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Assignment Operator Using Copy Constructor C++ Tutorial

A copy assignment operator of class is a non-template non-static member function with the name operator= that takes exactly one parameter of type T, T&, const T&, volatile T&, or constvolatile T&. For a type to be , it must have a public copy assignment operator.


class_nameclass_name ( class_name ) (1)
class_nameclass_name ( const class_name ) (2)
class_nameclass_name ( const class_name ) = default; (3) (since C++11)
class_nameclass_name ( const class_name ) = delete; (4) (since C++11)


  1. Typical declaration of a copy assignment operator when copy-and-swap idiom can be used.
  2. Typical declaration of a copy assignment operator when copy-and-swap idiom cannot be used (non-swappable type or degraded performance).
  3. Forcing a copy assignment operator to be generated by the compiler.
  4. Avoiding implicit copy assignment.

The copy assignment operator is called whenever selected by overload resolution, e.g. when an object appears on the left side of an assignment expression.

[edit]Implicitly-declared copy assignment operator

If no user-defined copy assignment operators are provided for a class type (struct, class, or union), the compiler will always declare one as an inline public member of the class. This implicitly-declared copy assignment operator has the form T& T::operator=(const T&) if all of the following is true:

  • each direct base of has a copy assignment operator whose parameters are B or const B& or constvolatile B&;
  • each non-static data member of of class type or array of class type has a copy assignment operator whose parameters are M or const M& or constvolatile M&.

Otherwise the implicitly-declared copy assignment operator is declared as T& T::operator=(T&). (Note that due to these rules, the implicitly-declared copy assignment operator cannot bind to a volatile lvalue argument.)

A class can have multiple copy assignment operators, e.g. both T& T::operator=(const T&) and T& T::operator=(T). If some user-defined copy assignment operators are present, the user may still force the generation of the implicitly declared copy assignment operator with the keyword .(since C++11)

The implicitly-declared (or defaulted on its first declaration) copy assignment operator has an exception specification as described in dynamic exception specification(until C++17)exception specification(since C++17)

Because the copy assignment operator is always declared for any class, the base class assignment operator is always hidden. If a using-declaration is used to bring in the assignment operator from the base class, and its argument type could be the same as the argument type of the implicit assignment operator of the derived class, the using-declaration is also hidden by the implicit declaration.

[edit]Deleted implicitly-declared copy assignment operator

A implicitly-declared copy assignment operator for class is defined as deleted if any of the following is true:

  • has a user-declared move constructor;
  • has a user-declared move assignment operator.

Otherwise, it is defined as defaulted.

A defaulted copy assignment operator for class is defined as deleted if any of the following is true:

  • has a non-static data member of non-class type (or array thereof) that is const;
  • has a non-static data member of a reference type;
  • has a non-static data member or a direct or virtual base class that cannot be copy-assigned (overload resolution for the copy assignment fails, or selects a deleted or inaccessible function);
  • is a union-like class, and has a variant member whose corresponding assignment operator is non-trivial.

[edit]Trivial copy assignment operator

The copy assignment operator for class is trivial if all of the following is true:

  • it is not user-provided (meaning, it is implicitly-defined or defaulted) , , and if it is defaulted, its signature is the same as implicitly-defined(until C++14);
  • has no virtual member functions;
  • has no virtual base classes;
  • the copy assignment operator selected for every direct base of is trivial;
  • the copy assignment operator selected for every non-static class type (or array of class type) member of is trivial;
  • has no non-static data members of volatile-qualified type.
(since C++14)

A trivial copy assignment operator makes a copy of the object representation as if by std::memmove. All data types compatible with the C language (POD types) are trivially copy-assignable.

[edit]Implicitly-defined copy assignment operator

If the implicitly-declared copy assignment operator is neither deleted nor trivial, it is defined (that is, a function body is generated and compiled) by the compiler if odr-used. For union types, the implicitly-defined copy assignment copies the object representation (as by std::memmove). For non-union class types (class and struct), the operator performs member-wise copy assignment of the object's bases and non-static members, in their initialization order, using built-in assignment for the scalars and copy assignment operator for class types.

The generation of the implicitly-defined copy assignment operator is deprecated(since C++11) if has a user-declared destructor or user-declared copy constructor.


If both copy and move assignment operators are provided, overload resolution selects the move assignment if the argument is an rvalue (either a prvalue such as a nameless temporary or an xvalue such as the result of std::move), and selects the copy assignment if the argument is an lvalue (named object or a function/operator returning lvalue reference). If only the copy assignment is provided, all argument categories select it (as long as it takes its argument by value or as reference to const, since rvalues can bind to const references), which makes copy assignment the fallback for move assignment, when move is unavailable.

It is unspecified whether virtual base class subobjects that are accessible through more than one path in the inheritance lattice, are assigned more than once by the implicitly-defined copy assignment operator (same applies to move assignment).

See assignment operator overloading for additional detail on the expected behavior of a user-defined copy-assignment operator.


Run this code


#include <iostream>#include <memory>#include <string>#include <algorithm>   struct A {int n;std::string s1;// user-defined copy assignment, copy-and-swap form A& operator=(A other){std::cout<<"copy assignment of A\n";std::swap(n, other.n);std::swap(s1, other.s1);return*this;}};   struct B : A {std::string s2;// implicitly-defined copy assignment};   struct C {std::unique_ptr<int[]> data;std::size_t size;// non-copy-and-swap assignment C& operator=(const C& other){// check for self-assignmentif(&other == this)return*this;// reuse storage when possibleif(size != other.size){ data.reset(new int[other.size]); size = other.size;}std::copy(&other.data[0], &other.data[0]+ size, &data[0]);return*this;}// note: copy-and-swap would always cause a reallocation};   int main(){ A a1, a2;std::cout<<"a1 = a2 calls "; a1 = a2;// user-defined copy assignment   B b1, b2; b2.s1="foo"; b2.s2="bar";std::cout<<"b1 = b2 calls "; b1 = b2;// implicitly-defined copy assignmentstd::cout<<"b1.s1 = "<< b1.s1<<" b1.s2 = "<< b1.s2<<'\n';}
a1 = a2 calls copy assignment of A b1 = b2 calls copy assignment of A b1.s1 = foo b1.s2 = bar

[edit]Defect reports

The following behavior-changing defect reports were applied retroactively to previously published C++ standards.

DR Applied to Behavior as published Correct behavior
CWG 2171 C++14 operator=(X&)=default was non-trivial made trivial

Copy constructors sounds like a topic for an article from 1989. And yet, the changes in the new C++ standard affect the design of a class’ special member functions fundamentally. Find out more about the impact of move semantics on objects’ behavior and learn how to implement the move constructor and the move assignment operator in C++11.

C++11 is the informal name for ISO/IEC 14882:2011, the new C++ standard that was published in September 2011. It includes the TR1 libraries and a large number of new core features (a detailed discussion about these new C++11 features is available here; also see The Biggest Changes in C++11 (and Why You Should Care)):

  • Initializer lists
  • Uniform initialization notation
  • Lambda functions and expressions
  • Strongly-typed enumerations
  • Automatic type deduction in declarations
  • storage class
  • Control and query of object alignment
  • Static assertions
  • Type
  • Variadic templates

Important as these features may be, the defining feature of C++11 is rvalue references.

The Right Time for Rvalue References

Rvalue references are a new category of reference variables that can bind to rvalues.  Rvalues are slippery entities, such as temporaries and literal values; up until now, you haven’t been able to bind these safely to reference variables.

Technically, an rvalue is an unnamed value that exists only during the evaluation of an expression. For example, the following expression produces an rvalue:

x+(y*z); // A C++ expression that produces a temporary 

C++ creates a temporary (an rvalue) that stores the result of , and then adds it to . Conceptually, this rvalue evaporates by the time you reach the semicolon at the end of the full expression.

A declaration of an rvalue reference looks like this:

std::string&& rrstr; //C++11 rvalue reference variable

The traditional reference variables of C++ e.g.,

std::string& ref;

are now called lvalue references.

Rvalue references occur almost anywhere, even if you don’t use them directly in your code. They affect the semantics and lifetime of objects in C++11. To see how exactly, it’s time to talk about move semantics.

Get to Know Move Semantics

Hitherto, copying has been the only means for transferring a state from one object to another (an object’s state is the collective set of its non-static data members’ values). Formally, copying causes a target object to end up with the same state as the source , without modifying . For example, when you copy a string to , the result is two identical strings with the same state as .

And yet, in many real-world scenarios, you don’t copy objects but move them. When my landlord cashes my rent check, he moves money from my account into his. Similarly, removing the SIM card from your mobile phone and installing it in another mobile is a move operation, and so are cutting-and-pasting icons on your desktop, or borrowing a book from a library.

Notwithstanding the conceptual difference between copying and moving, there’s a practical difference too: Move operations tend to be faster than copying because they transfer an existing resource to a new destination, whereas copying requires the creation of a new resource from scratch. The efficiency of moving can be witnessed among the rest in functions that return objects by value. Consider:

string func()
string s;
//do something with s
return s;
string mystr=func();

When returns, C++ constructs a temporary copy of on the caller’s stack memory. Next, is destroyed and the temporary is used for copy-constructing . After that, the temporary itself is destroyed. Moving achieves the same effect without so many copies and destructor calls along the way.

Moving a string is almost free; it merely assigns the values of the source’s data members to the corresponding data members of the target. In contrast, copying a string requires the allocation of dynamic memory and copying the characters from the source.

Move Special Member Functions

C++11 introduces two new special member functions: the move constructor and the move assignment operator. They are an addition to the fabulous four you know so well:

  • Default constructor
  • Copy constructor
  • Copy assignment operator
  • Destructor

If a class doesn’t have any user-declared special member functions (save a default constructor), C++ declares its remaining five (or six) special member functions implicitly, including a move constructor and a move assignment operator. For example, the following class

class S{};

doesn’t have any user-declared special member functions. Therefore, C++ declares all of its six special member functions implicitly. Under certain conditions, implicitly declared special member functions become implicitly defined as well. The implicitly-defined move special member functions move their sub-objects and data members in a member-wise fashion. Thus, a move constructor invokes its sub-objects’ move constructors, recursively. Similarly, a move assignment operator invokes its sub-objects’ move assignment operators, recursively.

What happens to a moved-from object? The state of a moved-from object is unspecified. Therefore, always assume that a moved-from object no longer owns any resources, and that its state is similar to that of an empty (as if default-constructed) object. For example, if you move a string to , after the move operation the state of is identical to that of before the move, whereas is now an empty (though valid) string object.

Designing a Move Constructor

A move constructor looks like this:

C::C(C&& other); //C++11 move constructor

It doesn’t allocate new resources. Instead, it pilfers‘s resources and then sets to its default-constructed state.

Let’s look at a concrete example. Suppose you’re designing a class that represents a memory buffer:

class MemoryPage
size_t size;
char * buf;
explicit MemoryPage(int sz=512):
size(sz), buf(new char [size]) {}
~MemoryPage( delete[] buf;}
//typical C++03 copy ctor and assignment operator
MemoryPage(const MemoryPage&);
MemoryPage& operator=(const MemoryPage&);

A typical move constructor definition would look like this:

MemoryPage(MemoryPage&& other): size(0), buf(nullptr)
// pilfer other’s resource
// reset other

The move constructor is much faster than a copy constructor because it doesn’t allocate memory nor does it copy memory buffers.

Designing a Move Assignment Operator

A move assignment operator has the following signature:

C& C::operator=(C&& other);//C++11 move assignment operator

A move assignment operator is similar to a copy constructor except that before pilfering the source object, it releases any resources that its object may own. The move assignment operator performs four logical steps:

  • Release any resources that currently owns.
  • Pilfer ‘s resource.
  • Set to a default state.
  • Return .

Here’s a definition of ‘s move assignment operator:

MemoryPage& MemoryPage::operator=(MemoryPage&& other)
if (this!=&other)
// release the current object’s resources
delete[] buf;
// pilfer other’s resource
// reset other
return *this;

Overloading Functions

The overload resolution rules of C++11 were modified to support rvalue references. Standard Library functions such as now define two overloaded versions: one that takes for lvalue arguments as before, and a new one that takes a parameter of type for rvalue arguments. The following program populates a vector with objects using two () calls:

#include <vector>
using namespace std;
int main()
vector<MemoryPage> vm;

Both calls resolve as because their arguments are rvalues. moves the resources from the argument into ‘s internal objects using ‘s move constructor. In older versions of C++, the same program would generate copies of the argument since the copy constructor of would be called instead.

As I said earlier, is called when the argument is an lvalue:

#include <vector>
using namespace std;
int main()
vector<MemoryPage> vm;
MemoryPage mp1(1024);//lvalue
vm.push_back(mp); //push_back(const T&)

However, you can enforce the selection of even in this case by casting an lvalue to an rvalue reference using :

//calls push_back(T&&)


Alternatively, use the new standard function for the same purpose:

vm.push_back(std::move(mp));//calls push_back(T&&)

It may seem as if is always the best choice because it eliminates unnecessary copies. However, remember that empties its argument. If you want the argument to retain its state after a call, stick to copy semantics. Generally speaking, don’t rush to throw away the copy constructor and the copy assignment operator. In some cases, the same class could be used in a context that requires pure copy semantics, whereas in other contexts move semantics would be preferable.

In Conclusion

C++11 is a different and better C++. Its rvalue references and move-oriented Standard Library eliminate many unnecessary copy operations, thereby improving performance significantly, with minimal, if any, code changes. The move constructor and the move assignment operator are the vehicles of move operations. It takes a while to internalize the principles of move semantics – and to design classes accordingly. However, the benefits are substantial. I would dare predicting that other programming languages will soon find ways to usher-in move semantics too.

Danny Kalev is a certified system analyst by the Israeli Chamber of System Analysts and software engineer specializing in C++. Kalev has written several C++ textbooks and contributes C++ content regularly on various software developers’ sites. He was a member of the C++ standards committee and has a master’s degree in general linguistics.

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