A language people use and bitch about

2016-08-24, Comments

Every so often a new essay hits the top of the programming news sites:

  • why I’m rewriting X in C (and abandoning C++)
  • why we will never use C++ for Y (which has always been written in C)
  • why C++ is a horrible language (it isn’t C)

I’m a sucker for these articles and have some sympathy with them. Every so often I work with C code rather than C++, and find the experience refreshing: rapid compilation, clear build diagnostics, comprehensible APIs, easy debugging, and an agreeable reduction in layering and punctuation.

It’s always easy to return to C because it hasn’t really changed. Well, it has changed, conservatively, and C programmers seem conservative in adopting new features.

By contrast, C++ does change. Sure, C++0X was a long time coming — finally realised as C++11 — but since that giant step, smaller improvements continue apace. As a result C++ code soon looks stale. Every time I visit a source file it seems I have to freshen it, using the new way to prevent copying, or return containers, or manage resources, or pass functions, or … you get the idea.

The truth is, every substantial C++ codebase I’ve worked on reads like a history of C++. Somewhere low down there’ll be hand-written intrusive linked lists; then there’ll be a few layers of classes, some nested for good measure; then templates, boost, functions disguised as classes for use in algorithms; and finally the good stuff, in which auto, lambda, move semantics and intialisers allow us to code as we’ve always wanted.

Bjarne Stroustrup defends C++ on his website:

As someone remarked: There are only two kinds of programming languages: those people always bitch about and those nobody uses.

If that “someone” wasn’t Stroustrup, it is now — he has become the source of his own quotation. His point is that C++ is well-used and must therefore be bitched about.

C provides an immediate counter-example, however. It is undeniably used, but its traps and pitfalls are known and respected, rather than bitched about.

Ultimately, though, I find C too limited. The lack of standard containers and algorithms combined with the overheads of heap management and ubiquitous error checking make programming in C heavy going.

C++ is hard to learn and hard to keep up with. The language has grown, considerably, but the progression is necessary. It’s the more recent extensions which fully realise the power of the standard template library, for example. Stick with C++. The reward will be code which is expressive and efficient.