Why C needs a new type qualifier

Christopher Bazley, January 2023

Jeff Tracy thumps his desk (Thunderbird Six, 1968)


At the start of the final big-screen outing for the original cast and crew of cult television show 'Thunderbirds', the normally level-headed patriarch of the Tracy family gives a run-down of the rescue craft in his fleet, then thumps his desk and says:

... and I'm telling you, Brains, in no uncertain terms, that we now need a Thunderbird Six!

There's just one problem: he's unable to provide a specification of the new vehicle. This gives his chief engineer a pickle of a problem and leaves the audience in suspense until the big reveal. It was a bit of a tame premise for a science fiction film released in 1968, when interest in 'Thunderbirds' was already waning. Nowadays, the film is mostly unknown apart from as the origin of the laughing puppets meme.

Interest in C programming also seems to be waning, since the emergence of rivals for its position as the dominant general-purpose low-level language. After fifty years, it's reasonable to ask why C should need a new type qualifier. Like Jeff Tracy, "I've got this feeling and I know I'm not wrong"; unlike Jeff, I know exactly what I want and why.

Philosophical underpinning

The single most important (and redeeming) feature of C is its simplicity. It should be (relatively) quick to learn every aspect of the language, (relatively) easy to create a compiler for it, and the language's semantics should follow (more-or-less) directly from its syntax.

People criticise C's syntax, but I consider it the foundation of the language. Any experienced C programmer has already acquired the mindset necessary to read and write code using it. Aside from the need to minimize incompatibilities, the syntactic aberrations introduced by C++ can be ignored.

"Pythonic" is sometimes used as an adjective to praise code for its use of Python-specific language idioms. I believe that an equivalent word "scenic" could be used to describe C language idioms, meaning that they conform to a mode of expression characteristic of C. I've tried to keep that in mind when evaluating syntax and semantics.

Inspiration from Python

For the past twenty years, I've mostly been coding in C. I had always considered C to be a strongly-typed language: it allows implicit conversions between void * pointers and other pointer types, and between enum and integer types, but those aren't serious shortcomings so long as the programmer is aware of them.

Recently, I switched to a team that writes code in a mixture of languages (including C++, Python, and Javascript). Writing code in languages that are dynamically-typed but with statically checked type annotations was a revelation to me. Our project uses MyPy and Typescript for static type checking.

The main thing that I grew to appreciate was the strong distinction that MyPy makes between values that can be None and values that cannot. Such values are annotated as Optional[int], for example. Any attempt to pass an Optional value to a function that isn't annotated to accept None is faulted, as is any attempt to do unguarded operations on Optional values (i.e. without first checking for the value being None).

Problem statement

In contrast to Python, C's type system makes no distinction between pointer values that can be null, and those that cannot. Effectively, any pointer in a C program can be null, which leads to repetitive, longwinded and unverifiable parameter descriptions such as "Non-null pointer to..." or "Address of X ... (must not be null)".

Such invariants are not usually documented within a function except by assertions, which clutter the source code and are ineffective without testing. Some programmers even write tests to verify that assertions fail when null is passed to a function, although the same stimulus would provoke undefined behaviour in release builds. The amount of time and effort that could be saved if such misuse were instead caught at compile time is huge.

Isn't this a solved problem?

Given that the issue of undefined behaviour caused by null pointer dereferences has been present in C since its inception, many solutions have already been attempted.

C99 extended the syntax for function arguments to allow static within [], which requires the passed array to be at least a specified size:

void *my_memcpy(char dest[static 1], const char src[static 1], size_t len);

void test(void)
    char *dest = NULL, *src = NULL;
    my_memcpy(NULL, NULL, 10); // warning: argument 1 to 'char[static 1]' is null where non-null expected
    my_memcpy(dest, src, 10); // no compiler warning

This trick may generate a warning in cases where a null pointer constant is specified directly as a function argument — but not for any other source of null such as a failed call to malloc. It's not a general-purpose solution anyway because arrays of type void are illegal, which makes this syntax unusable for declaring functions such as memcpy, nor can it be used for local variables or return values.

A GNU compiler extension (also supported by Clang and the ARM compiler) allows function arguments to be marked as not supposed to be null:

void *my_memcpy(void *dest, const void *src, size_t len) __attribute__((nonnull (1, 2)));

void test(void)
    char *dest = NULL, *src = NULL;
    my_memcpy(NULL, NULL, 10); // warning: argument 1 null where non-null expected
    my_memcpy(dest, src, 10); // no compiler warning

I find the __attribute__ syntax intrusive and verbose. It is also error-prone because attributes only apply to function declarations as a whole: it's easy to accidentally specify wrong argument indices, because the arguments themselves are not annotated. Clang extended the syntax to allow __attribute__((nonnull)) to be used within an argument list, but the GNU compiler does not support that.

Historically, the semantics of __attribute__((nonnull)) weren't very useful: it only detected cases where a null pointer constant was specified directly as a function argument. However, version 10 of the GNU compiler introduced a new feature, -fanalyzer, which uses the same __attribute__ information during a static analysis pass:

<source>:8:3: warning: use of NULL 'dest' where non-null expected [CWE-476] [-Wanalyzer-null-argument]
    8 |   my_memcpy(dest, src, 10); // no compiler warning
      |   ^~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  'test': events 1-3
    |    7 |   char *dest = NULL, *src = NULL;
    |      |         ^~~~          ~~~
    |      |         |             |
    |      |         |             (2) 'dest' is NULL
    |      |         (1) 'dest' is NULL
    |    8 |   my_memcpy(dest, src, 10); // no compiler warning
    |      |   ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    |      |   |
    |      |   (3) argument 1 ('dest') NULL where non-null expected
<source>:4:7: note: argument 1 of 'my_memcpy' must be non-null
    4 | void *my_memcpy(void *dest, const void *src, size_t len) __attribute__((nonnull (1, 2)));
      |       ^~~~~~~~~

RFC: Nullability qualifiers (2015) proposed not one but three new type annotations: _Nullable, _Nonnull and _Null_unspecified. Support for these was added in version 3.7 of Clang, but GCC doesn't recognize them. Like GCC without -fanalyzer, Clang itself only detects cases where a null pointer constant is specified directly as a function argument:

void *my_memcpy(void *_Nonnull dest, const void *_Nonnull src, size_t len);
void test(void)
    char *dest = NULL, *src = NULL;
    my_memcpy(NULL, NULL, 10); // warning: Null passed to a callee that requires a non-null 1st parameter
    my_memcpy(dest, src, 10); // no compiler warning

However, Clang-tidy, a standalone tool based on Clang, can issue warnings about misuse of pointers that it is able to infer based on annotations and path-sensitive analysis:

<source>:9:3: warning: Null pointer passed to 1st parameter expecting 'nonnull' [clang-analyzer-core.NonNullParamChecker]
  my_memcpy(dest, src, 10); // no compiler warning
  ^         ~~~~
<source>:7:9: note: 'dest' initialized to a null pointer value
  char *dest = NULL, *src = NULL;
<source>:9:3: note: Null pointer passed to 1st parameter expecting 'nonnull'
  my_memcpy(dest, src, 10); // no compiler warning
  ^         ~~~~

Clang's syntax is less verbose and error-prone than __attribute__, but the requirement to annotate all pointers as either _Nullable or _Nonnull makes code harder to read and write. Most pointers should not be null: consider the instance pointer passed to every method of a class. It's no longer safe to write such declarations in traditional style with economy of effort, and that's a deal-breaker for me. I also think the semantics of these annotations (discussed later) are far more complex than befits a simple language like C, and likely to cause confusion.

I've seen Clang's nullability qualifiers described as "enormous and useless noise, while providing doubtful value" and the very idea of annotating pointers called a "naive dream". I agree with the first statement, but not the second: other languages have shown that null safety is achievable and useful, whilst C lags with competing partial solutions that are confusing, error-prone, and intrusive.

Clang's annotations provide no value to other compilers, which either ignore (if removed by macros) or reject them. Not all developers use special build machines costing thousands of pounds: I do a lot of coding on a Raspberry Pi, using a toolchain that dates from the 1980s but is still actively maintained (and recently gained support for C17). For me, having a rapid edit-compile-run cycle is paramount.

Even tiny compilers such as cc65 can check that the addresses of objects declared with const or volatile are not passed to functions that do not accept such pointers, because the rules for type compatibility are simple (for the benefit of machines and people). This is exactly the niche that the C language should be occupying.

I postulate that improved null safety does not require path-sensitive analysis.

Syntactic and semantic precedents

Type qualifiers (as we understand them today) didn't exist in pre-ANSI C, which consequently had a stronger similarity between declarations and expressions, since qualifiers can't appear in expressions (except as part of a cast).

The second edition of 'The C Programming Language' (K&R, 1988) says only that:

Types may also be qualified, to indicate special properties of the objects being declared.

Notably, the special properties conferred by const, volatile, restrict and _Atomic all relate to how objects are stored or how that storage is accessed — not the range of values representable by an object of the qualified type.

Is the property of being able to represent a null pointer value the kind of property that should be indicated by a type-qualifier? Restrictions on the range of values representable by an object are usually implied by its type-specifiers (although long, short, signed and unsigned are intriguingly also called "qualifiers" by K&R, presumably because their text predates ANSI C).

Pointers are a special type of object though. Multiple levels of indirection can be nested within a single declaration, as in the following declaration of baz (an array of pointers to arrays of pointers to int):

int bar;
int *foo[2] = {NULL, &bar};
int *(*baz[3])[2] = {&foo, NULL, NULL};

It's therefore necessary to specify whether null is permitted for every level of indirection within a declarator (e.g. for both baz[3] and (*baz[3])[2]). The only existing element of C's existing syntax that has such flexibility is a type-qualifier.

It's not meaningful to specify whether null is permitted as part of the declaration-specifiers (e.g. static int) on the lefthand side of a declaration, because this property only applies to pointers. The restrict qualifier already has this limitation.

Here's an example of how the above declaration might look with Clang's nullability qualifiers:

int bar;
int *_Nullable foo[2] = {NULL, &bar};
int *_Nullable (*_Nullable baz[3])[2] = {&foo, NULL, NULL};

Syntactically, this may look like a perfect solution; semantically, I will argue that it is not!

A variable of type char *const (const pointer to char) can be assigned to a variable of type char * (pointer to char), but a variable of type const char * (pointer to const char) cannot. After a learner internalizes the knowledge that qualifiers on a pointer target must be compatible, whereas qualifiers on a pointer value are discarded, this rule can be applied to any assignment or initialization:

int *const x = NULL;
int *s = x; // no warning
int *volatile y = NULL;
int *t = y; // no warning
int *restrict z = NULL;
int *r = z; // no warning

One might not expect the same laxity to apply to the _Nullable and _Nonnull qualifiers, because they relate to the assigned value, not the storage access properties of a particular copy of it. Despite that, Clang-tidy allows an assigned value to be _Nullable unless the type of the assigned-to-object is qualified as _Nonnull:

extern int *_Nullable getptr(void);
int *_Nullable z = getptr();
int *q = z; // no warning
int *_Nonnull p = z; // warning: Nullable pointer is assigned to a pointer which is expected to have non-null value
*q = 10; // warning: Nullable pointer is dereferenced

This compromise between the traditional semantics of assignment (discard top-level qualifiers) and the semantics needed to track nullability (ensure compatible qualifiers) looks like a weak basis for null safety; however, it is mitigated by the fact that the static analyser tracks whether a pointer value may be null regardless of its type. In turn, that makes it impossible to tell what constraints apply to a pointer value simply by referring to its declaration.

A related issue is that top-level qualifiers on arguments are redundant in a function declaration (as opposed to definition) because arguments are passed by value. Callers don't care what the callee does with its copy of a pointer argument — only what it does with the pointed-to object.

Consequently, such qualifiers are ignored when determining compatibility between declarations and definitions of the same function. The normative part of an argument declaration is to the left of the asterisk:

void myfunc(const char *const s);
//          ^^^^^^^^^^  ^^^^^
//          Normative   Not normative
//          vvvvvvvvvv  vvvvvvvv
void myfunc(const char *restrict s)

Notably, this rule also applies to restrict-qualified arguments, despite an apparent conflict with a principle stated in WG14's charter:

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) should be self-documenting when possible

The same laxity should not apply to the _Nullable and _Nonnull qualifiers, because they relate to the passed value, not its storage access properties. Despite that, Clang ignores any differences between rival declarations of a function, except in cases where contradictory qualifiers were used.

It is permissible to write [] instead of * in a parameter declaration, to hint that an array is passed (by reference) to a function. One might expect this [] syntax to be incompatible with qualifying the type of the pointer (as opposed to the type of array elements). On the contrary, Clang allows nullability qualifiers to appear between the brackets:

void myfunc(const char s[_Nullable]); // s may be a null pointer

This syntax is not intuitive to me (usually [] indicates an index or size) but it does follow of the C language standard:

A declaration of a parameter as "array of type" shall be adjusted to "qualified pointer to type", where the type qualifiers (if any) are those specified within the [ and ] of the array type derivation.

Thinking outside the box

An essential feature of a new type qualifier expressing 'may be null' is that this property must not be lost when a qualified pointer is copied (including when it is passed as a function argument).

Qualifiers on a pointed-to type must be compatible in assignments, initializations, and function calls, whereas qualifiers on a pointer type need not be. The fact that every programmer has internalized this rule makes me reluctant to propose (or embrace) any change to it for nullability qualifiers on a pointer type.

I'm tempted to say that both restrict and the Clang annotations _Nullable and _Nonnull are in the wrong place. The restrict qualifier frees an optimizer to generate more efficient code, almost like the opposite of volatile. Isn't the quality of being aliased a property of an object, rather than any single pointer to it?

At the heart of C's syntax is the primacy of fundamental types such as int. Every declaration is a description of how a chain of indirections leads to such a type. Can we reframe the 'may be null' property as a quality of the pointed-to object, rather than the pointer?


const int *i; // *i is an int that may be stored in read-only memory
volatile int *j; // *j is an int that may be stored in shared memory
_Optional int *k; // *k is an int for which no storage may be allocated

I chose the name _Optional to bootstrap existing knowledge of Python and make a clear distinction between this qualifier and _Nullable. I also like the idea of Python giving something back to C.

_Optional is the same length as _Nullable and only one character longer than volatile. C's syntax isn't known for its brevity, anyway. (Think not of functions such as strcpy, but of declarations such as const volatile unsigned long int.)

Modifying a const object only has undefined behaviour if the object was originally declared as const, which is not always the case when an object is modified by dereferencing a pointer from which a const qualifier was cast away. Likewise, accessing an _Optional object will only have undefined behaviour if the pointer used to access the object is actually null.

Read-only objects are often stored in a separate address range so that illegal write accesses generate a segmentation fault (on machines with an MMU). Likewise, null pointer values encode a reserved address, which is typically neither readable nor writable by user programs. In both cases (const and _Optional), a qualifier on the pointed-to object indicates something about its address.

Unlike assignment to a variable with const-qualified type, no error should be reported when compiling code which accesses a variable with _Optional-qualified type. Were that my intent, I would have proposed a name like _None rather than _Optional. Requiring the _Optional qualifier to be cast away before accessing a so-qualified object would be tiresome and would sacrifice type safety for null safety. I do not think that is a good trade-off.

Despite this limitation, the new qualifier is useful:

Here is some example usage:

void foo(int *);

void bar(_Optional int *i)
    *i = 10; // optional warning of unguarded dereference

    if (i) {
        *i = 5; // okay

    int *j = i; // warning: initializing discard qualifiers
    j = i; // warning: assignment discards qualifiers
    foo(i); // warning: passing parameter discards qualifiers

Here's an example of complex declarations that I used earlier, updated to use the proposed qualifier:

   int            bar;

   _Optional int  *foo[2] = {NULL, &bar};
// ^^decl-spec^^  ^^decl^

   _Optional int  *(*qux[3])[2] = {&foo, &foo, &foo};
// ^^decl-spec^^  ^^declarator^

   _Optional int  *_Optional (*baz[3])[2] = {&foo, NULL, NULL};
//                            ^^decl^
// ^^decl-spec^^  ^^pointer^ ^^dir-decl^^
//                ^^^^^^declarator^^^^^^^

Let's break it down:

Note that an 'optional pointer' is not a pointer that may have the value null; it's a pointer that may not exist. This is like the existing rule that a 'const pointer' is not a pointer to read-only memory; it's a pointer that may be stored in read-only memory.

Parameter declarations using [] syntax can be written more naturally using an _Optional qualifier than using Clang's _Nullable qualifier:

void myfunc(_Optional const char s[]); // s may be a null pointer

With the above exception, it isn't useful to declare a non-pointed-to object as _Optional (although so-qualified types will exist during expression evaluation). Such declarations could be disallowed, like similar abuse of restrict, to avoid confusion.

Why _Optional rather than _Mandatory?

As mentioned earlier, function parameters that can legitimately be null are outnumbered by parameters that cannot be null without provoking undefined behaviour.

The very first sentence of K&R's book "The C programming language" is

C is a general-purpose programming language which features economy of expression...

Neither static array extents nor any alternative method of annotating function parameters as non-null (including a future _Mandatory qualifier) resemble "economy of expression".

Anyone advocating that C programmers write classes like this:

bool coord_stack_init(coord_stack stack[static 1], size_t limit);
void coord_stack_term(coord_stack stack[static 1]);
bool coord_stack_push(coord_stack stack[static 1], coord item);
coord coord_stack_pop(coord_stack stack[static 1]);
bool coord_stack_is_empty(coord_stack stack[static 1]);

Or this:

bool coord_stack_init(coord_stack *_Nonnull stack, size_t limit);
void coord_stack_term(coord_stack *_Nonnull stack);
bool coord_stack_push(coord_stack *_Nonnull stack, coord item);
coord coord_stack_pop(coord_stack *_Nonnull stack);
bool coord_stack_is_empty(coord_stack *_Nonnull stack);

Or this:

bool coord_stack_init(coord_stack *stack, size_t limit) __attribute__((nonnull (1, 1)));
void coord_stack_term(coord_stack *stack) __attribute__((nonnull (1, 1)));
bool coord_stack_push(coord_stack *stack, coord item) __attribute__((nonnull (1, 1)));
coord coord_stack_pop(coord_stack *stack) __attribute__((nonnull (1, 1)));
bool coord_stack_is_empty(coord_stack *stack) __attribute__((nonnull (1, 1)));

Instead of this:

bool coord_stack_init(coord_stack *stack, size_t limit);
void coord_stack_term(coord_stack *stack);
bool coord_stack_push(coord_stack *stack, coord item);
coord coord_stack_pop(coord_stack *stack);
bool coord_stack_is_empty(coord_stack *stack);

has no interest in keeping C "pleasant, expressive, and versatile" (as K&R designed it), and might even have a hidden agenda to push C users towards C++ ("Just use references").

An equally important reason to add _Optional instead of _Mandatory is that the assignment semantics for _Mandatory would need to be opposite to those for const and volatile (because _Mandatory is not a restriction on usage of a so-qualified pointer, therefore it should not be contagious).

Conversions from maybe-null to not-null

I presented the idea of warnings when a pointer-to-_Optional is passed to a function with incompatible argument types as an unalloyed good. In fact, such usage has legitimate applications.

Consider the following veneer for the strcmp function which safely handles null pointer values by substituting the empty string:

int safe_strcmp(_Optional const char *s1, _Optional const char *s2)
    if (!s1) s1 = "";
    if (!s2) s2 = "";
    return strcmp(s1, s2); // warning: passing parameter discards qualifiers

In the above situation, both s1 and s2 would both need to be cast before calling strcmp:

int safe_strcmp(_Optional const char *s1, _Optional const char *s2)
    if (!s1) s1 = "";
    if (!s2) s2 = "";
    return strcmp((const char *)s1, (const char *)s2);

The above solution would be detrimental to readability and type safety.

It could be argued that any mechanism to remove _Optional from the target of a pointer without first checking its value (at runtime) fatally compromises null safety. I disagree: C provides tools to write type-safe code, whilst allowing leniency where it is pragmatic to do so.

It might be possible to use some combination of _Generic and unqual_typeof to remove only a specific qualifier from a type (like const_cast in C++) but such casts would still clutter the code and therefore seem likely be rejected by programmers who prefer to rely solely on path-sensitive analysis.

What is required is a solution that accommodates both advanced compilers and compilers which report errors based only on simple type-compatibility rules. Compilers capable of doing so must be able to validate conversions from maybe-null to not-null in the same way as they would validate a real pointer dereference.

One of my colleagues suggested just such a solution:

int safe_strcmp(_Optional const char *s1, _Optional const char *s2)
  if (!s1) s1 = "";
  if (!s2) s2 = "";
  return strcmp(&*s1, &*s2);

This idiom has the benefit that it is already 'on the radar' of implementers (and some programmers) because of an existing rule that neither operator of &* is evaluated. It's searchable, easy to type (& and * are on adjacent keys), and not too ugly.

Do not underestimate the importance of &* being easy to type! I must have written it thousands of times by now. The alternatives that I considered would have made updating a large existing codebase unbearable.

The way I envisage this working is:

However, this proposal might entail a modification to the description of the address and indirection operators in the C standard:

If the operand [of the unary & operator] is the result of a unary * operator, neither that operator nor the & operator is evaluated and the result is as if both were omitted, except that the constraints on the operators still apply and the result is not an lvalue.

C++ does not currently allow indirection on an operand of type void *. This rule would either need to be aligned with C, or else C++ programmers would need to cast away the qualifier from _Optional void * in some circumstances, rather than using an idiom such as &*.

The devil in the details

I haven't yet explained how such an expression such as &*s would remove the _Optional qualifier from the type of a pointed-to object.

Whereas a qualifier that applies to a pointer type is naturally removed by dereferencing that pointer, a qualifier (such as _Optional) that applies to a pointed-to object is not:

int *const x;
typeof(&*x) y; // y has type 'int *' not 'int *const'
y = 0;

int b;
int const *a = &b;
typeof(&*a) c; // c has type 'int const *'
*c = 0; // error: read-only variable is not assignable

Consequently, modified semantics are required for the unary * operator, the unary & operator, or both.

It's tempting to think that the appropriate time to remove a maybe-null qualifier from a pointer is the same moment at which undefined behaviour would ensue if the pointer were null. I prototyped a change to remove the _Optional qualifier from the result of unary *, but found it onerous to add &* everywhere it was necessary to remove the _Optional qualifier from a pointer.

Moreover, many previously simple expressions became unreadable:

Whilst it would have been possible to improve readability by using more intermediate variables, that isn't the frictionless experience I look for in a programming language. (The same consideration applies to reliance on casts in the absence of modified operator semantics.)

The proposed idiom &*s is merely the simplest expression that incorporates a semantic dereference without accessing the pointed-to object. A whole class of similar expressions exist, all of which typically compile to a machine-level instruction to move or add to a register value (rather than a load from memory):

There is only one way to get the address of an object (excepting arithmetic), whereas there are many ways to dereference a pointer. Therefore, I propose that any _Optional qualifier be implicitly removed from the operand of the unary & operator, rather than modifying the semantics of the unary *, subscript [] and member-access -> operators.

The operand of & is already treated specially, being exempt from conversion from an lvalue to the value stored in the designated object, and from implicit conversion of an array or function type into a pointer. It therefore seems less surprising to add new semantics for & than *.

I also think that the use of the & operator to remove _Optional from the type of its argument is nicely mnemonic: it's axiomatic that that address of any object is not null.

Another class of expressions that generate an address from a pointer without accessing the pointed-to object are arithmetic expressions in which one operand is a pointer:

None of the above expressions affect the qualifiers of a pointed-to object in the result type: if the type of s is a pointer-to-const then so is the type of s + 1.

Although s + n is equivalent to &s[n] in current code, it does not occur often enough to justify modifying arithmetic operators to remove any _Optional qualifier from a pointed-to object. This also avoids the question of changes to prefix/postfix operators such as ++ and compound assignments such as +=. The alternative substitution of &*s + n is tolerably readable.

Function pointers

C's declaration syntax does not permit type qualifiers to be specified as part of a function declaration:

<source>:4:6: error: expected ')' [clang-diagnostic-error]
int (const *f)(int); // pointer to const-qualified function

A syntactic way around this limitation is to use an intermediate typedef name:

typedef int func_t(int);
const func_t *f; // pointer to const-qualified function

That doesn't solve the underlying problem, though. GCC does not warn about such declarations, but Clang does:

<source>:5:1: warning: 'const' qualifier on function type 'func_t' (aka 'int (int)') has unspecified behavior [clang-diagnostic-warning]
const func_t *f; // pointer to const-qualified function

The C language standard currently says:

If the specification of a function type includes any type qualifiers, the behavior is undefined.

Making this behaviour well-defined (as in C++) would make the language safer, whereas extending the declaration syntax is beyond the scope of my proposal.

Migration of existing code

_Optional can be pre-defined as an empty macro (in the Makefile or equivalent) when invoking a compiler which does not support it.

Functions which consume pointers that can legitimately be null can be changed with only minor effects on compatibility. For example, void free(_Optional void *) can consume a pointer to an optional-qualified type, or a pointer to an unqualified type, without casting.

However, existing code which uses the address of free (e.g. as a callback function) and expects it to have the signature void free(void *) would fail to compile if the signature were instead void free(_Optional void *). Relaxing the type compatibility rules (for all qualifiers) would be useful but is beyond the scope of my proposal.

'Safe' wrappers for existing functions that produce null pointers could be written, for example _Optional FILE *safe_fopen(const char *, const char *) would produce a pointer that can only be passed to functions which accept pointers to optional-qualified types.

Requiring implementations to redefine the constant to which the NULL macro expands as ((_Optional void *)0) is unthinkable because it would invalidate all existing code. However, it might be useful to standardize an alternative macro for use in place of NULL. I have not specified such a macro because NULL is not a core part of the language.

Here is an example of one type of change that I made to an existing codebase:


entry_t *old_entries = d->entries;
d->entries = mem_alloc(sizeof(entry_t) * new_size);

if (NULL == d->entries)
    d->entries = old_entries;
    return ERROR_OOM;


_Optional entry_t *new_entries = mem_alloc(sizeof(entry_t) * new_size);

if (NULL == new_entries)
    return ERROR_OOM;

d->entries = &*new_entries;

This pattern avoids the need to qualify the array pointed to by struct member entries as _Optional, thereby simplifying all other code which uses it. When nullability is part of the type system, more discipline and less constructive ambiguity is required. General-purpose struct types for which pointer nullability depends on specific usage become a liability.

Of course, programmers are free to eschew the new qualifier, just as many do not consider const correctness to be worth their time.

Proposed language extension

The _Optional qualifier is treated like existing qualifiers when determining compatibility between types, and when determining whether a pointer may be implicitly converted to a pointer to a differently-qualified type.

Prototyping in Clang

Updating Clang to recognize the _Optional qualifier was not as straightforward as I had hoped because a fixed number of address bits are allocated to store 'fast' qualifiers such as const and volatile. Increasing the number of bits used for that purpose required pointed-to objects to be allocated with coarser granularity. I didn't consider any performance effects of this change significant for a prototype.

Only three methods needed updating to implement special semantics (different from volatile and const) for the new type qualifier:

Having prototyped the above changes, I found that the new qualifier was already useful for finding issues caused by not handling null values defensively. This was exactly what I had hoped, because a new qualifier cannot be justified unless it provides value in the absence of static analysis.

Prototyping in Clang's static analyser

The core of Clang's static analyser does path-sensitive analysis to determine (for each step in execution of a program) whether a symbol is known to be null, known to be non-null, or could be either.

An existing checker understands _Nullable and _Nonnull attributes, which it uses to maintain extra metadata about whether memory regions supposedly contain nullable or non-null values. This is used when path-sensitive analysis alone cannot determine whether a value is null.

It was simple to update the nullability checker to treat pointers to _Optional types as equivalent to _Nullable. This ensures static analysis of code using my proposed type qualifier is at least as good as analysis using existing attributes, thereby removing one barrier to adoption.

This was not sufficient because the analyser ignores many instances of undefined behaviour. For example, it allows expressions like &self->super when selfis null. This latitude is also required because many commonly-used macros such as offsetof and container_of have undefined behaviour. The simplest definition of offsetof incorporates an explicit null pointer dereference:

#define offsetof(st, m) \
 ((size_t)&(((st *)0)->m))

Such expressions must be rejected when applied to pointers to _Optional values, otherwise it would not be safe to remove _Optional from a pointer target by use of my proposed &* idiom (or any equivalent). Effectively, qualifying a type as _Optional must enable an enhanced level of checking for undefined behaviour, which operates partly at a syntactic level rather than solely at the level of simulated memory accesses.

My proposed qualifier does not require the property of nullability to be tracked using extra metadata: if a pointer target's type is _Optional then that pointer may be null, regardless of its provenance. I therefore created a separate checker for optional values, instead of extending the nullability checker. This requires only checkPreStmtmethods to generate a warning unless pointers to _Optional values used in expressions are provably not null.

The ProgramState::isNull method used by pre-existing checkers was good at telling that a pointer definitely is null, but bad at telling that it definitely isn't null. For example, it returned 'not sure' in the following trivial case, which caused a spurious warning from my new checker:

int main(void)
  int p;
  int _Optional *q = &p;
  if (q) {
    *q = 0; // spurious warning
  return 0;

When analyzing the above program, the statement if (q) does not create a constraint such as range [1, 18446744073709551615] for use in future inferences about the value of q. This is because SimpleConstraintManager::assumeInternal uses SValBuilder::evalCast to convert a pointer type to Boolean, which replaces the condition with 1 ("Non-symbolic memory regions are always true") if invoked on a pointer (such as q) that lacks an associated symbolic region.

I added code in isNull to do the same evalCast and check for a zero result if invoked on an expression which is not a constant and does not wrap a symbol. This merely aligns the result of isNull with the path already assumed to have been taken.

Clang does not generate ImplicitCastExpr<LValueToRValue> nodes for unary operators (prefix or postfix ++/--) or compound assignment operators (+=/-=) in its Abstract Syntax Tree. Consequently, I found it hard to verify that implicit removal of the _Optional qualifier from the result of such operations is safe and therefore decided against it.

It would have been possible to change only the semantics of the arithmetic operators + and -, but I didn't want to break an equivalence specified in of the C standard:

A compound assignment of the form E1 op = E2 differs from the simple assignment expression E1 = E1 op (E2) only in that the lvalue E1 is evaluated only once.

Possible objections

The need to define a typedef name before declaring a pointer to an _Optional function is an undeniable drawback of qualifying the pointed-to type rather than the pointer type. I would argue that code clarity and documentation is often improved by composing complex declarations from type aliases, and that this limitation of the declaration syntax is outweighed by the benefit of regular semantics of actual usage.

Some may struggle to accept a novel syntax for adding nullability information to pointers, given the existence of more prosaic solutions. I can only urge them to consider whether a solution inspired by pointer-to-const is really such a novelty — especially in comparison to the irregular new semantics required when the pointer type itself is qualified.

Others may agree with Stroustrup (in "The Design and Evolution of C++", 1994) that C's syntax and semantics are a "known mess" of "perversities". Nevertheless, I believe that pointer nullability should be added in a way that conforms to long-established C language idioms rather than violating such norms (as C++ references do) in the hope of satisfying users who will never like C anyway.

Let's make it happen

If you've read this far, and you like what you've read, then the most important thing is that you don't do nothing. Changes to programming languages only happen with the collaboration and support of many people.

Here are some practical steps you can take:

Thank you for reading.

But what about the film?

At the risk of spoiling your enjoyment of a late-sixties flop, the denouement of 'Thunderbird 6' reveals the titular craft to be neither a faster-than-light spacecraft nor a hypersonic aircraft (both of which are teased in the opening). Instead, it is a Tiger Moth: a classic biplane that should be obsolete in the 21st century but has endured thanks to its simple, rugged, compact and lightweight design.

Surprisingly, this wins ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy's approval:

I'll buy it. I agree it's a good design. It has been built, and it sure has been tested!

This also reflects how I feel about the C programming language, and my hope for how others will receive my proposed extension.