# Returning several values from a function

There are many situations where it is useful to return several values from a function: for example, if you want to input an item and return the price and number in stock, this functionality could be useful. There are many ways to do this in C++, and most involve the STL. However, if you wish to avoid the STL for some reason, there are still several ways to do this, including structs/classes and arrays.

# Using std::tuple

The type std::tuple can bundle any number of values, potentially including values of different types, into a single return object:

std::tuple<int, int, int, int> foo(int a, int b) { // or auto (C++14)
   return std::make_tuple(a + b, a - b, a * b, a / b);
}

In C++17, a braced initializer list can be used:

std::tuple<int, int, int, int> foo(int a, int b)    {
    return {a + b, a - b, a * b, a / b};
}

Retrieving values from the returned tuple can be cumbersome, requiring the use of the std::get template function:

auto mrvs = foo(5, 12);
auto add = std::get<0>(mrvs);
auto sub = std::get<1>(mrvs);
auto mul = std::get<2>(mrvs);
auto div = std::get<3>(mrvs);

If the types can be declared before the function returns, then std::tie can be employed to unpack a tuple into existing variables:

int add, sub, mul, div;
std::tie(add, sub, mul, div) = foo(5, 12);

If one of the returned values is not needed, std::ignore can be used:

std::tie(add, sub, std::ignore, div) = foo(5, 12);

Structured bindings can be used to avoid std::tie:

auto [add, sub, mul, div] = foo(5,12);

If you want to return a tuple of lvalue references instead of a tuple of values, use std::tie in place of std::make_tuple.

std::tuple<int&, int&> minmax( int& a, int& b ) {
  if (b<a)
    return std::tie(b,a);
  else
    return std::tie(a,b);
}

which permits

void increase_least(int& a, int& b) {
  std::get<0>(minmax(a,b))++;
}

In some rare cases you'll use std::forward_as_tuple instead of std::tie; be careful if you do so, as temporaries may not last long enough to be consumed.

# Structured Bindings

C++17 introduces structured bindings, which makes it even easier to deal with multiple return types, as you do not need to rely upon std::tie() or do any manual tuple unpacking:

std::map<std::string, int> m;

// insert an element into the map and check if insertion succeeded
auto [iterator, success] = m.insert({"Hello", 42});

if (success) {
    // your code goes here
}

// iterate over all elements without having to use the cryptic 'first' and 'second' names
for (auto const& [key, value] : m) {
    std::cout << "The value for " << key << " is " << value << '\n';
}

Structured bindings can be used by default with std::pair, std::tuple, and any type whose non-static data members are all either public direct members or members of an unambiguous base class:

struct A { int x; };
struct B : A { int y; };
B foo();

// with structured bindings
const auto [x, y] = foo();

// equivalent code without structured bindings
const auto result = foo();
auto& x = result.x;
auto& y = result.y;

If you make your type "tuple-like" it will also automatically work with your type. A tuple-like is a type with appropriate tuple_size, tuple_element and get written:

namespace my_ns {
    struct my_type {
        int x;
        double d;
        std::string s;
    };
    struct my_type_view {
        my_type* ptr;
    };
}

namespace std {
    template<>
    struct tuple_size<my_ns::my_type_view> : std::integral_constant<std::size_t, 3>
    {};

    template<> struct tuple_element<my_ns::my_type_view, 0>{ using type = int; };
    template<> struct tuple_element<my_ns::my_type_view, 1>{ using type = double; };
    template<> struct tuple_element<my_ns::my_type_view, 2>{ using type = std::string; };
}

namespace my_ns {
    template<std::size_t I>
    decltype(auto) get(my_type_view const& v) {
        if constexpr (I == 0)
            return v.ptr->x;
        else if constexpr (I == 1)
            return v.ptr->d;
        else if constexpr (I == 2)
            return v.ptr->s;
        static_assert(I < 3, "Only 3 elements");
    }
}

now this works:

my_ns::my_type t{1, 3.14, "hello world"};

my_ns::my_type_view foo() {
    return {&t};
}

int main() {
    auto[x, d, s] = foo();
    std::cout << x << ',' << d << ',' << s << '\n';
}

# Using struct

A struct can be used to bundle multiple return values:

struct foo_return_type {
    int add;
    int sub;
    int mul;
    int div;
};

foo_return_type foo(int a, int b) {
    return {a + b, a - b, a * b, a / b};
}

auto calc = foo(5, 12);

Instead of assignment to individual fields, a constructor can be used to simplify the constructing of returned values:

struct foo_return_type {
    int add;
    int sub;
    int mul;
    int div;
    foo_return_type(int add, int sub, int mul, int div)
    : add(add), sub(sub), mul(mul), div(div) {}
};

foo_return_type foo(int a, int b) {
     return foo_return_type(a + b, a - b, a * b, a / b);
}

foo_return_type calc = foo(5, 12);

The individual results returned by the function foo() can be retrieved by accessing the member variables of the struct calc:

std::cout << calc.add << ' ' << calc.sub << ' ' << calc.mul << ' ' << calc.div << '\n';

Output:

17 -7 60 0

Note: When using a struct, the returned values are grouped together in a single object and accessible using meaningful names. This also helps to reduce the number of extraneous variables created in the scope of the returned values.

In order to unpack a struct returned from a function, structured bindings can be used. This places the out-parameters on an even footing with the in-parameters:

int a=5, b=12;
auto[add, sub, mul, div] = foo(a, b);
std::cout << add << ' ' << sub << ' ' << mul << ' ' << div << '\n';

The output of this code is identical to that above. The struct is still used to return the values from the function. This permits you do deal with the fields individually.

# Using Output Parameters

Parameters can be used for returning one or more values; those parameters are required to be non-const pointers or references.

References:

void calculate(int a, int b, int& c, int& d, int& e, int& f) {
    c = a + b;
    d = a - b;
    e = a * b;
    f = a / b;
}

Pointers:

void calculate(int a, int b, int* c, int* d, int* e, int* f) {
    *c = a + b;
    *d = a - b;
    *e = a * b;
    *f = a / b;
}

Some libraries or frameworks use an empty 'OUT' #define to make it abundantly obvious which parameters are output parameters in the function signature. This has no functional impact, and will be compiled out, but makes the function signature a bit clearer;

#define OUT

void calculate(int a, int b, OUT int& c) {
    c = a + b;
}

# Using a Function Object Consumer

We can provide a consumer that will be called with the multiple relevant values:

template <class F>
void foo(int a, int b, F consumer) {
    consumer(a + b, a - b, a * b, a / b);
}

// use is simple... ignoring some results is possible as well
foo(5, 12, [](int sum, int , int , int ){
    std::cout << "sum is " << sum << '\n';
});

This is known as "continuation passing style".

You can adapt a function returning a tuple into a continuation passing style function via:

template<class Tuple>
struct continuation {
  Tuple t;
  template<class F>
  decltype(auto) operator->*(F&& f)&&{
    return std::apply( std::forward<F>(f), std::move(t) );
  }
};
std::tuple<int,int,int,int> foo(int a, int b);

continuation(foo(5,12))->*[](int sum, auto&&...) {
  std::cout << "sum is " << sum << '\n';
};

with more complex versions being writable in C++14 or C++11.

# Using std::pair

The struct template std::pair can bundle together exactly two return values, of any two types:

#include <utility>
std::pair<int, int> foo(int a, int b) {
    return std::make_pair(a+b, a-b);
}

With C++11 or later, an initializer list can be used instead of std::make_pair:

#include <utility>
std::pair<int, int> foo(int a, int b) {
    return {a+b, a-b};
}

The individual values of the returned std::pair can be retrieved by using the pair's first and second member objects:

std::pair<int, int> mrvs = foo(5, 12);
std::cout << mrvs.first + mrvs.second << std::endl;

Output:

10

# Using std::array

The container std::array can bundle together a fixed number of return values. This number has to be known at compile-time and all return values have to be of the same type:

std::array<int, 4> bar(int a, int b) {
    return { a + b, a - b, a * b, a / b };
}

This replaces c style arrays of the form int bar[4]. The advantage being that various c++ std functions can now be used on it. It also provides useful member functions like at which is a safe member access function with bound checking, and size which allows you to return the size of the array without calculation.

# Using Output Iterator

Several values of the same type can be returned by passing an output iterator to the function. This is particularly common for generic functions (like the algorithms of the standard library).

Example:

template<typename Incrementable, typename OutputIterator>
void generate_sequence(Incrementable from, Incrementable to, OutputIterator output) {
    for (Incrementable k = from; k != to; ++k)
        *output++ = k;
}

Example usage:

std::vector<int> digits;
generate_sequence(0, 10, std::back_inserter(digits));
// digits now contains {0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9}

# Using std::vector

A std::vector can be useful for returning a dynamic number of variables of the same type. The following example uses int as data type, but a std::vector can hold any type that is trivially copyable:

#include <vector>
#include <iostream>

// the following function returns all integers between and including 'a' and 'b' in a vector
// (the function can return up to std::vector::max_size elements with the vector, given that
// the system's main memory can hold that many items)
std::vector<int> fillVectorFrom(int a, int b) {
    std::vector<int> temp;
    for (int i = a; i <= b; i++) {
        temp.push_back(i);
    }
    return temp;
}

int main() {    
    // assigns the filled vector created inside the function to the new vector 'v'
    std::vector<int> v = fillVectorFrom(1, 10);

    // prints "1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 "
    for (int i = 0; i < v.size(); i++) {
        std::cout << v[i] << " ";
    }
    std::cout << std::endl;
    return 0;
}