Tip of the Week #198: Tag Types

Originally posted as TotW #198 on August 12, 2021

By Alex Konradi

Updated 2022-01-24

Quicklink: abseil.io/tips/198

Suppose we have a class Foo:

class Foo {
  explicit Foo(int x, int y);
  Foo& operator=(const Foo&) = delete;
  Foo(const Foo&) = delete;

Foo is neither movable nor copyable, but it is constructible, e.g. Foo f(1, 2);. Since it has a public constructor, we can easily make an instance wrapped in a std::optional:

std::optional<Foo> maybe_foo;
maybe_foo.emplace(5, 10);

That’s great, but what if the std::optional is declared const, so we can’t call emplace()? Luckily for us, std::optional has a constructor for this:

// Pass std::in_place as the first argument, followed by the arguments for Foo's
// constructor.
const std::optional<Foo> maybe_foo(std::in_place, 5, 10);

Wait, what’s going on with std::in_place? If we look at the documentation for std::optional construction, we can see that one of the overloads takes a std::in_place_t as the first argument, along with a list of additional arguments. Since std::in_place is an instance of std::in_place_t, the compiler chooses the emplacing constructor, which instantiates Foo within the std::optional by forwarding the rest of the arguments to Foo’s constructor.

If we look a little closer at the documentation for std::in_place_t, we see that it’s… an empty struct. No special qualifiers or magic declarations. The only thing even mildly special about it is that the standard library includes a named instance of it, std::in_place.

Overload Resolution Via Tag Types

std::in_place_t is a member of a loose category of classes sometimes referred to as “tag types”. The function of these classes is to pass information to the compiler by “tagging” specific overloads in an overload set. By providing an instance of an appropriate tag class to an overloaded function (often a constructor), we can use the compiler’s ordinary resolution rules to make it select the desired overload. In the case of our std::optional construction, the compiler sees that the first argument is of type std::in_place_t and so chooses the matching emplacing constructor.

Though std::in_place_t was introduced in C++17, the use of empty classes for tagging overloads in the standard library has been prevalent since std::piecewise_construct_t, was introduced in C++11 to select the emplacing constructor for std::pair. C++17 significantly expanded the set of tag types in the standard library.

Templates, of Course

Besides disambiguating overloads, another common use case for tag types is to pass type information to templated constructors. Consider these two structs:

struct A { A(); /* internal members */ };
struct B { B(); /* internal members */ };

Let’s try to construct an instance of std::variant<A, B> with each:

// These work if A and B are copy- or move-constructible, but incur the
// performance cost of an extra copy or move construction.
std::variant<A, B> with_a{A()};
std::variant<A, B> with_b{B()};

// These aren't valid C++; the language doesn't support providing constructor
// template parameters explicitly.
std::variant<A, B> try_templating_a<A>{};
std::variant<A, B><B> try_templating_b{};

What we need is a way to tell the std::variant constructor that we want to instantiate A or B without actually providing an instance of either. For that, we can use std::in_place_type!

std::variant<A, B> with_a{std::in_place_type<A>};
std::variant<A, B> with_b{std::in_place_type<B>};

std::in_place_type<T> is an instance of the class template std::in_place_type_t<T>, which is (unsurprisingly, at this point) empty. By passing a value of type std::in_place_type_t<A> to std::variant’s constructor, the compiler can deduce that the constructor template parameter is our class A.


Tag types show up occasionally when interacting with generic class templates, especially ones from the standard library. One of the shortcomings of tag types is that other techniques, such as factory functions, often result in more readable code. Take the following example:

// This tag spelling requires the reader to know how std::optional interacts
// with std::in_place.
std::optional<Foo> with_tag(std::in_place, 5, 10);

// Here the intent is clearer: make an optional Foo by providing these argments.
std::optional<Foo> with_factory = std::make_optional<Foo>(5, 10);

These two std::optional<Foo> objects are guaranteed to be constructed identically thanks to C++17’s mandatory copy elision.

So why use tags? Because factory functions don’t always work:

// This doesn't work because Foo isn't move-constructible.
std::optional<std::optional<Foo>> foo(std::make_optional<Foo>(5, 10));

The above example doesn’t compile because Foo’s move constructor is deleted. To make this work, we use std::in_place to select the std::optional constructor that forwards the remaining arguments.

// This constructs everything in place, resulting in a single call to Foo's
// constructor.
std::optional<std::optional<Foo>> foo(std::in_place, std::in_place, 5, 10);

In addition to working in places where factory functions don’t, tag types have some other nice properties:

  • they are literal types which means we can declare constexpr instances, even in header files, like std::in_place;
  • because they are empty, the compiler can optimize them out, resulting in zero runtime overhead.

Though they’re used in the standard library, encountering empty tag types in the wild is relatively uncommon. If you find yourself using one, consider adding a comment to help your readers:

std::unordered_map<int, Foo> int_to_foo;
// std::piecewise_construct is a tag for overload resolution of std::pair's
// constructor. Emplaces 100 -> Foo(5, 10) in the map.
                   std::forward_as_tuple(5, 10));


Tag types are a powerful way to give additional information to the compiler. While at first glance they might seem magical, they use the same overload resolution and template type deduction rules as the rest of C++. The standard library uses class tags for disambiguating constructor calls, and you can use the same mechanisms to define tags for your own needs.

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