# const all the things?

Last week someone posted a /r/cpp thread titled “Declaring all variables local to a function as const”:

Ok, so I’m an old-school C++ programmer using the language now since the early ’90s. I’m a fan of const-correctness for function and member declarations, parameters, and the like. Where, I believe, it actually matters.

Now we have a team member who has jumped on the “everything is const” bandwagon. Every code review includes dozens of lines of local function variables now declared const that litter the review.

Intellectually, I understand the (what I consider mostly insignificant) arguments in favor of this practice, but in nearly 30 years I have never had a bug introduced into my code because a local function variable was mutable when I didn’t expect it. It does nothing for me to aid in code analysis or tracking. It has at most a tiny impact on performance.

Maybe I’m just an old dog finally unable to learn a new trick. So, on this fine Wednesday, who’s up for a religious war? What are y’all doing?

TLDR: I’m not putting const on all the things, either.

## In function signatures: the good

First, let’s clarify that it’s important to put const in the proper place on pointers and references — er, that is, on pointees and referees.

auto plus(std::string s, std::string t) {
return s + t;
}


The above code is bad because it makes unnecessary copies. plus doesn’t need its own copies of s and t; it can get by with just references to its caller’s strings.

auto plus(std::string& s, std::string& t) {
return s + t;
}


The above code is worse, because it takes references only to non-const strings. This signature is saying “Please give me references to two of your strings, and by the way, I might modify them.” This (A) is not what we mean, and (B) unnecessarily prevents the caller from calling plus("hello", "world"). What we mean to write is:

auto plus(const std::string& s, const std::string& t) {
return s + t;
}


Pass-by-const-reference is an optimization of pass-by-value: looks the same to the caller, generates faster code.

Incidentally, the same logic applies even to the hidden this parameter. The below code is bad…

struct Greeting {
std::string s;
auto plus(const std::string& t) {
return s + t;
}
};


…because it says “Please give me a this pointer to a Greeting, and by the way, I might modify it.” This means that if you have a variable like const Greeting& g, you can’t call g.plus("world"). For more on the “contract law” that forbids things like that, see const is a contract” (2019-01-03).

## In function signatures: the ugly is the bad

In most modern industry codebases, you’ll see parameters passed in only three ways (at least to ordinary functions):

• Pass cheap things by value: int.

• Pass expensive things by const reference: const Widget&.

• Pass out-parameters by pointer: Widget*.

This means that if you see anything else, it’s quite probably wrong. You can even grep for the wrongness.

When I say “only three ways,” I’m ignoring a few non-ordinary kinds of functions: move-constructors which take by rvalue reference, overloaded assignment operators which take their left-hand side by non-const lvalue reference, and certain function templates which take forwarding references. For more on the bullet points above, see “An obvious guideline on function-call style” (2020-07-23).

Consider this function:

auto plus(const std::string s, const std::string& t) {
return s + t;
}


This function is wrong. How do I know? It passes by const value. The programmer meant to type const std::string& s, but their finger slipped and they forgot the ampersand. Their code is running slower than it should. Fortunately, we never “pass by const value” intentionally; so literally everywhere you see this, you can be sure it’s a mistake.

bool isReady(const std::shared_ptr<Connection> conn);


The function above is also wrong. The programmer probably intended std::shared_ptr<const Connection>; maybe this code used to say const Connection * and someone updated it a little too haphazardly. Or maybe the programmer meant just std::shared_ptr<Connection>; or maybe they meant const std::shared_ptr<Connection>& for efficiency (but in that case why aren’t they simply passing const Connection& from the caller?). In this case it takes some effort to decide what’s right; but we know instantly that what’s there now is wrong. Why? It passes by const value.

std::string plus(const std::string& s, std::string& t);


The code above is also wrong, because it passes t by non-const reference. If t were really an out-parameter, it would be passed by pointer: std::string *t. The most likely explanation is that the programmer meant to pass by const reference and just forgot the const.

## Data members: Never const

Lesley Lai has a blog post on this: “The implication of const or reference member variables in C++” (September 2020). I generally agree with his comments, and I’ll phrase my conclusion stronger: Const data members are never a good idea.

struct Employee {
std::string name_;  // an employee's name may change...
const std::string id_;  // ...but never their unique ID
};


The code above is wrong. You might think an employee’s ID never changes, but that’s a property of value semantics — what does it mean to be “the same” employee — and not at all a property of the bits and bytes in struct Employee. Consider:

Employee e1 = {"Alice", "12345"};
Employee e2 = {"Bob", "24601"};
e1 = e2; // oops
std::swap(e1, e2); // oops


What good is a value-semantic Employee class if you can’t assign or swap values of that type?

“Ah,” you say, “but my Employee type isn’t value-semantic! It’s a polymorphic class type, with inheritance and stuff!” So you have this:

class EmployeePerson final : public Person {
public:
explicit EmployeePerson(~~~);
std::string name() const override { return name_; }
void setName(std::string name) override { name_ = std::move(name); }
std::string id() const override { return id_; }
~EmployeePerson() override = default;
private:
std::string name_;  // an employee's name may change...
const std::string id_;  // ...but never their unique ID.
};


Maybe you =delete some special members, too, to indicate that the class is non-copyable and non-movable by design. So now (as Lesley says) there’s no specific disadvantage to const-qualifying id_. You might even think it was self-documenting: “this data member is const, so it can’t change.” But you know a better way to tell that a private data member can’t change? There’s no public API for changing it!

That’s right: the point of making a class with private members is to preserve invariants among those members. “This never changes” is just one possible invariant. Some people hear “never changes” and think it sounds a bit like “const,” so they slap const on that data member; but you shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the way we preserve invariants in C++ isn’t with const, it’s with private.

class EmployeePerson final : public Person {
public:
explicit EmployeePerson(~~~);

// An employee's name may change...
std::string name() const override { return name_; }
void setName(std::string name) override
{ name_ = std::move(name); }

// ...but never their unique ID.
std::string id() const override { return id_; }

private:
std::string name_;
std::string id_;
};


As with the function-signature rules, once you have a blanket rule, it’s easier to catch mistakes. A const or reference data member, in our codebase, is always a mistake. Some of these mistakes are actively harmful (as with our value-semantic Employee); some are merely harmless (as with our polymorphic EmployeePerson). Fix them all: then nothing harmful will slip through the cracks.

### Footnote: Const data members and movability

We’ve seen that a const data member disables assignment and swap (because you can’t overwrite the value of a const data member on the left-hand side). It also pessimizes move-construction (because you can’t pilfer the guts of a const data member on the right-hand side).

struct Employee {
std::string name_;
const std::string id_;
};

Employee e1 = {"alice", "12345"};
Employee e2 = std::move(e1);


Very many C++ programmers will look at this and say, “id_ is const and can’t be moved, so this line will invoke Employee’s copy constructor.” That is incorrect! The Employee type still gets both a defaulted copy constructor and a defaulted move constructor, and this line will invoke Employee’s move constructor. That defaulted move constructor will be equivalent to:

Employee(Employee&& rhs) :
name_(std::move(rhs.name_)),
id_(std::move(rhs.id_)) {}


So when you move-construct an Employee, you do move-construct its name_. But you don’t move-construct its id_, because std::move(rhs.id_) will be of type const string&&, which you can’t pass to string’s move constructor (because it expects string&& with the const discarded), so for id_ only you’ll call string’s copy constructor.

My point is that having a const data member does pessimize move-constructions — enough to make const data members a bad idea — but not as much as people often think.

## Return types: Never const

Just as it’s always a mistake to pass “by const value,” it’s also a mistake to return “by const value.” Grep your codebase today!

struct Widget {
std::string name_;
const std::string name() const { return name_; }
};


The member function above is wrong. How do I know? It returns by const value. The programmer probably meant to return const std::string&, but forgot the ampersand. If that’s what happened, then in code like the below, the programmer is expecting zero copies; but we actually get one unnecessary copy-construction.

Widget w = {"carol"};
std::cout << w.name() << "\n";


But maybe the return-by-value was intended. (Return-by-value is easier to reason about. You needn’t worry that the name might be mutated — or destroyed — before you’ve gotten around to reading it.) Return “by const value” is still bad! Consider this usage:

void fill_in(const Widget& w, std::string *result) {
*result = w.name();
}


Here we expect one copy: the name should be copy-constructed (into the return slot) and then move-assigned (into *result). But actually we get two copies! The name is copy-constructed into the return slot, and then copy-assigned into *result, because we can’t pilfer from a right-hand side whose type is const-qualified.

Returning “by const value” is always wrong. Full stop.

Back before move semantics existed, Scott Meyers’ Effective C++ Third Edition (Item 3) actually suggested that “const by-value” returns were a good thing; but Scott retracted that suggestion in 2009 when it became clear that C++11 would have move semantics. If anyone tries to justify return-by-const-value in this decade by saying “Scott Meyers says to do it,” tell them they’re wrong!

## Local variables: Rarely const

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I never mark local variables const; but as a general rule, I don’t. As in the polymorphic-data-member case above, I don’t need a keyword just to tell me that a variable isn’t modified during its lifetime. I can see that fact at a glance, because:

• The variable is local to the current scope, which is small enough to fit comfortably on one screen. (Keep scopes small. Avoid global variables.)

• The variable is well-named, not confusable at a glance with any of the other variables used in this scope. (Name length is proportional to scope length.)

• It’s obvious which of its uses (if any) are potentially mutating. (Pass out-parameters by pointer. f(x, &y) modifies y but does not modify x.)

• Above all, the code makes sense. I can guess that a variable initialized with std::format("hello {}!", first) probably never changes; a variable initialized with 0 must change (because otherwise there’d be no reason to declare that variable). The code doesn’t violate my expectations often enough for me to desire constant reassurance. (Pun intended, I guess.)

For an actual compile-time constant, I’d certainly consider marking it constexpr:

constexpr size_t chunkStart = sizeof(BlockHeader) + sizeof(ChunkHeader);


And (speaking of block headers and chunk headers) I’d say it could be quite useful to const-qualify the occasional local variable in code that egregiously violates the clean-code guidelines above. If you can’t see the whole scope at a glance, or you have lots of variables with confusingly similar names, or you can’t tell whether the variable’s initial value makes sense or not… well, const might give you a welcome clue. But it might be even better to refactor that confusing code! Shrink your scopes; name your variables well; declare variables only at the place where you’re ready to initialize them. Soon you’ll find each redundant keyword more annoying than helpful.

Meanwhile, marking every local variable as const can have all the same downsides as returning by const value:

std::string identity(const std::string hi)
{
return hi;
}


Here implicit move means that the return statement treats hi as an rvalue; but because it was const-qualified, that rvalue is of type const std::string&&, and can’t be pilfered from. A copy is made.

And, as with the pass-by-const-value situation, it’s sometimes unclear whether a const-qualified variable was intentional or not. In the below code, should that be shared_ptr<const Widget>? Should that be Vec::const_iterator? (Fortunately, the auto keyword has made this kind of situation much less common.)

const std::shared_ptr<Widget> sp = ~~~;
const Vec::iterator it = v.begin();


Then there’s this monstrosity:

void setFullName(const NameParts& np, Employee *e)
{
const std::string firstName = np.firstName();
const std::string lastName = np.lastName();
const std::string fullName = firstName + lastName;
e->setName(fullName);
}


The above function suffers from the “too many intermediate variables” antipattern. Really, we could fix all its performance woes by writing simply

void setFullName(const NameParts& np, Employee *e)
{
e->setName(np.firstName() + np.lastName());
}


But suppose there were many more lines of code interspersed between the variable definitions and the final call to e->setName(fullName). That call makes an unnecessary copy. The programmer might try to fix it by writing e->setName(std::move(fullName))… but guess what? fullName was const-qualified, so the move does nothing!

To get the benefits of move semantics, you must un-const-qualify the variable you intend to move from. And one benefit of move semantics is that it often happens relatively invisibly, without the programmer’s being consciously aware of it! So, to get the full benefits of move semantics, const-qualify… nothing! Except of course for the things you must qualify for const-correctness: namely, the targets of pointers and references that might refer to objects of your caller’s that you aren’t allowed to modify.

### Footnote: Const locals and NRVO

Since const-qualification inhibits “implicit move,” you might wonder whether it also inhibits copy elision, a.k.a. NRVO. It does not.

std::string f() {
const std::string result = "hello";
return result;  // NRVO is possible
}


With respect to NRVO, this const is harmless. But still, this const cannot increase your performance! All it can do is lurk, eager to decrease performance if you get careless.

The below code (Godbolt) is identical to the above code, except I’ve added a single early return. NRVO is still technically possible, but neither Clang nor GCC (as of this writing) perform it. So they fall back on implicit move; but implicit move can’t pilfer, because result is const-qualified. result is copy-constructed into the return slot.

std::string g(bool early) {
if (early)
return "";
const std::string result = "hello";
return result; // oops
}


## Conclusion: Don’t const all the things

• Definitely don’t const-qualify function return types. Return-by-const-value has only downsides, no upsides.

• Definitely don’t const-qualify the data members of value-semantic class types.

• Don’t const-qualify the data members of polymorphic (or otherwise immobile) class types. Having one simple rule for all data members saves brain cells. Use private to enforce class invariants.

• Don’t const-qualify function parameters — except by accident, when you mean to write const X& x but forget the ampersand. Pass-by-const-value indicates typos. Fix your typos.

• Rarely, if ever, should you const-qualify local variables. Prefer to refactor so that each variable’s purpose is clear and each scope fits on a single screen.

But of course:

• Do write const-correct code. For example, const-qualify member functions when you intend them to be callable even on an object you can’t modify.

• Do pass expensive types by const reference.

const is one of the most important keywords in C++. It has a place. But that place is not “everywhere.”

Posted 2022-01-23