Ways C++ prevents you from doing X

C++ has many orthogonal ways of preventing you from doing what you asked for. When I’m doing training courses, I often find students confused (without necessarily knowing they’re confused) between these various failure modes. So I thought I’d write down the most common ones in a blog post.

You can’t modify it because it’s const

void read_it(int);
void write_it(int&);

struct S {
    int m;
    void foo() const;
};

void S::foo() const {
    m = 42;  // ERROR: can't modify a const object
}

const S s = {42};
read_it(s.m);
write_it(s.m);  // ERROR: call would lose const qualifier

For more on this subject, see const is a contract” (2019-01-03).

You can’t name it because it’s inaccessible

class C {
public:
    int pub;
    int *getpriv() { return &priv; }
private:
    int priv;
};

C c;
read_it(c.pub);
write_it(c.pub);
read_it(c.priv);   // ERROR: inaccessible
write_it(c.priv);  // ERROR: inaccessible

In this case, the problem is that the member priv is private — it’s not accessible in contexts that aren’t either members or friends of class C. The compiler is basically saying that you can’t name c.priv.

You can’t use the name of c.priv, but you can still modify the object denoted by c.priv, if you can get a reference to it by some other approach. For example, the class can expose a public API getpriv() that returns a pointer to the private data member.

read_it(*c.getpriv());  // OK
write_it(*c.getpriv());  // OK

Access control affects your ability to name the private member, regardless of what you’re planning to do with it. If it’s inaccessible, you can’t read it or write it.

You can’t see it because you didn’t include the right header

int i = f();      // ERROR: 'f' was not declared in this scope
C *c;             // ERROR: 'C' does not name a type
std::set<int> s;  // ERROR: no template named 'set' in namespace std
boost::regex rx;  // ERROR: 'boost' does not name a type; did you mean 'bool'?

In C++, everything you use — functions, variables, types, type aliases, namespaces — must be declared before use. Without a declaration telling it that C is a class type, or that std::set is a class template, the compiler cannot figure out how to use those names at all.

So, you have to #include <vector> before you try to use std::vector.

The standard library has no particular organizing principle — it evolved over decades — so some of its header names are hard to remember. You have to #include <algorithm> before you use (some overloads of) std::swap. You have to #include <memory> before you use std::unique_ptr.

Starting in GCC 9, GCC will no longer attempt to “auto-correct” the identifiers boost and bsl to bool. Prior to GCC 9, if you see an error message ending in “…did you mean bool?”, it’s a sure bet that you forgot to include some library header.

Its real name is more qualified than what you wrote

#include <vector>

vector<int> v;  // ERROR: 'vector' does not name a type

Remember, C++ doesn’t have “modules” or “packages” in the Python or Java sense. We have headers and we have namespaces, and they are orthogonal. Using #include <vector> to bring the declaration of std::vector into scope does not entitle you to refer to that type as simply vector.

A using-declaration can provide a shorter name for a previously declared type — but, vice versa, a using-declaration alone does not cause the original declaration to become visible.

using std::vector;  // ERROR: 'vector' has not been declared
vector<int> v;

You need to #include the proper header first; then you can use using to create shorter synonyms if you want. (But, generally speaking, you should not want.)

The linker can’t find its implementation

main.o: In function `main':
main.cpp:4: undefined reference to `foo()'
collect2: error: ld returned 1 exit status

Even if you’ve included the right headers, using‘ed the right namespaces, qualified all your names correctly, and the compiler is happy, you might find that the linker is unhappy with your program. This is often because one of your .cpp files calls a function which is declared, but never defined. Maybe it’s defined in libfoo.a, but you forgot to pass -lfoo to the linker. Maybe it’s defined in foo.o, but you forgot to add foo.cpp to your project. Maybe you legitimately forgot to write its definition anywhere.

Two special cases to be aware of:

The undefined entity is a static const data member

Static data members are just global variables with funky names; they must be defined somewhere out-of-line. Static const data members are schizophrenic: for many purposes they behave like constexpr compile-time constants, but if you ever take the address of a static const data member (even by taking a reference to it), then you’ll need an out-of-line definition again. Example:

void byvalue(int);
void byref(const int&);

struct S {
    static constexpr int one = 1;
    static const int two = 2;
    void foo();
};

void S::foo() {
    byvalue(one);  // OK
    byvalue(two);  // OK
    byref(one);    // OK
    byref(two);    // LINKER ERROR: `two` is undefined
}

Add an out-of-line definition to one of your .cpp files — or, better, use static constexpr int instead. In C++17, constexpr static data members don’t need out-of-line definitions. (In C++17 and later, you could even use static inline const int; but I see no advantage to static inline const over static constexpr.)

For more on this subject, see “Why do I get a linker error with static const and value_or?” (2020-09-19).

The undefined entity is a vtable

If you see an undefined reference to “vtable for SomeClass,” like this:

main.o: In function `main':
main.cpp:4: undefined reference to `vtable for Foo'
collect2: error: ld returned 1 exit status

then you might wonder how you’d ever provide an out-of-line definition for the vtable. That’s the compiler’s responsibility, isn’t it? Well, according to the most common ABI for C++, the compiler always emits the vtable in the same .o file as the definition of the first virtual member function of the class. (Not counting inline functions and pure virtuals, of course.) So if you see this kind of error, you should act as if the linker were complaining about the first virtual function in the offending class. Did you implement it? Did you link that .cpp file into your project?

For non-virtual member functions, it’s normally perfectly fine to declare member functions that you never define; but for virtual member functions, you must provide a definition for every declaration — no exceptions!

Posted 2020-03-17