Revisiting Regular Types

Good types are all alike; every poorly designed type is poorly defined in its own way. - Adapted with apologies to Leo Tolstoy

By Titus Winters


With 20 years of experience, we know that Regular type design is a good pattern - we should model user-defined types based on the syntax and semantics of built-in types where possible. However, common formulations of Regular type semantics only apply to values, and for performance reasons we commonly pass by reference in C++. In order to use such a reference as if it were its underlying Regular type we need some structural knowledge of the program to guarantee that the type isn’t being concurrently accessed. Using similar structural knowledge, we can treat some non-Regular types as if they were Regular, including reference types which don’t own their data. Under such an analysis, string_view indeed behaves as if it were Regular when applied to common usage (as a parameter). However, span does not, and further it is (currently) impossible to have shallow copy, deep compare, and Regular const semantics in the same type in C++.

This analysis provides us some basis to evaluate non-owning reference parameters types (like string_view and span) in a practical fashion, without discarding Regular design.


What are Regular types? In the space of type design, “Regular” is a term introduced by Alexander Stepanov. (The online/reduced form is Fundamentals of Generic Programming which I will cite in this essay. You’re encouraged to read the full book “Elements of Programming” for a more complete treatment.) By and large, the term Regular is meant to describe the syntax and semantics of built-in types in a fashion that allows user-defined types to behave sensibly.

“The C++ programming language allows the use of built-in type operator syntax for user-defined types. This allows us, as programmers, to make our user-defined types look like built-in types. Since we wish to extend semantics as well as syntax from built-in types to user types, we introduce the idea of a Regular type, which matches the built-in type semantics, thereby making our user-defined types behave like built-in types as well.”

A vastly-simplified summary, that has become popular in C++ design in later years, is “do as the ints do.” Generally speaking, for a snippet of generic code operating on some type T, if it works properly on ints and also works properly for your new type (similarly bug-free/comprehensible/etc.), you’ve designed a reasonable type.

Definitions of Regular

In fact, this evaluation of generic code is inherent in the (somewhat flexible) definitions for Regular; Stepanov defines certain properties for Regular, but different formulations may include a slightly different set of requirements. In particular, proposal P0898 aims to define Concepts for use in the C++ standard library; the requirements for Regular as presented in P0898 are somewhat reduced from Stepanov’s definition (ordering is not required). The crux of this difference seems to be that Stepanov’s definition stems from the requirements of a type with respect to the full set of C++98-era standard algorithms, while P0898 focuses primarily on the requirements to be used in a more modern library (specifically, the Ranges library as specified in Range v3 and/or the Ranges TS).

Stepanov's Regular Requirements P0898 Concept Requirements for Regular
Default constructor DefaultConstructible
Copy constructor CopyConstructible
Destructor Destructible
Movable? Movable
Assignment Assignable
Equality EqualityComparable
Inequality EqualityComparable
Total Ordering

Note: it’s generally assumed that Move construction would be included in Stepanov’s formulation, although move semantics were not present in C++ of that era. This is true even though int doesn’t have a move constructor: it is still move constructible (can be constructed from a temporary), and this is even the proper design for the type. Move+copy should be considered an overload set for optimization purposes. For more information, see TotW 148)

In either case, it’s important to bear a few (related) ideas in mind:

  • The various definitions of a Regular type are more alike than they are different.
  • After 20 years of experience, we’re confident that the definition of a Regular type is a useful abstraction, and approximates the right “default semantics” for user-defined types.
  • The definitions for a Regular type come from use in generic contexts. The essential aim is to define the syntax and semantics of a value type that mimics the behavior of a built-in type. The semantics of Regular allow us to reason about the use of the type within an algorithm, and hence define what the algorithm does.
  • The reasoning about code is much easier if the code consists of Regular types, instead of non-Regular ones, using the existing understanding of how built-in types work.

Both definitions focus heavily on semantics not just syntax. It is from these basic semantic properties of types that we find design invariants like the idea that copy, comparison, and const-ness are related. For instance, consider four of the most basic semantic requirements on Regular types from Stepanov’s early paper:

// comparison follows from copy
T a = b; assert(a==b);

// copy and assignment are the same
T a1; a1 = b; T a2 = b; assert(a1 == a2);

// copy/assignment is by value, not reference
T a = c; T b = c; a = d; assert(b==c);

// zap always mutates, unmutated values are untouched
T a = c; T b = c; zap(a); assert(b==c && a!=b);

The above are enough to define copy and assignment semantics: T has copy/assignment that operate by value, not by reference. However, all of this is assuming we have an ability to define equality. Stepanov points out that defining equality is a little squishy.

“Logicians might define equality via the following equivalence:

x == y ⇔ ∀ predicate P, P(x) == P(y)

That is, two values are equal if and only if no matter what predicate one applies to them, one gets the same result. This appeals to our intuition, but it turns out to have significant practical problems. One direction of the equivalence:

x == y ⇒ ∀ predicate P, P(x) == P(y)

is useful, provided that we understand the predicates P for which it holds. We shall return to this question later. The other direction, however:

∀ predicate P, P(x) == P(y) ⇒ x == y

is useless, even if P is restricted to well behaved predicates, for the simple reason that there are far too many predicates P to make this a useful basis for deciding equality.”

Programming languages inherently contain predicates that don’t exist in pure math, because the execution on computing hardware is a somewhat leaky abstraction. Consider: the question of “Are x and y aliases for the same memory location?” This is an easy predicate to write in C++, but nonsense for a traditional logician. In general, we focus on predicates that observe “the value” rather than the identity of the instance.

Stepanov goes on to describe the built-in notion of equality for most types: bitwise equality for ints and pointers. Floating point values are glossed over a bit via “although there are sometimes minor deviations like distinct positive and negative zero representations.” From this as a basis, we can begin to build up a definition of equality for aggregates, but immediately get into trouble because of heap allocations. “… objects which are naturally variable sized must be constructed in C++ out of multiple simple structs, connected by pointers. In such cases, we say that the object has remote parts. For such objects, the equality operator must compare the remote parts …”

This reasoning continues, including some discussion about the physical state vs. logical state of a type (for instance: the capacity of a vector does not figure into its equality comparison, nor does the use of SSO affect equality comparison for string).

Ultimately, Stepanov proposes the following definition, “although it still leaves room for judgement”:

“Definition: two objects are equal if their corresponding parts are equal (applied recursively), including remote parts (but not comparing their addresses), excluding inessential components, and excluding components which identify related objects.”

If we have a solid understanding of how to compare two instances of our type (by value, focusing on the logical state, not comparing by identity/memory location), and if our type implements all the syntactic/semantic requirements for Regular then we have implemented a Regular type. That should always be our starting point when designing a value type.

Modern Regular Types and const

With an agreed-upon understanding of Regular, we can start to examine the ways that Regular is used. We can reasonably assume that a Regular type can be fed through standard algorithms, since that’s a primary motivation for defining Regularity (or, conversely, the implied requirement for the algorithms, although the legacy algorithms are rarely specified in terms of semantic requirements).

So we can certainly express that this is safe and correct for Regular types, yes?

void DoSomething(const T& t);  // May be any valid C++

const T a = SomeT();
const T b = SomeT();
if (a == b) {
  assert(a == b);  // Note: we're assuming the semantics of ==

This seems straightforward: we have two const values. If they are equal, it doesn’t matter what operation we perform on one of them, they will remain equal. It also doesn’t matter if we modify any other global state. It does imply one additional requirement beyond being Regular: the normal semantics of const must be enforced - a const object must not change values. Consider the following type and body for DoSomething:

class Rotten {
  Rotten(const Rotten& rhs) : val_(rhs.val_) {}
  Rotten& operator=(const Rotten& rhs) { val_ = rhs.val_; return *this; }

  bool operator==(const Rotten& rhs) const { return val_ == rhs.val_; }
  void Increment() const { val_++; }

  mutable int val_ = 0;

void DoSomething(const Rotten& r) { r.Increment(); }

This Rotten type meets the syntactic requirements for P0898 Regular: it is DefaultConstructible, CopyConstructible, Movable, Swappable, Assignable, EqualityComparable, and it has the semantics for all of those operations. Where it fails is in the General front-matter for standard library concepts. Consider, from P0898r2: “except where otherwise specified, an expression operand that is a non-constant lvalue or rvalue may be modified. Operands that are constant lvalues or rvalues must not be modified.”

This restriction (while being a little squishy about “modified”), plus the basic ideas of “equality” are enough to see that for at least the logical state of a type, const must mean const. Since Rotten goes out of its way to break that, the P0898 formulation of Regular rightly spots that bad type design and forbids it.

Since the original Stepanov paper never discusses const, but const is tied deeply to modern type design, I’ll primarily focus the remainder of the discussion on P0898 for simplicity and clarity.

Data Races and Thread Safety Properties

Let us digress a little to discuss something that is unrelated on the surface, but critical to the ensuing discussion: data races and the thread safety properties of types.

Very significant essays and presentations can (and should) be produced on the topics of data races in C++ and the thread safety properties of types. The following is at most a surface treatment. If you are unfamiliar with this domain, please find a good in-depth tutorial/refresher rather than relying on only this brief summary.

More or less: a data race occurs when at least one memory location is written by one thread and accessed (read or write) by another thread without synchronization between those operations. Any number of threads may read concurrently, but if any thread is writing, you must synchronize those operations. That synchronization can take many forms, ranging from the use of std::atomic up to a mutex or higher-level synchronization primitive. But no matter what you think you know about how execution works on your processor, on the C++ abstract machine there is no such thing as a safe data race. The C++ standard specifically calls this out: data races are undefined behavior. No correct program has undefined behavior. There is no wiggle room.

At a slightly higher level: how do we tell the difference between a read operation and a write operation for a type? For user-defined types we look at the API documentation, where the const qualifier nicely summarizes the read/write semantics of the API. For the vast majority of types (i.e. those that have the same thread-safety behavior that int does), concurrent (non-synchronized) calls to const methods are allowed, but if any concurrent call is made to a non-const method, there is the chance for a data race.

For instance: if you have an optional<int> shared among many threads, those threads may all ask has_value() or read from the contained int, so long as none of them overwrites the int. Such a store would take place via operator= (non-const) or assigning to the reference returned by the non-const overloads of value().

It has become common practice to classify types as either “thread-safe”, “thread-compatible”, or “thread-unsafe”, based on the conditions under which use of its API may result in a data race.

  • Thread-safe: No concurrent call to any API of this type causes a data race. This is useful for things like a Mutex. Generally speaking, thread-safe types are easiest to work with, but you pay for some of that usability in performance or API restrictions or both.
  • Thread-compatible: No concurrent call to any const operation on this type causes a data race. Any call to a non-const API means that instance must be used with external synchronization. C++ guarantees that standard library types are at least thread-compatible. This follows from the general pattern of Regular design, and “do as the ints do” as int is thread-compatible. In most cases, this is in-line with the philosophy of C++ - you do not pay for what you do not use. If you operate on an optional<int>, you can be sure that it isn’t grabbing a mutex. On the other hand, thread-compatible may have overhead in some cases: shared_ptr<> is unnecessarily expensive in cases where there is no sharing between threads, because of the use of atomics to synchronize the reference count.
  • Thread-unsafe: Even concurrent calls to const APIs on this type may cause data races - use of an instance of such a type requires external synchronization or knowledge of some form to be used safely. These are generally either used with a mutex or are used with knowledge like “I know that this instance is only accessed from this thread” or “I know that my whole program is only single threaded.” Types like this may be because of mutable members, or because of non-thread-safe data that is shared between instances.

It is worth mentioning that “const means const” is almost enough to ensure that a type is thread-compatible. It is possible to have members in your type that are not part of the logical state (for example: a reference count) but are mutable (either via the mutable keyword or through something like a const-pointer-to-non-const) and thus cause data races even when only const APIs are invoked. There’s a strong conceptual overlap between const-ness (conceptually, including both syntax and semantics) and thread-compatibility, and that overlap is actually equivalence in the case that there are no such mutable members.

Now considering thread-safety and const-ness, we can consider whether either the Stepanov or P0898 definitions of Regular say everything we want. If we’re following the model of int or the good standard library types, Regular types have a powerful property: if you have a const T, and pass that instance as const T& to some function that function can do nothing that can make your T change value (that isn’t inherently UB), become invalid, or otherwise become harder to use. In order to hold that property, your Regular type needs to be thread-compatible, or you need to constrain the function (promise to not share this instance among threads, for instance). Both approaches are useful.

Dependent Preconditions

One property of Regular that never seems entirely satisfying in less formal design conversations is that both int* and std::string are equivalently Regular, although any programmer will tell you that there is a lot more to worry about when working with int*: there are preconditions when using an int* that are harder to ensure than any precondition when using std::string.

For instance, std::string::operator[] has a precondition roughly of the form, index < size(). In fact, the only APIs on std::string that have preconditions of any form fall into two clear categories:

  • They are requirements that can be checked using other methods from the string API. For instance, the above precondition on operator[] can be checked by calling size().
  • They are requirements entirely focused on the data being passed in, not on string itself. For instance, the const char* constructor (non-NULL, valid allocation, nul-terminated), or the iterator-range construction/assignment operations (valid range).

For comparison, int* has at least one precondition of a fundamentally different flavor:

  • operator* - Requires that the pointer holds the address of a live int object.

This cannot be checked via any operation on int*, nor can it even be checked portably in any fashion given an arbitrary int*. Invoking this operation safely requires structural knowledge of the program. A type that has dependent preconditions has one or more such APIs; these are often (but not always) about properties of non-owned objects/external memory/etc.

APIs that have dependent preconditions are more complicated to use - they fundamentally require knowledge about the rest of the program in order to use safely. Types that have no such APIs are easier to use, and it is no surprise or coincidence that the majority of types that we consider “good” avoid this property. Or, put another way, types with dependent preconditions have a weaker form of the property we want from Regular: when passing a const T& to a function, that function may be able to invalidate the preconditions on some API of T through mechanisms that are outside of T. It isn’t enough to say that T is thread-compatible - we must know that nothing in the program is going to invalidate the dependent preconditions.

Let’s consider int* in the context of our Regular-code usage snippet:

using T = int*;
void DoSomething(const T& t);

const T a = SomeT();
const T b = SomeT();
if (a == b) {
  assert(a == b);

Is it really the case that DoSomething() can do anything we want and leave this snippet intact? For an int*, it definitely isn’t - certainly not to the same extent as it is for int. (There is perhaps some overlap between this and Lisa Lippincott’s recent work What is The Basic Interface.)

For instance, if we dereference the pointer, we may have introduced a data race: int* is only thread-compatible if never dereferenced, but we do not have knowledge that nothing else is modifying the underlying int. Or worse, if we dereference and write to the pointer, we make it a race if any thread is even reading the int.

void DoSomething(int* const t) { std::cout << *t << std::endl; }

P0898r2 gets at some of this in [concepts.lib.general.equality] p3: “Expressions required by this specification to be equality preserving are further required to be stable: two evaluations of such an expression with the same input objects must have equal outputs absent any explicit intervening modification of those input objects. [ Note: This requirement allows generic code to reason about the current values of objects based on knowledge of the prior values as observed via equality preserving expressions. It effectively forbids spontaneous changes to an object, changes to an object from another thread of execution, changes to an object as side effects of non-modifying expressions, and changes to an object as side effects of modifying a distinct object if those changes could be observable to a library function via an equality preserving expression that is required to be valid for that object. — end note ]”

In order to reason about a type that has dependent preconditions (like int*), to use it in standard algorithms, or to do much of anything with the type, we must have additional knowledge: why do we know that a given instance is being used in a race-free fashion?

The same is implicitly true for traditional Regular types. When handed a newly-constructed std::string, you know everything you need to know in order to operate on that object safely, even in the face of data races. If you don’t pass it to another thread, it isn’t shared. You are data race free purely by virtue of having the object and knowing there are no additional (mutable) references to it anywhere. If we instead only hand you a std::string& (as is the case for basically all usage of standard algorithms), we don’t actually have that knowledge. Without knowledge that it is unshared, you cannot compare it or copy it in a race free fashion.

This requirement is unstated, and pervasive. Everything in the Stepanov-era standard library implicitly assumes it. In the Ranges/Concepts era, we get text like P0898, rightly forbidding spontaneous changes to an object. But in the general case, the standard already says this, because of the language rules on data races, and the library rules that require most library types are effectively thread-compatible.

Put another way: what do you need to know when invoking a standard algorithm on some user-defined type? You need to know the syntax and semantics of its basic API - it needs to be Regular. But you also need to know that invocation of the algorithm on that instance is race free. A few types give you that by being thread-safe. The rest of the time, you have to know something about the structure of your program and how your instance interacts with the program in order to guarantee race-free.

Interestingly, it isn’t only operator* on a pointer that has dependent preconditions: it is implementation-defined behavior to invoke operator== on a pointer after the underlying object has been deleted. According to Richard Smith, it is “as-if we scribble over every pointer in the program that points to the object at the time of deletion.” So if we have

void DoSomething(int* const t) { delete t; }

we are already off in the realm of non-portable programs. And while implementation-defined is less bad than undefined, this does further demonstrate that even operator== for int* has preconditions that are impossible to check - we have to rely on structural knowledge of the program to use pointers correctly.

Which, luckily, clarifies most people’s intuition: pointers are more complicated than the other types we talk about as Regular. There’s room for expansion in our definition / usage / discussion of Regular. I believe that the missing piece for Regular is “thread compatible” in the general case (although there are other valid options), and existing design precedent in the library already follows that direction. Builtins and our vocabulary types are both Regular and thread-compatible.

Flavors of Race-Free, plus Regular

While Regular+thread-compatible is the most common (and most like int) combination that actually describes good/built-in-like types, other options may work in some situations. These options correspond roughly to the answers for “How do you know that operations on this instance do not cause data races?”

For any given instance of a type, you might know one of several possible things that allow you to operate on it race-free.

  • Thread-compatible and not shared with other threads for writing. If you’ve been handed a (non-racing) const T& you can operate on this in const fashion. If necessary, you can copy it to ensure there are no lurking references and perform any computation / mutation safely (but inefficiently). With minor knowledge (the instance isn’t shared), a T& can be used safely as if it were T.
  • It has dependent-preconditions, but for a particular instance + any dependent data, the program structure guarantees safe usage.
  • Single-threaded usage - There is only one thread in the program and thus all instances of the type are safe to use, or a given instance is known to not be shared among threads.

P0898r2’s [concepts.lib.general.equality] p3, cited above, would fix the standard library’s stance on Regular to be entirely the first option … at the cost of pointers not being considered Regular because of semantic requirements and implementation-defined behavior on comparison. (If deletion is “as-if all other pointers to this object are scribbled over” that certainly violates the restriction on the value of the object changing out from under us.)

All three of these options provide points in the type design space that are useful in conjunction with the existing definitions for Regular.

  • Thread-compatible + Regular is what we really want for user-defined types that mimic built-ins. This lets us reason about an instance in the expected fashion and use it efficiently in conjunction with generic algorithms. Types that have mutable data may have some overhead to support this.
  • Dependent-preconditions with knowledge that an instance + its dependent data are safe to use. This is the common usage for string_view when we use it as a non-owning parameter type: the underlying buffer will outlive the function call and is immutable for the duration of the call. Given that external knowledge of that underlying buffer, string_view behaves as if it were Regular. This makes sense, given that string_view was designed to be a drop-in replacement for const string&, and although references are not Regular types, std::string types are.
  • Single-threaded usage - This is easy to misuse, but can be an important area for optimization. Consider the discussions to provide a shared_ptr analogue that does not synchronize its reference count - if we know something about program structure, or can guarantee particular usage for an instance, we can design a more efficient type in this fashion. Given that knowledge, such a shared_ptr can still behave as if it were Regular.

Given a type and one of the above options to explain why it is safe to use a given instance, we can see that our nice property for Regular types still holds. Given a const T (and some program knowledge), we can perform any operation (that conforms to that program knowledge) on that const T without invalidating it or any of its API preconditions. Regular+thread-compatible types allow us this invariant with no constraints on the program or that operation. Lesser invariants require more knowledge - in return we tend to get lower-overhead, which is a very C++ style of tradeoff.

Evaluating string_view

If we know that the underlying buffer exists and is not being mutated, string_view behaves as if it were Regular: it is DefaultConstructible, CopyConstructible, Movable, Swappable, Assignable, EqualityComparable. If the underlying buffer is immutable for the life of our instance, the General Matter rules in P0898 don’t kick in: the value won’t magically change out from under us.

using T = string_view;
void DoSomething(const T& t);

const T a = SomeT();  // Assume SomeT() is providing a
                      // long-lived and stable buffer.
const T b = SomeT();

if (a == b) {
  // Won't modify the buffer, provided our assumption on SomeT() is correct.

  assert(a == b);

We can go back to Stepanov’s axioms about assignment and comparison.

string_view a = b; assert(a==b);
string_view a1; a1 = b;  string_view a2 = b; assert(a1 == a2);
string_view a = c; string_view b = c; a = d; assert(b==c);
string_view a = c; string_view b = c; zap(a); assert(b==c && a!=b);

So long as the values we are assigning to represent buffers that outlive the string_view and remain immutable, these axioms are held. (zap() has to actually change its parameter so that pre/post calls to zap are not equal - but remember that equality is about value not identity)

If we do not know that the underlying buffer exists and is not being mutated, we cannot evaluate any of these snippets. Even executing operator== runs the risk of undefined behavior either from use-after-free (if the buffer has disappeared) or data race (if the buffer is mutated).

Remember that this is a lot to ask: this knowledge of the underlying buffer is a lot more than the knowledge required when operating on something Regular like a string. I’ve probably seen hundreds of bugs stemming from people getting the object lifetimes wrong with string_view and its underlying buffer.

Without that external knowledge, it’s easy to see how we fail with all of Stepanov’s axioms (assign these string_views to temporaries). Similarly, without that knowledge, we fail at P0898r2’s [concepts.lib.general.equality] p3 - the value can change out from under us. We get (countless) examples like this:

string s1 = "hello";
string s2 = "hello";

string_view SomeT() {  // Give out references to different global strings
  static int count = 0;
  string_view ret = (count == 0 ? s1 : s2);
  count = (count + 1) % 2;
  return ret;

void DoSomething(const string_view sv) {  // modify an unrelated global
  s1[0] = 'a';

void f() {
  const string_view sv1 = SomeT();
  const string_view sv2 = SomeT();
  if (sv1 == sv2) {      // equal
    DoSomething(sv1);    // No program structure constraints, can modify a global.
    assert(sv1 == sv2);  // failure: "aello" != "hello"

Side note: At some level I think this is a bogus example. Having participated for many years in mailing list discussions about the Google-internal type that inspired string_view, the way that people mishandle string_view has nothing to do with mutability of the underlying data, and everything to do with the underlying data being unowned and going out of scope. I estimate the prevalence of lifetime-requirement failure vs. underyling-mutability failure to be at least 50:1 - the risks of a type like this are almost entirely based around lifetime, not remote-mutation. It’s also much easier to construct an example for this snippet that fails because of insufficient buffer lifetime.

So no, string_view isn’t quite Regular. Given particular very constrained usage, it behaves as if it were Regular. That usage is very nearly required by the rest of the standard - you can’t even compare a string_view without undefined behavior unless you have knowledge about the program structure to guarantee that operation is safe. However, with that knowledge, string_view still behaves as if it were Regular.

Non-owning Reference Parameters

C++ is a language that is very concerned with 2 things: types, and efficiency. The type system for C++ is more complex than most other languages by a significant margin: this is the only mainstream language that I can imagine where it’s reasonable to envision a proposal for an infinite family of Null types (P0196).

At the same time, C++ focuses a great deal of effort on “do not pay for what you do not use”. We have a preponderance of non-Regular types in the core language: references are not Regular, but they are efficient. Passing by reference is basic - when invoking a function we don’t necessarily want to copy anything, we merely give a reference for the duration of the function call. An increasing amount of modern design is about providing flexibility when it comes to the specific types that are accepted - we overload on const char* and const string&, or we just accept string_view. Other user-defined types that have a contiguous buffer of characters can join in our overload set by providing a conversion to string_view.

This is, in some respects, one of the big areas for design work in C++ these days: building an increasing set of generic/type-erased types that accept a broad selection of related types and provide a uniform interface. Consider function, function_ref, span, and string_view, from recent standards discussion. In Google’s codebase I’m starting to see types like AnySpan which behave like span but further abstract T away from the underlying type (allowing non-null unique_ptr and T*, for instance).

From a usability perspective, we have to decide whether we are continuing down the path of building types that represent our duck-typing overload sets, or whether we are asking users to implement those overload sets inconsistently on an ad-hoc basis. I’m fairly sure that most of us will conclude that there is value in using these non-owning reference parameter types - if we can agree on how to design them.

When used as a parameter, we always know that the underlying data continues to exist and is as safe to access as making a copy of the data would have been. (That is, if the underlying data is a reference itself, and we don’t know if anything is mutating it, we’re already in trouble.)

Restated: the arguments against string_view and other reference types are that they are not Regular. And that’s true, they aren’t when evaluated in a vacuum. But if you have any structural knowledge about the program, they behave as if they are Regular in their most common usage - as parameters.

So since we’re probably going to keep building non-owning reference parameter types, can we stop arguing about them being bad because they aren’t Regular? They may be Regular enough for the use case they are designed for, and if a C++ programmer chooses to use them for more, they’ll still usually be Regular given knowledge of the lifetime of their referent. (Or the lifetimes won’t match up and we’ll be cursed for being a hard language, but that’s unavoidable.)

Taking into account APIs with dependent preconditions and implementation-defined behavior on deleted pointer comparison, string_view is no worse than int*, after all.

Evaluating span

When discussing reference types in the standard, the two common points of reference are string_view (already voted in with C++17) and span (heading to the working draft for C++20). Although there are numerous syntactic differences in the APIs of these two, semantically the major difference is in the mutability of the underlying data. A string_view is either a lightweight reference to a string that it will not mutate, or a non-owning pointer+length to a buffer it will not mutate (depending on whose conceptualization you follow), but in either case it does not mutate the underlying buffer. A const string_view is only interesting in that it cannot be trimmed nor reassigned.

On the other hand, span<T> allows non-const operations on the underlying T. If span were a container like vector we would know that a const span would imply only const access to the underlying T. In this sense, when comparing to string_view we have no precedent to draw upon.

Let’s apply the idea that we want span to be as close to Regular as possible. What would it take for us to operate on an instance as if it were Regular? Keep in mind that we are already assuming that the program structure forbids mutation of the buffers except via the span directly and thus DoSomething() cannot modify a1 or a2.

std::array<int, 3> a1 = {1, 2, 3};
std::array<int, 3> a2 = {1, 2, 3};
const span<int> s1 = a1;
const span<int> s2 = a2;

if (s1 == s2) {
  assert(s1 == s2);

We know that can only use span as if it were Regular if we know that the underlying buffer isn’t being mutated by anything else. But that isn’t enough here: it’s easy to imagine a DoSomething that modifies a value through the const span and then breaks our assertion.

void DoSomething(const span<int>& s) {
  s[0] = 42; // Having a const span<T> doesn't make the underlying T const

Perhaps what we want is for span to only provide const access to the buffer when the span is const? We could make the const overload of span::operator[] provide const T&. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough for a copyable type.

void DoSomething(const span<int>& s) {
  span<int> copy = s; // Copying drops const but leaves the referent
  copy[0] = 42;  // Can modify through the copy

We have to treat the span and its dependent data as one, and that treatment must include const propagation. Unfortunately, we cannot get shallow copy (copy by pointer), const propagation (const reference implies const referent), and deep equality (compare by pointee) in the same type. You can, however, get close enough to const propagation by disallowing mutation of the underlying buffer.

For non-owning reference parameters like string_view and span, merely knowing the underlying buffer isn’t being mutated externally isn’t enough for it to be used as if it were Regular. We need to make one further choice:

  • The data cannot be mutated through the reference type, a la string_view
  • Equality is shallow: the logical state of the type is tied to the value of the pointer, rather than the value of what it points to
  • The reference type is designed in a clever fashion so that once you have a const Reference<T>, copies become at most Reference<const T>. (I suspect this is impossible in the language currently, and even if it isn’t it is likely to be awkward to work with, but I’m intrigued at the possibility).

The stated aims of span (to replace easily-mishandled instances of T*, len) cannot be met while having both Regular semantics and deep equality - the logical state of the type must be only the pointer+length, not the underlying unowned data. When given the choice, we should prefer to be more like Regular and change to shallow equality. It’s still arguable whether it will be Regular (dependent preconditions on operator[], and implementation-defined behavior for comparison on a deleted pointer), but it will be much closer.

With such a change to its comparison, and knowledge that the underlying buffer isn’t being modified, span will behave as if it were Regular. Given a const span and the required knowledge about its buffer, nothing we do to it can make its value change or invalidate any of its API preconditions.


If you have got the option, make your value types Regular and thread-compatible with no mutable or shared state. Do not take any of the above as justification to break that commandment lightly.

That said, Regular as everyone describes it does gloss over some things - we operate on Regular types by reference in standard algorithms constantly, and those operations aren’t safe without some form of structural knowledge of the program. Usually that knowledge is of the form “this instance isn’t shared to any other thread.” The best Regular types, those that model built-ins most closely, are thread-compatible and have no dependent preconditions. Types like int and string are easier to work with than int* or string_view.

When it comes to non-owning reference types like string_view or span, the required structural knowledge is more complex: it isn’t only that the instance isn’t shared, it’s that the instance plus its underlying data isn’t shared in a way that will cause data races. When operating on a type arbitrarily, that is hard to prove. But in the very common (and very relevant to C++ design priorities) case of building cheap non-owning reference parameters, we have that knowledge because of how parameter passing and function invocation work.

If knowledge that the underlying data isn’t shared is enough to make usage of an instance passed as a parameter behave like Regular, that is good. These types like string_view will have more sharp corners and take some getting used to, but in practice most of the problems come from underlying buffers going out of scope when used not as a parameter. Critically, such types must not allow mutation of their unowned underlying data.

For types where we want reference semantics but must allow for mutation of the underlying data, we must yield something. It is currently impossible to have a type that has shallow-copy, deep-compare, and Regular behavior when propagating const-ness: one or more of those properties must be given up. The expected usage of every type is different, so it is hard to provide one-size-fits-all guidance, but consider the following options:

  • shallow compare - Make the type compare based on what it points at by identity (pointer value) rather than dereferencing the underlying data.
  • SemiRegular - P0898 specifically defines the concept SemiRegular to denote types that are Regular except for a lack of operator==. These are still perfectly suitable for storing in many types of containers. Dropping operator== will leave no users confused at runtime when equality semantics do not match their expectation.

If equality isn’t the culprit for your type being irregular (even given knowledge of program structure), cut or rename the offending operations until it is a strict subset of Regular - it is better for your type to not reuse common syntax for operations that have non-Regular semantics.

As a satisfying side-note: classifying types based on the form of structural knowledge they need in order to operate on them safely provides us a way to separate types like int and int*. It has long been unsatisfying that pointers and values were both considered Regular in exactly the same fashion.

Accounting for this variation in “how much information do we need when working on an instance of this type safely”, we can look at reference types when their underlying data is extant and constant and determine whether the rest of their usage still looks Regular. Pleasantly, string_view works fine. We do find some weaknesses in the current span proposal, particularly when it comes to shallow vs. deep const.

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