Date: 2021-10-15Thomas Köppe <firstname.lastname@example.org>
ISO/IEC JTC1 SC22 WG14 N2856
To: WG14, WG21 liaison (SG22)
__VA_OPT__from P00306R0/N2034 to be clear about balanced parentheses and resulting tokens; added alternative “
__VA_OPT__to make replacement better defined. Not addressed to WG14; a future revision will addressed to WGs 14 and 21.
Note: After an initial presentation of this paper to WG14, the earlier version N2034 has been added to SD3 as a potential future extension for C. C++20 has already adopted this feature (comprising P0306R4 and P1042R1).
This is a proposal to make variadic macros easier to use with no arguments by adding a new
special functional macro
Function-style macros that can have variable arguments suffer from a number of ill-specified corner cases. Consider the following macro definitions:
Invocations of these macros are surprising:
|variable arguments are “|
|variable arguments contain zero tokens|
results in syntax error
|constraint violation||violates 6.10.3p12 (no variable arguments)|
|variable arguments are “|
|variable arguments are “|
|variable arguments are “”|
There are two problems:
...), the invocation must contain at least as many commas as the macro has mandatory parameters. This makes the invocation
However, it is quite natural for a macro invocation with variable arguments
to degenerate to the case where there are no arguments. In the example, we would
F(a) to be replaced with
f(10, a). A more realistic
example is a custom diagnostic facility such as the following:
The complication arises when we consider
H(). We may perhaps wish it to
be replaced with
f(10). However, we may also wish to have a macro such as
which always produces a comma, even when invoked with no arguments. The difference is
that we consider
H() to have zero arguments, whereas we consider
ADD_COMMA() to have one, empty argument.
We would like to make the preprocessor more expressive to allow users to write macros for all of the situations described above. This requires two distinct changes, one simple and the other complex.
Goal 1. Allow the omission of the comma before the variable arguments
in the invocation (i.e. allow
F(a) rather than requiring
Goal 2. Provide a mechanism to express a replacement text that contains
the variable arguments but which contains a separating comma only if the variable
arguments are non-empty (i.e. allow both
f(10, a) and
b) as possible replacements of
F). At the same time, continue to
provide a mechanism that unconditionally contains comma before the (possibly empty)
variable arguments, like
This behaviour of Goal 1 is already supported by many popular compilers as a
non-conforming extension. It is a non-breaking change, since the current syntax
F(a) is a constraint violation. Goal 2 is much harder to solve, since there is
no single simple enhancement of the existing semantics that satisfies all possible
We will step through a series of possible solutions (inspired by existing vendor extensions) and analyse their shortcomings, before presenting the proposed solution.
This approach does not add any new syntax. It merely solves Goal 1 above by allowing
a variadic macro invocation to not contain any variable arguments. However, under this
approach, the absence of variable arguments is taken as a request to delete an
existing comma immediately preceding the
This is a minimal, unsurprising extension. However, it suffers from the major draw-back that it offers no mechanism to delete a trailing comma from a variadic macro with zero mandatory parameters.
A variant of this extension is currently provided by MSVC++ and Embarcadero compilers,
which always delete the comma, even in the case of zero mandatory arguments. Another
possible extension is to provide those semantics under a new name (e.g.
This approach also allows the omission of the variable arguments,
and in addition it reuses the concatenation operator
to control comma deletion explicitly:
This extension is somewhat difficult to explain, but it generally Does What You Want. The
complete omission of variable arguments is required for comma deletion (compare
F2(a)), though omission of the variable arguments alone is not
enough to delete the comma (compare
F1(a, ) and
F1(a)), but the
case of zero mandatory parameters is special, and in that case it is mere absence of tokens
from the variable arguments that enables the comma deletion when the
The downside of this extension is three-fold: 1) Parsing this syntax requires look-ahead, adding cost to the translation. 2) The extension reuses an unrelated piece of syntax, muddling the language. 3) The extension hides its dependency on the presence or absence of the variable arguments and whether the variable arguments contain tokens in subtle and non-explicit ways.
A rather more different approach abandons the use of C99’s
token in favour of something like
#define F(X, Args...) or
...Args). GCC has long provided the former (where the replacement text would use
Args for the variable arguments, and
, ##Args (with mandatory
whitespace after the comma!) requests comma deletion). The template-pack-like syntax
...Args does not appear to be used by any preprocessor and may provide a
less obstructed extension route (e.g. one could say that
x, y, ...Args
always has comma deletion semantics).
However, all these approaches seem undesirable. First off, they are a departure, and
perhaps even a regression, from the direction taken by C99 and its
token. Second, this design would only satisfy those needs that require comma deletion,
leaving use cases like the above
ADD_COMMA to use the existing syntax. Thus
there would be two parallel but dissimilar constructions living side by side, which seems
inelegant and wasteful.
Note: This idea came up during the discussion of N2034 in WG14.
We could use syntax like
#define F(X ...) f(10, __VA_ARGS__) to request
comma deletion (note the absence of a comma before the ellipsis in the definition).
This approach does not degenerate to the case of macros with no named parameters,
though. Moreover, WG14 felt that this was too clever and too subtle, whereas the
proposed solution below is highly visible and explicit. Also, an unrelated difference
between C++ and C is that C++ allows omitting the final comma from the parameter list
of a variable function declaration. While this has nothing to do with the preprocessor,
the semantics of the optional comma of that feature are the opposite of this present
consideration, which is unnecessarily confusing.
All of the considered extensions so far have in common that they end up creating a parallel set of constructions which are identical to the existing macro facilities except when the macro is invoked with no variable arguments, and they all provide some automatic mechanism to determine when to delete a comma. However, none of them are quite explicit about what they are doing.
For the next idea, we consider adding a new token. Let us call it
with the semantics that wherever it appears in the replacement text, it is replaced
with the variable arguments (just like
__VA_ARGS__), but additionally,
whenever the variable arguments do contain tokens, a comma is prepended:
In this approach, we have separated Goals 1 and 2 entirely; whether a leading (!) comma is inserted now only depends on whether the variable arguments contain tokens, not on whether they are present at all.
We already said that solutions 1, 2 and 3 are ultimately inelegant, since they create a redundant structure that replicates existing facilities and only differs in subtle details. Solution 4 (a new token) feels cleaner and more orthogonal. In the words of Richard Smith:
“I remain unconvinced that implicitly adding or removing a comma is a good idea. We need the user to tell us which behavior they want.”
We can do a little better than solution 4. Our proposal is to add a new, special kind
of functional macro
__VA_OPT__. This macro may only be used in
the replacement text of a variadic macro:
The semantics are as follows: If the variable arguments contain no tokens, then
__VA_OPT__(content) is replaced by no tokens (more precisely,
by a placemarker). Otherwise, it is replaced by content, which can contain
any admissible replacement text, including
The canonical use case of
__VA_OPT__ is for an optional separator:
However, this mechanism allows other constructions, too:
The proposal is a pure extension of the preprocessor. Syntax that was previously not allowed becomes admissible under the proposed changes.
The proposed extension to allow omission of the variable arguments has been implemented
by many compilers. Faisal Vali implemented a version of the proposed
extension in Clang.
Change paragraph 6.10.3p5 as follows.
shall occur only in the replacement-list
of a function-like macro that uses the ellipsis notation in the parameters.
Change paragraph 6.10.3p12 as follows.
Modify subsection 126.96.36.199. The subsection currently lacks “Constraints” and “Semantics” partitions and is therefore somewhat unclear about the distinction. We propose to add this structure in passing. First, insert a new “Constraints” part, and a new paragraph.
188.8.131.52 Argument substitution
Next, add a new part “Semantics” above the existing wording, and append a new paragraph as follows.
1 After the arguments […] 2 An identifier
Append examples after 184.108.40.206p4.
Drafting note: This is the full set of examples from C++; we may wish to modify or reduce this set.
The entire proposal (rationale, implementation experience and wording) applies almost verbatim to the C++ language as well. Indeed, this paper originated from a C++ proposal, which was eventually adopted (as WG21 P0306R4 and amended by WG21 P1042R1) (following feedback from WG14) and subsequent editorial improvements. However, this proposal uses rather different, simpler wording. We plan to revisit the wording in both languages eventually with a view to bringing them into as close an alignment as the respective editorial styles warrant.
An earlier version of this proposal (N2034) was presented to WG14 at the 2016 London meeting and received favourably, resulting in an entry in SD3 to solve the same problem in a future revision of the C language. We would like to ask the WG14 liaison to present this updated revision to WG14 and ask that the reference on SD3 be updated accordingly in the interest of future compatibility between C and C++.
Many thanks to Dawn Perchik, David Krauss, Hubert S. Tong and Richard Smith for valuable discussion, guidance, suggestions, examples and review, to Aaron Ballman and Jens Gustedt for significant help in preparing the wording for WG14, and to Faisal Vali for implementing the feature and clarifying several important details! Thanks also go to the members of WG14 for their hospitality and a very productive discussion.