This is an unofficial snapshot of the ISO/IEC JTC1 SC22 WG21 Core Issues List revision 112e. See for the official list.


107. Linkage of operator functions

Section: 9.11  []     Status: NAD     Submitter: Stephen Clamage     Date: 21 Apr 1999

[Picked up by evolution group at October 2002 meeting.]

Steve Clamage: I can't find anything in the standard that prohibits a language linkage on an operator function. For example:

extern "C" int operator+(MyInt, MyInt) { ... }

Clearly it is a bad idea, you could have only one operator+ with "C" linkage in the entire program, and you can't call the function from C code.

Mike Miller: Well, you can't name an operator function in C code, but if the arguments are compatible (e.g., not references), you can call it from C code via a pointer. In fact, because the language linkage is part of the function type, you couldn't pass the address of an operator function into C code unless you could declare the function to be extern "C".

Fergus Henderson: In the general case, for linkage to languages other than C, this could well make perfect sense.

Steve Clamage:

But is it disallowed (as opposed to being stupid), and if so, where in the standard does it say so?

Mike Miller: I don't believe there's a restriction. Whether that is because of the (rather feeble) justification of being able to call an operator from C code via a pointer, or whether it was simply overlooked, I don't know.

Fergus Henderson: I don't think it is disallowed. I also don't think there is any need to explicitly disallow it.

Steve Clamage: I don't think the standard is clear enough on this point. I'd like to see a clarification.

I think either of these two clarifications would be appropriate:

  1. A linkage specification on an operator function is ill-formed.
  2. A linkage specification on an operator function is well-formed, but the semantics (e.g. name mangling) are implementation-defined. In addition, the rule about multiple functions with the same name having "C" linkage applies.
  3.     extern "C" T operator+(T,T); // ok
        extern "C" T operator-(T,T); // ok
        extern "C" U operator-(U);   // error, two extern "C" operator-

Mike Miller: I think the point here is that something like

    extern "xyzzy" bool operator<(S&,S&)
could well make sense, if language xyzzy is sufficiently compatible with C++, and the one-function rule only applies to extern "C", not to other language linkages. Given that it might make sense to have general language linkages for operators, is it worthwhile to make an exception to the general rule by saying that you can have any language linkage on an operator function except "C" linkage? I don't like exceptions to general rules unless they're very well motivated, and I don't see sufficient motivation to make one here.

Certainly this capability isn't very useful. There are lots of things in C++ that aren't very useful but just weren't worth special-casing out of the language. I think this falls into the same category.

Mike Ball: I DON'T want to forbid operator functions within an extern "C". Rather I want to add operator functions to that sentence in paragraph 4 of 9.11 [] which reads

A C language linkage is ignored for the names of class members and the member function type of class member functions.
My reason is simple: C linkage makes a total hash of scope. Any "C" functions declared with the same name in any namespace scope are the same function. In other words, namespaces are totally ignored.

This provision was added in toward the end of the standardization process, and was, I thought, primarily to make it possible to put the C library in namespace std. Otherwise, it seems an unwarrented attack on the very concept of scope. We (wisely) didn't force this on static member functions, since it would essentially promote them to the global scope.

Now I think that programmers think of operator functions as essentially part of a class. At least for one very common design pattern they are treated as part of the class interface. This pattern is the reason we invented Koenig lookup for operator functions.

What happens when such a class definition is included, deliberately or not, in an extern "C" declaration? The member operators continue to work, but the non-member operators can suddenly get strange and hard to understand messages. Quite possibly, they get the messages only when combined with other classes in other compilation units. You can argue that the programmer shouldn't put the class header in a linkage delaration in the first place, but I can still find books that recommend putting `extern "C"' around entire header files, so it's going to happen.

I think that including operator functions in the general exclusion from extern "C" doesn't remove a capability, rather it ensurs a capability that programmers already think they have.

Rationale (10/00):

The benefits of creating an exception for operator functions were outweighed by the complexity of adding another special case to the rules.

Note (March, 2008):

The Evolution Working Group recommended closing this issue with no further consideration. See paper J16/07-0033 = WG21 N2173.