Remove NTTPs of class type from C++20

Published Proposal,

ISO/IEC JTC1/SC22/WG21 14882: Programming Language — C++
Current Source:


[P0732] "Class types in non-type template parameters" was accepted into C++20 in June 2018. Newly discovered issues with its premise, and new exploration in the area, suggest that we should postpone this feature until C++2b.

This paper repeats some material from [Enums], and adds new material as well.

1. A summary of P0732

C++ does not support non-type template parameters (NTTPs) of arbitrary types. For example, template<int I> is valid, but template<std::string S> is not valid.

Jeff Snyder’s [P0732] "Class types in non-type template parameters" (first revision, 2018-02-11) observed that the essential problem preventing C++ from supporting arbitrary-typed NTTPs is that the compiler can’t tell when two arbitrary NTTPs are "identical." "Identity" is important because it is how the compiler determines ([temp.type]/1) whether two templates are the same entity. For example:

    using SomeType = [...];
    template<SomeType X> void foo();
    template<> void foo<SomeType(100)>() { return; }
    template<> void foo<SomeType(356)>() { return; }

Here, if SomeType is int, then we have a valid program with two explicit specializations of foo. But if SomeType is unsigned char, then there is only one explicit specialization of foo, multiply defined; and so the program is ill-formed.

P0732 proposed that in present-day C++, determining the "identity" of two NTTP values is easy because the only supported NTTP types are simple scalar types where identity means equality, and where it is "obvious" to the compiler when two such values are equal. In C++2a, operator== can be defaulted; this increases the number of types for which it is "obvious" what identity means.

The rest of this paper will argue that "obviousness" is more subtle than we thought.

2. P0732’s killer app: template parameters of "string" type

Thanks to Louis Dionne for this example using P0732 NTTPs.

We create a function template foo that takes a FixedLengthString<???> of deduced class type as its NTTP. (The CTAD syntax we’re using here is homonymous with the syntaxes for plain old NTTPs and for concept-constrained type parameters, but it is not either of those.) When the programmer of main writes foo<"hello">, the compiler will perform overload resolution and class template argument deduction to determine that the right candidate is foo<FixedLengthString<6>("hello")>.

    template<int N>
    struct FixedLengthString {
        char data_[N] {};
        constexpr FixedLengthString(const char *p) {
            for (int i=0; i < N; ++i) {
                data_[i] = p[i];
        auto operator<=>(const FixedLengthString&) const = default;
    template<int N> FixedLengthString(const char (&)[N]) -> FixedLengthString<N>;

    template<FixedLengthString S>
    int foo() {
        static int i = 0;
        return ++i;

    int main() {
        int x = foo<"hello">();
        int y = foo<"hello">();
        return y;

FixedLengthString<6> has a structural comparison operator. Comparison on FixedLengthString<6>("hello") compares exactly the six bytes "hello" which are stored in this->data_. This program has well-defined behavior and returns 2.

My understanding is that this is the "killer app" for P0732 NTTPs: we can use literal class types to "smuggle" contraband such as string literals and floating-point values which would otherwise not be allowed in template arguments.

2.1. Slight variation remains ill-formed

On the other hand, in this next example we create a function template bar that takes a concrete VariableLengthString as its NTTP. When the programmer of main writes bar<"hello">, the compiler will perform overload resolution to determine that the right candidate is bar<VariableLengthString("hello")>.

    struct VariableLengthString {
        const char *data_ = nullptr;
        constexpr VariableLengthString(const char *p) : data_(p) {}
        auto operator<=>(const VariableLengthString&) const = default;

    template<VariableLengthString S>
    int bar() {
        static int i = 0;
        return ++i;

    int main() {
        int x = bar<"hello">(); // ERROR

        auto& hello = "hello";
        int y = bar<hello>(); // ERROR
        return y;

VariableLengthString has a structural comparison operator, but when the compiler goes to mangle the name of bar<VariableLengthString("hello")>, it finds that it cannot produce a mangling of the data_ member’s value because "hello" is not a named variable. Therefore the program above is ill-formed. (The relevant wording is [temp.arg.nontype]/2).

The following main function would be well-formed:

    int main() {
        static const char hello_array[] = "hello";
        auto& hello = hello_array;
        int y = bar<hello>();
        return y;

because hello refers to hello_array, and hello_array is a named variable.

2.2. Subtle wording

The above-described behavior for template arguments involving pointers has been present since C++11 or earlier. It is quite subtle. It was implied by [N4700]'s old wording ([temp.type]/1):

Two template-ids refer to the same class, function, or variable if [...] their corresponding non-type template-arguments of pointer type refer to the same object or function or are both the null pointer value [...]

[P0732]'s changed wording, IMHO, obscures and possibly breaks the intent for template arguments involving pointers. [N4810]'s new wording:

Two template-ids refer to the same class, function, or variable if [...] corresponding non-type template-arguments have the same type and value after conversion to the type of the template-parameter, where they are considered to have the same value if they compare equal with the == operator [...]

The new wording does not clearly say what happens if the comparison with the == operator is not a constant expression. This can happen if it attempts to compare beyond-the-end pointers. [N4700] handled this because a beyond-the-end pointer does not "refer to an object." There is also relevant wording in [temp.arg.nontype/2], introduced in [N4268]; but it does not mention beyond-the-end pointers.

Nor does the new wording say how the lookup for the == operator should be done. That’s the next thing we’ll look at.

3. Identity and equality are not the same thing in C++17

Consider the following valid C++17 code:

    enum E {
        ONE, TWO
    namespace N {
        template<E> int foo() {
            static int i = 0;
            return ++i;
        void test() {

This code is valid and well-defined in C++17 today. It causes two distinct specializations of foo to be instantiated.

We can add the following overload of operator== anywhere in this code — before or after the definition of foo, inside namespace N or the global namespace — and the compiler won’t care.

    constexpr bool operator==(E, E) { return true; }

Thus, in C++17, it is perfectly possible that static_assert(ONE == TWO) and yet static_assert(&foo<ONE> != &foo<TWO>). (Godbolt.)

With P0732 in the Committee Draft, two bad things happen. First, a wording issue: it’s unclear whether, when [temp.type]/1.5 asks if the arguments "compare equal with the == operator," the compiler will use our overloaded operator==(E, E). (In practice, it will not.)

Second, because E is an enum type, it has strong structural equality ([class.compare.default]/3). So under P0732’s rules we can create a literal class type A that can be used as an NTTP.

    enum E {
        ONE, TWO
    namespace N {
        struct A {
            E e_;
            bool operator==(const A&) const = default;
        template<A> int foo() {
            static int i = 0;
            return ++i;
        void test() {
        constexpr bool operator==(E, E) { return true; }

Again, we can insert the overload of operator==(E, E) anywhere in this code — before or after the definition of foo, before or after the definition of A, inside namespace N or the global namespace.

It is not clear how A::operator== should call operator==(E, E), if operator==(E, E) was not yet declared when A::operator== was defined.

No vendor has implemented P0732 NTTPs. But we can get some hint of the subtleties involved by looking at MSVC’s in-progress implementation of operator<=>. (Godbolt.)

4. There is ongoing exploration of the NTTP space

[P0732] has done a great service by stimulating new exploration of the NTTP space. After P0732 was discussed and adopted, the following new work appeared:

4.1. float as NTTP

Jorg Brown’s [P1714] "NTTP are incomplete without float, double, and long double!" was discussed by EWG ([P1714discussion]), and the reception was favorable (1–14–9–3–3). Proponents want something like

    template<double Exponent>
    double pow(double base);

P0732 does not permit this, because double does not have strong structural equality. double has partial_ordering, because of NaN. So Jorg’s workaround for C++2a is similar to the FixedLengthString<6> hack above: where FixedLengthString<6> smuggles a string literal through an array of char, Jorg’s AsTemplateArg<double> smuggles a double through an array of char.

Two observations:

It seems that EWG is interested in exploring avenues which P0732 cuts off.

In [P1714discussion], one participant is quoted as saying, "My proposal is that we take it [i.e., P0732] out and try again."

4.2. A mangling or serialization operator

Richard Smith writes:

Broadly, I think that attempting to make NTTP identity be the same thing as equality is an evolutionary dead end for C++. They’re fundamentally different operations, with different constraints and different goals.

In EWG reflector thread "[isocpp-ext] Can we have float/double as template parameters now?", he informally explored the notion of an overloadable operator template which would allow us to pass any literal type T as an NTTP, as long as it provides a way to "serialize" its value into some serialized form that the compiler knows how to mangle (such as a POD struct), and a way to "deserialize" from that mangled representation back into an object of type T.

This approach is premised on the idea that the fundamental building block for NTTPs should not be == equality, but rather some sort of identity operation. This plays well with the bare fact that == equality is already irrelevant to NTTP-identity when the type T is an enum type... or a reference type. Consider:

    constexpr int i = 1;
    constexpr int j = 1;

    template<const int&>
    void foo() {}

    static_assert(     i  ==      j , "");
    static_assert(&foo<i> != &foo<j>, "");

Today, in C++17, it is perfectly possible that static_assert(i == j) and yet static_assert(&foo<i> != &foo<j>). (Godbolt.)

The importance of this difference between "equality" and "identity" was not widely known during the original discussion of P0732. Had it been known, our approach to NTTPs might have taken a different form.

5. Conclusion

P0732 was premised on an erroneous conflation of "== equality" and "NTTP identity." These are similar — but distinguishable — notions. Conflating them causes subtle inconsistencies which will be very hard for any future work in the area to fix.

We should not ship class-typed NTTPs in C++20 without thoroughly exploring the consequences. Once P0732 has appeared in a published standard, it will be too late to fix it.

Incidentally, in hindsight, it was probably a bad idea to allow users to overload operator== for enums. It was maybe even a bad idea to allow NTTPs of reference type. But we cannot fix these things (even if we wanted to), because they have already shipped. In this paper, I’m trying to apply foresight (not hindsight) to prevent a feature from shipping before we regret it.

The situation with NTTPs in C++17 is subtle and confusing, but at least it’s been relatively stable since C++03. P0732 makes some existing issues easier to run into, and causes new issues of its own. Finally, it permanently cuts off potentially fruitful avenues of exploration (such as float NTTPs, and user-defined mechanisms for NTTP-identity beyond ==).

I propose that WG21 remove "class types in non-type template parameters" from C++20, with the expectation that it — or something even better! — may return in C++2b.

Note: This paper (P1837) proposes to remove class-typed NTTPs but leaves operator<=> out of scope. Another paper in this mailing, ADAM David Alan Martin’s [P1821R0] "Spaceship needs to be grounded," proposes to remove operator<=> but leaves class-typed NTTPs out of scope. In Arthur’s opinion, it is conceivable to remove both operator<=> and class-typed NTTPs (that is, these papers are compatible), or to remove just class-typed NTTPs, but it’s unlikely that we could remove just operator<=> without also either removing or redesigning class-typed NTTPs.

Appendix A: Proposed straw polls

Revert P0732, with the expectation that it or something better will return in C++2b. _ _ _ _ _

Appendix B: Proposed wording

Note: Arthur will draft wording for the removal of P0732, if called upon to do so. I don’t foresee any difficulty with the wording. As far as I know, P0732 is still a "leaf feature" with no library users.


Normative References

Richard Smith. Working Draft, Standard for Programming Language C++. October 2017. URL: http://www.open-std.org/jtc1/sc22/wg21/docs/papers/2017/n4700.pdf
Richard Smith. Working Draft, Standard for Programming Language C++. March 2019. URL: http://www.open-std.org/jtc1/sc22/wg21/docs/papers/2019/n4810.pdf

Informative References

Arthur O'Dwyer. Enums break strong structural equality. July 2019. URL: https://quuxplusone.github.io/blog/2019/07/04/strong-structural-equality-is-broken/
Richard Smith. Allow constant evaluation for all non-type template arguments. November 2014. URL: http://www.open-std.org/jtc1/sc22/wg21/docs/papers/2014/n4268.html
Jeff Snyder; Louis Dionne. Class Types in Non-Type Template Parameters. June 2018. URL: http://www.open-std.org/jtc1/sc22/wg21/docs/papers/2018/p0732r2.pdf
Jorg Brown. NTTP are incomplete without float, double, and long double!. June 2019. URL: http://www.open-std.org/jtc1/sc22/wg21/docs/papers/2019/p1714r0.html
Notes from discussion of P1714R0 (private wiki). July 2019. URL: http://wiki.edg.com/bin/view/Wg21cologne2019/P1714R0-EWG
ADAM David Alan Martin. The Spaceship Needs to be Grounded: Pull Spaceship from C++20. July 2019. URL: https://wg21.link/p1821r0