ISO/IEC JTC1 SC22 WG14 N2034
To: WG14, WG21 liaisonThomas Köppe <firstname.lastname@example.org>
WG21 P00306r0: Initial proposal.
WG14 N2034: Changed target audience, added introductory note.
Note to WG14: This paper is being proposed to WG21, and the section numbering and some of the examples make superficial reference to C++. The wording and the problem are identical in C, though, with the section mapping described at the end.
This is a proposal to make variadic macros easier to use with no arguments by adding a new
special functional macro
Function-style macros that can have variable arguments suffer from a number of ill-specified corner cases. Consider the following macro definitions:
Invocations of these macros are surprising:
|variable arguments are “|
|variable arguments contain zero tokens|
|ill-formed||violates 16.3p12 (no variable arguments)|
|variable arguments are “|
|variable arguments are “|
|variable arguments are “”|
There are two problems:
...), the invocation must contain at least as many commas as the macro has mandatory parameters. This makes the invocation
However, it is quite natural for a macro invocation with variable arguments
to degenerate to the case where there are no arguments. In the example, we would
F(a) to be replaced with
f(10, a). A more realistic
example is a custom diagnostic facility such as the following:
The complication arises when we consider
H(). We may perhaps wish it to
be replaced with
f(10). However, we may also wish to have a macro such as
which always produces a comma, even when invoked with no arguments. The difference is
that we consider
H() to have zero arguments, whereas we consider
ADD_COMMA() to have one, empty argument.
We would like to make the preprocessor more expressive to allow users to write macros for all of the situations described above. This requires two distinct changes, one simple and the other complex.
Goal 1. Allow the omission of the comma before the variable arguments
in the invocation (i.e. allow
F(a) rather than requiring
Goal 2. Provide a mechanism to express a replacement text that contains
the variable arguments but which contains a separating comma only if the variable
arguments are non-empty (i.e. allow both
f(10, a) and
b) as possible replacements of
F). At the same time, continue to
provide a mechanism that unconditionally contains comma before the (possibly empty)
variable arguments, like
This behaviour of Goal 1 is already supported by many popular compilers as a
non-conforming extension. It is a non-breaking change, since the current syntax
F(a) is ill-formed. Goal 2 is much harder to solve, since there is
no single simple enhancement of the existing semantics that satisfies all possible
We will step through a series of possible solutions (inspired by existing vendor extensions) and analyse their shortcomings, before presenting the proposed solution.
This approach does not add any new syntax. It merely solves Goal 1 above by allowing
a variadic macro invocation to not contain any variable arguments. However, under this
approach, the absence of variable arguments is taken as a request to delete an
existing comma immediately preceding the
This is a minimal, unsurprising extension. However, it suffers from the major draw-back that it offers no mechanism to delete a trailing comma from a variadic macro with zero mandatory parameters.
A variant of this extension is currently provided by MSVC++ and Embarcadero compilers,
which always delete the comma, even in the case of zero mandatory arguments. Another
possible extension is to provide those semantics under a new name (e.g.
This approach also allows the omission of the variable arguments,
and in addition it reuses the concatenation operator
to control comma deletion explicitly:
This extension is somewhat difficult to explain, but it generally Does What You Want. The
complete omission of variable arguments is required for comma deletion (compare
F2(a)), though omission of the variable arguments alone is not
enough to delete the comma (compare
F1(a, ) and
F1(a)), but the
case of zero mandatory parameters is special, and in that case it is mere absence of tokens
from the variable arguments that enables the comma deletion when the
The downside of this extension is three-fold: 1) Parsing this syntax requires look-ahead, adding cost to the translation. 2) The extension reuses an unrelated piece of syntax, muddling the language. 3) The extension hides its dependency on the presence or absence of the variable arguments and whether the variable arguments contain tokens in subtle and non-explicit ways.
A rather more different approach abandons the use of C99’s
token in favour of something like
#define F(X, Args...) or
...Args). GCC has long provided the former (where the replacement text would use
Args for the variable arguments, and
, ##Args (with mandatory
whitespace after the comma!) requests comma deletion). The template-pack-like syntax
...Args does not appear to be used by any preprocessor and may provide a
less obstructed extension route (e.g. one could say that
x, y, ...Args
always has comma deletion semantics).
However, all these approaches seem undesirable. First off, they are a departure, and
perhaps even a regression, from the direction taken by C99 and its
token. Second, this design would only satisfy those needs that require comma deletion,
leaving use cases like the above
ADD_COMMA to use the existing syntax. Thus
there would be two parallel but dissimilar constructions living side by side, which seems
inelegant and wasteful.
All of the considered extensions so far have in common that they end up creating a parallel set of constructions which are identical to the existing macro facilities except when the macro is invoked with no variable arguments, and they all provide some automatic mechanism to determine when to delete a comma. However, none of them are quite explicit about what they are doing.
For the next idea, we consider adding a new token. Let us call it
with the semantics that wherever it appears in the replacement text, it is replaced
with the variable arguments (just like
__VA_ARGS__), but additionally,
whenever the variable arguments do contain tokens, a comma is prepended:
In this approach, we have separated Goals 1 and 2 entirely; whether a leading (!) comma is inserted now only depends on whether the variable arguments contain tokens, not on whether they are present at all.
We already said that solutions 1, 2 and 3 are ultimately inelegant, since they create a redundant structure that replicates existing facilities and only differs in subtle details. Solution 4 (a new token) feels cleaner and more orthogonal. In the words of Richard Smith:
“I remain unconvinced that implicitly adding or removing a comma is a good idea. We need the user to tell us which behavior they want.”
We can do a little better than solution 4. Our proposal is to add a new, special kind
of functional macro
__VA_OPT__. This macro may only be used in
the replacement text of a variadic macro:
The semantics are as follows: If the variable arguments contain no tokens, then
__VA_OPT__(content) is replaced by no tokens. Otherwise,
it is replaced by content, which can contain any admissible replacement
The canonical use case of
__VA_OPT__ is for an optional separator:
However, this mechanism allows other constructions, too:
The proposal is a pure extension of the preprocessor. Syntax that was previously not allowed becomes admissible under the proposed changes.
The proposed extension to allow omission of the variable arguments has been implemented
by many compilers. We do not know of any experience with anything resembling the
Change paragraph 16.3p4 as follows.
If the identifier-list in the macro definition does not end with an ellipsis,
the number of arguments (including those arguments consisting of no preprocessing
tokens) in an invocation of a function-like macro shall equal the number of parameters
in the macro definition. Otherwise, there shall be
more arguments in the invocation than there are parameters
in the macro definition (excluding the
...). There shall exist a
) preprocessing token that terminates the invocation.
Change paragraph 16.3p5 as follows.
shall occur only in the replacement-list
of a function-like macro that uses the ellipsis notation in the parameters.
Change paragraph 16.3p12 as follows.
If there is a
... immediately preceding the
) in the
function-like macro definition, then the trailing arguments,
including any separating comma preprocessing tokens, are merged to form a single item:
the variable arguments. The number of arguments so combined is such that, following
merger, the number of arguments is one more than the
number of parameters in the macro definition (excluding the
Append a new paragraph to subsection 16.3.1 as follows.
The entire proposal (rationale, implementation experience and wording) applies almost verbatim to the C language as well. (For the wording changes, the C++ section 16.3 corresponds to the C section 6.10.3.) We would like to ask the WG14 liaison to discuss this proposal with WG14 and provide feedback, and we would like to encourage WG14 to adopt the same extension for C in the interest of future compatibility.
Many thanks to Dawn Perchik, David Krauss and Richard Smith for valuable discussion, guidance, suggestions and examples!