C++ is not a superset of C

If you're not familiar with both languages, you might have heard people say that C++ is a superset of C. If you're experienced in both languages, you'll know that this is not true at all.

Of course, C++ has many features that C does not; but there are also a few features that only C has. And, perhaps most importantly, there is code that compiles in both languages but does different things.

There's a lot of information about the differences between the two languages available, but a lot of it seems scattered. I wanted to have a go at creating a concise guide for the details that are often overlooked, with excerpts from the language standards to back these up.


This is primarily aimed at people who are familiar with at least one of C or C++.

When I refer to C++, I mean C++11 onwards, though much of this will apply to earlier standards. I'll be referencing the C++17 standard1.

When I refer to C, I mean C99 onwards. I'll be referencing the C11 standard2.

It's worth noting that a lot of compilers aren't fully compliant, or have extensions that aren't part of the standard. To me, this is part of what makes it difficult to pick apart what is standard, what is non-compliant, and what is implementation defined. I recommend Compiler Explorer if you want to see what other compilers might output if you are experimenting with any examples.


I've made some updates after some helpful feedback:

The original post is on the Internet Archive.

Code that compiles in both languages, but does different things in each

This is the category of differences that I think is most important. Not everything that C and C++ appear to share is as it seems.


What can be a constant expression?

The keyword const has a different semantic meaning in C++ than in C, but it's more subtle than I originally thought when first writing this blog post.

The differences come down to what each language allows to be a constant expression. A constant expression can be evaluated at compile time. Compile-time evaluation is needed for e.g. the size of a static array, as in the following example which will compile in C++, but whether it compiles in C will be implementation defined:

1 const size_t buffer_size = 5;
2 int buffer[buffer_size];
4 // int main() {
5     // ...
6 // }

We'll need to piece together a few different pieces of the C11 standard to understand why this is implementation defined.

C11 6.6 paragraph 6 defines an integer constant expression:

An integer constant expression shall have integer type and shall only have operands that are integer constants, enumeration constants, character constants, sizeof expressions whose results are integer constants, and floating constants that are the immediate operands of casts. Cast operators in an integer constant expression shall only convert arithmetic types to integer types, except as part of an operand to the sizeof operator.

But what is an "integer constant"? From 6.4.4, these are literal values, not variables, e.g. 1.

What this boils down to is that only expressions like 1 or 5 + 7 can be constant expressions in C. Variables can't be constant expressions. As expected, this example doesn't compile with gcc. But it does compile with Clang: why?

The answer is one final piece of the puzzle, C11 6.6 paragraph 10:

An implementation may accept other forms of constant expressions.

A portable version of the code above in C would have to use a preprocessor macro:

1 #define BUFFER_SIZE (5)
2 int buffer[BUFFER_SIZE];

The keyword const was created for this very purpose by Bjarne Stroustrop3: to reduce the need for macros. C++ is much more permissive about what can be a constant expression, making const variables more powerful.

It was a surprise to me to learn that const originated in what would become C++, and was then adopted by C. I had assumed that const came from C, and C++ took the same concept and extended it in order to reduce the need for macros. I understand macros are embraced by C, but it seems a shame to deliberately reduce the usefulness of const when standardising C.


Another difference is that file-scope const variables have internal linkage by default in C++. This is so that you can make a const declaration in a header without having multiple definition errors4

Modifying const variables

The following code is a constraint violation in C:

1 const int foo = 1;
2 int* bar = &foo;
3 *bar = 2;

C11 paragraph 1 lists some constraints, one of which must be true for an assignment to be valid. The relevant constraint for our example:

the left operand has atomic, qualified, or unqualified pointer type, and (considering the type the left operand would have after lvalue conversion) both operands are pointers to qualified or unqualified versions of compatible types, and the type pointed to by the left has all the qualifiers of the type pointed to by the right

To be conformant, the compiler must generate a diagnostic if there's a constraint violation. This could be a warning or an error. I've found that it is generally a warning, meaning this can often be compiled in C, though would give undefined behaviour5:

This is would not compile as C++. I think this is because in C++ const T is a distinct type from T, and the implicit conversion is not allowed. In C, the const is just a qualifier. I could be misunderstanding, however.

C++17 6.7.3:

The cv-qualified or cv-unqualified versions of a type are distinct types

Function declarations with no arguments

1 int func();

In C++, this declares a function that takes no arguments. But in C, this declares a function that could take any number of arguments of any type.

From the C11 standard paragraphs 10 and 14:

The special case of an unnamed parameter of type void as the only item in the list specifies that the function has no parameters.

An empty list in a function declarator that is part of a definition of that function specifies that the function has no parameters. The empty list in a function declarator that is not part of a definition of that function specifies that no information about the number or types of the parameters is supplied.

So the following would be legit C:

1 // func.h
2 int func();

1 // func.c
2 int func(int foo, int bar) {
3     return foo + bar;
4 }

1 // main.c
2 #include "func.h"
4 int main() {
5     return func(5, 6);
6 }

This would result in a compiler error in C++:

 main.c:5:12: error: no matching function for call to 'func'
   return func(5, 6);
 ./func.h:2:5: note: candidate function not viable:
 requires 0 arguments, but 2 were provided

The effect of name mangling

There are some common implementation details that allow us to take this further. On my Linux machine using Clang, the following C compiles and links (though the result would of course be undefined):

1 // func.h
2 int func(int foo, int bar);

1 #include <stdio.h>
3 // func.c
4 int func(float foo, float bar) {
5     return printf("%f, %f\n", foo, bar);
6 }

1 // main.c
2 #include "func.h"
4 int main() {
5     return func(5, 6);
6 }

This does not compile in C++. C++ compilers commonly use name mangling to enable function overloading. They "mangle" the names of functions in order to encode their arguments, e.g. by appending the argument types to the function name. Generally, C compilers just store the function name as the symbol. We can see this by comparing the symbol table of func.o when compiled as C and C++.

As C:

╰─λ objdump -t func.o

func.o:     file format elf64-x86-64

0000000000000000 l    df *ABS*  0000000000000000 foo.c
0000000000000000 l    d  .text  0000000000000000 .text
0000000000000000 l    d  .rodata.str1.1 0000000000000000 .rodata.str1.1
0000000000000000 g     F .text  000000000000002e func
0000000000000000         *UND*  0000000000000000 printf

As C++:

╰─λ objdump -t func.o

func.o:     file format elf64-x86-64

0000000000000000 l    df *ABS*  0000000000000000 foo.c
0000000000000000 l    d  .text  0000000000000000 .text
0000000000000000 l    d  .rodata.str1.1 0000000000000000 .rodata.str1.1
0000000000000000 g     F .text  000000000000003b _Z4funcff
0000000000000000         *UND*  0000000000000000 printf

These implementation details are not part of the standards, but I'd be surprised to see an implementation that did something wildly different.


I mostly include this for fun, as I think it's not as well known as it could be. auto is used for type-inference in C++, but is also a C keyword, just one that I've never actually seen used.

auto is used to declare something with automatic storage class. It's rarely seen because this is the default storage class for all variables declared within a block.

The following C has a constraint violation, namely not specifying a type6. This could error, but I've never found a compiler to give it anything but a warning about implicit conversion:

1 int main() {
2     auto x = "actually an int";
3     return x;
4 }

Before C99, it was legal to have no type specifiers, and the type would be assumed to be int. This is what happens when I compile this with Clang and gcc, and so we get a warning due to implicitly converting a char array to int.

In C++ this wouldn't compile, as the type of x is inferred to be const char*:

error: cannot initialize return object of type 'int' with an lvalue of type 'const char *'
    return x;

Features C has that C++ doesn't have

Despite C being a very small language, and C++ being huge, there are a few features that C has that C++ does not.

Variable length arrays

VLAs allow you to define an array of automatic storage duration with variable length. E.g.

1 void f(int n) {
2   int arr[n];
3   // ......
4 }

VLAs were actually made optional in the C11 standard, which makes them not very portable.

These aren't part of C++, probably in part because the C++ standard library relies heavily on dynamic memory allocation to create containers like std::vector that can be used similarly. There are reasons you might not want this dynamic allocation, but then perhaps you would not be using C++.

Restricted pointers

C defines a third type qualifier (in addition to const and volatile): restrict7. This is only used with pointers. Making a pointer restricted is telling the compiler "I will only access the underlying object via this pointer for the scope of this pointer". Consequently it can't be aliased. If you break this promise you will get undefined behaviour.

This exists to aid optimisation. A classic example is memmove where you can tell the compiler that the src and dst do not overlap.

From C11 6.7.3 paragraph 8:

An object that is accessed through a restrict-qualified pointer has a special association with that pointer. This association, defined in below, requires that all accesses to that object use, directly or indirectly, the value of that particular pointer.135)The intended use of the restrict qualifier (like the register storage class) is to promote optimization, and deleting all instances of the qualifier from all preprocessing translation units composing a conforming program does not change its meaning (i.e., observable behavior)

Restricted pointers aren't part of the C++ standard but are actually supported as extensions by many compilers8.

I'm suspicious of restrict. It seems like playing with fire, and anecdotally it seems common to run into compiler optimisation bugs when using it because it's exercised so little9. But it's easy to be suspicious of something I've never actually used.

Designated initialisers

C99 brought in an incredibly useful way to initialise structs, and I do not understand why it has not been adopted by C++.

 1 typedef struct {
 2     float red;
 3     float green;
 4     float blue;
 5 } Colour;
 7 int main() {
 8     Colour c = { .red = 0.1, .green = 0.5, .blue = 0.9 };
 9     return 0;
10 }

In C++ you would have to initialise like this: Colour c = { 0.1, 0.5, 0.9 }; which is harder to read and not robust to changes in the definition of Colour. You could instead define a constructor but why should we have to do this for a simple aggregate type? I hear designated initialisers are now coming in C++20. It only took 21 years...

  1. The closest working draft I could find for free online: http://www.open-std.org/jtc1/sc22/wg21/docs/papers/2017/n4713.pdf 

  2. http://www.open-std.org/jtc1/sc22/wg14/www/docs/n1548.pdf 

  3. Sibling Rivalry, 2002, Bjarne Stroustrup 

  4. C++11 standard appendix C.1.2 

  5. From C11 6.7.3 paragraph 6: If an attempt is made to modify an object defined with a const-qualified type through use of an lvalue with non-const-qualified type, the behavior is undefined. 

  6. C11 6.7.2 

  7. C11 also defines type qualifier _Atomic but I didn't include it here for reasons of: conciseness; it's ugly (it's a shame it couldn't be atomic, too much existing code uses that); I don't know how common it is as a lot of people still use C99; C++ also has atomic types as part of the STL so it wasn't an interesting example. 

  8. https://gcc.gnu.org/onlinedocs/gcc-6.4.0/gcc/Restricted-Pointers.html 

  9. https://software.intel.com/en-us/forums/intel-c-compiler/topic/474141