I'm implementing some mathematical functions right now for future use in more exciting things and wanted to know if I'm on the right track in my approach, as I don't have much C++ experience.

Here I'm offering my softmax function implementation.

#include <cmath>
#include <iterator>
#include <functional>
#include <numeric>
#include <type_traits>

template <typename It>
void softmax (It beg, It end)
  using VType = typename std::iterator_traits<It>::value_type;

                "Softmax function only applicable for floating types");

  auto max_ele { *std::max_element(beg, end) };

      [&](VType x){ return std::exp(x - max_ele); });

  VType exptot = std::accumulate(beg, end, 0.0);

      std::bind2nd(std::divides<VType>(), exptot));  

Info on softmax

The softmax function is defined as

$$\text{softmax}(\mathbf{x})_{i} = \frac{\exp(x_{i})}{\sum_{j=1}^{n} \exp(x_{j})}$$

As mentioned in a comment, my reasoning for evaluating the softmax after subtracting the maximum of my vector is numerical stability. Consider the case where each element of my iterator is equal to some constant \$\alpha\$. If \$\alpha\$ is large and positive we might overflow or if large and negative we might underflow. Subtracting \$\max _{i} x_{i}\$, we ensure that the largest argument taken by \$\exp\$ is \$0\$ (so no overflow) and that at least one denominator term protects us from underflow leading to division by zero.

Thoughts while writing this

  • Is the static_assert a reasonable thing to check? The other thought I had was to use SFINAE which I don't know too much about. Like

    template <typename Condition>
    using EnableIf =
    template <
      typename It,
                 typename std::iterator_traits<It>::value_type
    void softmax(...)

    What I liked about this approach that if I try to pass an iterator with a non-floating point type somewhere I get a nice immediate error recognition in my Emacs session for no function overload.. but I thought the static_assert might be better because there really is no other overload I have in mind for softmax - passing a non-floating iterator is really just an error.

  • Is there any possible issues / considerations when using the value type of the iterator like I am doing here?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Actually, there's still potential for a 0/0 division, if all inputs are zero. If you'd posted a test suite, a reviewer might have spotted the gap! Did you also miss a test for beg == end? (I don't expect a problem with that, as the division won't happen when you have zero elements, but it may be relevant if you later refactor the code). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 13:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TobySpeight Thanks, yeah that is true, for next time I will add some tests - in this case all inputs being zero is not worth testing for IMHO, as an input of all zeros in this context would indicate far worse problems having already occurred. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 13:28
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The test suite still gives you somewhere to write a comment explaining why such a test is missing - you know more about the calling code than we do right now, but the test suite with such a comment goes a long way to transferring that knowledge. Anyway, glad to be of help! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 13:32

2 Answers 2


First thoughts

The code is very easy to follow, once I'd followed the link to the softmax definition (it may be worth including the Wikipedia link in the function's comment).


This is a destructive operation; it might be desirable to provided a non-destructive option:

template <typename IterIn, typename IterOut = IterIn>
void softmax (IterIn beg, IterIn end, IterOut dest = beg)

If you're feeling experimental, consider using concepts to constrain the iterator types.

Add const where possible

A little help to your readers:

  auto const max_ele { *std::max_element(beg, end) };

  VType const exptot = std::accumulate(beg, end, 0.0);

Bugfix - use the correct accumulate()

By passing the double value 0.0 as the third argument to std::accumulate(), we cause it to infer double for its type. That's not what we want if VType is long double or some user-defined floating type. We should instead use VType explicitly, using one of

  • VType const exptot = std::accumulate<IterIn, VType>(beg, end, 0.0);
  • VType const exptot = std::accumulate(beg, end, VType{});

Prefer the second of these, as C++20 says:

The number and order of deducible template parameters for algorithm declarations are unspecified, except where explicitly stated otherwise. [Note: Consequently, the algorithms may not be called with explicitly-specified template argument lists. — end note]

Consider accumulating as you exponentiate

We can save one pass over the input, at some expense to simplicity, by accumulating as we go:

  VType exptot = 0;

      [&](VType x){ auto ex = std::exp(x - max_ele); exptot += ex; return ex; });
  • \$\begingroup\$ I particularly appreciate the interface change recommendation - I was debating overloading the function with something non-destructive etc etc, completely forgot that this is how some STL algorithms give you the option for destructive or non-destructive. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 13:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Will that first bugfix suggestion really work? I would think not due to std::accumulate having two template parameters. \$\endgroup\$
    – miradulo
    Commented Oct 17, 2017 at 1:57
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Good catch, @Mitch - I should be more careful! Now fixed. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 17, 2017 at 8:31
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ std::accumulate<IterIn, VType> does not work since C++20. [algorithms.requirements]/15 (eel.is/c++draft/algorithms.requirements#15). \$\endgroup\$
    – L. F.
    Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 12:22


You could actually skip looking up the maximum element in the range. This is because it gets cancelled anyways: $$y = {{e^{x - x_{max}}} \over {\Sigma e^{x - x_{max}}}} ={ {e^x \over e^{x_{max}}} \over {{{1} \over {e^{x_{max}}}}\Sigma e^x}} = {{e^x} \over {\Sigma e^x}} $$

Also, currently the results are stored in place, i.e. the original input data will be lost. This might not always be wanted, so maybe accept an iterator to write the results to?

static_assert vs. SFINAE

I personally like the SFINAE approach more in this case, because it's easier to introduce another overload if needed (e.g. for iterators over associative containers) and you get immediate error reporting. That said, if the decision is final that you won't ever need another overload, static_assert works fine.

iterator value_type

Well, if the container is nicely conforming to standard library guidelines, you'll be fine with using std::iterator_traits<It>::value_type. For custom containers, this might not be the case, though - for those cases you could use decltype(*beg) instead.

  • \$\begingroup\$ What's the impact on numeric precision of the transformation in your first section? We're now using much bigger numbers than we were, so I'd think there's an increased risk of overflow, at least. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 10:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TobySpeight: It has the same risk of overflowing as your current code has of getting rounded to 0 because the number are getting too small to represent with the given precision. \$\endgroup\$
    – hoffmale
    Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 10:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just to be clear - it's Eric's current code, not mine! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 10:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TobySpeight: Whoops, I just assumed you were the OP. Sorry ^^ \$\endgroup\$
    – hoffmale
    Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 10:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you very much for the feedback @hoffmale. I apologize for not making this initially clearer in my post, but I added a bit more info (just information, not code changes) to justify why I used the max like so - if I am incorrect in my reasoning though I would be interested. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 13:08

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