Nawaz Nawaz - 2 months ago 14
C++ Question

What is a lambda expression in C++11?

What is a lambda expression in C++11? When would I use one? What class of problem do they solve that wasn't possible prior to their introduction?

A few examples, and use cases would be useful.

Answer

The problem

C++ includes useful generic functions like std::for_each and std::transform, which can be very handy. Unfortunately they can also be quite cumbersome to use, particularly if the functor you would like to apply is unique to the particular function.

#include <algorithm>
#include <vector>

namespace {
  struct f {
    void operator()(int) {
      // do something
    }
  };
}

void func(std::vector<int>& v) {
  f f;
  std::for_each(v.begin(), v.end(), f);
}

If you only use f once and in that specific place it seems overkill to be writing a whole class just to do something trivial and one off.

In C++03 you might be tempted to write something like the following, to keep the functor local:

void func2(std::vector<int>& v) {
  struct {
    void operator()(int) {
       // do something
    }
  } f;
  std::for_each(v.begin(), v.end(), f);
}

however this is not allowed, f cannot be passed to a template function in C++03.

The new solution

C++11 introduces lambdas allow you to write an inline, anonymous functor to replace the struct f. For small simple examples this can be cleaner to read (it keeps everything in one place) and potentially simpler to maintain, for example in the simplest form:

void func3(std::vector<int>& v) {
  std::for_each(v.begin(), v.end(), [](int) { /* do something here*/ });
}

Lambda functions are just syntactic sugar for anonymous functors.

Return types

In simple cases the return type of the lambda is deduced for you, e.g.:

void func4(std::vector<double>& v) {
  std::transform(v.begin(), v.end(), v.begin(),
                 [](double d) { return d < 0.00001 ? 0 : d; }
                 );
}

however when you start to write more complex lambdas you will quickly encounter cases where the return type cannot be deduced by the compiler, e.g.:

void func4(std::vector<double>& v) {
    std::transform(v.begin(), v.end(), v.begin(),
        [](double d) {
            if (d < 0.0001) {
                return 0;
            } else {
                return d;
            }
        });
}

To resolve this you are allowed to explicitly specify a return type for a lambda function, using -> T:

void func4(std::vector<double>& v) {
    std::transform(v.begin(), v.end(), v.begin(),
        [](double d) -> double {
            if (d < 0.0001) {
                return 0;
            } else {
                return d;
            }
        });
}

"Capturing" variables

So far we've not used anything other than what was passed to the lambda within it, but we can also use other variables, within the lambda. If you want to access other variables you can use the capture clause (the [] of the expression), which has so far been unused in these examples, e.g.:

void func5(std::vector<double>& v, const double& epsilon) {
    std::transform(v.begin(), v.end(), v.begin(),
        [epsilon](double d) -> double {
            if (d < epsilon) {
                return 0;
            } else {
                return d;
            }
        });
}

You can capture by both reference and value, which you can specify using & and = respectively:

  • [&epsilon] capture by reference
  • [&, epsilon] specify that the default way of capturing is by reference and what we want to capture
  • [=, &epsilon] capture by value by default, but for epsilon use reference instead

The generated operator() is const by default, with the implication that captures will be const when you access them by default. This has the effect that each call with the same input would produce the same result, however you can mark the lambda as mutable to request that the operator() that is produced is not const.

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