February 26, 2019



This is foo. But what is foo? An astute reader may assume foo is a function.

What kind of function? It is obviously not a virtual function. But it might be a function pointer. It might be a function object. It might even be a shiny post-modern lambda. Or the constructor of some class foo.

It doesn’t matter. All these things amount to plain, old and boring functions. You can call them. It creates a stack frame with its own scope and local variables, some computation happen, registers are shuffled around and ultimately you may get a value representing the result of that runtime computation, aptly named return value. This functions can also be parametrized with runtime values.

int foo(int);

Parameters can be references, pointers, values. All of this is just boring register shuffling.


It might very well be that foo() is a macro that expands to something. Anything. Maybe a hexadecimal encoding of a picture of a famous Swedish sunken ship. Or a string containing the whole content of Wikipedia. It might expand to javascript, nothing, Perl. If you are lucky, it might even expand to valid C++ but there is no guarantee of that. Macros are powerful. They can have parameters too.

But they expand to what amount to a token soup. They are blissfully unaware of C++ syntactical and semantics rules.

So there you have it. foo is either a function or a macro. Wait, is that it?

A clever compiler may decide to inline foo. Inlining is a transformation such that the compiler will inject the body of the function directly inside callers as to avoid creating a stack frame, which is expensive. This is purely a compiler optimization, unobservable under the as-if rule.

Yet, inlined functions expand as much as they are called. Can such a function be considered a macro?

An even more clever compiler can further decide to evaluate to function at compile-time if it is able and not to lazy to do so. This also falls under the as-if rule. Now the compiler can get rid of both stack frame and runtime costs by constant evaluating everything.

Then there are constexpr functions. constexpr is merely a contract between a developer and the compiler that a function can be and will remain constant evaluatable. This contract which is part of the API (and the ABI for some reason), let you use constexpr functions in other constexpr contexts.

It doesn’t mean that a given function at a given point in the program will always be constant-evaluated. Even if you might expect so, the compiler might get lazy and complacent.

Which brings us to consteval functions or so-called immediate functions. These are functions that are always constant-evaluated. They have no address so they can not be called at runtime. A motivational example for consteval is reflection, where the information on types is only available at compile time. std::source_location and std::embed are other examples of utilities making use of consteval.

It’s getting complicating. But we are not done yet!

There are also template functions. Which would not be that interesting and unusual if not for non-type template parameter

template<auto a>
void foo(int b);

such that foo<1>(0); and foo<2>(0); call two different version of foo. a is always evaluated at compile time while b is evaluated at runtime. of course, you can miss and match features. For example

template<auto a>
constexpr void foo(int b);

One non-existing feature often discussed is constexpr parameters. You would write

void foo(constexpr int a);

such that a is evaluated at compile time. Note that, for historical reasons, constexpr variables are always constant-evaluated and should probably be called consteval instead.

To be less confusing, less rewrite our function to:

void foo(consteval int a);

Which beg the question: what is the difference between these two declarations?

void foo(consteval int a);

template<auto a>
constexpr void foo();

Since consteval parameters are only an idea, we can only speculate. But I guess there is a couple of ways to implement them.

The first would be to evaluate the parameter at the call site at compile type, store it in read-only memory and push the address of the object resulting from that compile-time evaluation onto the stack.

Aka, it would be equivalent to.

void foo(const auto & a);
consteval int a = compiletime_computation();

The second option would be to make functions with constexpr parameters function templates where each constexpr parameter becomes a non-type template parameter. The second option might, in theory, be more efficient but would create quite a lot of template bloat.


We have functions, functions evaluated at compile time, functions never evaluated at runtime, functions guaranteed to be evaluatable at compile time, functions whose definition is injected into the call site, function templates and functions whose parameters are evaluated at compile time. And it-was-the sixties unscoped, unchecked wild parametrized token replacement. aka macros.

I am afraid that the list is not complete. Consider the following:

void foo(int);
void foo(double);

Now, foo is no longer a function, but an overload set. An overload set then is a set of 1 or more function. In other words, foo is both a bunch of functions and a name. Overload sets are currently poorly handled by C++. //TODO LINKs

All of this leaves us with a wild and complicated taxonomy of callables and expandables entities in C++. If it feels like it grew organically it is because it did. All of these features were added over time, and the whole is not necessarily as cohesive as one would like.

Have you noticed that enormous gap, the giant evolutionary void between macros and immediate functions?

There are basically two schools of thoughts when it comes to preprocessor macros in C++. People either think that they are sufficient or that nothing can replace their expressiveness and so feel that the design space is not worth exploring.

Or that macros are so terrible that their name shall not be spoken and that the whole concept is cursed and should be left alone. As if they Feared an Untamed Dragon reign over that landscape.

Yet, a few proposals have emerged in that design space.

  • [P0927] Towards A (Lazy) Forwarding Mechanism for C++
  • [P1221] Parametric Expressions

I do not find [P0927] very interesting. It strives to allow evaluation of parameters in the context of the callee rather than the callee. Lazy evaluation is useful in a lot of contexts and the paper gives a lot of good motivational use cases. The issue is, a macro system gives you lazy evaluation and a whole more. [P0927] basically suggest a bit of syntactical sugar over expressions-wrapped-in-a-lambda. Nothing new under the sun.

I frankly hope this proposal will not be pursued, as it offers a narrow solution to a general problem, which is something that has always been an issue in that design space.

Parametric Expressions

Parametric Expressions, on the other hand, is a lot more exciting. There are a lot of things to love about Jason Rice’s work.

But, I have to complain about the name. Parametric Expressions. Jason is very careful not to awaken the Fearsome Undefeated Deamon, but let’s call a cat a cat, shall we? What this paper proposes is a full-blown syntactical macro system for C++.

Oh no. I said the M word. Not this one. The other M word.

But macros, done right, are a good thing. Repeat after me: “There is more than one kind of macros and macros are good for me”.

We also need to get our terminology in order. Macros don’t get called or invoked, they are not callable. No stack frame is involved, not even at a conceptual level Instead, they get expanded. The code is injected at the expansion site. This is what makes macro fundamentally different from functions. But you will notice that inlined functions and immediate functions can be thought of as expanding.

I am unfair. Parametric Expressions is not a completely terrible name. Indeed, they are entities taking parameters and expanding to expressions. Notably, they can not expand to statements, even less partially-formed statements. And mercifully, they can never expand to an unchecked token soup.

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