Shafik Yaghmour

Compiler Engineer at Intel. This is a personal blog. The opinions stated here are my own, not those of my company.

Enums In C++, Choice is Oft Beguiled

12 Nov 2022 » C++

The Basics

In C++ we have several different options for enum types. These different choices affect the scope the enumerators are available in, the range of underlying values we can use and even whether setting certain values to an enum invokes undefined behavior. We are going to explore the different choices available and the consequences of those choices. I will follow this post with a second one exploring some of clang’s implementation details, undefined behavior, UBSan, and constant expressions.

In C++11 forward we have three different types of enums. We have C-style plain enum, enum with explicit underlying type specified using an enum-base and scoped enums see [dcl.enum]p5, (live code example):

enum PlainEnum {};
enum FixedUnderlyingTypeEnum : int {};
                            // ^^^ enum-base
enum class ScopedEnum {};
enum struct AlsoScopedEnum {};

The enumerators of both plain enums and an enum with an enum-base are unscoped enumerators and they are available in the scope that the enum is declared in. Folks often say the enumerators leak, and this can be undesirable in many cases such as in the global scope where unintentional shadowing may be hard to spot. While for a scoped enum we are required to use a qualified name in order to access the enumerators (see it live):

enum E {

enum class EC {
  EC1, EC2

int main() {
   E e1 = E1;       // Unscoped enumerator available
                    // in the scope of E is declared in
   EC e2 = EC::EC1; // Scoped enumerator require qualified name

Unscoped enumerators can also implicitly convert to integer types. This can easily lead to unintended comparisons, although a high quality compiler should produce a diagnostic for this case (see live example):

enum Card {jack, king, queen, ace};
enum Color : int {red, black};

int main() {
  Card card{};
  int x{};

  if(card == red) {}     // Implicit conversion to integer
                         // Comparing a Card and a Color
  if(x == Color::red) {} // Implicit conversion to integer
                         // Comparing an int and a Color

Complete or not a Complete Type

A scoped enum is a complete type once the base type (if any) is seen. While an enum without a fixed underlying type is not a complete type until the closing brace of the enum declaration. If we don’t have a fixed underlying type we need to see the range of the enumerators before we can determine what the underlying type will be, see [dcl.enum]p6 (Live code example)

enum PlainEnum {
  PE2 = (PlainEnum)0 // Ill-formed, PlainEnum is not a complete type

enum FixedUnderlyingTypeEnum : int {
  FE2 = (FixedUnderlyingTypeEnum)0 // ok FixedUnderlyingTypeEnum is a complete type

enum class ScopedEnum {
  SE2=(int)(ScopedEnum)(1) // ok ScopedEnum is a complete type

For an enum with a base-type the underlying type of the enumerators is the base-type. For a scoped enum the underlying type is int. A consequence of this is that the value of each enumerator must fit into the underlying type (see it live):

enum FixedUnderlyingTypeEnum : char {
  FE1,          // underlying type is char
  FE2 = INT_MAX // Ill-formed INT_MAX too large for underlying type

enum class ScopedEnum {
  SE1,           // Underlying type int
  SE2 = UINT_MAX // Ill-formed UINT_MAX too large for underlying type

Determining the Underlying Type

How do we determine the underlying type of the enum whose type is not fixed? Before the closing brace the underlying type for each enumerator depends on the initializers if any, see [dcl.enum]p5. If there is no initializer then the value of enumerator is zero if it is the first or the incremented value of the previous enumerator. After the closing brace, it is the type that can represent all the enumerators, if such a type exists, see [dcl.enum]p7 and [dcl.enum]p8. Let’s see some examples live code:

// Assuming LP64
enum E {
  E1, // unspecified signed integer type
  E2 = UINT_MAX-1, // Unsigned int since that is the type of the expression
  E3, // unsigned int since the previous type is unsigned int and the incremented
      // value fits in unsigned int
  E4, // unspecified integral type since UINT_MAX + 2 does not fit into unsigned int
  E5 = ULLONG_MAX, // unsigned long long
  E6 // ill-formed, does not fit into largest integer type

enum E2 {
  E21 = LONG_MIN,
  E22 = ULONG_MAX // Ill-formed no underlying type can represent both LONG_MIN and ULONG_MAX

enum E3 {}; // as-if there was a single enumerator with value 0

Range of values

For enums with a fixed underlying type, the range of values of the enum are the full range of the underlying type, see [dcl.enum]p8 which says:

For an enumeration whose underlying type is fixed, the values of the enumeration are the values of the underlying type. …

That means for an enum with a fixed underlying type it is valid to set it to a value outside of the enumerators. This is necessary to allow various idioms such as using enum as bit flags to work properly (see it live):

enum EBitFlags {
  Flag1 = 1 << 0,
  Flag2 = 1 << 1,
  Flag3 = 1 << 2,
  Flag4 = 1 << 3

void f() {
    EBitFlags ef = static_cast<EBitFlags>(Flag1 | Flag3); // ef will have a value of 5
                                                          // which is not of one of the enumerators

std::byte which is a scoped enum with an underlying type of unsigned char takes advantage of this:

enum class byte : unsigned char {} ; // enum with no enumerators but since underlying type is unsigned char
                                     // it can take on all the values of this type

For enums without a fixed underlying type the range of values it can take is based on the number of bits required to represent the enumerators. This is covered in [del.enum]p8 which says:

Otherwise, the values of the enumeration are the values representable by a hypothetical integer type with minimal width M such that all enumerators can be represented. The width of the smallest bit-field large enough to hold all the values of the enumeration type is M.

We can work through a few examples (see it live):

enum E1 {e1=0};             // Range of values [0,1]
enum EEmpty {};             // Range of values [0,1]

We only need one bit to represent 0 and that also allows us to represent 1 since we consider the underlying type unsigned since it has no negative values. Since an enum with no enumerators behaves as-if it had a single enumerator with value 0 then this case matches the E1 case. The next example, we also have an enumerator with a negative value, we need four bits but because of how Two’s Complement works we have an asymmetric range:

enum E2 {e21=-4, e22=4};    // Range of values [-8,7]

The next few examples demonstrates more cases but they basically follow the previous two:

enum E3 {e31=0, e32=4};     // Range of values [0,7]
enum E4 {e41=-4, e42=1024}; // Range of values [-2048,2047]
enum EMax {em1=-1, em2=__INT_MAX__}; // Range of values [-2147483648, 2147483647]

Using enum

One last feature to discuss is using enum. This feature allows us to introduce enumerators of a scoped enum into a scope of our choice. While often we want to prevent enumerators from leaking into scopes sometimes we want to purposefully allow it. For example it could make case labels in a switch less verbose. I will use an example straight from the proposal for this feature:

enum class rgba_color_channel { red, green, blue, alpha };

// Without using enum, the case labels are way more verbose than many would like
std::string_view to_string(rgba_color_channel channel) {
  switch (channel) {
    case rgba_color_channel::red:   return "red";
    case rgba_color_channel::green: return "green";
    case rgba_color_channel::blue:  return "blue";
    case rgba_color_channel::alpha: return "alpha";

// With using enum
std::string_view to_string(rgba_color_channel channel) {
  switch (my_channel) {
    using enum rgba_color_channel;
    case red:   return "red";
    case green: return "green";
    case blue:  return "blue";
    case alpha: return "alpha";

Thank you to those who provided feedback on or reviewed this write-up: Tom Honermann and Rosa Yaghmour.

Of course in the end, all errors are the author’s.