C++ class ordering

I'm starting to play around with C++, coming from C and Objective C (and a bit of Java). I thought a good place to start building my skills is by writing a simple hash table from scratch, using linked lists for collisions. So I started out by writing the skeletons for each class.

class HashTable
{
   public:
     ...
   private:
     ...
};

class LinkedList
{
   public:
     ...
   private:
     Node *root;
};

class Node
{
  public:
    Node *next;
    string key;
    int value;
    Node()
    {
      ...
    }
};

The weird thing about this is, and this may not come as any surprise to c++ users, that this code wouldn't work. I would get an error like:

error: expected type-specifier before ‘Node’

with respect to the root node in LinkedList class.

When I simply reordered the classes so that it was Node{...}; LinkedList{...}; HashTable{...}; everything worked like a well oiled ice cream truck.

Now, I'm not one to question the design of C++, but is there any reason for this limitation? If I remember correctly, Obj. C's class's are essentially turned into tables and looked up on the fly. So what's reason for this behavior?

Answers


The requirement for declarations of this sort comes from two forces. The first is that it simplifies compiler design. Since types and variables have the same identifier structure, the compiler must know which it is encountering whenever it does parse an identifier. There are two ways to do this. One way would be to require that every identifier be declared before it may be used in other definitions. This means that the code must forward declare any name it intends to use before giving its definition. This is a very easy way to write a compiler with an otherwise ambiguous grammar.

The other way to do this is to handle it in multiple passes. Any time an undeclared identifier is encountered, it is skipped, and the compiler tries to resolve it once it's parsed the whole file. It turns out that the grammar of C++ makes this very difficult to do correctly. Compiler writers didn't want to have to go to this trouble, and so we have forward declarations.

The other reason is that you may actually want to have forward declarations so that recursive structures are determinite as an intrinsic property of the language. This is a bit more subtle. Suppose you had written a mutually recursive class network:

class Bar; // forward declaration
class Foo {
    Bar myBar;
};

class Bar {
    int occupySpace;
    Foo myFoo;
};

This is obviously impossible, because the occupySpace member would appear in an infinitely nested recursion. requiring that a forward declaration of all members in a definition provides a specific amount of information for this. In particular, it allows the compiler enough information to form a reference to a class, but not to instantiate the class (because it's size is not known). The forward declarations make this a feature of the syntax of the language, much like how lvalues are assignable as a feature of the language syntax rather than a more subtle semantic or run-time requirement.


The compiler throws the following error

error: expected type-specifier before ‘Node’

because it (the compiler) does not (yet) know

Node *root;

what Node is. (Since the Node is defined later.)

Two possible solutions:

  • Put the definition of Node class before LinkedList class (you already know this)

  • Forward declare the class Node before class LinkedList by putting this line

    class Node;

    This tells compiler that there exists a class Node.

After reading PigBen's comment, it seems you are questioning the rationale for this behavior. I am not a compiler person, but I think that this behavior makes it easy for parsing. To me, it is similar to having a function declaration available before its use.

PS: Nitpick, for LinkedList, a variable name head may be more suitable than root.


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