Operator overloading is a good thing (TM)

Brains are weird things. I used to be a private maths tutor, and I always found it amazing how a little change in notation could sometimes manage to completely confuse a student. Notation itself seems to me to be a major impediment for the majority of people to like or be good at maths. I had fun sometimes replacing the x in an equation with a drawing of an apple to try and get the point across that the actual name (or shape!) of a variable didn’t matter, that it was just standing in for something else.

Programmers are more often than not mathematically inclined, and yet a similar phenomenon seems to occur with the “shape” of certain functions, i.e. operators. For reasons that make us much sense to me as x confusing maths students, the fact that a function has a name that has non-alphanumeric characters in them make them particularly weird. So weird that programmers shouldn’t be allowed to defined functions with those names, only the language designers. That’s always a problem for me – languages that don’t give you the same power as the designers are Blub as far as I’m concerned. But every now and again I see a blost post touting the advantages of some language or other, listing the lack of operator overloading as a bonus.

I don’t even understand the common arguments against operator overloading. One is that somehow “a + b” is now confusing, because it’s not clear what the code does. How is that different from having to read the documentation/implementation of “a.add(b)”? If it’s C++ and “a + b” shows up, anyone who doesn’t read it as “a.operator+(b)” or “operator+(a, b)” with built-in implementations of operator+ for integers and floating point numbers needs to brush up on their C++. And then there’s the fact that that particular operator is overloaded anyway, even in C – the compiler emits different instructions for floats and integers, and its behaviour even depends on the signedness of ints.

Then there’s the complaint that one could make operator+ do something stupid like subtract. Because, you know, this is totally impossible:

int add(int i, int j) {
    return i - j;}

Some would say that operator overloading is limited in applicability since only numerical objects and matrices really need them. But used with care, it might just make sense:

auto path = "foo" / "bar" / "baz";

Or in the C++ ranges by Eric Niebler:

using namespace ranges;
int sum = accumulate(view::ints(1)
                   | view::transform([](int i){return i*i;})
                   | view::take(10), 0);

I’d say both of those previous examples are not only readable, but more readable due to use of operator overloading. As I’ve learned however, readability is in the eye of the beholder.

All in all, it confuses me when I hear/read that lacking operator overloading makes a language simpler. It’s just allowing functions to have “special” names and special syntax to call them (or in Haskell, not even that). Why would the names of functions make code so hard to read for some people? I guess you’d have to ask my old maths students.

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