The constexpr specifier for object definitions

Alex Gilding (Perforce UK)

Jens Gustedt (INRIA France)


org: ISO/IEC JCT1/SC22/WG14 document: N2977
… WG21 C and C++ liaison P2576
target: IS 9899:2023 version: 4
date: 2022-04-19 license: CC BY


C++ has supported translation-time definition of first-class named constants for over ten years, while C, for all types besides int, is still limited to using second-class language features, in particular macros, during translation. This puts C at a significant disadvantage in terms of being able to share the same features between runtime and translation, and in being able to assert truths about the program during translation rather than waiting to assert in a runtime debug build.

Summary of Changes


C requires that objects with static storage duration are only initialized with constant expressions. The rules for which kinds of expression may appear as constant expressions are quite restrictive and mostly limit users to using macro names for abstraction of values or operations. Users are also limited to testing their assertions about value behaviour at runtime because static_assert is similarly limited in the kinds of expressions it can evaluate during translation. We propose to add a new (old) specifier to C, constexpr, as introduced to C++ in C++11. We propose to add this specifier to objects, and to intentionally keep the functionality minimal to avoid undue burden on lightweight implementations.

A previous revision also had this feature for functions, but WG14 was not in favor of this for inclusion to C23.


Because C limits initialization of objects with static storage duration to constant expressions, it can be difficult to create clean abstractions for complicated value generation. Users are forced to use macros, which do not allow for the creation of temporary values and require a different coding style. Such macros - especially if they would use temporaries, but have to use repetition instead because of the constraints of constant expressions - may also be unsuitable for use at runtime because they cannot guarantee clear evaluation of side effects. Macros for use in initializers cannot have their address taken or be used by linkage and are truly second-class language citizens.

The same restriction applies to static_assert: a user cannot prove properties about any expression involving a function call at compile-time, instead having to defer to runtime assertions.

C does provide enumerations which are marginally more useful than macros for defining constant values, but their uses are limited and they do not abstract very much; in practice they are only superior in the sense that they have a concrete type and survive preprocessing. Enumerations are not really intended to be used in this way.

In C++, both objects and functions may be declared as constexpr, allowing them to be used in all constant-expression contexts. This makes function calls available for static initialization and for static assertion-based testing.

The subset of headers which are able to be common between C and C++ is also increased by adding this feature and strictly subsetting it from the C++ feature. Large objects can be initialized and their values and generators asserted against during translation by both languages rather than forcing a user to switch to C++ solely in order to get such assertions.


We propose adding the new keyword constexpr to the language and making it available as a storage-class specifier for objects.

A scalar object declared with the constexpr storage-class specifier is a constant. It must be fully and explicitly initialized according to the static initialization rules. It still has linkage appropriate to its declaration and it exist at runtime to have its address taken; it simply cannot be modified at runtime in any way, i.e. the compiler can use its knowledge of the object’s fixed value in any other constant expression.

Additionally, the constant expression that is used for the initializer of such a constant is checked at compile time. Consider a C17 static const object:

static size_t const bignum = 0x100000000;

Here, the initializer may or may not fit into size_t. Currently, a translator is not forced to issue a diagnostic for that situation. In contrast to that with our proposal

constexpr size_t bignum = 0x100000000;

would violate a constraint on implementations where size_t has a width of 32 or less.


There are some restrictions on the type of an object that can be declared with constexpr storage duration. There is a limited number of constructs that are not allowed:

pointer types:
allowing these to use non-trival addresses would delay the deduction of the concrete value from translation to link-time. For most of the use cases, such a feature can already be coded by using a static and const qualified pointer object, we don’t need constexpr for that. Therefore we only allow pointer types if the initializer value is null.
variably modified types:
these can only occur if the declaration of an array size is not a constant expression. Since we want the feature to be completely determined at translation-time, constexpr VLA and derived types are non-sensical, here.
atomic types:
because objects that are declared with this may temporarily need access (or maybe even modify) an lvalue and impose sequentially consistent synchronization where only a translation-time value should be used and no lvalue should be accessed.
It would not be clear what the sematics of a volatile constexpr object would be, for example if it could possibly change by means that are not under the control of the programmer.
Similarly for restrict. The only pointer types that are allowed are null pointers and for them, restrict is useless.

Generally, it does not make sense to use any of the currently provided standard qualifiers on a constexpr object. For convenience we only allow const qualification, but which is redundant.

Other qualifiers may be introduced at a later time that might hold more meaning for these objects.

Aggregate or union types

In a previous version of this paper we also proposed relaxing the constant-expression rules to allow access to aggregate members when the object being accessed is declared as a constexpr object and (in the case of arrays) the element index is an integer constant expression. WG14 was not in favor of the proposed text.

Structure or union types

Nevertheless we observe that the member access operator . is not explicitly excluded from the admissible syntax of constant expressions (see 6.6 for a constraining list of exceptions). Removing it from there might impact implementations that already allow structure or union types for constant expressions as an extension, for example when allowing const-qualified objects of static storage duration.

Thus we propose to maintain the status quo and to allow the . operator within constant expressions of all kinds. By the defaults that are already in place, a member of a constexpr structure or union inherits all properties from the structure or union. With the definitions that we propose the name of the member would still be an “identifier declared with constexpr” and thus be a named constant.

Union types here merit special consideration, because we don’t want to add new undefined behavior with this construct. A translator will always be able to deduce if the bit-pattern that is imposed for any union member (by the initializer of any member) provides a valid value of the other members and if such a member can be used as a named constant.

Since this is a translation-time feature, the constraint in 6.6 p4

Each constant expression shall evaluate to a constant that is in the range of representable values for its type.

always kicks in, and forces a diagnostic if and when the implementation is not able to produce a consistent value for any member.

Note that allowing structure types agrees with C++’s policy, whereas also allowing it for union types is less constraining than for them. Here, C++ only allows to access the “active” member of a union in a constant expression. Since C does not have this concept of an active member of a union, and since type-punning through union is a distinguished feature in C, it is not easy to map this restriction to C.

Array types

The use of a constexpr array object in a context that requires a constant expression is not possible without special considerations, of which WG14 was not in favor for C23. Nevertheless we maintain the possibility to define such named constants because they still have other advantages over const-qualified arrays of static storage duration:


We do not propose changing the meaning of the const keyword in any way (this differs between C and C++) - an object declared at file scope with const and without static continues to have external linkage; an object declared with static storage duration and const but not constexpr is not considered any kind of constant-expression, barring any implementations that are already taking advantage of the permission given in 6.6 paragraph 10 to add more kinds of supported constant expressions.

The important difference here to make is that in C17 “constant expressions of integer type” are not necessarily “integer constant expressions”, the latter being a much more restricted property. If static const variables would gain the status of “integer constant expression”, the semantics of other constructs using such a variable would change: VLA would become ordinary arrays, integers of value zero would become null pointer constants, or ternary operators could change their type from void* to another pointer type.

The same caution is also in order for the property of being an “arithmetic constant expression”. By using a cast to integer type, these could become “integer constant expression” with the similar effects on changing semantics if for example a C17 macro now would be re-implemented as a static const variable.

The difference between the behaviour of const in C and in C++ is unfortunate but is now cemented in existing practice and well-understood. Since changing the status of existing const qualified variables would implicitly change the status of derived array declarations, we would oppose changing that now.

The constexpr feature itself does not have this problem, because it can only be used through an explicit code change. Nevertheless, constexpr objects will typically be defined in header files, so we have to ensure that they don’t create multiply-defined-symbol conflicts. Therefore, in accordance with C++, file-scope constexpr obtain internal linkage and block-scope no linkage at all.

Storage duration

For the storage duration of the created objects we go with C++ for compatibility, that is per default we have automatic in block scope and static in file scope. The default for block scope can be overwritten by static or refined by register. It would perhaps be more natural for named constants

but we decided to go with C++’s choices for compatibility.

Also we don’t allow thread local named constants

Because we only allow constant expressions as initializers for named constants, a split into one distinct object per thread does not make much sense.


One advantage of constexpr objects and static const objects compared to macro definitions are mandatory diagnostics. Consider the following lines, where A and B expand to some integer literals.

#define dconst (A/B)
static size_t const aconst = A/B;
constexpr size_t cconst = A/B;

Both, aconst and cconst, need a constant expression as an initializer and the constraints in 6.6 impose that this initializer must give rise to a value in the range of the target type, size_t. So if B would be 0, a diagnostic is mandatory.

For dconst the situation much depends on the context in which the macro is used. If it is only used for expressions that aren’t constant expressions. If B is 0, no diagnostic is required and the behavior is undefined.

The advantage of the new feature compared to the existing one is that cconst is forced to be an integer constant expression, and that this property propagates to the places where cconst is used.

The advantage of a forced diagnostic also occurs if the target type is an unsigned integer type (including bool), as for the bignum example above. For the initialization of a static const variable, the initializer expression wraps (or forces a true value) and no diagnostic is required. For a constexpr object, the initializer value must fit the target type directly.

Similarly, if the target type is a floating point type and the initializer expression has more precision than the target type can hold or if a complex number is used to initialize a real type, a constraint is violated

constexpr float point5 = 0.5; // ok, fits to target type
constexpr float point3 = 0.3; // constraint violation if float has less precision than double
constexpr complex double zero = 0.0 + I; // constraint violation, loss of non-zero imaginary part


C currently has only one class of in-language entity that can be defined with a value and then used in a constant context, which is an enumeration. This is limited to providing a C-level name for a single int value, but is extremely limited and is a second-class feature closer to macro constants than to C objects. These cannot be addressed and also cannot be used to help much in the composition of arbitrarily-typed constant expressions during translation.


As above, the existing incompatibility of const between C and C++ is preserved because the proposal does not intend to break or change any existing C code. Code that intends to express identical constant semantics for values in both C and C++ should start using constexpr objects instead.

This change improves C’s header compatibility with C++ by allowing the same headers to make use of better compile-time initialization features. This increases the subset of C++ headers which can be used from C and does not impose any new runtime cost on any C program.

Nevertheless, we also propose, as a mostly orthogonal change, to allow names of const (but not volatile) qualified objects of static storage duration in constant expressions. Even though this has sufficient existing practice, unfortunately this does not improve compatibility with C++ much. Such identifiers (unless also constexpr) cannot be null pointer constants, integer constant expressions or arithmetic constant expressions, because otherwise semantics of existing code could change without notice.

During the discussion on the reflector about this proposal we also noticed that the rarely used feature that makes any integer constant expression a null pointer constant is the one that mostly stands in the way of having a decent definition of translation time constants. We don’t think that we should directly remove that feature from C (it would invalidate existing code) but that in future versions only integer literals should be used to form null pointer constants. Therefore we also propose a recommended practice and an obsolescence for future language directions.

Implementation Experience

There is widespread implementation experience of constexpr as a C++ feature. Internally to the QAC team, we have experience fitting C++11 ruleset constexpr to the C constant evaluator. Our C frontend does not share this component with the C++ compiler, so we were able to compare and contrast which work was reasonable to import and which was not (i.e. we have implemented constexpr fully before). We felt that full C++20 ruleset constexpr was completely unreasonable (probably not controversial!), but that the C++11 rules, including constexpr functions, designed to buildup from a minimalist perspective, were not difficult for a single-person team to add to a C evaluator. Implementing just the constexpr object part (without functions) as proposed here in this paper even has an implementation complexity that is much lower.


The wording changes proposed here are based on N2952 that sets the basis for some of the syntactical specifications.

Keywords (6.4.1)

Add constexpr to the list of keywords in 6.4.1.

Declarations (6.7)

According to the outcome for N2953 use alternatives 1 or 3 from N2952 to make constexpr declarations underspecified.

A declaration such that the declaration specifiers contain no type specifier or that is declared with constexpr is said to be underspecified.
A declaration with constexpr is said to be underspecified.

Storage-class specifiers (6.7.1)

Add constexpr to the list of storage-class specifiers in 6.7.1 p1.


Named constants might possibly have static or automatic storage duration, but no other restrictions to their storage duration should apply.

According to the outcome for N2953 change paragraph 2
2 At most, one storage-class specifier may be given in the declaration specifiers in a declaration, except that thread_local may appear with static or extern and constexpr may appear with auto, register or static.127)

2 At most, one storage-class specifier may be given in the declaration specifiers in a declaration, except that thread_local may appear with static or extern and constexpr may appear with __auto_type, auto, register or static.127)

As stated above the possible types for named constants should be constrained. Add a new paragraph with some footnotes to the end of the Constraints section.

An object declared with storage-class specifier constexpr or any of its members, even recursively, shall not have an atomic type or a type that is volatile or restrict qualified. The declaration shall be a definition, shall have an initializer and shall be such that all expressionsFNT0), if any, are either constant expressions or string literals.FNT1) The value of any constant expression or of any character in a string literal of the initializer shall be representable in the corresponding target type without conversion.FNT2) If an object or subobject declared with storage-class specifier constexpr has pointer, integer or arithmetic type, the implicit or explicit initializer value for it shall be a null pointer constantFNT3), an integer constant expression, or an arithmetic constant expression, respectively.
FNT0) Such as an assignment expression in an initializer or in an array bound.
FNT1) As a consequence a constexpr object does not have a variably modified type.
FNT2) In particular, using an octal or hexadecimal escape character sequence with a value greater than the largest representable value of the target character type for char, signed char or wchar_t violates this constraint.
FNT3) The named constant corresponding to an object declared with storage-class specifier constexpr and pointer type is a constant expression with value null, and thus a null pointer and an address constant. Even if it has type void* it is not a null pointer constant.


Adapt the changed p6 as of N2952

6 Storage-class specifiers specify various properties of identifiers and declared features; storage duration (static in block scope, thread_local, auto, register), linkage (extern, static and constexpr in file scope, typedef), value (constexpr) and type (typedef). The meanings of the various linkages and storage durations were discussed in 6.2.2 and 6.2.4, typedef is discussed in 6.7.8.

Then add a new paragraph and a note to the end of the Semantics section

An object declared with a storage-class specifier constexpr has its value permanently fixed at translation-time; if not yet present, a const-qualification is implicitly added to the object’s type. The declared identifier is considered a constant expression of the respective kind, see 6.6.

NOTE An object declared in block scope with a storage-class specifier constexpr and without static has automatic storage duration, the identifier has no linkage, and each instance of the object has a unique address obtainable with & (if there also is no register specifier) or no address at all (with register). Such an object in file scope has static storage duration, the corresponding identifier has internal linkage, and each translation unit that sees the same textual definition implements a separate object with an address of its own.

Constant Expressions (6.6)

To introduce terminology, we stipulate that being a constant expression is a property of the declared identifier, and not of the underlying object. Add a new paragraph 5’ after paragraph 5

5’ An identifier that is an enumeration constant, that is a predefined constant or that is declared with storage-class specifier constexpr and has an object type is a named constant. For enumeration and predefined constants, their value and type are defined in the respective clauses; for constexpr objects, such a named constant is a constant expression with the type and value of the declared object.

These new kinds of constants then have to be added in the appropriate places. Change the following four paragraphs.

6 An integer constant expression124) shall have integer type and shall only have operands that are integer constants, enumeration constantsnamed constants of integer type, character constants, predefined constants, sizeof expressions whose results are integer constants, alignof expressions, and floating constants or named constants of arithmetic type that are the immediate operands of casts. Cast operators in an integer constant expression shall only convert arithmetic types to integer types, except as part of an operand to the sizeof or alignof operator.

7 More latitude is permitted for constant expressions in initializers. Such a constant expression shall be, or evaluate to, one of the following:

8 An arithmetic constant expression shall have arithmetic type and shall only have operands that are integer constants, floating constants, enumeration constantsnamed constants of arithmetic type, character constants, predefined constants, sizeof expressions whose results are integer constants, and alignof expressions. Cast operators in an arithmetic constant expression shall only convert arithmetic types to arithmetic types, except as part of an operand to a sizeof or alignof operator.

9 An address constant is a null pointer,FNT4) a pointer to an lvalue designating an object of static storage duration, or a pointer to a function designator; it shall be created explicitly using the unary & operator or an integer constant cast to pointer type, or implicitly by the use of an expression of array or function type. The array-subscript [] and member-access . and -> operators, the address & and indirection * unary operators, integer constant expressions, and pointer casts may be used in the creation of an address constant, but the value of an object shall otherwise not be accessed by use of these operators.FNT5)

FNT4) A named constant of integer type and value zero is a null pointer constant. A named constant with pointer type and value null is a null pointer but not a null pointer constant; it may only be used to initialize a pointer object if its type implicitly converts to the target type.
FNT5) Named constants with arithmetic type, including names of constexpr objects, are valid in offset computations such as array-subscripts or in pointer casts, as long as the expressions in which they occur form integer constant expressions. In contrast to that, names of other objects, even if const-qualified and with static storage duration, are not valid.

Linkage (6.2.2)

Named constants (constexpr objects) will typically be defined in header files, so we have to ensure that they don’t create multiply-defined-symbol conflicts. Change the following paragraph

3 If the declaration of a file scope identifier for an object contains any of the storage-class specifiers static or constexpr or for a function contains the storage-class specifier static, the identifier has internal linkage.31)

Complementary proposals

Names of static const-qualified objects as constant expressions

Add the following item and footnote to 6.6 p7, constant expressions:

– an identifier for which an external or block-scope definition as an object of static storage duration is visible that has a non-atomic type that is const but not volatile or restrict qualified,FNT6)

FNT6) Such an identifier is only a named constant if it is declared with constexpr. So even if such an identifier has pointer, integer or arithmetic type, and its initializer has the required properties it does not necessarily evaluate to a null pointer constant, an integer constant expression or an arithmetic constant expression. Also, this excludes identifiers for which only a declaration (that is not a definition) or a tentative definition is visible.

Null pointer constants


Add a new paragraphs to the end of (Pointers), before the forward references:

Recommended practice

9 A diagnostic is recommended if an integer constant expression that is not an integer literal is used to form a null pointer constant.


Add a new clause to 6.11 (Future language directions)

6.11.x Null pointer constants

The possibility for integer constant expressions that are not integer literals to form a null pointer constant is an obsolescent feature.

Questions for WG14

  1. Do we want to integrate the changes of N2977 section 7 (constexpr) plus the changes of N2952 (underspecified definitions) into C23?

  2. Do we want to integrate the changes of N2977 section 8.1 (static const objects) into C23?

  3. Do we want to integrate the changes of N2977 section 8.2.1 (recommendation for null pointer constants) into C23?

  4. Do we want to integrate the changes of N2977 section 8.2.2 (obsolescence of integer constant expressions in null pointer constants) into C23?


Additional thanks to Martin Uecker and Joseph Myers for detailed wording improvement suggestions for previous revisions of this paper.