Fixing inconsistencies between constexpr and consteval functions

Document Number: P1937R0
Date: 2019-10-06
Author: David Stone (,
Audience: Evolution Working Group (EWG)

A consteval function is the same as a constexpr function except that:

  1. A consteval function is guaranteed to be evaluated at compile time.
  2. You cannot have a pointer to a consteval function except in the body of another consteval function.
  3. All overrides of a virtual function must be consteval if the base function is consteval, otherwise they must not be consteval.
  4. A consteval function is evaluated even in contexts that would otherwise be unevaluated.

The first bullet is the intended difference between the two functions. The second bullet is a consequence of the first. The third bullet (virtual functions) ends up making sense as a difference between them because of what is fundamentally possible. The final bullet seems like an unfortunate inconsistency in the language. This paper proposes changing the rules surrounding bullet 4 to unify the behavior of consteval and constexpr functions for C++20. There is also a discussion of virtual functions at the end with a proposal for a minor addition targeted at C++23.

Unevaluated contexts

Requiring evaluation of consteval functions in unevaluated contexts does not seem necessary. When I asked about this discrepancy on the core reflector, the answer that I got was essentially that evaluation of a consteval function may have side-effects on the abstract machine, and we would like to preserve these side-effects. However, consteval functions are not special in this ability, so it seems strange to have a rule that makes them special. It seems to me that we should either

  1. not have a special case for consteval, which would mean that it is not evaluated in an unevaluated operand, or
  2. Rethink the concept of "unevaluated operands".

This paper argues in favor of option 1, as option 2 is a breaking change that doesn't seem to bring much benefit.

My understanding is that the status quo means the following is valid:

constexpr auto add1(auto lhs, auto rhs) { return lhs + rhs; } using T = decltype(add1(std::declval<int>(), std::declval<int>()));

but this very similar code is ill-formed

consteval auto add2(auto lhs, auto rhs) { return lhs + rhs; } using T = decltype(add2(std::declval<int>(), std::declval<int>()));

virtual functions

In C++20, we added support for constexpr virtual functions and we also added consteval functions. This means that we do not have any backward compatibility concerns binding us. This paper argues that the consteval rules are right for consteval. It is possible that the consteval rules highlight a problem in the rules for constexpr, but this paper argues that the current rules are correct.

A virtual override is allowed to weaken pre-conditions relative to the function it overrides. With consteval vs. an unannotated function, there is in fact no overlap in the pre-conditions. An unannotated function can only be called at run time, but a consteval function can only be called at compile time. A constexpr function, on the other hand, can be called at either run time or compile time. In other words, a constexpr function has weaker pre-conditions than either a consteval function or an unannotated function. This suggests that a constexpr virtual function can be overridden only by another constexpr function (if you have a pointer to a base class with a constexpr virtual member function, you should be able to call that at run time or compile time and get polymorphic behavior). However, a constexpr function should be allowed to override a non-constexpr function (as it would meet all of the pre-conditions of which phase of C++ it can run during).

The alternative approach here is the status quo. If a non-constexpr function overrides a constexpr virtual function, the compiler still knows that the function that would be called is non-constexpr and can thus still gives an error at compile time. This means that there isn't actually a hole opened up in the virtual "type system". Overriding a constexpr with a non-constexpr does not actually cause any problems and has use cases laid out in the paper that originally proposed constexpr virtual functions.

This suggests one further change to the rules. A constexpr function should also be allowed to override a consteval virtual function. However, there is no need for this to be changed for C++20: this is a feature addition, not a bug fix.