).collect()) that results in two totally different types of values (a Vec and a HashSet)!

This is because Rust allows you to write a function which is generic in its return type, which is a super-power that C++ does not have. But is there a way to emulate this behaviour with some clever code?

The problem

For the purposes of this article, the problem that I am trying to solve will be the following:

void takes_small_array(std::array<char, 32> arr);
void takes_big_array(std::array<char, 4096> arr);

// How to define a `to_array` function so that the following works?
void test(std::string_view s) {

First attempt

If we try to solve this in a way similar to Rust, we hit a problem in what the language allows us to write:

std::array<char, 32> to_array(std::string_view s) {
    std::array<char, 32> ret;
    std::copy(s.begin(), s.end(), ret.begin());
    return ret;

std::array<char, 4096> to_array(std::string_view s) {
    std::array<char, 4096> ret;
    std::copy(s.begin(), s.end(), ret.begin());
    return ret;

The compiler complains with the following error:

ambiguating new declaration of 'std::array<char, 4096> to_array(std::string_view)'
note: old declaration 'std::array<char, 32> to_array(std::string_view)'

That is because C++ does not allow you to write an overload set based on return type only.

Using templates

For our second try, we want to use non-type template parameters to solve the issue. We write the following:

template <size_t N>
std::array<char, N> to_array(std::string_view s) {
    std::array<char, N> ret;
    std::copy(s.begin(), s.end(), ret.begin());
    return ret;

The compiler does not complain when we write this! We have also solved two minor issues with the previous try: the size of the arrays are not hard-coded, and we kept the code DRY.

However we have some trouble trying to use those functions as stated in the beginning of the problem, with the following error message:

error: no matching function for call to 'to_array(std::string_view&)'
      |     takes_small_array(to_array(s));
note: candidate: 'template<size_t N> std::array<char, N> to_array(std::string_view)'
      | std::array<char, N> to_array(std::string_view s) {
note:   template argument deduction/substitution failed:
note:   couldn't deduce template parameter 'N'

The compiler cannot deduce the size of the array we want to use! We could solve the issue by explicitly giving a size when calling the function (to_array<32>(s)) however this is unsatisfactory: we are not solving the problem as stated initially, which could for example lead to needless churning if we change the signature of takes_small_array to instead use std::array<char, 64>).

Thankfully there is a way to use the compiler to our advantage, and have it deduce it for us, but it involves some trickery.

The solution

We want to write a function that resolves the previous two issues we experienced:

  • The non-type template parameter must be deduced by the end of the call to to_array, but we can only deduce it once it is being consumed by takes_{small,big}_array – which is too late for the compiler.
  • We cannot overload on the return type, which means we must return a single type from the function.

The goal is to delay when the deduction of the array’s size is happening, which can be done by using a templated conversion operator.

So the solution to our problem is to do the following:

class ToArray {
    std::string_view s_;

    ToArray(std::string_view s) : s_(s) {}

    template <size_t N>
    operator std::array<char, N>() const {
        std::array<char, N> ret;
        std::copy(s_.begin(), s_.end(), ret.begin());
        return ret;

ToArray to_array(std::string_view s) {
    return ToArray{s};

The following steps happen when trying to call takes_small_array(to_array(s)):

  • to_array(s) returns a ToArray value.
  • the ToArray value is not an array<char, 32>, but has an implicit conversion operator, which the compiler invokes.
  • takes_small_array is called with the converted array<char, 32> value.

We now have a “magic” function which can convert a string_view to an std::array of characters of any size. We could further improve this by ensuring that the array is terminated with a '\0', throwing an exception when the array is too small for the given string, etc… This is left as an exercise to the reader.