Doc. No.: N3694
Date: 2013-06-27
Reply to: Clark Nelson
Title: Feature-testing recommendations for C++

Feature-testing recommendations for C++


The more time that passes without any sort of feature-testing recommendation, the more confusion will affect programmers and implementers interested in features of C++14, of the sort that has plagued C++11 for years. So whatever action should be taken in this arena should not be delayed any more than can be avoided.

SG10 intends to produce its recommendations solely as a WG21 document, without any balloting at higher levels. This is partly to save time, but also to avoid making significant conformance changes. It is hoped that compiler and library implementers will follow these recommendations voluntarily, even without the threat of claims of non-conformance. To improve the chances of that happening, it is considered important to have a record of the endorsement of WG21 – or at least of the C++ technical experts who attend WG21 meetings.

So SG10 would like to bring this document forward for some sort of approval vote at the Chicago meeting. Formally speaking, no action by the committee is requested, so this vote should probably be just a straw poll.

Note that this document recommends that the __has_include feature be provided in the C++14 time frame, even though it is not included in the CD for C++14. A conceivable alternative would be to add __has_include to C++14 before its final publication.

This revision of this document contains STUBS for sections expected to be filled in later.


  1. Explanation and rationale for the approach
    1. Problem statement
    2. Status quo
    3. Characteristics of the proposed solution
  2. Recommendations
    1. Introduction
    2. Testing for the presence of a header: __has_include
    3. C++14 features
    4. C++11 features (STUB)
    5. Conditionally-supported constructs (STUB)
    6. C++98 features (STUB)
  3. Detailed explanation and rationale
    1. C++14 features

Explanation and rationale for the approach

Problem statement

The pace of innovation in the standardization of C++ makes long-term stability of implementations unlikely. Features are added to the language because programmers want to use those features. Features are added to (the working draft of) the standard as the features become well-specified. In many cases a feature is added to an implementation well before or well after the standard officially introducing it is approved.

This process makes it difficult for programmers who want to use a feature to know whether it is available in any given implementation. Implementations rarely leap from one formal revision of the standard directly to the next; the implementation process generally proceeds by smaller steps. As a result, testing for a specific revision of the standard (e.g. by examining the value of the __cplusplus macro) often gives the wrong answer. Implementers generally don't want to appear to be claiming full conformance to a standard revision until all of its features are implemented. That leaves programmers with no portable way to determine which features are actually available to them.

It is often possible for a program to determine, in a manner specific to a single implementation, what features are supported by that implementation; but the means are often poorly documented and ad hoc, and sometimes complex – especially when the availability of a feature is controlled by an invocation option. To make this determination for a variety of implementations in a single source base is complex and error-prone.

Status quo

Here is some code that attempts to determine whether rvalue references are available in the implementation in use:

  #if (__GNUC__ > 4 || __GNUC__ == 4 && __GNUC_MINOR__ >= 3) || \
      _MSC_VER >= 1600
    #if __EDG_VERSION__ > 0
      #define __USE_RVALUE_REFERENCES (__EDG_VERSION__ >= 410)
      #define __USE_RVALUE_REFERENCES 1
  #elif __clang__
    #define __USE_RVALUE_REFERENCES __has_feature(cxx_rvalue_references)

First, the GNU and Microsoft version numbers are checked to see if they are high enough. But then a check is made of the EDG version number, since that front end also has compatibility modes for both those compilers, and defines macros indicating (claimed) compatibility with them. If the feature wasn't implemented in the indicated EDG version, it is assumed that the feature is not available – even though it is possible for a customer of EDG to implement a feature before EDG does.

Fortunately Clang has ways to test specifically for the presence of specific features. But unfortunately, the function-call-like syntax used for such tests won't work with a standard preprocessor, so this fine new feature winds up adding its own flavor of complexity to the mix.

Also note that this code is only the beginning of a real-world solution. A complete solution would need to take into account more compilers, and also command-line option settings specific to various compilers.

Characteristics of the proposed solution

To preserve implementers' freedom to add features in the order that makes the most sense for themselves and their customers, implementers should indicate the availability of each separate feature by adding a definition of a macro with the name corresponding to that feature.

Important note: By recommending the use of these macros, WG21 is not making any feature optional; the absence of a definition for the relevant feature-test macro does not make an implementation that lacks a feature conform to a standard that requires the feature. However, if implementers and programmers follow these recommendations, portability of code between real-world implementations should be improved.

To a first approximation, a feature is identified by the WG21 paper in which it is specified, and by which it is introduced into the working draft of the standard. Not every paper introduces a new feature worth a feature-test macro, but every paper that is not just a collection of issue resolutions is considered a candidate; exceptions are explicitly justified.

For C++14, it is preferred for the feature-test macro to be named using some combination of words from the title of the paper. In the future, it is hoped that every paper will include its own recommendations concerning feature-test macro names.

The value specified for a feature-test macro is based on the year and month in which the feature is voted into the working draft. In a case where a feature is subsequently changed in a significant way, but arguably remains the same feature, the value of the macro can be changed to indicate the “revision level” of the specification of the feature. However, in most cases it is expected that the presence of a feature can be determined by the presence of any non-zero macro value; for example:

#if __cpp_binary_literals
int const packed_zero_to_three = 0b00011011;
int const packed_zero_to_three = 0x1B;

To avoid the user's namespace, names of macros for language features are prefixed by “__cpp_”; for library features, by “__cpp_lib_”. A library feature that doesn't introduce a new header is expected to be defined by the header(s) that implement the feature.



For the sake of improved portability between partial implementations of various C++ standards, WG21 (the ISO technical committee for the C++ programming language) recommends that implementers and programmers follow the guidelines in this document concerning feature-test macros.

Implementers who provide a new feature should define a macro with the recommended name, in the same circumstances under which the feature is available (for example, taking into account relevant command-line options), to indicate the presence of support for that feature.

Programmers who wish to determine whether a feature is available in an implementation should base that determination on the state of the macro with the recommended name. (The absence of a tested feature may result in a program with decreased functionality, or the relevant functionality may be provided in a different way. A program that strictly depends on support for a feature can just try to use the feature unconditionally; presumably, on an implementation lacking necessary support, translation will fail.)

Testing for the presence of a header: __has_include

It is impossible for a C++ program to directly, reliably and portably determine whether or not a library header is available for inclusion. Conditionally including a header requires the use of a configuration macro, whose setting can be determined by a configuration-test process at build time (reliable, but less portable), or by some other means (often not reliable or portable).

To solve this general problem, WG21 recommends that implementers provide, and programmers use, the __has_include feature.

The following description of this feature is adapted from the Clang 3.4 Language Extensions documentation on All references to the related __has_include_next feature have been deleted, but otherwise the text is verbatim. A more formal description of this feature should be expected in a revision of this document for the pre-Chicago mailing.

Not all development systems have the same include files. The __has_include macro allows you to check for the existence of an include file before doing a possibly failing #include directive. It must be used as an expression in a #if or #elif preprocessing directive.

The __has_include function-like macro takes a single file name string argument that is the name of an include file. It evaluates to 1 if the file can be found using the include paths, or 0 otherwise:

// Note the two possible file name string formats.
#if __has_include("myinclude.h") && __has_include(<stdint.h>)
# include "myinclude.h"

// To avoid problem with compilers not having this macro.
#if defined(__has_include) && __has_include("myinclude.h")
# include "myinclude.h"

To test for this feature, use #if defined(__has_include).

C++14 features

The following table itemizes all the changes that were made to the working draft for C++14 as specified in a WG21 technical document. (Changes that were made as specified in a core or library issue are not included.)

The table is sorted by the section of the standard primarily affected. The “Doc. No.” column links to the paper itself on the committee web site. The “Macro Name” column links to the relevant portion of the “Detailed explanation and rationale” section of this document.

Significant changes to C++14
Doc. No. Title Primary Section Macro Name Value Header
N3472 Binary Literals in the C++ Core Language 2.14 __cpp_binary_literals 201304 predefined
N3323 A Proposal to Tweak Certain C++ Contextual Conversions 4 none
N3648 Wording Changes for Generalized Lambda-capture 5.1 __cpp_init_captures 201304 predefined
N3649 Generic (Polymorphic) Lambda Expressions 5.1 __cpp_generic_lambdas 201304 predefined
N3664 Clarifying Memory Allocation 5.3 none
N3624 Core Issue 1512: Pointer comparison vs qualification conversions 5.9, 5.10 none
N3652 Relaxing constraints on constexpr functions / constexpr member functions and implicit const 5.19, 7.1 __cpp_constexpr 201304 predefined
N3638 Return type deduction for normal functions 7.1 __cpp_decltype_auto 201304 predefined
__cpp_return_type_deduction 201304 predefined
N3639 Runtime-sized arrays with automatic storage duration 8.3 __cpp_runtime_arrays 201304 predefined
N3653 Member initializers and aggregates 8.5 __cpp_aggregate_nsdmi 201304 predefined
N3667 Drafting for Core 1402 12.8 none
N3651 Variable Templates 14, 14.7 __cpp_variable_templates 201304 predefined
N3669 Fixing constexpr member functions without const various none
N3673 C++ Library Working Group Ready Issues Bristol 2013 various none
N3471 Constexpr Library Additions: utilities 20.2-20.4 __cpp_lib_constexpr_functions 201210 <utility>
N3469 Constexpr Library Additions: chrono 20.11 <chrono>
N3470 Constexpr Library Additions: containers 23.3 <array>
N3658 Compile-time integer sequences 20 __cpp_lib_integer_sequence 201304 <utility>
N3668 exchange() utility function 20 __cpp_lib_exchange_function 201304 <utility>
N3670 Wording for Addressing Tuples by Type 20.2-20.4 __cpp_lib_tuples_by_type 201304 <utility>
N3672 A proposal to add a utility class to represent optional objects 20.5 __has_include(<optional>) 1 predefined
N3656 make_unique 20.7 __cpp_lib_make_unique 201304 <memory>
N3421 Making Operator Functors greater<> 20.8 __cpp_lib_transparent_operators 201210 <functional>
N3462 std::result_of and SFINAE 20.9 __cpp_lib_result_of_sfinae 201210 <functional>
N3545 An Incremental Improvement to integral_constant 20.9 __cpp_lib_integral_constant_callable 201304 <type_traits>
N3655 TransformationTraits Redux 20.9 __cpp_lib_transformation_trait_aliases 201304 <type_traits>
N3642 User-defined Literals for Standard Library Types 20.11 __cpp_lib_chrono_udls 201304 <chrono>
21.7 __cpp_lib_string_udls 201304 <string>
N3662 C++ Dynamic Arrays 23.2, 23.3 __has_include(<dynarray>) 1 predefined
N3657 Adding heterogeneous comparison lookup to associative containers 23.4 __cpp_lib_generic_associative_lookup 201304 <map>
N3644 Null Forward Iterators 24.2 __cpp_lib_null_iterators 201304 <iterator>
N3671 Making non-modifying sequence operations more robust 25.2 __cpp_lib_robust_nonmodifying_seq_ops 201304 <algorithm>
N3654 Quoted Strings Library Proposal 27.7 __cpp_lib_quoted_string_io 201304 <iomanip>
N3659 Shared locking in C++ 30.4 __cpp_lib_shared_mutex 201304 <mutex>

C++11 features

STUB: this table should be considered a very rough, preliminary, incomplete draft

Significant features of C++11
Doc. No. Title Primary Section Macro name Value Header
N2249 New Character Types in C++ 2.13 __cpp_unicode_characters 200704 predefined
N2442 Raw and Unicode String Literals Unified Proposal 2.13 __cpp_raw_strings 200710 predefined
__cpp_unicode_literals 200710 predefined
N2765 User-defined Literals 2.13, 13.5 __cpp_user_defined_literals 200809 predefined
N2235 Generalized Constant Expressions 5.19, 7.1 __cpp_constexpr 200704 predefined
N2343 Decltype 7.1 __cpp_decltype 200707 predefined
N2761 Towards support for attributes in C++ 7.6 __cpp_attributes 200809 predefined
N2118 A Proposal to Add an Rvalue Reference to the C++ Language 8.3 __cpp_rvalue_reference 200610 predefined
N2242 Proposed Wording for Variadic Templates 8.3, 14 __cpp_variadic_templates 200704 predefined

Conditionally-supported constructs


C++98 features

STUB: especially for exception handling and RTTI

Detailed explanation and rationale

C++14 features

N3323: A Proposal to Tweak Certain C++ Contextual Conversions

This paper specifies a small change that is considered to be more of a bug fix than a new feature, so no macro is considered necessary.

N3469: Constexpr Library Additions: chrono
N3470: Constexpr Library Additions: containers
N3471: Constexpr Library Additions: utilities

These papers specify closely related, textually minor changes to different library headers. It is considered unlikely that they would be applied to an implementation at different times, so one macro is recommended for all three.

N3624: Core Issue 1512: Pointer comparison vs qualification conversions

This paper contained the wording changes to resolve a core issue. It did not introduce a new feature, so no macro is considered necessary.

N3638: Return type deduction for normal functions

This paper describes two separate features: the ability to deduce the return type of a function from the return statements contained in its body, and the ability to use decltype(auto). These features can be implemented independently, so a macro is recommended for each.

N3642: User-defined Literals for Standard Library Types

This paper specifies user-defined literal operators for two different standard library types, which could be implemented independently. Furthermore, user-defined literal operators are expected to be added later for at least one other library type. So for consistency and flexibility, each type is given its own macro.

N3652: Relaxing constraints on constexpr functions / constexpr member functions and implicit const

The major change proposed by this paper is considered to be strictly a further development of the constexpr feature of C++11. Consequently, the recommendation here is to give an increased value to the macro indicating C++11 support for constexpr.

N3662: C++ Dynamic Arrays

We have a long-term solution that uses __has_include. There was not sufficient support and a number of objections against adding macros to existing library header files, as there was not consensus on a place to put them.

There is also a simple workaround for users that are not using libraries that define the header file: supplying their own header that is further down the search path than the library headers.

N3664: Clarifying Memory Allocation

The substantive change in this paper just relaxes a restriction on implementations. There is no new feature for a programmer to use, so no macro is considered necessary.

N3667: Drafting for Core 1402

This paper contained the wording changes to resolve a core issue. It did not introduce a new feature, so no macro is considered necessary.

N3669: Fixing constexpr member functions without const

This paper contained the wording changes to ensure that a minor change proposed by N3652 did not impact the standard library. It did not introduce a new feature, so no macro is considered necessary.

N3672: A proposal to add a utility class to represent optional objects

See N3662.

N3673: C++ Library Working Group Ready Issues Bristol 2013

This paper was just a collection of library issues. It did not introduce a new feature, so no macro is considered necessary.