Last modified on 7 January 2012, at 10:21

Computer Programming/Type conversion

Type conversionEdit

In computer science, type conversion or typecasting refers to changing an entity of one datatype into another. There are two types of conversion: implicit and explicit. The term for implicit type conversion is coercion. Explicit type conversion in some specific way is known as casting. Explicit type conversion can also be achieved with separately defined conversion routines such as an overloaded object constructor.

Implicit type conversionEdit

Implicit type conversion, also known as coercion, is an automatic type conversion by the compiler. Some languages allow, or even require compilers to provide coercion.

In a mixed type expression, a subtype s will be converted to a supertype t or some subtypes s1, s2, ... will be converted to a supertype t (maybe none of the si is of type t) at runtime so that the program will run correctly. For example:

double  d;
long    l;
int     i;
if (d > i)      d = i;
if (i > l)      l = i;
if (d == l)     d *= 2;

is legal in a C language program. Although d, l and i belong to different datatypes, they will be automatically converted to the same datatype each time a comparison or assignment is executed.

Explicit type conversionEdit

There are several kinds of explicit conversion.

checked 
before the conversion is performed a runtime check is done to see if the destination type can actually hold the source value. If not an error condition is raised.
unchecked 
no check is performed and when the destination type can not hold the source value the result is undefined.
bit pattern 
The data is not interpreted at all and just the raw bit pattern is copied.

Each programming language has its own rules on how types can be converted. In general, both objects and fundamental data types can be converted.

in C/C++Edit

A cast, or explicit type conversion, is special programming instruction which specifies what data type to treat a variable]] as (or an intermediate calculation result) in a given expression.

Casting will ignore "extra" information (but never adds information to the type being casted). The C/C++ cast is either "unchecked" or "bit pattern".

As an example with fundamental data types, a fixed-point float could be cast as an integer, where the data beyond the decimal (or binary) point is ignored. Alternatively, an integer could be cast as a float if, for example, a function call required a floating point type (but, as noted, no information is really added - 1 would become 1.0000000).

Object casting works in a similar way. A subclass can be cast as a parent type, where the "extra" information that makes it a subclass is ignored, and only the parts inherited from the parent are treated. For example, a triangle class derived from a shape class could be cast as a shape.

Two common casting stylesEdit

There are two common casting styles, each outlined below.

C-style castingEdit

This style of casting is used in C and Java. It follows the form:

(type)expression

C++-style castingEdit

Several cast syntaxes are used in C++ (although C-style casting is supported as well). The function-call style follows the form:

type(expression)

This style of casting was adopted to force clarity when using casting. For example, the result of, and intention of, the C style cast

(type)firstVariable + secondVariable

may not be clear, while the same cast using C++-style casting allows more clarity:

type(firstVariable + secondVariable)

or

type(firstVariable) + secondVariable

Later in the evolution of C++, the following more explicit casts were added to the language to clarify the programmer's intent even further:

static_cast<type>(value_to_cast)
dynamic_cast<type>(value_to_cast)
const_cast<type>(value_to_cast)
reinterpret_cast<type>(value_to_cast)

Static casts converts type-compatible values. For instance the following:

double myDouble = 3.0;
int myInt = static_cast<int>(myDouble);

converts the double-precision floating point value myDouble (3.0) to the corresponding integer value (3). Static casts can be dangerous:

YourClass * pYour = GimmeAnObject();
void * pv = pYour;                                // no cast needed.
MyClass * p = static_cast<MyClass *>(pYour);      // MyClass had better be related to YourClass...
p->SomeMethod();                                  // ...or this might blow up in a nasty way.

Static casts on pointers or references do not verify that the pointed-to object is type-compatible to the new type.

A dynamic cast is safer than a static cast in this scenario: it is compiled by the compiler into a call to the C++ runtime library where a check is made to ensure legal casts. This is analogous to the casts in Java.

YourClass * pYour = GimmeAnObject();
void * pv = pYour;                                // no cast needed.
MyClass * p = dynamic_cast<MyClass *>(pYour);     // This will not blow up in the same way
if (p != 0)
    p->SomeMethod();                              // C++ guarantees p points to a MyClass

Dynamic casts on pointers return a null pointer if cast value is type incompatible. Dynamic casts on a reference throw a type exception.

A const cast casts away the constness of an object, returning a non-const reference to the same object. This allows modifications to objects that normally would be treated read-only by the compiler:

const MyClass * cantTouchThis = CreateConstObject();
cantTouchThis->constant_value = 41;                        // compile-time error.
const_cast<MyClass *>(cantTouchThis)->constant_value = 42; // compiles, but who knows what happens at runtime?

The reinterpret cast is the most notorious one in C++. It allows the reinterpretation of the raw bit pattern of the value to be cast, disregarding the type system completely. For example, it allows the casting of an arbitrary integer to a pointer to an object:

MyClass * pclass = reinterpret_cast<MyClass *>(0xDEADBEEF); // I know what I am doing
pclass->some_field = 3.14159;                               // very unsafe indeed

Opinions were divided when these verbose casts were introduced into the language. Detractor]]s argued the new syntax was 'ugly', while supporters claimed that since casting is such an 'ugly' activity to begin with, it should be highlighted with an 'ugly' syntax to alert programmers. Another perceived advantage is the ease with which verbose casts can be located in source code using programming tools like grep.

External ResourcesEdit