const correctness

Save to:
Instapaper Pocket Readability

Const Correctness

What is “const correctness”?

A good thing. It means using the keyword const to prevent const objects from getting mutated.

For example, if you wanted to create a function f() that accepted a std::string, plus you want to promise callers not to change the caller’s std::string that gets passed to f(), you can have f() receive its std::string parameter…

  • void f1(const std::string& s); // Pass by reference-to-const
  • void f2(const std::string* sptr); // Pass by pointer-to-const
  • void f3(std::string s); // Pass by value

In the pass by reference-to-const and pass by pointer-to-const cases, any attempts to change the caller’s std::string within the f() functions would be flagged by the compiler as an error at compile-time. This check is done entirely at compile-time: there is no run-time space or speed cost for the const. In the pass by value case (f3()), the called function gets a copy of the caller’s std::string. This means that f3() can change its local copy, but the copy is destroyed when f3() returns. In particular f3() cannot change the caller’s std::string object.

As an opposite example, suppose you wanted to create a function g() that accepted a std::string, but you want to let callers know that g() might change the caller’s std::string object. In this case you can have g() receive its std::string parameter…

  • void g1(std::string& s); // Pass by reference-to-non-const
  • void g2(std::string* sptr); // Pass by pointer-to-non-const

The lack of const in these functions tells the compiler that they are allowed to (but are not required to) change the caller’s std::string object. Thus they can pass their std::string to any of the f() functions, but only f3() (the one that receives its parameter “by value”) can pass its std::string to g1() or g2(). If f1() or f2() need to call either g() function, a local copy of the std::string object must be passed to the g() function; the parameter to f1() or f2() cannot be directly passed to either g() function. E.g.,

void g1(std::string& s);

void f1(const std::string& s)
  g1(s);          // Compile-time Error since s is const

  std::string localCopy = s;
  g1(localCopy);  // Okay since localCopy is not const

Naturally in the above case, any changes that g1() makes are made to the localCopy object that is local to f1(). In particular, no changes will be made to the const parameter that was passed by reference to f1().

How is “const correctness” related to ordinary type safety?

Declaring the const-ness of a parameter is just another form of type safety.

If you find ordinary type safety helps you get systems correct (it does; especially in large systems), you’ll find const correctness helps also.

The benefit of const correctness is that it prevents you from inadvertently modifying something you didn’t expect would be modified. You end up needing to decorate your code with a few extra keystrokes (the const keyword), with the benefit that you’re telling the compiler and other programmers some additional piece of important semantic information — information that the compiler uses to prevent mistakes and other programmers use as documentation.

Conceptually you can imagine that const std::string, for example, is a different class than ordinary std::string, since the const variant is conceptually missing the various mutative operations that are available in the non-const variant. For example, you can conceptually imagine that a const std::string simply doesn’t have an assignment operator += or any other mutative operations.

Should I try to get things const correct “sooner” or “later”?

At the very, very, very beginning.

Back-patching const correctness results in a snowball effect: every const you add “over here” requires four more to be added “over there.”

Add const early and often.

What does “const X* p” mean?

It means p points to an object of class X, but p can’t be used to change that X object (naturally p could also be NULL).

Read it right-to-left: “p is a pointer to an X that is constant.”

For example, if class X has a const member function such as inspect() const, it is okay to say p->inspect(). But if class X has a non-const member function called mutate(), it is an error if you say p->mutate().

Significantly, this error is caught by the compiler at compile-time — no run-time tests are done. That means const doesn’t slow down your program and doesn’t require you to write extra test-cases to check things at runtime — the compiler does the work at compile-time.

What’s the difference between “const X* p”, “X* const p” and “const X* const p”?

Read the pointer declarations right-to-left.

  • const X* p means “p points to an X that is const”: the X object can’t be changed via p.
  • X* const p means “p is a const pointer to an X that is non-const”: you can’t change the pointer p itself, but you can change the X object via p.
  • const X* const p means “p is a const pointer to an X that is const”: you can’t change the pointer p itself, nor can you change the X object via p.

And, oh yea, did I mention to read your pointer declarations right-to-left?

What does “const X& x” mean?

It means x aliases an X object, but you can’t change that X object via x.

Read it right-to-left: “x is a reference to an X that is const.”

For example, if class X has a const member function such as inspect() const, it is okay to say x.inspect(). But if class X has a non-const member function called mutate(), it is an error if you say x.mutate().

This is entirely symmetric with pointers to const, including the fact that the compiler does all the checking at compile-time, which means const doesn’t slow down your program and doesn’t require you to write extra test-cases to check things at runtime.

What do “X const& x” and “X const* p” mean?

X const& x is equivalent to const X& x, and X const* x is equivalent to const X* x.

Some people prefer the const-on-the-right style, calling it “consistent const.” Indeed the const-on-the-right style can be more consistent than the alternative: the const-on-the-right style always puts the const on the right of what it constifies, whereas the other style sometimes puts the const on the left and sometimes on the right.

With the const-on-the-right style, a local variable that is const is defined with the const on the right: int const a = 42;. Similarly a static variable that is const is defined as static double const x = 3.14;. Basically every const ends up on the right of the thing it constifies, including the const that is required to be on the right: with a const member function.

Despite these benefits, the const-on-the-right style is not very popular, so organizations that have existing C++ code tend to continue using the traditional style so their overall codebase can have a consistent coding standards.

Another recommendation: pick the style that will be most appropriate for your organization’s average maintenance programmer. Not the (few) gurus, not the (few) dolts, but the average maintenance programmer. Unless you’re willing to fire them and hire new ones, make sure you use a syle that lets them understand your code.

That means you need to make a decision based on your realities, not based on someone else’s assumptions or prejudices. One size does not fit all. There is no decision that is right for all organizations for all time, so don’t allow anyone to make a knee-jerk decision in either direction. “Think” is not a four-letter word.

Another caveat: if you decide to use const-on-the-right style, do something to make sure your people don’t mis-type X const& as the nonsensical “X& const x. Similarly make sure people don’t fat-finger X const* as the semantically different but syntactically similar “X* constX const* and X* const have completely different meanings, even though they look similar at first blush.

Does “X& const x” make any sense?

No, it is nonsense.

To find out what the above declaration means, read it right-to-left: “x is a const reference to a X”. But that is redundant — references are always const, in the sense that you can never reseat a reference to make it refer to a different object. Never. With or without the const.

In other words, “X& const x” is functionally equivalent to “X& x”. Since you’re gaining nothing by adding the const after the &, you shouldn’t add it: it will confuse people — the const will make some people think that the X is const, as if you had said “const X& x”.

What is a “const member function”?

A member function that inspects (rather than mutates) its object.

A const member function is indicated by a const suffix just after the member function’s parameter list. Member functions with a const suffix are called “const member functions” or “inspectors.” Member functions without a const suffix are called “non-const member functions” or “mutators.”

class Fred {
  void inspect() const;   // This member promises NOT to change *this
  void mutate();          // This member function might change *this

void userCode(Fred& changeable, const Fred& unchangeable)
  changeable.inspect();   // Okay: doesn't change a changeable object
  changeable.mutate();    // Okay: changes a changeable object

  unchangeable.inspect(); // Okay: doesn't change an unchangeable object
  unchangeable.mutate();  // ERROR: attempt to change unchangeable object

The attempt to call unchangeable.mutate() is an error caught at compile time. There is no runtime space or speed penalty for const, and you don’t need to write test-cases to check it at runtime.

The trailing const on inspect() member function should be used to mean the method won’t change the object’s abstract (client-visible) state. That is slightly different from saying the method won’t change the “raw bits” of the object’s struct. C++ compilers aren’t allowed to take the “bitwise” interpretation unless they can solve the aliasing problem, which normally can’t be solved (i.e., a non-const alias could exist which could modify the state of the object). Another (important) insight from this aliasing issue: pointing at an object with a pointer-to-const doesn’t guarantee that the object won’t change; it merely promises that the object won’t change via that pointer.

What is the relationship between a return-by-reference and a const member function?

If you want to return a member of your this object by reference from an inspector method, you should return it using reference-to-const (const X& inspect() const) or by value (X inspect() const).

class Person {
  const std::string& name_good() const;  // Right: the caller can't change the Person's name
  std::string& name_evil() const;        // Wrong: the caller can change the Person's name
  int age() const;                       // Also right: the caller can't change the Person's age
  // ...

void myCode(const Person& p)  // myCode() promises not to change the Person object...
  p.name_evil() = "Igor";     // But myCode() changed it anyway!!

The good news is that the compiler will often catch you if you get this wrong. In particular, if you accidentally return a member of your this object by non-const reference, such as in Person::name_evil() above, the compiler will often detect it and give you a compile-time error while compiling the innards of, in this case, Person::name_evil().

The bad news is that the compiler won’t always catch you: there are some cases where the compiler simply won’t ever give you a compile-time error message.

Translation: you need to think. If that scares you, find another line of work; “think” is not a four-letter word.

Remember the “const philosophy” spread throughout this section: a const member function must not change (or allow a caller to change) the this object’s logical state (AKA abstract state AKA meaningwise state). Think of what an object means, not how it is internally implemented. A Person’s age and name are logically part of the Person, but the Person’s neighbor and employer are not. An inspector method that returns part of the this object’s logical / abstract / meaningwise state must not return a non-const pointer (or reference) to that part, independent of whether that part is internally implemented as a direct data-member physically embedded within the this object or some other way.

What’s the deal with “const-overloading”?

const overloading helps you achieve const correctness.

const overloading is when you have an inspector method and a mutator method with the same name and the same number of and types of parameters. The two distinct methods differ only in that the inspector is const and the mutator is non-const.

The most common use of const overloading is with the subscript operator. You should generally try to use one of the standard container templates, such as std::vector, but if you need to create your own class that has a subscript operator, here’s the rule of thumb: subscript operators often come in pairs.

class Fred { /*...*/ };

class MyFredList {
  const Fred& operator[] (unsigned index) const;  // Subscript operators often come in pairs
  Fred&       operator[] (unsigned index);        // Subscript operators often come in pairs
  // ...

The const subscript operator returns a const-reference, so the compiler will prevent callers from inadvertently mutating/changing the Fred. The non-const subscript operator returns a non-const reference, which is your way of telling your callers (and the compiler) that your callers are allowed to modify the Fred object.

When a user of your MyFredList class calls the subscript operator, the compiler selects which overload to call based on the constness of their MyFredList. If the caller has a MyFredList a or MyFredList& a, then a[3] will call the non-const subscript operator, and the caller will end up with a non-const reference to a Fred:

For example, suppose class Fred has an inspector-method inspect() const and a mutator-method mutate():

void f(MyFredList& a)  // The MyFredList is non-const
  // Okay to call methods that inspect (look but not mutate/change) the Fred at a[3]:
  Fred x = a[3];       // Doesn't change to the Fred at a[3]: merely makes a copy of that Fred
  a[3].inspect();      // Doesn't change to the Fred at a[3]: inspect() const is an inspector-method

  // Okay to call methods that DO change the Fred at a[3]:
  Fred y;
  a[3] = y;            // Changes the Fred at a[3]
  a[3].mutate();       // Changes the Fred at a[3]: mutate() is a mutator-method

However if the caller has a const MyFredList a or const MyFredList& a, then a[3] will call the const subscript operator, and the caller will end up with a const reference to a Fred. This allows the caller to inspect the Fred at a[3], but it prevents the caller from inadvertently mutating/changing the Fred at a[3].

void f(const MyFredList& a)  // The MyFredList is const
  // Okay to call methods that DON'T change the Fred at a[3]:
  Fred x = a[3];

  // Compile-time error (fortunately!) if you try to mutate/change the Fred at a[3]:
  Fred y;
  a[3] = y;       // Fortunately(!) the compiler catches this error at compile-time
  a[3].mutate();  // Fortunately(!) the compiler catches this error at compile-time

Const overloading for subscript- and funcall-operators is illustrated here, here, here, here, and here.

You can, of course, also use const-overloading for things other than the subscript operator.

How can it help me design better classes if I distinguish logical state from physical state?

Because that encourages you to design your classes from the outside-in rather than from the inside-out, which in turn makes your classes and objects easier to understand and use, more intuitive, less error prone, and faster. (Okay, that’s a slight over-simplification. To understand all the if’s and’s and but’s, you’ll just have to read the rest of this answer!)

Let’s understand this from the inside-out — you will (should) design your classes from the outside-in, but if you’re new to this concept, it’s easier to understand from the inside-out.

On the inside, your objects have physical (or concrete or bitwise) state. This is the state that’s easy for programmers to see and understand; it’s the state that would be there if the class were just a C-style struct.

On the outside, your objects have users of your class, and these users are restricted to using only public member functions and friends. These external users also perceive the object as having state, for example, if the object is of class Rectangle with methods width(), height() and area(), your users would say that those three are all part of the object’s logical (or abstract or meaningwise) state. To an external user, the Rectangle object actually has an area, even if that area is computed on the fly (e.g., if the area() method returns the product of the object’s width and height). In fact, and this is the important point, your users don’t know and don’t care how you implement any of these methods; your users still perceive, from their perspective, that your object logically has a meaningwise state of width, height, and area.

The area() example shows a case where the logical state can contain elements that are not directly realized in the physical state. The opposite is also true: classes sometimes intentionally hide part of their objects’ physical (concrete, bitwise) state from users — they intentionally do not provide any public member functions or friends that would allow users to read or write or even know about this hidden state. That means there are bits in the object’s physical state that have no corresponding elements in the object’s logical state.

As an example of this latter case, a collection-object might cache its last lookup in hopes of improving the performance of its next lookup. This cache is certainly part of the object’s physical state, but there it is an internal implementation detail that will probably not be exposed to users — it will probably not be part of the object’s logical state. Telling what’s what is easy if you think from the outside-in: if the collection-object’s users have no way to check the state of the cache itself, then the cache is transparent, and is not part of the object’s logical state.

Should the constness of my public member functions be based on what the method does to the object’s logical state, or physical state?


There’s no way to make this next part easy. It is going to hurt. Best recommendation is to sit down. And please, for your safety, make sure there are no sharp implements nearby.

Let’s go back to the collection-object example. Remember: there’s a lookup method that caches the last lookup in hopes to speed up future lookups.

Let’s state what is probably obvious: assume that the lookup method makes no changes to any of the collection-object’s logical state.

So… the time has come to hurt you. Are you ready?

Here comes: if the lookup method does not make any change to any of the collection-object’s logical state, but it does change the collection-object’s physical state (it makes a very real change to the very real cache), should the lookup method be const?

The answer is a resounding Yes. (There are exceptions to every rule, so “Yes” should really have an asterisk next to it, but the vast majority of the time, the answer is Yes.)

This is all about “logical const” over “physical const.” It means the decision about whether to decorate a method with const should hinge primarily on whether that method leaves the logical state unchanged, irrespective (are you sitting down?) (you might want to sit down) irrespective of whether the method happens to make very real changes to the object’s very real physical state.

In case that didn’t sink in, or in case you are not yet in pain, let’s tease it apart into two cases:

  • If a method changes any part of the object’s logical state, it logically is a mutator; it should not be const even if (as actually happens!) the method doesn’t change any physical bits of the object’s concrete state.
  • Conversely, a method is logically an inspector and should be const if it never changes any part of the object’s logical state, even if (as actually happens!) the method changes physical bits of the object’s concrete state.

If you’re confused, read it again.

If you’re not confused but are angry, good: you may not like it yet, but at least you understand it. Take a deep breath and repeat after me: “The constness of a method should makes sense from outside the object.”

If you’re still angry, repeat this three times: “The constness of a method must make sense to the object’s users, and those users can see only the object’s logical state.”

If you’re still angry, sorry, it is what it is. Suck it up and live with it. Yes, there will be exceptions; every rule has them. But as a rule, in the main, this logical const notion is good for you and good for your software.

One more thing. This is going to get inane, but let’s be precise about whether a method changes the object’s logical state. If you are outside the class — you are a normal user, every experiment you could perform (every method or sequence of methods you call) would have the same results (same return values, same exceptions or lack of exceptions) irrespective of whether you first called that lookup method. If the lookup function changed any future behavior of any future method (not just making it faster but changed the outcome, changed the return value, changed the exception), then the lookup method changed the object’s logical state — it is a mutuator. But if the lookup method changed nothing other than perhaps making some things faster, then it is an inspector.

What do I do if I want a const member function to make an “invisible” change to a data member?

Use mutable (or, as a last resort, use const_cast).

A small percentage of inspectors need to make changes to an object’s physical state that cannot be observed by external users — changes to the physical but not logical state.

For example, the collection-object discussed earlier cached its last lookup in hopes of improving the performance of its next lookup. Since the cache, in this example, cannot be directly observed by any part of the collection-object’s public interface (other than timing), its existence and state is not part of the object’s logical state, so changes to it are invisible to external users. The lookup method is an inspector since it never changes the object’s logical state, irrespective of the fact that, at least for the present implementation, it changes the object’s physical state.

When methods change the physical but not logical state, the method should generally be marked as const since it really is an inspector-method. That creates a problem: when the compiler sees your const method changing the physical state of the this object, it will complain — it will give your code an error message.

The C++ compiler language uses the mutable keyword to help you embrace this logical const notion. In this case, you would mark the cache with the mutable keyword, that way the compiler knows it is allowed to change inside a const method or via any other const pointer or reference. In our lingo, the mutable keyword marks those portions of the object’s physical state which are not part of the logical state.

The mutable keyword goes just before the data member’s declaration, that is, the same place where you could put const. The other approach, not preferred, is to cast away the const‘ness of the this pointer, probably via the const_cast keyword:

Set* self = const_cast<Set*>(this);
  // See the NOTE below before doing this!

After this line, self will have the same bits as this, that is, self == this, but self is a Set* rather than a const Set* (technically this is a const Set* const, but the right-most const is irrelevant to this discussion). That means you can use self to modify the object pointed to by this.

NOTE: there is an extremely unlikely error that can occur with const_cast. It only happens when three very rare things are combined at the same time: a data member that ought to be mutable (such as is discussed above), a compiler that doesn’t support the mutable keyword and/or a programmer who doesn’t use it, and an object that was originally defined to be const (as opposed to a normal, non-const object that is pointed to by a pointer-to-const). Although this combination is so rare that it may never happen to you, if it ever did happen, the code may not work (the Standard says the behavior is undefined).

If you ever want to use const_cast, use mutable instead. In other words, if you ever need to change a member of an object, and that object is pointed to by a pointer-to-const, the safest and simplest thing to do is add mutable to the member’s declaration. You can use const_cast if you are sure that the actual object isn’t const (e.g., if you are sure the object is declared something like this: Set s;), but if the object itself might be const (e.g., if it might be declared like: const Set s;), use mutable rather than const_cast.

Please don’t write saying version X of compiler Y on machine Z lets you change a non-mutable member of a const object. I don’t care — it is illegal according to the language and your code will probably fail on a different compiler or even a different version (an upgrade) of the same compiler. Just say no. Use mutable instead. Write code that is guaranteed to work, not code that doesn’t seem to break.

Does const_cast mean lost optimization opportunities?

In theory, yes; in practice, no.

Even if the language outlawed const_cast, the only way to avoid flushing the register cache across a const member function call would be to solve the aliasing problem (i.e., to prove that there are no non-const pointers that point to the object). This can happen only in rare cases (when the object is constructed in the scope of the const member function invocation, and when all the non-const member function invocations between the object’s construction and the const member function invocation are statically bound, and when every one of these invocations is also inlined, and when the constructor itself is inlined, and when any member functions the constructor calls are inline).

Why does the compiler allow me to change an int after I’ve pointed at it with a const int*?

Because “const int* p” means “p promises not to change the *p,” not*p promises not to change.”

Causing a const int* to point to an int doesn’t const-ify the int. The int can’t be changed via the const int*, but if someone else has an int* (note: no const) that points to (“aliases”) the same int, then that int* can be used to change the int. For example:

void f(const int* p1, int* p2)
  int i = *p1;         // Get the (original) value of *p1
  *p2 = 7;             // If p1 == p2, this will also change *p1
  int j = *p1;         // Get the (possibly new) value of *p1
  if (i != j) {
    std::cout << "*p1 changed, but it didn't change via pointer p1!\n";
    assert(p1 == p2);  // This is the only way *p1 could be different

int main()
  int x = 5;
  f(&x, &x);           // This is perfectly legal (and even moral!)
  // ...

Note that main() and f(const int*,int*) could be in different compilation units that are compiled on different days of the week. In that case there is no way the compiler can possibly detect the aliasing at compile time. Therefore there is no way we could make a language rule that prohibits this sort of thing. In fact, we wouldn’t even want to make such a rule, since in general it’s considered a feature that you can have many pointers pointing to the same thing. The fact that one of those pointers promises not to change the underlying “thing” is just a promise made by the pointer; it’s not a promise made by the “thing”.

Does “const Fred* p” mean that *p can’t change?

No! (This is related to the FAQ about aliasing of int pointers.)

const Fred* p” means that the Fred can’t be changed via pointer p, but there might be other ways to get at the object without going through a const (such as an aliased non-const pointer such as a Fred*). For example, if you have two pointers “const Fred* p” and “Fred* q” that point to the same Fred object (aliasing), pointer q can be used to change the Fred object but pointer p cannot.

class Fred {
  void inspect() const;   // A const member function
  void mutate();          // A non-const member function

int main()
  Fred f;
  const Fred* p = &f;
  Fred*       q = &f;

  p->inspect();    // Okay: No change to *p
  p->mutate();     // Error: Can't change *p via p

  q->inspect();    // Okay: q is allowed to inspect the object
  q->mutate();     // Okay: q is allowed to mutate the object

  f.inspect();     // Okay: f is allowed to inspect the object
  f.mutate();      // Okay: f is allowed to mutate the object

  // ...

Why am I getting an error converting a Foo**const Foo**?

Because converting Foo**const Foo** would be invalid and dangerous.

C++ allows the (safe) conversion Foo*Foo const*, but gives an error if you try to implicitly convert Foo**const Foo**.

The rationale for why that error is a good thing is given below. But first, here is the most common solution: simply change const Foo** to const Foo* const*:

class Foo { /* ... */ };

void f(const Foo** p);
void g(const Foo* const* p);

int main()
  Foo** p = /*...*/;
  // ...
  f(p);  // ERROR: it's illegal and immoral to convert Foo** to const Foo**
  g(p);  // Okay: it's legal and moral to convert Foo** to const Foo* const*
  // ...

The reason the conversion from Foo**const Foo** is dangerous is that it would let you silently and accidentally modify a const Foo object without a cast:

class Foo {
  void modify();  // make some modification to the this object

int main()
  const Foo x;
  Foo* p;
  const Foo** q = &p;  // q now points to p; this is (fortunately!) an error
  *q = &x;             // p now points to x
  p->modify();         // Ouch: modifies a const Foo!!
  // ...

If the q = &p line were legal, q would be pointing at p. The next line, *q = &x, changes p itself (since *q is p) to point at x. That would be a bad thing, since we would have lost the const qualifier: p is a Foo* but x is a const Foo. The p->modify() line exploits p’s ability to modify its referent, which is the real problem, since we ended up modifying a const Foo.

By way of analogy, if you hide a criminal under a lawful disguise, he can then exploit the trust given to that disguise. That’s bad.

Thankfully C++ prevents you from doing this: the line q = &p is flagged by the C++ compiler as a compile-time error. Reminder: please do not pointer-cast your way around that compile-time error message. Just Say No!

(Note: there is a conceptual similarity between this and the prohibition against converting Derived** to Base**.)