The Developer’s Cry

Yet another blog by a hobbyist programmer

Why C++ is not my favorite programming language

Eric S. Raymond, famous figure in the open source movement (1), wrote on his blog he was working on a paper with the colorful title “Why C++ Is Not Our Favorite Programming Language”. The title alone struck a chord in me, having a general aversion of C++ for a long time now.

C++ is the object-oriented dialect of the C programming language, and was originally meant to be a “better C”. C++ offers full “object-orientation”, as it boasts classes, inheritance, templates, exceptions, operator overloading, references, constructors, destructors, accessors, virtual member functions, templates, and more. All of this is then mangled by the compiler and eventually a binary comes out, just like you would compile and link regular C codes.

I have personally written quite a lot of C++ code, but my latest C++ code dates back to the late 1990s. The reason: I was completely fed up with programming in C++ (and Java, that other object-oriented language), and switched back to plain C.

The C programming language is simple, and therefore very straightforward. C translates back to assembly language and machine code relatively easily, and because of this, if you know how a computer works, you will know how to write in C.
This is entirely not the case with object-oriented languages—object-oriented languages are on a higher level of abstraction and take the low-levelness away from the programmer. While this seems nice when you are working on a high level of abstraction, it makes things annoyingly difficult for the programmer who likes/wants/needs to understand what is really going on at a lower level.
Technically, this is a non-issue because in C++ the developer decides what objects look like, and when there is a need to do so, you can take a debugger and trace into those classes to see what is going on. In reality, C++ is making things harder rather than simplifying them.

Back in the day, C++ code always produced a binary that performed less well than a compiled and linked plain C code. The reason? The C++ program is calling constructor and destructor functions all the time, often consuming cpu for no real reason. Moreover, C++ has runtime type-checking that costs performance.
After more than a decade, compilers have advanced, and there are always codes for which the degraded performance is not important. Being also an assembly programmer (speed freak!), it annoyed the hell out of me to actually feel the C++ apps being sluggish on my old 80486 cpu.

For certain codes, like games, graphical user interfaces, or 3D modelers, it appears to be a good idea to use an object-oriented language, because you are already thinking in objects. Now replace that last word “objects” with “structures”, and you’ve already taken the first step to implementing the same thing in plain, good old C.
While classes appear as useful “structures-on-steriods” (ie. regular C structs with member functions), their C counterparts (ie. structs with functions that operate on the structs) are easier to comprehend only because of the use of pointers. While pointers are usually hard to comprehend by a novice, they are a must-have for the experienced programmer.
While C++ does not hide pointers, the preferred way handling objects is by reference. A reference is like a hidden pointer that only confuses the journeyman programmer. In machine language, there is no such thing as a reference, there are only pointers.
I can already hear the crowd say the old saying “pointers are the root of all evil”, but in reality, “bugs are the root of all evil”. The pointer is a very powerful asset than can prevent unnecessary copying of data.

As a master in C, I’ve actually managed to write object-oriented-like codes in plain C. This is not surprising, because C allows you to create anything you like, even weird programs like compilers and operating system kernels. In fact, the first C++ compilers spit out mangled C code rather than object code.

They say C++ is good for teaching object-oriented programming. This was only true until Java arrived. I have experience with Java, and it’s awful, but I guess it can be used to teach object-oriented programming.
What strikes me as odd, is that C++ was not ready at the time when I learned it. I actually have C++ code that does not compile today without making some necessary changes, while it was all correct when I wrote it. This actually also holds true for very old C codes (2), but I’ve never encountered this kind of issue for my own C codes. (Anyway, C does evolve because there is also C99 and the like. However, C99 is fully backwards compatible with older Cs). Later, templates were added and while this black magic was presented as the Next Big Thing, it never did anything useful for me. Templates are best used for implementing lists and stacks into classes, although it appears better to me to have a list of structs with pointers point to the object data (3).

Implementing good C++ classes is hard because they are supposed to be generic, abstract implementations. Often, there comes a time when the class will turn against you and needs redesigning—leading to a major overhaul of the complete code. Proper design should prevent this, but in practice, implementating code is different from designing code and there will be frequent times when you curse at C++ for putting this on your head.

Even if a clever C++ supporter manages to undermine every statement I have made against C++ in this blog entry, I will still have the final word: I just don’t like the C++ syntax.
Honestly, tell me which code fragment looks nicer:

std::cout << "Hello, world!\n"; // in C++


printf("Hello, world!\n"); /* in C */

In the C++ code fragment above, intuition would tell you that the direction brackets point in the wrong direction (!) Also, no one seems to know how to pronounce “cout” (4).
Mind you, cout is not even a function; it is more like the stdout global variable in standard C. The output is being produced via an overloaded operator function, for the shift-left operator. Funky? Yes. Fancy? Yes. But as to why a shift-left operator would have to print text totally eludes me. The fact that printf() is a library function that, in the end, enters the write() system call, that I can understand.

My favorite object-oriented language is Python. But then again, I don’t use its object-oriented capabilities much. The best things about python are its comprehensive syntax, and its brilliant memory management (to the developer, there appears to be none because all objects are reference counted and garbage collected). This costs performance, so for the more cpu-intensive stuff, I use C.
Either way, I prefer a procedural language over a weird, code obfuscating, mind bending object-bloated language that attempts to mask the natural program flow, any time.

  1. Eric S. Raymond is the author of various well-known open source programs, and he is the author of the essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar.
  2. The Lion’s Book lists an ancient UNIX kernel source code that contains old C statements that are no longer valid today.
  3. Actually, my old, now famous, bbs100 code uses a dirty (but clever and efficient) typecast trick to turn structs into linkable or stackable items.
  4. No one seems to know how to pronounce “Stroustrup”, either.