Summary
Template metaprogramming (TMP) is a metaprogramming technique in which templates are used by a compiler to generate temporary source code, which is merged by the compiler with the rest of the source code and then compiled. The output of these templates can include compile-time constants, data structures, and complete functions. The use of templates can be thought of as compile-time polymorphism. The technique is used by a number of languages, the best-known being C++, but also Curl, D, Nim, and XL. Template metaprogramming was, in a sense, discovered accidentally. Some other languages support similar, if not more powerful, compile-time facilities (such as Lisp macros), but those are outside the scope of this article. The use of templates as a metaprogramming technique requires two distinct operations: a template must be defined, and a defined template must be instantiated. The generic form of the generated source code is described in the template definition, and when the template is instantiated, the generic form in the template is used to generate a specific set of source code. Template metaprogramming is Turing-complete, meaning that any computation expressible by a computer program can be computed, in some form, by a template metaprogram. Templates are different from macros. A macro is a piece of code that executes at compile time and either performs textual manipulation of code to-be compiled (e.g. C++ macros) or manipulates the abstract syntax tree being produced by the compiler (e.g. Rust or Lisp macros). Textual macros are notably more independent of the syntax of the language being manipulated, as they merely change the in-memory text of the source code right before compilation. Template metaprograms have no mutable variables— that is, no variable can change value once it has been initialized, therefore template metaprogramming can be seen as a form of functional programming. In fact many template implementations implement flow control only through recursion, as seen in the example below.
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