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Thinking in C++
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7: Function Overloading & Default Arguments

One of the important features in any programming language is the convenient use of names.

When you create an object (a variable), you give a name to a region of storage. A function is a name for an action. By making up names to describe the system at hand, you create a program that is easier for people to understand and change. It’s a lot like writing prose – the goal is to communicate with your readers.

A problem arises when mapping the concept of nuance in human language onto a programming language. Often, the same word expresses a number of different meanings, depending on context. That is, a single word has multiple meanings – it’s overloaded. This is very useful, especially when it comes to trivial differences. You say “wash the shirt, wash the car.” It would be silly to be forced to say, “shirt_wash the shirt, car_wash the car” just so the listener doesn’t have to make any distinction about the action performed. Human languages have built-in redundancy, so even if you miss a few words, you can still determine the meaning. We don’t need unique identifiers – we can deduce meaning from context.

Most programming languages, however, require that you have a unique identifier for each function. If you have three different types of data that you want to print: int, char, and float, you generally have to create three different function names, for example, print_int( ), print_char( ), and print_float( ). This loads extra work on you as you write the program, and on readers as they try to understand it.

In C++, another factor forces the overloading of function names: the constructor. Because the constructor’s name is predetermined by the name of the class, it would seem that there can be only one constructor. But what if you want to create an object in more than one way? For example, suppose you build a class that can initialize itself in a standard way and also by reading information from a file. You need two constructors, one that takes no arguments (the default constructor) and one that takes a string as an argument, which is the name of the file to initialize the object. Both are constructors, so they must have the same name: the name of the class. Thus, function overloading is essential to allow the same function name – the constructor in this case – to be used with different argument types.

Although function overloading is a must for constructors, it’s a general convenience and can be used with any function, not just class member functions. In addition, function overloading means that if you have two libraries that contain functions of the same name, they won’t conflict as long as the argument lists are different. We’ll look at all these factors in detail throughout this chapter.

The theme of this chapter is convenient use of function names. Function overloading allows you to use the same name for different functions, but there’s a second way to make calling a function more convenient. What if you’d like to call the same function in different ways? When functions have long argument lists, it can become tedious to write (and confusing to read) the function calls when most of the arguments are the same for all the calls. A commonly used feature in C++ is called default arguments. A default argument is one the compiler inserts if it isn’t specified in the function call. Thus, the calls f(“hello”), f(“hi”, 1), and f(“howdy”, 2, ‘c’) can all be calls to the same function. They could also be calls to three overloaded functions, but when the argument lists are this similar, you’ll usually want similar behavior, which calls for a single function.

Function overloading and default arguments really aren’t very complicated. By the time you reach the end of this chapter, you’ll understand when to use them and the underlying mechanisms that implement them during compiling and linking.

Thinking in C++
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   Reproduced courtesy of Bruce Eckel, MindView, Inc. Design by Interspire