ISO/IEC JTC1 SC22 WG21 P2340R1
To: LEWG, LWG, SG22Thomas Köppe <email@example.com>
We propose to move the specification of “[depr.c.headers] C headers” from Annex D into the main document, and changing those headers’ status from “deprecated” to an explicitly discussed state “for foreign-language interoperability only”.
The C++ standard library includes large parts of the standard library of ISO C: where ISO
C provides a header
<name.h>, C++ provides a header
<cname> with names declared in namespace
<cstddef> defines a type
std::size_t. Additionally, C++ has always shipped a second set of
headers, called “C headers”, which are also of the
<name.h>, just like in C — but note that these are
simply part of the C++ standard library and thus of C++. These headers define the names in
the global namespace. (Additionally, either class of headers is optionally allowed to also
declare names in the respective other namespace. This cannot be portably relied upon,
however, it does have the effect of making the names in question reserved in the global
Ever since C++ has been an ISO standard, the C headers have been “deprecated”, which in ISO parlance means “no longer in use”, “discouraged”, or “subject to future removal”. However, this is inappropriate: The C headers are a necessary part of the C++ ecosystem. What is missing from the status quo is a nuanced discussion of what the headers are and are not for. We will lay out these nuanced points now.
The principal purpose of the C headers is for interoperability with ISO C, and
with any other systems that use C’s de-facto ABI and linkage conventions. For example,
in C++ the header
<stddef.h> does not just define the same names as the
header of the same name in C, but the names actually mean the same, and this extends to the
names defined by
<cstddef>. For example, a C++ program may include that
header, declare a function
extern "C" void f(std::size_t), and call that
function. The function can be defined by a C translation unit, compiled with a C compiler,
void f(size_t) (after including
This is not explicitly guaranteed to work by either language standard, but is universally
relied upon by real ecosystems. The existence of “C language linkage” suggests
that such interoperation is intended to work.
Finally, this allows us to articulate the role of the “C headers” in C++: These headers are necessary for polyglot interoperability code, i.e. code that is required to be at once valid C++ and also valid C. Typically, such code consists of header files which are included from both languages, and functions defined in those headers may be defined either in C++ or in C translation units. The headers are not useful in code that is only required to be valid C++. Therefore, the C headers should be provided by the C++ standard library as a fully-supported, not deprecated part, but they should also be discouraged for use in code that is not polyglot interoperability code.
Within pure C++ code, the use of the “proper”
headers has several advantages:
<cname>header: special maths functions,
std::nullptr_t. It would be burdensome to add an exception to explain how to get those facilities.
std::something” reminds the author (or reviewer) to check for the relevant header inclusion. By comparison, it is easier to miss an unqualified “
size_t” and spot a missing header inclusion.
Note that the headers
are entirely trivial and only exist because their ISO C counterpart is necessary in C
programs. Pure C++ code has no need for these headers, and so there is no
<cname> header. Yet the existence of the trivial
<name.h> header is critical.
The fate of the “C headers” has been brought up in P2139. During a telecon discussion, LEWG and that paper’s author agreed that the topic should be handled by a separate paper, and there was general consensus that the current, deprecated status of the headers is wrong. Feedback to a draft of this proposal was generally positive, but included three noteworthy arguments that we would like to record here.
The first argument was that we should take a wider look at C interoperability, and perhaps even consider language support for addressing the way in which the “C names” are declared in two namespaces. The author of P2139 has also expressed interest in exploring farther-reaching language changes to support interoperability. However, this is out of scope for the current proposal, in which we only want to make one small change to elevate the headers from their current deprecated status to a place where they are a regular, normative feature, explicitly encouraged for polyglot code, and discouraged for pure C++ code that never needs to be valid C.
The second argument from a long-time committee member was that we should not overturn existing committee decisions without new information. In this author’s opinion, however, which seems to resonate with many other committee members, that original decision (which goes back to the first standard, C++98) was never quite perfect in the first place, and many have since come to regard the deprecated status of the headers as a mistake. From observing the situation for several years, we have reached the conclusion that the subject has simply been too marginal and irrelevant to motivate action, and we simply want to pick up that unfinished business with this proposal.
The third argument was that C and C++ should look as similar as possible (which would speak for using the unqualified names from the “C headers”). This author does not share that opinion, and instead believes that users should develop language fluency for each language as appropriate for that language. When writing C++, C++ sensibilities should come into play; it is not helpful to C++ code health if C++ code is made to look like a different language. The aforementioned connection between reading a namespace qualification and remembering to check for header inclusion is a valuable part of C++ fluency that simply does not apply to C, and it should not be abandoned because of C. When writing polyglot C and C++ code, one is addressing two audiences and needs fluency in both their languages, rather than hypothetical fluency in one hypothetical “common subset”.
Finally, we would like to repeat that this proposal is an overall improvement for everybody: Currently, the “C headers” are deprecated for everyone, meaning that they are notionally at the risk of future removal from the Standard (which we know will not happen). Under this proposal, the headers become normatively encouraged for polyglot code, and discouraged for pure C++ code. In light of other proposals in the area of C interoperability, it should be appreciated that the proposal makes the headers normatively encouraged for code that is intended to be both valid C++ and valid C. Discouragement is only given for code that is only C++.
There is no change to the actual content of the Standard. This proposal makes the C headers no longer deprecated, so there is no formal threat of future removal. The effective discouragement to use the C headers in pure C++ code is now spelled out explicitly as normative discouragement.
Move [depr.c.headers] to Clause [17, support]
D.11 C Headers [ depr.c.headers] D.11.1 General [ depr.c.headers.general]
For compatibility with the C standard library, the C++ standard library provides
the C headers shown in
[Table 149, tab:depr.c.headers].
Move the remainder of the subclause as is.