Better Enums

Reflective compile-time enums for C++

Open-source under the BSD license

Version 0.11.1

To install, just add enum.h to your project.

Visit the GitHub repo for issues, feedback, and the latest development.

Download enum.h GitHub

This is an example of code you can write on top of Better Enums. It's a valid program — you can download it and try it out. The program is also part of the test suite.

Special values

Suppose your project has a convention where each enum has special invalid and default values — for example, Enum::Invalid is invalid, and the first valid constant is default. With Better Enums, you can get the compiler to enforce the convention. At the end of this demo, we will have defined functions and templates that allow us to write:

Channel     channel = default_;
Channel     channel = invalid;

void do_something(Channel channel);


The compiler will compute default and invalid values automatically, but the programmer will also be able to override the choice. Obviously, the syntax above is very legible and maintainable — the intent is clear and your code base will respond automatically to changes in enum definitions.


Invalid values

Let's start by defining the invalid values.

#include <iostream>
#include <stdexcept>
#include <enum.h>

Perhaps the convention is that the invalid value is usually called Invalid, but not for all enums. We will encode that using a template function. The unspecialized version will encode the default policy:

template <typename Enum>
constexpr Enum invalid_impl() { return Enum::Invalid; }

A macro allows us to override the invalid value by specializing the template:

#define OVERRIDE_INVALID(Enum, Value)                 \
template<>                                            \
constexpr Enum invalid_impl<Enum>() { return Enum::Value; }

Now, we can declare enums like these:

BETTER_ENUM(Channel, int, Red, Green, Blue, Invalid)
// Invalid is the invalid value by default

BETTER_ENUM(Compression, int, Undefined, None, Huffman)
OVERRIDE_INVALID(Compression, Undefined)

and use them:

static_assert(invalid_impl<Channel>() == +Channel::Invalid, "");
static_assert(invalid_impl<Compression>() == +Compression::Undefined, "");

This even supports enums that don't have an invalid value at all. As long as they don't have a constant called Invalid, you will get a compile-time error if you try to call invalid_impl<>() on them — as you probably should!

Default values

Perhaps here the convention is the first value that is not invalid is default, unless, again, overridden by the programmer. This can be encoded using only a slightly more complex template function for the general case:

template <typename Enum>
constexpr Enum default_impl()
        Enum::_size() < 2 ?
            throw std::logic_error("enum has no valid constants") :
        Enum::_values()[0] == invalid_impl<Enum>() ?
            Enum::_values()[1] :

The above code gives us the first value if it is not invalid, otherwise the second value.

The companion macro for overriding the choice of default value is almost the same as it was for invalid. The difference is that we do an extra sanity check to make sure the programmer doesn't declare the invalid value to be the default. If the sanity check fails, we produce a nice error message. Again, we are assuming that this is dictated by policy.

#define OVERRIDE_DEFAULT(Enum, Value)                  \
static_assert(Enum::Value != Enum::Invalid,            \
              #Enum ": default cannot equal invalid"); \
template<>                                             \
constexpr Enum default_impl<Enum>() { return Enum::Value; }

And, as before, the usage:

static_assert(default_impl<Channel>() == +Channel::Red, "");
static_assert(default_impl<Compression>() == +Compression::None, "");

And, if you do

BETTER_ENUM(Answer, int, Yes, No, Invalid)
// OVERRIDE_DEFAULT(Answer, Invalid)

you will get a helpful compile-time error saying Answer: default cannot equal invalid.

Making the syntax nicer

At this point, our policy is encoded by the ugly-looking functions invalid_impl and default_impl. We want a nicer syntax. The main reason we don't just use these functions directly is that the compiler wouldn't infer their template arguments from the context. For example, we would have to write things like

Channel     channel = invalid_impl<Channel>();

which is unfortunate, because it results in repetition.

In this section, we introduce two global objects called invalid and default_ that will implicitly convert to any Better Enum type, and provide the invalid or default value, respectively, when they do so. They will act as new "keywords".

struct invalid_t {
    template <typename To>
    constexpr operator To() const { return invalid_impl<To>(); }

struct default_t {
    template <typename To>
    constexpr operator To() const { return default_impl<To>(); }

constexpr invalid_t     invalid{};
constexpr default_t     default_{};

As you can see, both of these provide the families of implicit conversions that we need. Now, we can test:

static_assert(+Channel::Invalid == invalid, "");
static_assert(+Compression::Undefined == invalid, "");

static_assert(+Channel::Red == default_, "");
static_assert(+Compression::None == default_, "");

Finally, we can have nice code such as this:

void dump(Channel channel)
    std::cout << channel._to_string() << std::endl;

int main()

    Channel     channel = default_;

    return 0;

There are many possible variations of these policies, but I think most of them can be encoded in a reasonable fashion using the tools Better Enums provides. Enjoy!