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Named operators for C++

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Named operators


The following code is legal C++ and does exactly what you’d expect it to do.

auto result = "Hello"  3  ", ";
std::cout << result << '\n';


Hello, Hello, Hello

This project explains how.


Named operators are (user-defined) operators which have names rather than symbols. Here’s Haskell:

x = a `div` b

and here’s R:


In fact, C++ also has named operators – alternative tokens for the primary ones defined, in §2.6.

But those are fixed and not redefinable. Sure, you can

your own names for tokens …
#define PLUS +

But this has all the usual disadvantages of macros and limits you to the already existing binary operators. Until now.

Take a look at this fully valid, macro-free, compiling and running C++ code:

int x = 42;
int y = 23;
auto z = x  y; // calculates { x / y, x % y }

You want assignment operators? Not a problem:

vector vec{ 1, 2, 3 };
vec = 4;
// same as:
vec = vec  4;


Operators can be defined for any binary function-like object by calling

auto divmod = make_named_operator(divmod_f);


pair divmod_f(int x, int y) {
    return { x / y, x % y };

Or, if you prefer functors (and yes, templates work just fine):

auto append = make_named_operator(append_t());


struct append_t {
    vector operator ()(vector const& vs, T const& v) const {
        auto copy(vs);
        return copy;

And of course lambdas work as well:

auto in = make_named_operator(
    [](int i, vector const& x) {
        return find(begin(x), end(x), i) != end(x);

// …

bool result = 24 vec;

Design rationale & implementation

Overloading operators with unconventional semantics generally frowned upon because it violates the user’s expectations (although it has variously been used to great effect).

Furthermore, the set of operators that can be created in this fashion is limited to a subset of the built-in operators.

On the other hand, using infix notation instead of function calls can undeniably make code more readable, especially when nesting lots of operations. Compare

auto result = contains(set_minus(set_minus(A, B), C), x);


auto result = x  (A  B  C);

Other languages have recognised and addressed this problem.

Since C++ allows overloading operators for custom types, named operators can be implemented by simply sticking a place-holder object between two overloaded operators (which can be entirely arbitrary):

struct some_tag {} op;
struct op_temporary {};
op_temporary operator (op_temporary lhs, int rhs);

These declarations are enough to make the following syntax valid:

int x, y, z;
z = x  y;

Of course, what the compiler really sees is

z = operator>(operator

This already highlights a problem: operator precedence. In effect,

will have the precedence of its surrounding operators (and woe if those don’t match!). In particular, the precedence of
is very low. However, I don’t believe that this is too big a problem: somebody once remarked to me,

C++ really only has two precedence rules: (1) BODMAS; (2) for everything else use parentheses.

While I don’t quite agree with this, I think it’s the right attitude in the case of named “operators” that are added via what is effectively a language hack: be on the safe side, use parentheses.

The implementation itself is straightforward: the first operator caches the left-hand side of the expression in

, and the second operator performs the given operation on the cached value and the right-hand side. As we want the operators to be freely configurable, we cache it as well. This way we can adapt any callable object with two parameters into a binary named operator.


The idea for user-defined names operators comes from an answer posted by Stack Overflow user Yakk. His proposal uses configurable delimiters for the operator name, allowing for operators such as

, thus taking the respective operator precedence from their delimiting operators.

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