dictionary – insert vs emplace vs operator[] in c++ map

Say you’re adding Foo objects to a set<Foo> object and Foo(int) is a constructor. Then the main difference is that:

  • emplace has has prototype set::emplace(Args&&... my_args). The call emplace(0) forwards the given arguments (ie 0) to a Foo constructor somewhere in the definition of the set::emplace method (eg there is a call like Foo(0) somewhere in that method’s code).

  • insert has has prototype set::insert(Foo && value). Just like any other function with such a prototype, the call insert(0) creates the Foo object Foo(0) (because 0 has type int but insert needs an object of type Foo as input) that is used for the method’s value argument. This object is then used as an argument to a Foo constructor somewhere in the definition of the set::insert method.

The code below shows the “big picture idea” of how insert() differs from emplace() By tracking every constructor call and tell you info about them as they happen. Comparing this output to the code will make the difference between insert() and emplace() clear.

The code is easy but a little long so to save time, read the summary and take a quick look through the code (this should be enough to understand the code and its output).

Summary of code:

  • The Foo class: uses static int foo_counter to keep track of the total number of Foo Objects that have been constructed (or moved, copied, etc.) thus far. Each Foo object stores the (unique) value of foo_counter at the time of its creation in its local variable val. The unique object with val == 8 is called “foo8” or “Foo 8″ (ditto for 1, 2, etc.). Every constructor/destructor call prints info about the call (eg calling Foo(11) will output “Foo(int) with val: 11“).
  • main()‘s body: insert()s and emplace()s Foo objects into an unordered_map<Foo,int> object umap with calls such as “umap.emplace(Foo(11), 0);” and “umap.insert({12, 0})(0 is just some arbitrary int, it can be any value). Every line of code is printed to cout before it is executed.
#include <iostream>
#include <unordered_map>
#include <utility>
using namespace std;

//Foo simply outputs what constructor is called with what value.
struct Foo {
  static int foo_counter; //Track how many Foo objects have been created.
  int val; //This Foo object was the val-th Foo object to be created.
  Foo() { val = foo_counter++;
    cout << "Foo() with val:                " << val << 'n';
  Foo(int value) : val(value) { foo_counter++;
    cout << "Foo(int) with val:             " << val << 'n';
  Foo(Foo& f2) { val = foo_counter++;
    cout << "Foo(Foo &) with val:           " << val
         << " tcreated from:      t" << f2.val << 'n';
  Foo(const Foo& f2) { val = foo_counter++;
    cout << "Foo(const Foo &) with val:     " << val
         << " tcreated from:      t" << f2.val << 'n';
  Foo(Foo&& f2) { val = foo_counter++;
    cout << "Foo(Foo&&) moving:             " << f2.val
         << " tand changing it to:t" << val << 'n';
  ~Foo() { cout << "~Foo() destroying:             " << val << 'n'; }
  Foo& operator=(const Foo& rhs) {
    cout << "Foo& operator=(const Foo& rhs) with rhs.val: " << rhs.val
         << " tcalled with lhs.val = t" << val
         << " tChanging lhs.val to: t" << rhs.val << 'n';
    val = rhs.val; return *this;
  bool operator==(const Foo &rhs) const { return val == rhs.val; }
  bool operator<(const Foo &rhs)  const { return val <  rhs.val; }
int Foo::foo_counter = 0;

//Create a hash function for Foo in order to use Foo with unordered_map
template<> struct std::hash<Foo> {
   size_t operator()(const Foo &f) const { return hash<int>{}(f.val); }

int main() {
    unordered_map<Foo, int> umap;
    int d; //Some int that will be umap's value. It is not important.

    //Print the statement to be executed and then execute it.

    cout << "nFoo foo0, foo1, foo2, foo3;n";
    Foo foo0, foo1, foo2, foo3;

    cout << "numap.insert(pair<Foo, int>(foo0, d))n";
    umap.insert(pair<Foo, int>(foo0, d));
    //Side note: equivalent to: umap.insert(make_pair(foo0, d));

    cout << "numap.insert(move(pair<Foo, int>(foo1, d)))n";
    umap.insert(move(pair<Foo, int>(foo1, d)));
    //Side note: equiv. to: umap.insert(make_pair(foo1, d));
    cout << "npair<Foo, int> pair(foo2, d)n";
    pair<Foo, int> pair(foo2, d);

    cout << "numap.insert(pair)n";

    cout << "numap.emplace(foo3, d)n";
    umap.emplace(foo3, d);
    cout << "numap.emplace(11, d)n";
    umap.emplace(11, d);

    cout << "numap.insert({12, d})n";
    umap.insert({12, d});

Foo foo0, foo1, foo2, foo3;
Foo() with val:                0
Foo() with val:                1
Foo() with val:                2
Foo() with val:                3

umap.insert(pair<Foo, int>(foo0, d))
Foo(Foo &) with val:           4    created from:       0
Foo(Foo&&) moving:             4    and changing it to: 5
~Foo() destroying:             4

umap.insert(move(pair<Foo, int>(foo1, d)))
Foo(Foo &) with val:           6    created from:       1
Foo(Foo&&) moving:             6    and changing it to: 7
~Foo() destroying:             6

pair<Foo, int> pair(foo2, d)
Foo(Foo &) with val:           8    created from:       2

Foo(const Foo &) with val:     9    created from:       8

umap.emplace(foo3, d)
Foo(Foo &) with val:           10   created from:       3

umap.emplace(11, d)
Foo(int) with val:             11

umap.insert({12, d})
Foo(int) with val:             12
Foo(const Foo &) with val:     13   created from:       12
~Foo() destroying:             12

~Foo() destroying:             8
~Foo() destroying:             3
~Foo() destroying:             2
~Foo() destroying:             1
~Foo() destroying:             0
~Foo() destroying:             13
~Foo() destroying:             11
~Foo() destroying:             5
~Foo() destroying:             10
~Foo() destroying:             7
~Foo() destroying:             9

The main “big picture” difference between insert() and emplace() is:

Whereas using insert() almost always requires the construction or pre-existence of some Foo object in main()‘s scope (followed by a copy or move), if using emplace() then any call to a Foo The constructor is done entirely internally in the unordered_map (ie inside the scope of the emplace() method’s definition). The argument(s) for the key that you pass to emplace() are directly forwarded to a Foo constructor call within unordered_map::emplace()‘s definition (optional additional details: where this newly constructed object is immediately incorporated into one of unordered_map‘s member variables so that no destructor is called when execution leaves emplace() and no move or copy constructors are called).

The reason for the “almost” in “almost always” above is because one overloads of insert() is actually equivalent to emplace(). As described in this cppreference.com page, the overload template<class P> pair<iterator, bool> insert(P&& value) (which is overload (2) of insert() on that page) is equivalent to emplace(forward<P>(value)). Since we’re interested in differences, I’m going to ignore this overload and not mention this particular technicality again.

I will now go through the code and its output in detail.

  1. First, notice that an unordered_map always internally stores Foo objects (and not, say, Foo *s) as keys, which are all destroyed when the unordered_map is destroyed. Here, the unordered_map‘s internal keys were foos 13, 11, 5, 10, 7, and 9.
  • So technically, our unordered_map actually stores pair<const Foo, int> objects, which in turn store the Foo objects. But to understand the “big picture idea” of how emplace() differs from insert() (see highlighted box above), it’s okay to temporarily imagine this pair object as being entirely passive. Once you understand this “big picture idea,” it’s important to then back up and understand how the use of this intermediary pair object by unordered_map subtle, but important, technical introduces.
  1. insert()ing each of foo0, foo1and foo2 required 2 calls to one of Foo‘s copy/move constructors and 2 calls to Foo‘s destructor (as I now describe):

    • insert()ing each of foo0 and foo1 created a temporary object (foo4 and foo6, respectively) whose destructor was then immediately called after the insertion completed. In addition, the unordered_map‘s internal Foos (which are foos 5 and 7) also had their destructors called when the unordered_map was destroyed once execution reached the end of main().
    • To insert() foo2we instead first explicitly created a non-temporary pair object (called pair), which is called Foo‘s copy constructor on foo2 (creating foo8 as an internal member of pair). We then insert()ed this pair, which resulted in unordered_map calling the copy constructor again (on foo8) to create its own internal copy (foo9). As with foos 0 and 1, the end result was two destructor calls for this insert()ion with the only difference being that foo8‘s destructor was called only when we reached the end of main() rather than being called immediately after insert() finished.
  2. emplace()ing foo3 resulted in only 1 copy/move constructor call (creating foo10 internally in the unordered_map ) and only 1 call to Foo‘s destructor. The reason why calling umap.emplace(foo3, d) called Foo‘s non-const copy constructor is the following: Since we’re using emplace()the compiler knows that foo3 (a non-const Foo object) is meant to be an argument to some Foo constructor. In this case, the most fitting Foo constructor is the non-const copy constructor Foo(Foo& f2). This is why umap.emplace(foo3, d) called a copy constructor while umap.emplace(11, d) did not.

  3. For foo11we directly passed the integer 11 to emplace(11, d) so that unordered_map would call the Foo(int) constructor while execution is within its emplace() method. Unlike in (2) and (3), we didn’t even need some pre-exiting foo object to do this. Importantly, notice that only 1 call to a Foo constructor occurred (which created foo11).

  4. We then directly passed the integer 12 to insert({12, d}). Unlike with emplace(11, d) (which recalled in only 1 call to a Foo constructor), this call to insert({12, d}) resulted in two calls to Foo‘s constructor (creating foo12 and foo13).

Where to go from here?

a. Play around with the above source code and study documentation for insert() (eg here) and emplace() (eg here) that’s found online. If you’re using an IDE such as eclipse or NetBeans then you can easily get your IDE to tell you which overload of insert() or emplace() is being called (in eclipse, just keep your mouse’s cursor steady over the function call for a second). Here’s some more code to try out:

cout << "numap.insert({{" << Foo::foo_counter << ", d}})n";
umap.insert({{Foo::foo_counter, d}});
//but umap.emplace({{Foo::foo_counter, d}}); results in a compile error!

cout << "numap.insert(pair<const Foo, int>({" << Foo::foo_counter << ", d}))n";
umap.insert(pair<const Foo, int>({Foo::foo_counter, d}));
//The above uses Foo(int) and then Foo(const Foo &), as expected. but the
// below call uses Foo(int) and the move constructor Foo(Foo&&). 
//Do you see why?
cout << "numap.insert(pair<Foo, int>({" << Foo::foo_counter << ", d}))n";
umap.insert(pair<Foo, int>({Foo::foo_counter, d}));
//Not only that, but even more interesting is how the call below uses all 
// three of Foo(int) and the Foo(Foo&&) move and Foo(const Foo &) copy 
// constructors, despite the below call's only difference from the call above 
// being the additional { }.
cout << "numap.insert({pair<Foo, int>({" << Foo::foo_counter << ", d})})n";
umap.insert({pair<Foo, int>({Foo::foo_counter, d})});

//Pay close attention to the subtle difference in the effects of the next 
// two calls.
int cur_foo_counter = Foo::foo_counter;
cout << "numap.insert({{cur_foo_counter, d}, {cur_foo_counter+1, d}}) where " 
  << "cur_foo_counter = " << cur_foo_counter << "n";
umap.insert({{cur_foo_counter, d}, {cur_foo_counter+1, d}});

cout << "numap.insert({{Foo::foo_counter, d}, {Foo::foo_counter+1, d}}) where "
  << "Foo::foo_counter = " << Foo::foo_counter << "n";
umap.insert({{Foo::foo_counter, d}, {Foo::foo_counter+1, d}});

//umap.insert(initializer_list<pair<Foo, int>>({{Foo::foo_counter, d}}));
//The call below works fine, but the commented out line above gives a 
// compiler error. It's instructive to find out why. The two calls
// differ by a "const".
cout << "numap.insert(initializer_list<pair<const Foo, int>>({{" << Foo::foo_counter << ", d}}))n";
umap.insert(initializer_list<pair<const Foo, int>>({{Foo::foo_counter, d}}));

You’ll soon see that which overloads of the pair constructor (see reference) ends up being used by unordered_map can have an important effect on how many objects are copied, moved, created, and/or destroyed as well as when this all occurs.

b. See what happens when you use some other container class (eg set or unordered_multiset) instead of unordered_map.

c. Now use a Goo object (just a renamed copy of Foo) instead of an int as the range type in an unordered_map (ie use unordered_map<Foo, Goo> instead of unordered_map<Foo, int>) and see how many and which Goo constructors are called. (Spoiler: there is an effect but it isn’t very dramatic.)

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