C++11 – Why Lambdas Rock

The problem

C++ includes useful generic functions like std::for_each and std::transform, which can be very handy. Unfortunately they can also be quite cumbersome to use, particularly if the functor you would like to apply is unique to the particular function.

#include <algorithm>
#include <vector>

namespace {
  struct f {
    void operator()(int) {
      // do something

void func(std::vector<int>& v) {
  f f;
  std::for_each(v.begin(), v.end(), f);

If you only use f once and in that specific place it seems overkill to be writing a whole class just to do something trivial and one off.

In C++03 you might be tempted to write something like the following, to keep the functor local:

void func2(std::vector<int>& v) {
  struct {
    void operator()(int) {
       // do something
  } f;
  std::for_each(v.begin(), v.end(), f);

however this is not allowed, f cannot be passed to a template function in C++03.

The new solution

C++11 introduces lambdas allow you to write an inline, anonymous functor to replace the struct f. For small simple examples this can be cleaner to read (it keeps everything in one place) and potentially simpler to maintain, for example in the simplest form:

void func3(std::vector<int>& v) {
  std::for_each(v.begin(), v.end(), [](int) { /* do something here*/ });

Lambda functions are just syntactic sugar for anonymous functors.

Basic Lambda Syntax


Let’s see the really basic syntax for lambda.


#include <iostream>

using namespace std;

int main()
    auto func = [] () { cout << "Hello world"; };
    func(); // now call the function

The identifier [ ], called the capture specification, tells the compiler we’re creating a lambda function. You’ll see this (or a variant) at the start of every lambda function.

Next up, like any other function, we need an argument list: (). Where is the return value? Turns out that we don’t need to give one. In C++11, if the compiler can deduce the return value of the lambda function, it will do it rather than force you to include it. In this case, the compiler knows the function returns nothing. Next we have the body, printing out “Hello World”. This line of code doesn’t actually cause anything to print out though–we’re just creating the function here. It’s almost like defining a normal function–it just happens to be inline with the rest of the code.

It’s only on the next line that we call the lambda function: func() — it looks just like calling any other function. By the way, notice how easy this is to do with auto! You don’t need to sweat the ugly syntax of a function pointer.

Variable Capture with Lambdas

Although these kinds of simple uses of lambd are nice, variable capture is the real secret sauce that makes a lambda function great. Let’s imagine that you want to create a small function that finds addresses that contain a specific name. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could write code something like this?

AdressBook global_adress_book;
// read in the name from a user, which we want to search
string name;
cin>> name;
return global_address_book.findMatchingAddresses( 
    // notice that the lambda function uses the the variable 'name'
    [&] (const string& addr) { return addr.find( name ) != string::npos; } 

It turns out that this example is completely legal–and it shows the real value of lambda. We’re able to take a variable declared outside of the lambda (name), and use it inside of the lambda. When findMatchingAddresses calls our lambda function, all the code inside of it executes–and when addr.find is called, it has access to the name that the user passed in. The only thing we needed to do to make it work is tell the compiler we wanted to have variable capture. I did that by putting [&] for the capture specification, rather than []. The empty [] tells the compiler not to capture any variables, whereas the [&] specification tells the compiler to perform variable capture.

Return Values

By default, if your lambda does not have a return statement, it defaults to void. If you have a simple return expression, the compiler will deduce the type of the return value:

[] () { return 1; } // compiler knows this returns an integer
[] () -> int { return 1; } // now we're telling the compiler what we want

How are Lambda Closures Implemented ?

  • [] Capture nothing (or, a scorched earth strategy?)
  • [&] Capture any referenced variable by reference
  • [=] Capture any referenced variable by making a copy
  • [=, &foo] Capture any referenced variable by making a copy, but capture variable foo by reference
  • [bar] Capture bar by making a copy; don’t copy anything else
  • [this] Capture the this pointer of the enclosing class

A Note About Function Pointers

typedef int (*func)();
func f = [] () -> int { return 2; };