On covariance and C++ templates


This rather short post is a quick overview of an intermediate concept in C++ and basic type theory. You probably won’t find great value in it if you’re a programming guru.


During your developer adventures, you may have encountered a few words that made you scratch your head. Perhaps you’ve read that C++ pointers are covariant, or that C# 4 added support for contravariant delegates. But what does it mean?

Suppose we have a type T, and a type S which is a subtype of T. This relation is usually represented like so : S <: T. This is what happens when you use inheritance in most modern object oriented languages:

// We have a base class, the "supertype"
class Animal {};

// We derive that class in a subtype
class Cat : public Animal {};

In this C++ example, we have the following relationship : Cat <: Animal. That is, Cat is a subtype of Animal. Note that some languages like OCaml don’t associate inheritance with subtyping, this is a case of structural typing, as opposed to the nominative typing we’re studying right now.

Now, let’s suppose we have some sort of function that takes a type, and creates a new type based on it. This can happen in a multitude of scenarii: adding constness (from Cat to const Cat), pointerness (Cat to Cat*), creating an array of that type (Cat to Cat[])… You get the idea. Just for the sake of this explanation, imagine an operation of this kind is made by a function F, which can be applied to a type. The notation, obviously, would be this : F(T).

Let’s go back to the relationship we created above: S <: T. The question is, what happens to this relationship if both S and T go through the F machine?

  • If the relationship is preserved, that is F(S) <: F(T), then F is said to be covariant.

  • If the relationship is reversed, that is F(T) <: F(S), then F is said to be contravariant.

  • Lastly, if the machine destroyed the relationship, then F is invariant: both F(S) <: F(T) and F(T) <: F(S) are false

Let’s have a few examples, shall we?

C++ pointers

C++ pointers are covariant. This means that if Cat <: Animal, then Cat* <: Animal*. That’s what allows us to substitute an Animal* for a Cat* or a Dog*, hence achieving polymorphism.

Note that this is also because of this that void* lost the magical polymorphic property it had in C: if any pointer type can be converted to void*, and that void* can in turn be converted to any other pointer type, then void would need to both be a subtype and a supertype of every other type in the system, which would be quite silly, if you ask me.

Silly, you say? Get on with it!

Silly, you say? Get on with it!

C++ Templates

Templates in C++ are invariant, and for a good reason! Imagine they were covariant, what would that mean? Let’s go back to our pet shop, and try to put them in std::vectors :

int main()
    std::vector<Cat*> v1;
    v1.push_back(new Cat);

    // Now if vector was covariant, we could cast v1 like so.
    // Note the offending '&'
    std::vector<Animal*>& v2 = v1;

    // Dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!
    v2.push_back(new Dog);

Clearly, this behavior is not desirable, so templates are understandably invariant.

But what about smart pointers?

If you’ve been following carefully, something may have intrigued you: what about smart pointers?

Quick reminders: a smart pointer is a templated class that encapsulates a pointer and provides additionnal features, like automatic deletion upon leaving the scope. As such, they mimick as closely as possible the behaviour and characteristics of pointers, and covariance should be one of them.

Indeed, what use would be a pointer that couldn’t do the following?

int main()
    std::vector<Animal*> v;

    // These actions work because pointers are covariant
    v.push_back(new Cat);
    v.push_back(new Dog);

    // Now Imagine an invariant smart pointer, BadPointer:
    std::vector<BadPointer<Animal>> v2;

    // BadPointer<Animal> and BadPointer<Cat> are completely unrelated
    // types, so these won't work:
    v2.push_back(BadPointer<Cat>(new Cat));
    v2.push_back(BadPointer<Dog>(new Dog));

    // Yet we can do that with a properly implemented smart pointer:
    std::vector<std::shared_ptr<Animal>> v3;

    // It works, hurray!

So shared pointers correctly mimick covariance… but how do they do that?

The trick is actually quite simple: we just have to parametrize the copy constructors and the assignment operator with a generic type:

template <typename T>
class SmartPointer
    // Nothing special here, move along
    SmartPointer(T* p) : p_(p) {}
    SmartPointer(const SmartPointer& sp) : p_(sp.p_) {}
    SmartPointer& operator=(const SmartPointer& sp)
        p_ = sp.p_;

    // Now this is more like it!
    template <typename U>
    SmartPointer(U* p) : p_(p) {}

    // Wash, rince, repeat
    template <typename U>
    SmartPointer(const SmartPointer<U>& sp) : p_(sp.p_) {}

    // And finally
    template <typename U>
    SmartPointer<T>& operator=(const SmartPointer<U>& sp)
        p_ = sp.p_;

   T* p_;

Since template parameters work with any type, provided it doesn’t generate an error, the validity of these operations is deferred to the pointer manipulation, which works as intended.

I think I covered most of the things that needed to be said, so I’ll wrap it up here. Have a good night, and dream of happy little pointers.

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