Among the catalog of features introduced by C++17, you’ll find a feature known as Class Template Argument Deduction, often shortened to “CTAD”. It was one of the largest language changes in C++17, and with it comes a new syntax and a new set of rules to understand.

It’s still very early in the game for CTAD, but we’re already seeing many strong opinions about it without seeing its widespread effect on codebases. In particular, we’re seeing a lot of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt about CTAD.

A CTAD Rundown

Here’s a quick rundown of CTAD and how it works. Suppose I want to make a pair:

std::pair<int, std::string> items{1, "My String"};

Simple enough, by I’m specifying my type when the compiler already knows the answer. We have a solution in the form of make_pair:

auto items = std::make_pair(1, "My String"s);

We must use the suffix s on "My String" to force the pair returned by make_pair to deduce to a std::string. This isn’t a bug or a misfeature. While we could be clever here, I’ll be talking about why we don’t want to do that.

That’s pretty neat, ain’t it? But it’s a bit obnoxious that we have a fully separate function. What if we could make std::pair deduce its template arguments? In C++17, we can:

std::pair items{1, "My String"s};

The type of items is std::pair<int, std::string>, via the magic of CTAD.

How Does It Work?

As long as you understand the function template argument deduction rules, CTAD works fairly simply, to be honest. The most thorough rundown in STL’s CppCon talk on the subject. I will defer to that video, as I would most likely present an incomplete definition.

The CTAD “Problem”

Imagine this:

std::optional maybe_string{"Hello!"s};
std::optional other_thing{maybe_string};

What is the type of maybe_string? If you said optional<string>, you’re correct! Not a surprising result, actually.

But… What is the type of other_thing? If you said optional<optional<string>>, you would be incorrect! It is actually also optional<string>.

Why does this occur? This isn’t a case of the library attempting to be clever and make a “best guess.” To perform deduction, the compiler generates imaginary function templates called “deduction guides”. In the case of the example above, there are two important ones:

// [1]
template <typename T> auto __deduce(T) -> optional<T>;
// [2]
template <typename T> auto __deduce(const optional<T>&) -> optional<T>;

The compiler acts as if the constructor call is a call to this overload set, and the return type of the best-matching deduction guide is used in place of the name of the class template. In the above, the guide [1] is an explicitly provided deduction guide, and [2] is an implicit deduction guide generated from the copy constructor of optional.

The simple answer is that the copy constructor [2] of std::optional<T> is a better match than the unconstrained [1]. Andrzej Krzemieński has a good post detailing this exact surprise.

What Makes this “Surprising”?

It’s actually hard to objectively quantify what is surprising about the above example, but I think a good candidate for doing so is to show a snippet of code one would believe to be always correct that can be broken by corner cases:

template <typename Something>
void do_a_thing(Something s) {
    std::optional opt{s};
    Something& ref = *opt;

With the naive understanding of the semantics of optional, we’d expect the above example to be always correct. We’ve been given a Something, we wrap it in an engaged optional, and then we bind a reference to the wrapped value. The surprize comes from the fact that the above example will break if you pass an optional<T> in for s!

<source>:9:16: error: non-const lvalue reference to type 'std::optional<int>' cannot bind to a value of unrelated type 'int'
    Something& ref = *opt;
               ^     ~~~~
<source>:15:5: note: in instantiation of function template specialization 'do_a_thing<std::optional<int> >' requested here
1 error generated.

One correct answer is to be more verbose:

template <typename Something>
void do_a_thing(Something s) {
    std::optional opt{s};
    typename decltype(opt)::value_type& ref = *opt;

Or to simply not rely on CTAD:

template <typename Something>
void do_a_thing(Something s) {
    std::optional<Something> opt{s};
    Something& ref = *opt;

So it looks like CTAD has tricked us!

Well… Did it? Or is this a quirk of the way optional intermixes with CTAD?

More Surprises

Let’s look at my namesake: vector<bool>. What makes it “surprising”?

template <typename T>
void foo(std::vector<T> vec) {
    T& ref = vec.front();

There we see it again. With a naive understanding of std::vector, we’d expect that a T& can bind to the value of front(). For many types, this works accidentally. The fatal assumption is that front(), back(), at(), and operator[] return a T&. This is not true. This has never been true. Code which assumes this is wrong and broken. The truth is that std::vector<T>::front() does not return T&. It returns std::vector<T>::reference. For an arbitrary T, ::reference is not guaranteed to be T&. The most notable example is that of bool

“Are you trying to excuse vector<bool>?”

Not at all. vector<bool> is bad, but not because it uses a proxy reference. That is fully conforming to the interface of vector<T>. It is when it breaks from the interface of vector<T> that we must start throwing rocks.

vector<bool> is bad because its cleverness sides-steps the interface of the primary definition.

Moar Surprises

Remember how I started with std::make_pair? What if I told you… std::make_pair was also surprising!

But how?

Let me show you an example where it is not surprising:

auto pair = std::make_pair(1, "I am a string");

The type of pair is std::pair<int, const char*>. New users will be appalled that it isn’t using std::string. Remember what I mentioned earlier? We could “be clever” and force character arrays to std::string in std::make_pair, but remember why things would be surprising:

template <typename First, typename Second>
void do_pair_thing(First f, Second s) {
    auto pair = std::make_pair(f, s);
    First& ref1 = pair.first;
    Second& ref2 = pair.second;

If we special-cased make_pair to change character arrays into std::strings, that would make the above code surprising.

In fact, if make_pair did anything tricky to make the above code incorrect, that would be pretty surprising…

It’s a good thing it doesn’t! Right?

… Right?

do_pair_thing(42, std::ref(something));
<source>:15:13: error: non-const lvalue reference to type
        'std::reference_wrapper<Something>' cannot bind to a value
        of unrelated type 'Something'
    Second& ref2 = pair.second;
            ^      ~~~~~~~~~~~
<source>:25:5: note: in instantiation of function template specialization
        'do_pair_thing<int, std::reference_wrapper<Something> >'
        requested here
    do_pair_thing(1, std::ref(i));

The correct version of the above looks like this:

template <typename First, typename Second>
void do_pair_thing(First f, Second s) {
    auto pair = std::make_pair(f, s);
    typename decltype(pair)::first_type& ref1 = pair.first;
    typename decltype(pair)::second_type& ref2 = pair.second;

or this:

template <typename First, typename Second>
void do_pair_thing(First f, Second s) {
    std::pair<First, Second> pair(f, s);
    First& ref1 = pair.first;
    Second& ref2 = pair.second;

What am I Getting At?

The correct way to program a generic function is this: Know what you are doing.

That is incredibly unhelpful, I’m sure. A more elaborate answer is that one must understand the exact API and requirements of the types you are dealing with, and the subtle ways in which they may break from a naive understanding.

I’ve used “naive” several times in this post, and I don’t use it as a pejorative: I mean it in the literal sense that there is a base understanding with which most people can be effective, which is the naive understanding. For many cases, the naive understanding is sufficient, but when you start programming with uncontrolled inputs (a generic library), you must now obtain the full understanding if you wish to succeed. This is not a hopeless task. Simply scrubbing away a feature of the language or library that sometimes surprises you is not the answer.

This is vaguely reminiscent of the fear of auto that plagued (and still does, to an extent) the C++ community for years. Cries of auto will do the wrong thing! have echoed through Internet message boards for nearly a decade now. I can’t provide precise figures, but I would estimate that I’ve used auto roughly 100,000 times so far. Of those, the number of times it has done “the wrong thing” is probably 100. Of those, 90 of them were compile errors and fixed immediately. Of the remaining ten, eight were a bit trickier to track down, and two of them resulted in spooky behavior that required a debugger. I’ve never seen an auto-related bug ship. Maybe you have, dear reader? You have my condolences, but I would never give up this feature just because it may do the wrong thing in rare instances.

CTAD is actually similar, in a manner: It is deducing the type of a declaration or expression in-situ, much like auto, but it provides the additional constraint about what class template it is an instantiation of. We’ll see if any real bugs start to show up from CTAD.

Some Cool CTAD Things

We’ve dwelled on ways that CTAD is surprising for a while. Let’s look at some uses of CTAD that are actually pretty cool. For example, this tiny “scope guard”:

template <typename Func>
class scope_guard {
    Func _func;
    scope_guard(Func&& fn) : _func(std::forward<Func>(fn)) {}
    ~scope_guard() {

And using it:

int do_thing() {
    auto file = ::CreateFile();
    scope_guard close_file = [&] { ::CloseHandle(file); };
    // Do stuff...

No macro or operator trickery, no helper functions or types, no type erasure, no auto. Just a clear-as-crystal scope guard. And best of all: No surprises!

Here’s another one: An “operator” class template that supports partial application for binary operator >:

template <typename Bound = void>
struct greater_than;

// Default with no bound arguments
template <>
struct greater_than<void> {
    greater_than() = default;

    template <typename Left, typename Right>
    decltype(auto) operator()(Left&& l, Right&& r) {
        return std::forward<Left>(l) > std::forward<Right>(r);

template <typename Bound>
struct greater_than  {
    Bound _bound;
    template <typename T>
        requires ConvertibleTo<T, Bound>
    greater_than(T&& t)
        : _bound(std::forward<T>(t)) {}

    template <typename Left>
    decltype(auto) operator()(Left&& l) {
        return greater_than<void>()(std::forward<Left>(l), _bound);

// Some deduction guides
template <typename T>
greater_than(T) -> greater_than<T>;
greater_than() -> greater_than<void>;

With it, one class template can be used as both a unary and binary predicate:

// A sequence
int arr[] = { 1, 0, 7, 2, 3, 2, 5 };

// Find the first element "Greater than 4"
auto iter = find_if(begin(arr), end(arr), greater_than(4));

// Sort by "greater than" comparisons
sort(begin(arr), end(arr), greater_than());

What other pleasant surprises does CTAD hold?