Private Extension Methods


This proposal adds a new mechanism for declaring non-virtual private class methods and static private class methods outside of the class definition.

Impact on the standard

This proposal is a core language extension. It does not require any new keywords. It proposes one additional syntax by reusing an existing keyword in a manner congruent with the keyword's original purpose. The new feature does not break any legacy code. Some expressions which used to be a compilation error are now valid C++.

Motivation: Problem Definition

Good class design follows the principle of encapsulation. The game of encapsulation is the game of hiding as many details as possible, exposing only the minimum of details required for the users to use the interface. By minimizing the exposed information, we reduce the complexity of our interface, making it easier to understand and use. We also give ourselves much more freedom and flexibility with implementation. Any class details not present in the interface can be changed without affecting the users of the interface.

Analysis of the quality of encapsulation enabled by the C++ class model

We will perform an analysis of encapsulation provided by the C++ class mechanism. In C++, a system interface can take the form of a class definition. This class definition is normally written in a header file, in order to allow its use in multiple translation units. In order to maximize encapsulation, we must minimize the number of class details in the interface to the bare minimum required by the users of the class.

The following table lists all of the aspects that make up a class. It lists whether or not they are required to be in the class definition. The next 2 columns describe how each aspect is used by the programmer using the class directly and the child class inheriting from it. The last column describes when the compiler needs the aspect to be visible in order to implement the language.

#AspectRequired in class definition?UserInheritorCompiler
1 Public data member definitions Yuseusesizeof(), method definitions
2 Protected data member definitions Yusesizeof(), method definitions
3 Private data member definitions Ysizeof(), method definitions
4 Public virtual method declarations Ycalloverride, callvtable
5 Protected virtual method declarations Yoverride, callvtable
6 Private virtual method declarations Yoverridevtable
7 Public non-virtual method declarations Ycallcallonly at call site
8 Protected non-virtual method declarations Ycallonly at call site
9 Private non-virtual method declarations Yonly at call site
10 Public static method declarations Ycallcallonly at call site
11 Protected static method declarations Ycallonly at call site
12 Private static method declarations Yonly at call site
13 friend declarations Yonly at friend definition
14 All member function definitions Nonly for inlining

Let us examine this table and try to deconstruct which aspects required in the class definition are actually part of the class interface and which are implementation details. First, the public and protected aspects must be a part of the interface because they are directly exposed to class user and the child class who inherits. Private virtual methods are also part of the interface to the child class because the child class may choose to override them.

Now we are left with the following:

Private data members are not technically part of the interface as they cannot be accessed by users or child classes. Here we run into practical considerations. The compiler needs to know the size of the entire object in order to create instances of it. The size cannot be computed without seeing all of the data members, regardless of access control. Developers who wish to increase encapsulation by hiding the private data members can use the PIMPL idiom at the expense of run time efficiency.

Friend declarations also are not technically part of the interface. However, allowing friend declarations to be declared anywhere would make it very easy for users to abuse friends in order to break access control. This proposal does not address any aspects of the friend feature and we will not speak of it again.

The leaves us with the non-virtual private methods and static private methods. The direct users and child classes cannot call private methods so they do not need to see their signatures, much much less know of their existence. The compiler also does not need to aware of the private methods signatures until they are called. On all major platforms, changing the non-virtual private methods (which are not called by inline functions) does not affect the ABI of the class itself [KDEABI].

We conclude that non-virtual private method and private static member function declarations are not a part of the class interface and thus should not be required in the class definition.

Practical Concerns

High level discussions about encapsulation aside, there are some very real practical problems that arise from requiring private method declarations in the class definition.

Problem Solution

We propose that private non-virtual methods and private static methods should be able to be declared outside of the class definition. Not only does this change not break encapsulation, it actually improves encapsulation because unessessary implementation details are being removed from the interface. Unlike PIMPL or other related encapsulation techniques, this new feature has no run time overhead. We believe the implementation of this feature could also be another step towards modules in C++.

As a side note, some programming languages provide a mixin feature which allows programmers to reopen a class and extend its interface arbitrarily. We are not proposing or even endorsing any form of mixin here. Adding, removing, or changing private methods does not change the interface of the class.

High Level Description

The basic idea behind this proposal is simple. Just allow the programmer to declare additional class non-virtual private methods and static private methods which are not present in the class definition. We call these additional class methods private extension methods (PEM) and private static extension member functions (PSEMF).

Declaring private extension methods

In order to declare a PEM, we simply declare a new class member function outside of the class definition and prefix it with the private keyword:


class Foo {
    int pubf(); //<-public member function
    int _i;

    int _privf(); //<-private member function

//Private extension method _priv_extf()
private void Foo::_priv_extf() {

//Definition of pubf(). Calls our extension method.
int Foo::pubf() {
  return _privf();

//Definition of _privf()
int Foo::_privf() {
   return _i * 2;

We can also declare PEMs in header files. This allows us to separate the class implementation into multiple source files and share PEMs between them. The next example shows the possibilities.

foo.hh (public header file, exposed to library users)

class Foo {
    int pub1();

    int pubx();
    int puby();
    int _x;
    int _y;

    int _priv1();

//Declare a PEM in the class header file.
//In this case, the effect is the same as declaring it within the class
//definition. Using an extension method here instead of declaring in the
//class definition is merely a stylistic choice.

//pub2() is inlined and calls _priv1() and _priv2(), so we need to see
//both of them at this point. This can be accomplished by including them
//within the class definition or declaring an extension method as shown
//by the examples of _priv1() and _priv2().
inline int pub2() { return _priv1() + _priv2(); }

foo_impl.hh (private header file)

//Here our private header file defines more extension methods
private int Foo::_priv3();
inline private int Foo::_priv4() { return _priv3() + 42; } (private implementation file)

//Another PEM defined only in this translation unit.
//We should probably give this method internal linkage (see below).
private int Foo::_transform_x() {
  return _x * x + 50;

//implementation of pubx()
int Foo::pubx() {
  return _transform_x() * _priv4();
} (private implementation file)

//implementation of puby()
int Foo::puby() {
  return _y + _priv4();

Private extension constructors

We can also declare additional private constructors:

class Foo {

//PEM constructor
private Foo::Foo(int i, int j) : _i(i), _j(j) {}

//Public constructor delegates to the private extension constructor
Foo::Foo() : Foo(0, 0) {}

Note that we cannot declare private extension default constructors, copy constructors, copy assignment, move constructor, move assignment, or destructors. All of the following are errors:

class Foo {};

private Foo::Foo(); //Error: Cannot declare a PEM default constructor!
private Foo::Foo(const Foo&); //Error: Cannot declare a PEM copy constructor!
private Foo& Foo::operator=(const Foo&); //Error: Cannot declare a PEM copy assignment operator!
private Foo::Foo(Foo&&); //Error: Cannot declare a PEM move constructor!
private Foo& Foo::operator=(Foo&&); //Error: Cannot declare a PEM move assignment operator!
private Foo::~Foo(); //Error: Cannot declare a PEM destructor!

Class Definition visibility and the private keyword

Any class method which has been declared but not found in the class definition requires the private keyword, otherwise a compiler error will ensue. Likewise any method definition which has been previously declared in the class definition must not be prefixed by the private keyword. For this reason, all class method declarations will require the class definition to been previously seen.

The following are compilation errors:

private void Foo::_p1(); //<-Error: class definition not visible here!

class Foo {
  void _p2();

void Foo::_p3(); //<-Error: PEMs must use the private keyword!
private void Foo::_p2() {} //<-Error: member function definitions cannot use the private keyword!

Static Member Functions

As was discussed earlier, static private member functions are also implementation details and do not belong in the class definition. We can define static private extension member functions by adding the static keyword after the private keyword:

class Foo {
    static int sf();

private void Foo::_f1(); //<-PEM

private static int Foo::_f2() { return 42; } //<-PSEMF
int Foo::sf() { return _f2(); }

The static keyword must appear after private. The reason will be shown in the next section.

Internal Linkage

Most private extension methods are likely to be used only within one translation unit (TU). Symbols used within only one TU can be given internal linkage. This reduces the number of symbols in the entire application and allows more aggressive optimizations. For example, the compiler can inline all calls and completely remove the function body from the compiled binary.

The Static keyword

We would like to enable internal linkage for PEMs. This is also enabled by the static keyword, in the same manner as other symbols. To give internal linkage to a PEM, we include the static keyword before the private keyword.

class Foo {

private void Foo::_f1(); //<-PEM
private static void Foo::_f2(); //<-PEM with internal linkage
static private void Foo::_f3(); //<-PSEMF
static private static void Foo::_f4(); //<-PSEMF with internal linkage

Anonymous namespaces

The other method used in C++ to enable internal linkage is the use of anonymous name spaces. The anonymous namespace presents something of a conundrum for PEMs. Class methods always exist in the same namespace as the class itself. Declaring a PEM within an anonymous namespace would seem to be defining a method of a class within a different namespace as that of the class itself. We are opting to allow this feature, but are willing to forego it should the committee decide against it. We already have the static keyword for internal linkage so it would not be a huge loss if anonymous namespaces were not supported.

class Foo {

namespace {
  private int Foo::_f1()

We will require that the anonymous namespace is a member of the namespace of the class.

namespace A {
  class X {};    

namespace A {
  namespace {
    private X::_a(); //<-Ok, PEM for A::X.
  namespace B {
    namespace {
      private X::_b(); //Error: Tried to declare a PEM for non-existent class A::B::X.

namespace C {
  private X::_c(); //Error: Tried to declare a PEM for non-existent class C::X

private X::_d(); //Error: Tried to declare a PEM for non-existent class ::X

An ambiguity can result if the same name is used in the parent namespace and anonymous namespace. This can be resolved using a full qualification.

namespace A {
  class X {};
  namespace {
    class X {};

    private X::_a(); //Declares a PEM for X within the anonymous namespace, with internal linkage.

    private A::X::_a(); //Declares a PEM for A::X with internal linkage.

Class Templates and PEMs

Class templates are supported in the natural way and do not require any special rules or caveats.

template <typename T>
class X {};

template <typename T>
private void X<T>::_f1(); //<-PEM for class template X

template <>
private void X<int>::_f2(); //<-Specialization of PEM for X<int>

Explicit instantiation of a class template will instantiate all of it's member functions. This will recursively instantiate only the PEMs (and additional PEMs called by these, in a recursive manner) called by those member functions. This procedure follows the same rules as explicit instantiation of a class template which calls free function templates.

template <typename T>
class X {
    void f(); 

template <typename T>
private void X<T>::_f1() { //<-PEM for class template
  /* stuff */

template <typename T>
private void X<T>::_f2() { //<-PEM for class template
  /* stuff */

//templated f() calls both _f1() and _f2()
template <typename T>
private void X<T>::f() {

//Some specializations of f()
template <> void X<char>::f() { _f2(); }
template <> void X<int>::f() { _f1(); }
template <> void X<float>::f() { }
template <> void X<double>::f() { _f1(); }

//A specialization of _f1()
template <>
private void X<double>::_f1() { _f2(); }

//Explicit instantiations
template class X<char>;  /* Will instantiate the following:
                          * X<char>::f();
                          * X<char>::_f2();
template class X<short>; /* Will instantiate the following:
                          * X<short>::f();
                          * X<short>::_f1();
                          * X<short>::_f2();
template class X<int>;   /* Will instantiate the following:
                          * X<int>::f();
                          * X<int>::_f1();
template class X<float>; /* Will instantiate the following:
                          * X<float>::f();
template class X<double>;/* Will instantiate the following:
                          * X<double>::f();
                          * X<double>::_f2();
                          * X<double>::_f1();

Technical Summary

In summary, this proposal makes the following changes to the standard:

Counter Arguments

We will now address some arguments against this proposal.

Violating Access Control

One immediate and common objection to this proposal is that it may break encapsulation by allowing the programmer to subvert access control. By definition, a PEM has private access control and thus they cannot be called outside of the class scope. There is however, one exploit discovered by Richard Smith where merely the existence of an additional class method which is never called allows a violation of access control.

class A {
  int n;
  A() : n(42) {}

template<typename T> struct X {
  static decltype(T()()) t;
template<typename T> decltype(T()()) X<T>::t = T()();

int A::*p;
private int A::expose_private_member() { // note, not called anywhere
  struct DoIt {
    int operator()() {
      p = &A::n;
      return 0;
  return X<DoIt>::t; // odr-use of X<DoIt>::t triggers instantiation

int main() {
  A a;
  return a.*p; // read private member

This example would be a newly introduced standards conforming way to violate access control if this proposal were to be accepted.

This is not actually a problem. This example is artificially contrived to exploit access control. It is not a common error that would be made by novies nor is it an obvious or easy to use tool to abuse access control and write poor interfaces. Indeed, many methods of violating access control already exist within the current language [GotW076]. We agree with the author of that article.

"The issue here is of protecting against Murphy vs. protecting against Machiavelli... that is, protecting against accidental misuse (which the language does very well) vs. protecting against deliberate abuse (which is effectively impossible). In the end, if a programmer wants badly enough to subvert the system, he'll find a way," [GotW076].

Modules will solve this problem

Maybe they will, maybe they won't. Modules are still not very well defined. We do not know what modules will look like when and if they finally arrive. This proposal aims to solve a real problem in language now rather than the unknown future. It has low implementation overhead. This proposal could also be seen as a step towards implementing a more complete solution with modules.

There are already current workarounds

Likely the most compelling argument against the proposal is that there are already a set of current workarounds. Friends and/or nested classes can be used to implement a partial variant of PEM in the current language. For this workaround, nested classes are superior to friends because they can be further extended with additional nested sub classes where as all friends have to be declared in the original class definition. An example is provided.

Public header file:

class X {
    void doWork();

    int _i;

    struct XHelper;

Private implementation:

struct X::XHelper {
  static void doWorkHelper(X& x) { //<-PEM
    x._i = 42;

  struct XHelper2;

struct X::XHelper::XHelper2 {
  static void doMoreWorkHelper(X& x) { //<-PEM

void X::doWork() {

Pratically, this achieves most of the benefits of PEM, but it has some drawbacks:

Alternatives and Additions

The current approach uses the private keyword to declare a PEM or PSEMF. What are the consequences of this syntax?



Might there be a better approach? We will discuss some alternatives.

Use a different keyword

We could use a keyword other than private. Here are some possible candidates, we believe them all to be inferior to private.

Remove the keyword

Another approach is to avoid the use of a keyword entirely. This creates a problem with the double meaning of the static keyword. We resolve it by moving the static keyword after the entire function signature, similar to const.

class Foo {};

void Foo::_f1(); //<-PEM
void Foo::_f2() static; //<-PSEMF
static void Foo::_f3(); //<-PEM with internal linkage
static void Foo::_f4() static; //<-PSEMF with internal linkage



Reopening the class scope

One possible addition to this proposal would be to allow reopening the class private scope to add not only new member functions but also typedefs and nested types. This is somewhat reminiscent of the style of the extern "C" feature. Credit goes to Péter Radics for the initial idea for the idea of reopening the class scope and Vicente J. Botet Escriba for the handy syntax using private.

class Foo {};

private Foo { //<-Reopen Foo's private scope

  void _f(); //<-PEM
  static void _g(); //<-PSEMF

  int _x; //<-A static data member. We cannot add data members to Foo! 
          //Maybe this should be a compiler error?
  static int _y; //<-Another static data member.

  typedef float real; //<-A typedef, which is private to Foo

  class Bar; //<-Forward declaration of a nested class Foo::Bar

  class Baz {}; //<-Define a nested class Foo::Baz

  friend class Gaz; //<-Error: Cannot declare extended friends! This is a horrible break in encapsulation!

static private Foo { //<-Ropen Foo's private scope again, this time with internal linkage
  /* stuff */

namespace {
   private Foo { //<-Reopen yet again with internal linkage using anonymous namespace.
     /* stuff */

Internal Linkage by Default

Several people have suggested that perhaps PEMs should always have internal linkage by default, requiring an extra keyword for external linkage. We could use the extern keyword to denote external linkage. This would also allow the static keyword to freely move before and after the private keyword. We also avoid the need for anonymous namespaces.

The syntax for this idea might look like the following:

class Foo {};

private void Foo::_f1(); //<-PEM with internal linkage
extern private void Foo::_f2(); //<-PEM with external linkage
private static void Foo::_f3(); //<-PSEMF with internal linkage
static private void Foo::_f3(); //<-PSEMF with internal linkage
extern private static void Foo::_f3(); //<-PSEMF with external linkage
extern static private void Foo::_f3(); //<-PSEMF with external linkage


Thank you to everyone on the std proposals forum for feedback and suggestions.


SavedURI :Show URL