Lvalues and Rvalues

On page 165 of The C++ Programming Language 4th Edition, Stroustrup explains the meaning of the term lvalue:

lvalue orignally meant an expression that can be on the left-hand side of an assignment. However, this is obviously not true of a const object. Note also, that object in this context refers to the low-level notion of “something in memory” and not to the notion of class object.

On page 166, he introduces the term rvalue and elaborates on the differences between them:

An object is a contiguous region of storage of storage; an lvalue is an expression that refers to an object….To complement the notion of an lvalue, we have the notion of an rvalue such as a temporary (e.g. the value returned from a function).

There are two properties that matter for an object when it comes to addressing, copying and moving:

  • Has Identity: The program has the name of, address of, or reference to the object so that it is possible to determine if two objects are the same, whether the value has changed, etc.
  • Movable: the object may be moved from (i.e. we allowed to move its value to another location and leave the object in a valid but unspecified state, rather than copying).

It turns out that three of the four possibilities of these two properites are needed to precisely describe the C++ language rules (we have no need for object that do not have identity and cannot be moved). Using “m for movable” and “i for has identity”, we can represent this classification of expressions graphically:

value categories

Figure: value categories

So, a classical lvalue is something that has identity and cannot be moved (because we could examine it after the move), and a classical rvalue is anything that we are allowed to move from. The other alternatives are prvalue (“pure rvalue”), glvalue (“generalized lvalue”), and xvalue (“x” for “extraordinary”). For example:
void f(vector<stinrg>& vs)
     vector<string>& v2 = std::move(vs);

Here std::move(vs) is an xvalue: it clearly has idenity (we can refer to it as vs), but we have explicitly given permission for it to be moved from by calling std::move().

For praictical programming, thinking in terms of rvalue and lvalue is usually sufficient. Note that every expression is either an lvalue or an rvalue, but not both.

Here are links that discuss value categories.