Inheriting from std::variant

Resolving LWG3052

Document #: P2162R1
Date: 2020-08-13
Project: Programming Language C++
Audience: LEWG
Reply-to: Barry Revzin

1 Revision History

Since [P2162R0], added more information in the implementation experience section.

2 Introduction

[LWG3052] describes an under-specification to std::visit:

the Requires element imposes no explicit requirements on the types in Variants. Notably, the Variants are not required to be variants. This lack of constraints appears to be simply an oversight.

The original proposal [P0088R3] makes no mention of other kinds of of variants besides std::variant, and this does not appear to have been discussed in LEWG.

The proposed resolution in the library issue is to make std::visit only work if all of the Variants are, in fact, std::variants:

Remarks: This function shall not participate in overload resolution unless remove_cvref_t<Variantsi> is a specialization of variant for all 0 <= i < n.

This paper suggests a different direction. Instead of restricting to just std::variant (and certainly not wanting to go all out and design a “variant-like” interface), this paper proposes to allow an additional category of useful types to be std::visit()-ed: those that publicly and unambiguously inherit from a specialization of std::variant.

3 Inheriting from variant

There are two primary motivators for inheriting from std::variant.

One is to simply extend functionality. If we’re using variant to represent a state machine, we may want additional operations that are relevant to our state that variant doesn’t itself provide:

struct State : variant<Disconnected, Connecting, Connected>
    using variant::variant;
    bool is_connected() const {
        return std::holds_alternative<Connected>(*this);
    friend std::ostream& operator<<(std::ostream&, State const&) {
        // ...

Another may be to create a recursive variant, as in the example from [P1371R2]:

struct Expr;

struct Neg {
    std::shared_ptr<Expr> expr;

struct Add {
    std::shared_ptr<Expr> lhs, rhs;

struct Mul {
    std::shared_ptr<Expr> lhs, rhs;

struct Expr : std::variant<int, Neg, Add, Mul> {
    using variant::variant;

namespace std {
    template <> struct variant_size<Expr> : variant_size<Expr::variant> {};
    template <std::size_t I> struct variant_alternative<I, Expr> : variant_alternative<I, Expr::variant> {};

That paper even has an example of passing an Expr to std::visit() directly, a use-case that this paper is seeking to properly specify. It would be pretty nice if that just worked.

Note also that the example includes an explicit specialization of variant_size and variant_alternative that just forward along to Expr’s base class. These specializations are pure boilerplate - they basically have to look the way they do, so they don’t really offer much in the way of adding value to the program.

4 Implementation Approach

The proposed resolution of LWG3052 is to, basically, add this constraint onto std::visit:

template <typename Visitor, typename... Variants>
    requires (is_specialization_of_v<remove_cvref_t<Variants>, variant> && ...)
constexpr decltype(auto) visit(Visitor&&, Variants&&) {
    // as today

This paper proposes instead that visit conditionally upcasts all of its incoming variants to std::variant specializations:

template <typename Visitor, typename... Variants>
    requires (is_specialization_of_v<remove_cvref_t<Variants>, variant> && ...)
constexpr decltype(auto) visit(Visitor&&, Variants&&) {
    // as today

template <typename... Ts>
constexpr auto variant_cast(std::variant<Ts...>& v) -> std::variant<Ts...>& {
    return v;
template <typename... Ts>
constexpr auto variant_cast(std::variant<Ts...> const& v) -> std::variant<Ts...> const& {
    return v;
template <typename... Ts>
constexpr auto variant_cast(std::variant<Ts...>&& v) -> std::variant<Ts...>&& {
    return std::move(v);
template <typename... Ts>
constexpr auto variant_cast(std::variant<Ts...> const&& v) -> std::variant<Ts...> const&& {
    return std::move(v);

template <typename Visitor, typename... Variants>
constexpr decltype(auto) visit(Visitor&& vis, Variants&&... vars) {
    return visit(std::forward<Visitor>(vis),

This means the body of std::visit for implementations can remain unchanged - it, as today, can just assume that all the variants are indeed std::variants. Such an implementation would allow visitation of the State and Expr examples provided earlier.

Now, this means we can std::visit a variant that we can’t even invoke std::get or std::get_if on, such as with this delightful type courtesy of Tim Song:

struct MyEvilVariantBase {
    int index;
    char valueless_by_exception;

struct MyEvilVariant : std::variant<int, long>, std::tuple<int>, MyEvilVariantBase { };

But… who cares. Don’t write types like that.

5 Implementation Experience

The Microsoft STL implementation already supports exactly this design [stlstl] since the first Visual Studio 2019 release in April 2019.

The libc++ implementation has supported nearly this design since day one [libcpp]. While the incoming variants to visit are upcast to specializations of std::variant, the member function valueless_by_exception() is invoked directly on the arguments. The spirit of the implementation matches the intent of this paper, though it does technically break on Tim’s example (but does work fine on any types that inherit from std::variant without touching valueless_by_exception() – and it’s just the valueless_by_exception member that causes the problem, the index member doesn’t).

When I pointed out to Tim that libc++’s variant only breaks for absurd types that do things like have a member named valueless_by_exception, he followed up by providing a different absurd type that instead breaks by inheriting from std::type_info:

struct MyEvilVariant : std::variant<int, long>, std::type_info { };
using x = decltype(std::visit([](auto){},     // error for libc++
    std::declval<MyEvilVariant>()));          // ambiguous look on __impl

The libstdc++ implementation used to support visiting inheriting variants in gcc 8, but then stopped supporting them in gcc 9 - only because its check for whether the variant can be never valueless only works for std::variant specializations directly [libstdcpp]. I filed a bug report [gcc.90943] to get them to start supporting again, but that bug report has been suspended pending the resolution of the library issue in question.

Boost.Variant supports visiting inherited variants. Boost.Variant2 will start supporting visiting inherited variants in Boost 1.74. [boost.variant2].

6 Wording

Change 20.7.7 [variant.visit]:

template<class Visitor, class... Variants>
  constexpr see below visit(Visitor&& vis, Variants&&... vars);
template<class R, class Visitor, class... Variants>
  constexpr R visit(Visitor&& vis, Variants&&... vars);

-2 Let as-variant denote the exposition-only function template

template<class... Ts>
const variant<Ts...>& as-variant(const variant<Ts...>& var) { return var; }

Let n be sizeof...(Variants). For each 0 <= i < n, let Vi denote the the type remove_cvref_t<decltype(as-variant(varsi))>.

-1 Constraints: Vi is a valid type for all 0 <= i < n.

0 Let VRi denote the type Vi with the addition of Varianti’s cv and reference qualifiers. Let VR denote the pack of types VRi.

1 Let n be sizeof...(Variants). Let m be a pack of n values of type size_t. Such a pack is called valid if 0 <= mi < variant_size_v<remove_reference_t<Variantsi> Vi> for all 0 <= i < n. For each valid pack m, let e(m) denote the expression:

- INVOKE(std::forward<Visitor>(vis), get<m>(std::forward<Variants>(vars))...) // see [func.require]
+ INVOKE(std::forward<Visitor>(vis), get<m>(std::forward<VR>(vars))...) // see [func.require]

for the first form and

- INVOKE<R>(std::forward<Visitor>(vis), get<m>(std::forward<Variants>(vars))...) // see [func.require]
+ INVOKE<R>(std::forward<Visitor>(vis), get<m>(std::forward<VR>(vars))...) // see [func.require]

for the second form.

2 Mandates: For each valid pack m, e(m) is a valid expression. All such expressions are of the same type and value category.

3 Returns: e(m), where m is the pack for which mi is varsi.index() as-variant(varsi).index() for all 0 <= i < n. The return type is decltype(e(m)) for the first form.

4 Throws: bad_variant_access if any variant in vars is valueless_by_exception() if (as-variant(vars).valueless_by_exception() || ...) is true.

5 Complexity: For n <= 1, the invocation of the callable object is implemented in constant time, i.e., for n=1, it does not depend on the number of alternative types of Variants0 V0. For n>1, the invocation of the callable object has no complexity requirements.

6.1 Feature-test macro

This paper proposes to bump the value __cpp_lib_variant. The macro already exists, so this is, in a sense, free. And users can use the value of this macro to avoid having to specialize variant_size and variant_alternative for their inherited variants.

7 Acknowledgments

Thanks to Casey Carter, Ville Voutilainen, and the unfortunately non-alliterative Tim Song for design discussion and help with the wording.

8 References

[boost.variant2] Peter Dimov. 2020. Support derived types in visit.

[gcc.90943] Barry Revzin. 2019. Visiting inherited variants no longer works in 9.1.

[LWG3052] Casey Carter. visit is underconstrained.

[P0088R3] Axel Naumann. 2016. Variant: a type-safe union for C++17 (v8).

[P1371R2] Sergei Murzin, Michael Park, David Sankel, Dan Sarginson. 2020. Pattern Matching.

[P2162R0] Barry Revzin. 2020. Inheriting from std::variant (resolving LWG3052).