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Thinking in C++, 2nd ed., Volume 2, Revision 2

©2000 by Bruce Eckel

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Like any human language, C++ provides a way to express concepts. If successful, this medium of expression will be significantly easier and more flexible than the alternatives as problems grow larger and more complex.

You can’t just look at C++ as a collection of features; some of the features make no sense in isolation. You can only use the sum of the parts if you are thinking about design, not simply coding. And to understand C++ in this way, you must understand the problems with C and with programming in general. This book discusses programming problems, why they are problems, and the approach C++ has taken to solve such problems. Thus, the set of features I explain in each chapter will be based on the way that I see a particular type of problem being solved with the language. In this way I hope to move you, a little at a time, from understanding C to the point where the C++ mindset becomes your native tongue.

Throughout, I’ll be taking the attitude that you want to build a model in your head that allows you to understand the language all the way down to the bare metal; if you encounter a puzzle you’ll be able to feed it to your model and deduce the answer. I will try to convey to you the insights which have rearranged my brain to make me start “thinking in C++.”

What’s new in the second edition

This book is a thorough rewrite of the first edition to reflect all the changes introduced in C++ by the finalization of the ANSI/ISO C++ Standard. The entire text present in the first edition has been examined and rewritten, sometimes removing old examples, often changing existing examples and adding new ones, and adding many new exercises. Significant rearrangement and re-ordering of the material took place to reflect the availability of better tools and my improved understanding of how people learn C++. A new chapter was added which is a rapid introduction to the C concepts and basic C++ features for those who haven’t been exposed. The CD ROM bound into the back of the book contains a seminar which is an even gentler introduction to the C concepts necessary to understand C++ (or Java). It was created by Chuck Allison for my company (MindView, Inc.) and it’s called “Thinking in C: Foundations for Java and C++.” It introduces you to the aspects of C that are necessary for you to move on to C++ or Java (leaving out the nasty bits that C programmers must deal with on a day-to-day basis but that the C++ and Java languages steer you away from).

So the short answer is: what isn’t brand new has been rewritten, sometimes to the point where you wouldn’t recognize the original examples and material.

What’s in Volume 2 of this book

The completion of the C++ Standard also added a number of important new libraries such as string and the Standard Template Library (STL) as well as new complexity in templates. These and other more advanced topics have been relegated to Volume 2 of this book, including issues like multiple inheritance, exception handling, design patterns and topics about building stable systems and debugging them.

How to get Volume 2

Just like the book that you currently hold, Thinking in C++, Volume 2 is freely downloadable in its entirety from my web site at www.BruceEckel.com. The final version of Volume 2 will be completed and printed in late 2000 or early 2001.

The web site also contains the source code for both the books, along with updates and information about CD ROMs, public seminars, and in-house training, consulting, mentoring and walk-throughs.


In the first edition of this book, I decided to assume that someone else had taught you C and that you have at least a reading level of comfort with it. My primary focus was on simplifying what I found difficult – the C++ language. In this edition I have added a chapter that is a very rapid introduction to C, along with the Thinking in C seminar-on-CD, but still assuming that you have some kind of programming experience already. In addition, just as you learn many new words intuitively by seeing them in context in a novel, it’s possible to learn a great deal about C from the context in which it is used in the rest of the book.

Learning C++

I clawed my way into C++ from exactly the same position as I expect many of the readers of this book will: As a programmer with a very no-nonsense, nuts-and-bolts attitude about programming. Worse, my background and experience was in hardware-level embedded programming, where C has often been considered a high-level language and an inefficient overkill for pushing bits around. I discovered later that I wasn’t even a very good C programmer, hiding my ignorance of structures, malloc( ) & free( ), setjmp( ) & longjmp( ), and other “sophisticated” concepts, scuttling away in shame when the subjects came up in conversation rather than reaching out for new knowledge.

When I began my struggle to understand C++, the only decent book was Stroustrup’s self-professed “expert’s guide,[1] ” so I was left to simplify the basic concepts on my own. This resulted in my first C++ book,[2] which was essentially a brain dump of my experience. That was designed as a reader’s guide, to bring programmers into C and C++ at the same time. Both editions[3] of the book garnered an enthusiastic response.

At about the same time that Using C++ came out, I began teaching the language in live seminars and presentations. Teaching C++ (and later, Java) became my profession; I’ve seen nodding heads, blank faces, and puzzled expressions in audiences all over the world since 1989. As I began giving in-house training with smaller groups of people, I discovered something during the exercises. Even those people who were smiling and nodding were confused about many issues. I found out, by creating and chairing the C++ and Java tracks at the Software Development Conference for many years, that I and other speakers tended to give the typical audience too many topics, too fast. So eventually, through both variety in the audience level and the way that I presented the material, I would end up losing some portion of the audience. Maybe it’s asking too much, but because I am one of those people resistant to traditional lecturing (and for most people, I believe, such resistance results from boredom), I wanted to try to keep everyone up to speed.

For a time, I was creating a number of different presentations in fairly short order. Thus, I ended up learning by experiment and iteration (a technique that also works well in C++ program design). Eventually I developed a course using everything I had learned from my teaching experience. It tackles the learning problem in discrete, easy-to-digest steps and for a hands-on seminar (the ideal learning situation), there are exercises following each of the presentations.

The first edition of this book developed over the course of two years, and the material in this book has been road-tested in many forms in many different seminars. The feedback that I’ve gotten from each seminar has helped me change and refocus the material until I feel it works well as a teaching medium. But it isn’t just a seminar handout – I tried to pack as much information as I could within these pages, and structure it to draw you through, onto the next subject. More than anything, the book is designed to serve the solitary reader, struggling with a new programming language.


My goals in this book are to:

  1. Present the material a simple step at a time, so the reader can easily digest each concept before moving on.
  2. Use examples that are as simple and short as possible. This sometimes prevents me from tackling “real-world” problems, but I’ve found that beginners are usually happier when they can understand every detail of an example rather than being impressed by the scope of the problem it solves. Also, there’s a severe limit to the amount of code that can be absorbed in a classroom situation. For this I sometimes receive criticism for using “toy examples,” but I’m willing to accept that in favor of producing something pedagogically useful.
  3. Carefully sequence the presentation of features so that you aren’t seeing something you haven’t been exposed to. Of course, this isn’t always possible; in those situations, a brief introductory description will be given.
  4. Give you what I think is important for you to understand about the language, rather than everything I know. I believe there is an “information importance hierarchy,” and there are some facts that 95% of programmers will never need to know, but that would just confuse people and add to their perception of the complexity of the language. To take an example from C, if you memorize the operator precedence table (I never did) you can write clever code. But if you have to think about it, it will confuse the reader/maintainer of that code. So forget about precedence, and use parentheses when things aren’t clear. This same attitude will be taken with some information in the C++ language, which I think is more important for compiler writers than for programmers.
  5. Keep each section focused enough so the lecture time – and the time between exercise periods – is small. Not only does this keep the audience’ minds more active and involved during a hands-on seminar, but it gives the reader a greater sense of accomplishment.
  6. Provide the reader with a solid foundation so they can understand the issues well enough to move on to more difficult coursework and books (in particular, Volume 2 of this book).
  7. I’ve endeavored not to use any particular vendor’s version of C++ because, for learning the language, I don’t feel like the details of a particular implementation are as important as the language itself. Most vendors’ documentation concerning their own implementation specifics is adequate.


C++ is a language where new and different features are built on top of an existing syntax. (Because of this it is referred to as a hybrid object-oriented programming language.) As more people have passed through the learning curve, we’ve begun to get a feel for the way programmers move through the stages of the C++ language features. Because it appears to be the natural progression of the procedurally-trained mind, I decided to understand and follow this same path, and accelerate the process by posing and answering the questions that came to me as I learned the language and that came from audiences as I taught it.

This course was designed with one thing in mind: to streamline the process of learning the C++ language. Audience feedback helped me understand which parts were difficult and needed extra illumination. In the areas where I got ambitious and included too many features all at once, I came to know – through the process of presenting the material – that if you include a lot of new features, you have to explain them all, and the student’s confusion is easily compounded. As a result, I’ve taken a great deal of trouble to introduce the features as few at a time as possible; ideally, only one major concept at a time per chapter.

The goal, then, is for each chapter to teach a single concept, or a small group of associated concepts, in such a way that no additional features are relied upon. That way you can digest each piece in the context of your current knowledge before moving on. To accomplish this, I leave some C features in place for longer than I would prefer. The benefit is that you will not be confused by seeing all the C++ features used before they are explained, so your introduction to the language will be gentle and will mirror the way you will assimilate the features if left to your own devices.

Here is a brief description of the chapters contained in this book:

(5) Introduction to iostreams. One of the original C++ libraries – the one that provides the essential I/O facility – is called iostreams. Iostreams is intended to replace C’s stdio.h with an I/O library that is easier to use, more flexible, and extensible – you can adapt it to work with your new classes. This chapter teaches you the ins and outs of how to make the best use of the existing iostream library for standard I/O, file I/O, and in-memory formatting.

(15) Multiple inheritance. This sounds simple at first: A new class is inherited from more than one existing class. However, you can end up with ambiguities and multiple copies of base-class objects. That problem is solved with virtual base classes, but the bigger issue remains: When do you use it? Multiple inheritance is only essential when you need to manipulate an object through more than one common base class. This chapter explains the syntax for multiple inheritance, and shows alternative approaches – in particular, how templates solve one common problem. The use of multiple inheritance to repair a “damaged” class interface is demonstrated as a genuinely valuable use of this feature.

(16) Exception handling. Error handling has always been a problem in programming. Even if you dutifully return error information or set a flag, the function caller may simply ignore it. Exception handling is a primary feature in C++ that solves this problem by allowing you to “throw” an object out of your function when a critical error happens. You throw different types of objects for different errors, and the function caller “catches” these objects in separate error handling routines. If you throw an exception, it cannot be ignored, so you can guarantee that something will happen in response to your error.

(17) Run-time type identification. Run-time type identification (RTTI) lets you find the exact type of an object when you only have a pointer or reference to the base type. Normally, you’ll want to intentionally ignore the exact type of an object and let the virtual function mechanism implement the correct behavior for that type. But occasionally it is very helpful to know the exact type of an object for which you only have a base pointer; often this information allows you to perform a special-case operation more efficiently. This chapter explains what RTTI is for and how to use it.


I’ve discovered that simple exercises are exceptionally useful during a seminar to complete a student’s understanding, so you’ll find a set at the end of each chapter.

These are fairly simple, so they can be finished in a reasonable amount of time in a classroom situation while the instructor observes, making sure all the students are absorbing the material. Some exercises are a bit more challenging to keep advanced students entertained. They’re all designed to be solved in a short time and are only there to test and polish your knowledge rather than present major challenges (presumably, you’ll find those on your own – or more likely they’ll find you).

Exercise solutions

Solutions to exercises can be found in the electronic document The C++ Annotated Solution Guide, Volume 2 by Chuck Allison, available for a small fee from www.BruceEckel.com. [[ Note this is not yet available ]]

Source code

The source code for this book is copyrighted freeware, distributed via the web site http://www.BruceEckel.com. The copyright prevents you from republishing the code in print media without permission.

Although the code is available in a zipped file on the above web site, you can also unpack the code yourself by downloading the text version of the book and running the program ExtractCode (from Volume 2 of this book), the source for which is also provided on the Web site. The program will create a directory for each chapter and unpack the code into those directories. In the starting directory where you unpacked the code you will find the following copyright notice:

//:! :CopyRight.txt
Copyright (c) Bruce Eckel, 1999
Source code file from the book "Thinking in C++"
All rights reserved EXCEPT as allowed by the
following statements: You can freely use this file
for your own work (personal or commercial),
including modifications and distribution in
executable form only. Permission is granted to use
this file in classroom situations, including its
use in presentation materials, as long as the book
"Thinking in C++" is cited as the source. 
Except in classroom situations, you cannot copy
and distribute this code; instead, the sole
distribution point is http://www.BruceEckel.com 
(and official mirror sites) where it is
freely available. You cannot remove this
copyright and notice. You cannot distribute
modified versions of the source code in this
package. You cannot use this file in printed
media without the express permission of the
author. Bruce Eckel makes no representation about
the suitability of this software for any purpose.
It is provided "as is" without express or implied
warranty of any kind, including any implied
warranty of merchantability, fitness for a
particular purpose or non-infringement. The entire
risk as to the quality and performance of the
software is with you. Bruce Eckel and the
publisher shall not be liable for any damages
suffered by you or any third party as a result of
using or distributing software. In no event will
Bruce Eckel or the publisher be liable for any
lost revenue, profit, or data, or for direct,
indirect, special, consequential, incidental, or
punitive damages, however caused and regardless of
the theory of liability, arising out of the use of
or inability to use software, even if Bruce Eckel
and the publisher have been advised of the
possibility of such damages. Should the software
prove defective, you assume the cost of all
necessary servicing, repair, or correction. If you
think you've found an error, please submit the
correction using the form you will find at
www.BruceEckel.com. (Please use the same
form for non-code errors found in the book.)

You may use the code in your projects and in the classroom as long as the copyright notice is retained.

Language standards

Throughout this book, when referring to conformance to the ANSI/ISO C standard, I will generally just say ‘C.’ Only if it is necessary to distinguish between Standard C and older, pre-Standard versions of C will I make the distinction.

At this writing the ANSI/ISO C++ committee was finished working on the language. Thus, I will use the term Standard C++ to refer to the standardized language. If I simply refer to C++ you should assume I mean “Standard C++.”

Language support

Your compiler may not support all the features discussed in this book, especially if you don’t have the newest version of your compiler. Implementing a language like C++ is a Herculean task, and you can expect that the features will appear in pieces rather than all at once. But if you attempt one of the examples in the book and get a lot of errors from the compiler, it’s not necessarily a bug in the code or the compiler – it may simply not be implemented in your particular compiler yet.

The book’s CD ROM

Seminars, CD Roms & consulting

My company, MindView, Inc., provides public hands-on training seminars based on the material in this book, and also for advanced topics. Selected material from each chapter represents a lesson, which is followed by a monitored exercise period so each student receives personal attention. We also provide on-site training, consulting, mentoring, and design & code walkthroughs. Information and sign-up forms for upcoming seminars and other contact information can be found at http://www.BruceEckel.com.


No matter how many tricks a writer uses to detect errors, some always creep in and these often leap off the page for a fresh reader. If you discover anything you believe to be an error, please use the correction form you will find at http://www.BruceEckel.com. Your help is appreciated.


The ideas and understanding in this book have come from many sources: friends like Chuck Allison, Andrea Provaglio, Dan Saks, Scott Meyers, Charles Petzold, and Michael Wilk; pioneers of the language like Bjarne Stroustrup, Andrew Koenig, and Rob Murray; members of the C++ Standards Committee like Nathan Myers (who was particularly helpful and generous with his insights), Tom Plum, Reg Charney, Tom Penello, Sam Druker, and Uwe Steinmueller; people who have spoken in my C++ track at the Software Development Conference; and very often students in my seminars, who ask the questions I need to hear in order to make the material clearer.

I have been presenting this material on tours produced by Miller Freeman Inc. with my friend Richard Hale Shaw. Richard’s insights and support have been very helpful (and Kim’s, too). Thanks also to KoAnn Vikoren, Eric Faurot, Jennifer Jessup, Nicole Freeman, Barbara Hanscome, Regina Ridley, Alex Dunne, and the rest of the cast and crew at MFI.

The book design, cover design, and cover photo were created by my friend Daniel Will-Harris, noted author and designer, who used to play with rub-on letters in junior high school while he awaited the invention of computers and desktop publishing. However, I produced the camera-ready pages myself, so the typesetting errors are mine. Microsoft® Word for Windows 97 was used to write the book and to create camera-ready pages. The body typeface is [Times for the electronic distribution] and the headlines are in [Times for the electronic distribution].

A special thanks to all my teachers, and all my students (who are my teachers as well).

Personal thanks to my friends Gen Kiyooka and Kraig Brockschmidt. The supporting cast of friends includes, but is not limited to: Zack Urlocker, Andrew Binstock, Neil Rubenking, Steve Sinofsky, JD Hildebrandt, Brian McElhinney, Brinkley Barr, Larry O’Brien, Bill Gates at Midnight Engineering Magazine, Larry Constantine & Lucy Lockwood, Tom Keffer, Greg Perry, Dan Putterman, Christi Westphal, Gene Wang, Dave Mayer, David Intersimone, Claire Sawyers, Claire Jones, The Italians (Andrea Provaglio, Laura Fallai, Marco Cantu, Corrado, Ilsa and Christina Giustozzi), Chris & Laura Strand, The Almquists, Brad Jerbic, Marilyn Cvitanic, The Mabrys, The Haflingers, The Pollocks, Peter Vinci, The Robbins Families, The Moelter Families (& the McMillans), The Wilks, Dave Stoner, Laurie Adams, The Penneys, The Cranstons, Larry Fogg, Mike & Karen Sequeira, Gary Entsminger & Allison Brody, Chester Andersen, Joe Lordi, Dave & Brenda Bartlett, The Rentschlers, The Sudeks, Lynn & Todd, and their families. And of course, Mom & Dad.

[1] Bjarne Stroustrup, The C++ Programming Language, Addison-Wesley, 1986 (first edition).

[2] Using C++, Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1989.

[3] Using C++ and C++ Inside & Out, Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993.

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Last Update:02/22/2000