A shallow copy means that C++ copies each member of the class individually using the assignment operator. When classes are simple (eg. do not contain any dynamically allocated memory), this works very well.

For example, let’s take a look at our Cents class:

class Cents
    int m_nCents;
    Cents(int nCents=0)
        m_nCents = nCents;

When C++ does a shallow copy of this class, it will copy m_nCents using the standard integer assignment operator. Since this is exactly what we’d be doing anyway if we wrote our own copy constructor or overloaded assignment operator, there’s really no reason to write our own version of these functions!

However, when designing classes that handle dynamically allocated memory, memberwise (shallow) copying can get us in a lot of trouble! This is because the standard pointer assignment operator just copies the address of the pointer — it does not allocate any memory or copy the contents being pointed to!


A deep copy duplicates the object or variable being pointed to so that the destination (the object being assigned to) receives it’s own local copy. This way, the destination can do whatever it wants to it’s local copy and the object that was copied from will not be affected. Doing deep copies requires that we write our own copy constructors and overloaded assignment operators.
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