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Practical Guide to STL

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12 Apr 200412 min read 490K   2.2K   117   46
An article on practical learning of STL in the MS development environment.


STL (Standard Template Library) is a good skill for anyone programming C++ in the modern day. I must say that it takes some getting used to, i.e. there is a fairly steep learning curve, and some of the names that are used are not very intuitive (perhaps because all of the good names had been used up). The upside is once learned they will save you headaches down the road. Compared to MFC containers, they are more flexible and powerful.

Listed advantages:

  • Can sort and search easily
  • They are safer and easier to debug
  • You can understand code written by the UNIX crowd.
  • It is another acronym to add to your resume


This guide has been written so that the reader can get a running start at this challenging part of computer science, without having to wade through the endless mass of jargon and stifling exactitude that STL'er have created for their own amusement.

Using the Code

The code here is mainly instructive on the practical ways to use STL.


  • Template - A macro for classes (and structures and data types and functions). Sometimes called a cookie cutter. Also formally known as generic - a template of a class is called a generic class. A template of a function is called, wait for it, a generic function.
  • STL - Standard Template Library, templates written by a bunch of smart people, now used by everyone part of the C++ standard language.
  • Container - A class that holds data. STL examples are vectors, sets, maps, multimaps, and deques.
  • Vector - Your basic array template. It is a container.
  • Iterator - A fancy word for a pointer to an element inside an STL container. It does other stuff too.

Hello World Program

I always wanted to write one and here is my golden 24 karet opportunity: a hello world program. This transfers a char string into a vector of characters and then displays the string one character at a time. A vector is your basic garden variety array-like template. Probably, about half of all STL containers are vectors, so if you grasp this program, you are half way to a complete understanding of STL.

// Program: Vector Demo 1
// Purpose: To demonstrate STL vectors

// #include "stdafx.h" - include if you use pre compiled headers
#include <vector>  // STL vector header. There is no ".h"
#include <iostream>  // for cout
using namespace std;  // Ensure that the namespace is set to std

char* szHW = "Hello World";  
// This is - as we all know - a character array, 
// terminated with a null character

int main(int argc, char* argv[])
  vector <char> vec;  // A vector (STL array) of characters

  // Define an iterator for a vector of characters - this is always 
  // scoped to within the template
  vector <char>::iterator vi;

  // Initialize the character vector, loop through the string, 
  // placing the data in the vector character by character until 
  // the terminating NULL is reached
  char* cptr = szHW;  // Start a pointer on the Hello World string
  while (*cptr != '\0')
  {  vec.push_back(*cptr);  cptr++;  }
  // push_back places the data on the back of the vector 
  // (otherwise known as the end of the vector)

  // Print each character now stored in the STL array to the console
  for (vi=vec.begin(); vi!=vec.end(); vi++)  
  // This is your standard STL for loop - usually "!=" 
  // is used in stead of "<"
  // because "<" is not defined for some containers. begin() 
  // and end() retrieve iterators 
  // (pointers) to the beginning of the vector and to the end of vector
  {  cout << *vi;  }  // Use the indirection operator 
           // (*) to extract the data from the iterator
  cout << endl;  // No more "\n"

  return 0;

push_back is the standard function for putting data into a vector or deque. insert is a similar function and does much the same, and works with all containers, but is more complicated. The end() is actually the end plus one, to allow the loop to operate properly - it actually points to the point just beyond the limits of the data. Just like in a regular loop in which you say for (i=0; i<6; i++) {ar[i] = i;} - ar[6] does not exist, but it is never reached in the loop so it does not matter.

STL Annoyance #1:

One of the first annoyances of STL makes itself known. To initialize it with data is more difficult than is the case in C/C++ arrays. You basically must do it element by element, or first initialize an array and then transfer it. People are working on this I understand.

// Program: Initialization Demo
// Purpose: To demonstrate initialization of STL vectors

#include <cstring>  // same as <string.h>
#include <vector>
using namespace std;

int ar[10] = {  12, 45, 234, 64, 12, 35, 63, 23, 12, 55  };
char* str = "Hello World";

int main(int argc, char* argv[])
  vector <int> vec1(ar, ar+10);
  vector <char> vec2(str, str+strlen(str));
  return 0;

In programming, there are many ways of doing the same task. Another way to fill a vector is to use the more familiar square brackets, like so:

// Program: Vector Demo 2
// Purpose: To demonstrate STL vectors with
// counters and square brackets

#include <cstring>
#include <vector>
#include <iostream>
using namespace std;

char* szHW = "Hello World";
int main(int argc, char* argv[])
  vector <char> vec(strlen(sHW)); 
  // The argument initializes the memory footprint
  int i, k = 0;
  char* cptr = szHW;
  while (*cptr != '\0')
  {  vec[k] = *cptr;  cptr++;  k++;  }
  for (i=0; i<vec.size(); i++)
  {  cout << vec[i];  }
  cout << endl;
  return 0;

This example is cleaner, but allows you less control of the iterator, and has an extra integer counter, and you must explicitly set the memory footprint.


Hand in hand with STL is the concept of Namespaces. STL is defined within the std namespace. There are 3 ways to specify it:

  1. USE that namespace, near the top of all files, but below headers.
    using namespace std;

    This is the simplest and best for simple projects, limits you to the std namespace, anything you add is improperly put in the std namespace (I think you go to heck for doing this).

  2. Specify each and every template before use (like prototyping)
    using std::cout;
    using std::endl;
    using std::flush;
    using std::set;
    using std::inserter;

    This is slightly more tedious, although a good mnemonic for the functions that will be used, and you can interlace other namespaces easily.

  3. EVERY time you use a template from the std namespace, use the std scope specifier.
    typedef std::vector<std::string> VEC_STR;

    This is tedious but the best way if you are mixing and matching lots of namespaces. Some STL zealots will always use this and call anyone evil who does not. Some people will create macros to simplify matters.

In addition, you can put using namespace std within any scope, for example, at the top of a function or within a control loop.

Some Tips

To avoid an annoying error code in debug mode, use the following compiler pragma:

#pragma warning(disable: 4786)

Another gotcha is: you must make sure that the spaces are placed between your angle brackets and the name. This is because >> is the bit shift operator, so:

vector <list<int>> veclis;

will give an error. Instead, write it:

vector <list <int> > veclis;

to avoid compilation errors.

Another Container - The set

This is the explanation lifted from the MS help file of the set: "The template class describes an object that controls a varying-length sequence of elements of type const Key. Each element serves as both a sort key and a value. The sequence is represented in a way that permits lookup, insertion, and removal of an arbitrary element with a number of operations proportional to the logarithm of the number of elements in the sequence (logarithmic time). Moreover, inserting an element invalidates no iterators, and removing an element invalidates only those iterators that point at the removed element."

An alternate, more practical, definition is: A set is a container that contains all unique values. This is useful for cases in which you are required to collect the occurrence of value. It is sorted in an order that is specified at the instantiation of the set. If you need to store data with a key/value pair, then a map is a better choice. A set is organized as a linked list, is faster than a vector on insertion and removal, but slightly slower on search and addition to end.

An example program would be:

// Program: Set Demo
// Purpose: To demonstrate STL sets

#include <string>
#include <set>
#include <iostream>
using namespace std;

int main(int argc, char* argv[])
  set <string> strset;
  set <string>::iterator si;
   // This one overwrites the previous occurrence
  for (si=strset.begin(); si!=strset.end(); si++)  
  {  cout << *si << " ";  }
  cout << endl;
  return 0;

// Output: apple banana cantaloupes grapes orange

If you want to become an STL fanatic, you can also replace the output loop in the program with the following lines.

copy(strset.begin(), strset.end(), ostream_iterator<string>(cout, " "));

While instructive, I find this personally less clear and prone to error. If you see it, now you know what it does.

All the STL Containers

Containers pre-date templates and are computer science concepts that have been incorporated into STL. The following are the seven containers implemented in STL.

  • vector - Your standard safe array. It is expanded in the "front" direction only.
  • deque - Functionally the same as a vector. Internally, it is different. It can be expanded in both the front and back.
  • list - Can only be traversed one step at time. If you are already familiar with the concept of a list, an STL list is doubly linked (contains pointer to both the previous and next value).
  • set - contains unique values that are sorted.
  • map - sorted set of paired values, one of which is the key on which sorts and searches occur, and the value which is retrieved from the container. E.g. instead of ar[43] = "overripe", a map lets you do this ar["banana"] = "overripe". So if you wanted to draw up a bit of information keyed on full name is easily done.
  • multiset - same as a set, but does not necessarily have unique values.
  • multimap - same as a map, but does not necessarily have unique keys.

Note: If you are reading the MFC help then you will also come across the efficiency statement of each container. I.E. (log n * n) insertion time. Unless you are dealing with very large number of values, you should ignore this. If you start to get a noticeable lag or are dealing with time critical stuff then you should learn more about the proper efficiency of various containers.

How to Use a Map with some Class

The map is a template that uses a key to obtain a value.

Another issue is that you will want to use your own classes instead of data types, like int that has been used up to now. To create a class that is "template-ready", you must be ensure that the class contains certain member functions and operators. The basics are:

  • default constructor (empty, usually)
  • copy constructor
  • overload "="

You would overload more operators as required in a specific template, for example, if you plan to have a class that is a key in a map you would have to overload relational operators. But that is another story.

// Program: Map Own Class
// Purpose: To demonstrate a map of classes

#include <string>
#include <iostream>
#include <vector>
#include <map>
using namespace std;

class CStudent
public :
  int nStudentID;
  int nAge;
public :
  // Default Constructor - Empty
  CStudent()  {  }
  // Full constructor
  CStudent(int nSID, int nA)  {  nStudentID=nSID; nAge=nA;  }
  // Copy constructor
  CStudent(const CStudent& ob)  
    {  nStudentID=ob.nStudentID; nAge=ob.nAge;  }
  // Overload =
  void operator = (const CStudent& ob)  
    {  nStudentID=ob.nStudentID; nAge=ob.nAge;  }

int main(int argc, char* argv[])
  map <string, CStudent> mapStudent;

  mapStudent["Joe Lennon"] = CStudent(103547, 22);
  mapStudent["Phil McCartney"] = CStudent(100723, 22);
  mapStudent["Raoul Starr"] = CStudent(107350, 24);
  mapStudent["Gordon Hamilton"] = CStudent(102330, 22);

  // Access via the name
  cout << "The Student number for Joe Lennon is " << 
    (mapStudent["Joe Lennon"].nStudentID) << endl;

  return 0;


If you like to use typedef, this an example:

typedef set <int> SET_INT;
typedef SET_INT::iterator SET_INT_ITER

One convention is to make them upper case with underscores.

ANSI / ISO string

ANSI/ISO strings are commonly used within STL containers. It is your standard string class, widely praised except for its deficiency of no format statement. You must instead use << and the iostream codes (dec, width, etc.) to string together your string.

Use c_str() to retrieve a character pointer, when necessary.


I said that iterators are pointers, but there is more. They look like pointers, act like pointers, but they are actually embedded in which the indirection operator (unary *) and -> have been overloaded to return a value from the container. It is a bad idea to store them for any length of time, as they usually invalid after a value has been added or removed from a container. They are something like handles in this regard. The plain iterator can be altered, so that the container is to be traversed in different ways:

  • iterator - For any container other than the vector, you can only step one at a time in a forward direction through the container. That is you can only use the ++ operator, not the -- or += operator on it. For vector only you can use any of +=, --, -=, ++, and all the comparison operators <, <=, >, >=, ==, !=.
  • reverse_iterator - If you want to step backwards instead of forwards through a non-vector container, replace iterator with reverse_iterator, begin() with rbegin(), and end() with rend(), ++ will then traverse backwards.
  • const_iterator - a forward iterator that returns a const value. Use this if you want to make it clear that this points to a read-only value.
  • const_reverse_iterator - a reverse iterator that returns a const value.

Sorting Order in Sets and Maps

Templates have other parameters besides the type of value. You can also pass callback functions (known as predicates - this is a function of one argument that returns a bool value). For example, say you want a set of strings that are automatically sorting in ascending order. You would simply create a set class in this way:

set <int, greater<int> > set1

greater <int> is another template for a function (generic function) which is used to sort values, as they are placed into the container. If you wanted the set to be sorted in descending order, you would write:

set <int, less<int> > set1

There are many other cased you must pass a predicate as parameter to the STL class, in algorithms, described below.

STL Annoyance #2 - Long Error Messages

The templated names get expanded for the compiler, so when the compiler chokes on something, it spits out extremely long error messages that are difficult to read. I have found no good way around this. The best is to develop the ability to find and focus on the end of the error code where the explanation is located. Another related annoyance: if you double click on the template error, it will take you to the point in the code within the template code, which is also difficult to read. Sometimes, it is best just to carefully re-examine your code, and ignore the error messages completely.


Algorithms are functions that apply to templates. This is where the real power of STL starts to show up. You can learn a few function names that usually apply to most of the template containers. You can sort, search, manipulate, and swap with the greatest of ease. They always contain a range within which the algorithm performs. E.g.: sort(vec.begin()+1, vec.end()-1) sorts everything but the first and last values.

The container itself is not passed to the algorithm, just two iterators from the container that bookend a range. In this way, algorithms are not restricted by containers directly, but by the iterators supported by that specific algorithm. In addition, many times you will also pass a name of a specially prepared function (those afore mentioned predicates) as an argument. You can even pass plain old values.

Example of algorithms in play:

// Program: Test Score
// Purpose: To demonstrate the use of algorithm 
// with respect to a vector of test scores

#include <algorithm>  // If you want to use an 
   // algorithm this is the header used.
#include <numeric>  // (For Accumulate)
#include <vector>
#include <iostream>
using namespace std;

int testscore[] = {67, 56, 24, 78, 99, 87, 56};

// predicate that evaluates a passed test
bool passed_test(int n)
  return (n >= 60);

// predicate that evaluates a failed test
bool failed_test(int n)
  return (n < 60);

int main(int argc, char* argv[])
  int total;
  // Initialize a vector with the data in the testscore array
  vector <int> vecTestScore(testscore, 
     testscore + sizeof(testscore) / sizeof(int));
  vector <int>::iterator vi;

  // Sort and display the vector
  sort(vecTestScore.begin(), vecTestScore.end());
  cout << "Sorted Test Scores:" << endl;
  for (vi=vecTestScore.begin(); vi != vecTestScore.end(); vi++)
  {  cout << *vi << ", ";  }
  cout << endl;

  // Display statistics

  // min_element returns an _iterator_ to the 
  // element that is the minimum value in the range
  // Therefor * operator must be used to extract the value
  vi = min_element(vecTestScore.begin(), vecTestScore.end());
  cout << "The lowest score was " << *vi << "." << endl;

  // Same with max_element
  vi = max_element(vecTestScore.begin(), vecTestScore.end());
  cout << "The highest score was " << *vi << "." << endl;

  // Use a predicate function to determine the number who passed
  cout << count_if(vecTestScore.begin(), vecTestScore.end(), passed_test) << 
    " out of " << vecTestScore.size() << 
    " students passed the test" << endl;

  // and who failed
  cout << count_if(vecTestScore.begin(), 
    vecTestScore.end(), failed_test) << 
    " out of " << vecTestScore.size() << 
    " students failed the test" << endl;

  // Sum the scores
  total = accumulate(vecTestScore.begin(), 
     vecTestScore.end(), 0);
  // Then display the Average
  cout << "Average score was " << 
    (total / (int)(vecTestScore.size())) << endl;

  return 0;

See you later, Allocator

These are used in the initialization stages of a template. They are mysterious behind the scenes type of creatures, and really only of concern if you are doing high level memory optimization, and are best considered to be black boxes. Usually, you never even specify them as they are default parameters that are generally not tinkered with. It is best to know what they are though in case they show up on one of those employment tests.

Derive or Embed Templates

Any way that you use a regular class, you can use an STL class.

It can be embedded:

class CParam
  string name;
  string unit;
  vector <double> vecData;

or used as a base class:

class CParam : public vector <double>
  string name;
  string unit;

Derivation should be used with some caution. It is up to you as to the form that fits your programming style.

Templates within Templates

To create a more complex data structure, you can nest a template within a template. It is best to typedef beforehand on the internal template as you will certainly need to use the inner template again.

// Program: Vector of Vectors Demo
// Purpose: To demonstrate nested STL containers

#include <iostream>
#include <vector>

using namespace std;

typedef vector <int> VEC_INT;

int inp[2][2] = {{1, 1}, {2, 0}};  
  // Regular 2x2 array to place into the template
int main(int argc, char* argv[])
  int i, j;
  vector <VEC_INT> vecvec;
  // if you want to do this in all one step it looks like this
  // vector <vector <int> > vecvec;
  // Fill it in with the array
  VEC_INT v0(inp[0], inp[0]+2);  // passing two pointers 
    // for the range of values to be copied to the vector
  VEC_INT v1(inp[1], inp[1]+2);


  for (i=0; i<2; i++)
    for (j=0; j<2; j++)
      cout << vecvec[i][j] << "  ";
    cout << endl;
  return 0;

// Output:
// 1 1
// 2 0

Although cumbersome to initialize, once completed and filled in, you have a 2 dimensional array that is indefinitely expandable (until memory space runs out). The same can be done for any combination of containers, as the situation requires.


STL is useful, but not without its annoyances. As the Chinese say: if you learn it, you will be like a tiger with the claws of a lion.

Related Links


  • Submitted on March 23, 2004
  • Edited on April 2, 2004


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Comments and Discussions

GeneralRe: Ideal for beginners ! Pin
Kevin McFarlane26-Mar-04 3:18
Kevin McFarlane26-Mar-04 3:18 
GeneralRe: Ideal for beginners ! Pin
Trollslayer30-Mar-04 1:33
mentorTrollslayer30-Mar-04 1:33 
GeneralAbout annoyance #1 Pin
Nemanja Trifunovic25-Mar-04 6:18
Nemanja Trifunovic25-Mar-04 6:18 
GeneralRe: About annoyance #1 Pin
JWood25-Mar-04 6:51
JWood25-Mar-04 6:51 
GeneralAbout annoyance #2 Pin
dog_spawn25-Mar-04 3:04
dog_spawn25-Mar-04 3:04 
GeneralRe: About annoyance #2 Pin
Joaquín M López Muñoz25-Mar-04 11:19
Joaquín M López Muñoz25-Mar-04 11:19 
GeneralAnother namespace option - put it inside the function body Pin
Don Clugston24-Mar-04 20:43
Don Clugston24-Mar-04 20:43 
GeneralGreat tip! Pin
dog_spawn25-Mar-04 2:57
dog_spawn25-Mar-04 2:57 
Great tip, I'll use this Smile | :) 'using' respects scope in MSVC 7.1. No idea if it works in anything else...

I previously just assumed (until I tested it just now) that using could only go outside class/function body.
GeneralRe: Great tip! Pin
Don Clugston30-Mar-04 13:56
Don Clugston30-Mar-04 13:56 
GeneralRe: Another namespace option - put it inside the function body Pin
Anonymous20-Apr-04 0:56
Anonymous20-Apr-04 0:56 

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