True Macro Recursion in C

by Arav K. on

Macros are a very useful feature of the C preprocessor for reducing boilerplate. It is well-known that they have limited processing power; most importantly, they cannot recurse, and cannot iterate over lists. Libraries for meta-programming (e.g. Boost.Preprocessor and metalang99) work around this, but are only capable of executing a limited number of iterations, and have complex implementations. However, an obscure GCC feature can be abused to allow for “true” recursion in macros in a relatively elegant manner, allowing more complex and useful macros to be implemented.

C is a relatively simple language, in that it does not provide many facilities for reducing boilerplate in code. The C preprocessor (which pre-processes C code before it is compiled) makes up for this by providing macros, which are named fragments of code that can be substituted at other locations. There are object-like macros (where the macro is referenced simply by name, and its definition is simply substituted), and function-like macros (where the macro is referenced like a C function call (foo(...)), where the macro can be passed arguments (other fragments of code) which are substituted into the definition of the macro, which is then substituted into the location of the reference.

// Here's an object-like macro called 'BAR'.  After this definition, wherever
// 'BAR' is found in the source code, it will be replaced by this fragment of
// code ('BAZ').
#define BAR BAZ

BAR // The preprocessor will replace this with 'BAZ'.
ABAR // This is not the same as 'BAR', and will not suffer substitution.
"BAR" // C strings are not identifiers, and so cannot be macro references.

// Here's a function-like macro called 'BAZ'.  It takes one argument, called
// 'x', whose definition (provided wherever 'BAZ' is referenced) will be
// substituted into the defined fragment of code.
#define BAZ(x) foo(x)

BAZ // Without parentheses, this is not a function-like macro reference.
BAZ(24) // 'x' is defined as '24' and substituted; the result is 'foo(24)'.

// Since 'BAR' is an object-like macro, this is not considered to be a function-
// like macro reference; hence the preprocessor will initially ignore the '()'
// and just subsitute 'BAR' for 'BAZ'.  After that substitution, it takes a new
// look at the code; seeing 'BAZ(24)', it will interpret this as a reference to
// 'BAZ' and substitute 'foo(24)' accordingly.

After preprocessing, this code looks like:




There are a tremendous number of edge cases and special considerations with macros; for example, BAZ() is a valid reference, even though it appears as if no arguments have been provided, because x is considered simply empty. But ignoring these, macros provide a simple way to reuse code fragments, and to replace boilerplate code with short and comprehensible macro references.

Before C got inline functions, macros were used instead; for example, one could define memcpy() like this:

// Note: call as 'memcpy(...);', so that a semicolon is provided.
#define memcpy(dst, src, len) \
    for (size_t i = 0; i < len; i++) dst[i] = src[i]

Although inline functions have replaced macros for these sorts of use cases, and provided type safety where there was none, such macros are still necessary in some cases. In particular, if the type of a certain argument can vary, it cannot be defined as a C function. A generic max() function, intended to take both integers and floating-point values, must be defined as a macro:

#define max(a, b) (a < b) ? b : a

Although there are a lot of problems with macros (e.g. both the macros above re-evaluate one or more of their arguments, which is problematic if they have side effects; and if any of the arguments are complex expressions, the resulting code may be parsed incorrectly), they remain useful as a means of sharing code and reducing boilerplate.

Macros are useful for basic cases of boilerplate. But as the complexity of the problem at hand increases, macros get more difficult to work with, and several limitations come to light. Most importantly, the C preprocessor does not allow for recursion: a macro cannot be called within itself, and so iteration and other complex control flow cannot be expressed.

Consider the following use case: we’ve defined a custom integer type int24_t, and would like printf() to support it. Rather than adding a new format specifier for it, which would require us to re-implement printf() entirely (along with all of its format specifiers), we can try to transparently convert any calls to this custom printf() function into a regular printf().

// Our custom integer type.
typedef struct int24 {
    unsigned char data[3];
} int24_t;

// A function convert a regular 'int' into an 'int24_t'.
int24_t int24_from_int(int value);

// A function convert an 'int24_t' into a regular 'int'.
int int24_into_int(int24_t value);

// A 'printf()' that supports our custom integer type.
int my_printf(char const *fmt, ...);

// Ideal usage:
int24_t to_print = int24_from_int(42);
my_printf("Hello %d!\n", to_print);

If we can detect instances of int24_t in the input argument list, we can convert them into ints and pass them onto printf(). The %d format specifier can then be used as expected. But variadic functions in C lose type information, so it would be impossible to distinguish ints from int24_ts. However, this type information can be retrieved using C11’s _Generic operator combined with macros:

// If the argument is a 'int24_t', it is converted to an 'int'; arguments of any
// other type are passed through as-is.
#define FORMAT_INT24(x) ({ \
    int24_t as_int24 = _Generic((x), int24_t: (x), default: (int24_t) {}); \
    _Generic((x), int24_t: int24_into_int(as_int24), default: (x)); \

// It'd be nice if we could just write this:
#define FORMAT_INT24_NICE(x) _Generic(x, int24_t: int24_into_int(x), default: x)
// But we can't have all the nice things.

We use GCC expression blocks (in the ({ and }) enclosure), which introduce a new scope for variables and allow usage of the macro as a single statement (for for loops and the like). The _Generic() operator allows us to select a code fragment based on the type of an expression, but it has strict limitations (all provided code fragments must type-check, regardless of the type of the target expression), forcing the definition of an additional variable.

Now that we have a transformation macro, we need to apply it to every argument passed to my_printf(). This is where we hit one of the C preprocessor’s most severe limitations: it is not possible to iterate over the arguments to a variadic function-like macro, to apply a transformation to each argument. This would otherwise be a very nice solution to the problem at hand, for supporting special new types.

// We have:
my_printf(fmt, a, b, ...)

// We need to turn it into:
printf(fmt, FORMAT_INT24(a), FORMAT_INT24(b), ...)

// The following doesn't work, because recursion is not allowed (and because no
// base case is defined).
#define FORMAT_ALL(x, ...) FORMAT_INT24(x) FORMAT_ALL(__VA_ARGS__)

In unrelated work, I was trying to construct a macro iteratively across header files. A StackOverflow answer by rtpax introduced me to the push_macro and pop_macro GCC pragmas, with the following critical note:

If you pop a macro within it’s own definition it will delay it’s expansion until the macro is expanded for the first time. This allows you to make it’s previous expansion part of it’s own definition. However, since it is popped during it’s expansion, it can only be used once

I realized that if the previous expansion was the same as the current definition then recursion was effectively achieved. rtpax also provided a code example using the _Pragma() operator, which allows pragmas to be used within macro definition. Although they mention that the previous expansion can only be used once, due to the consuming nature of pop_macro, I realized that pushing and popping the same macro within its own definition would work around this. This leads us to:

// A recursive macro which prints an infinite stream of 1s.
#define all_ones() \
    _Pragma("push_macro(\"all_ones\")") \
    _Pragma("pop_macro(\"all_ones\")") \
    1 all_ones()

In GCC, executing this macro leads to an infinite stream of 1s; the preprocessor never halts. In Clang, unfortunately, macro expansion halts immediately, and only 1 all_ones() is output, with no further expansion. Still, at least on GCC, recursion in macros is possible!

In order to apply this usefully, let’s define a few auxilary macros:

// Invoke an inline pragma.
#define cpp_pragma(p) _Pragma(#p)

// Redefine a macro for recursion.
#define cpp_redef(m) cpp_pragma(push_macro(#m)) cpp_pragma(pop_macro(#m))

// Map a function over the given variadic argument list.
#define cpp_va_map(f, ...) __VA_OPT__(cpp_va_map_ne(f, __VA_ARGS__))

// Map a function over the given non-empty variadic argument list.
#define cpp_va_map_ne(f, a, ...) cpp_redef(cpp_va_map_ne) \
        f(a) __VA_OPT__(, cpp_va_map_ne(f, __VA_ARGS__))

The latter two macros use the __VA_OPT__ operator, which expands to its argument only if some variadic arguments were given (i.e. if __VA_ARGS__ is not empty). The base case (empty argument list) is thus accounted for. Now to use these macros for my_printf():

#define my_printf(fmt, ...) printf((fmt), cpp_va_map(FORMAT_INT24, __VA_ARGS__))

That was easy! cpp_va_map() can be used in a great deal of situations like this, eliminating the need for other hacks (e.g. X-macros) and doing so fairly elegantly. The nasty core that allows for this recursion remains hidden within these macros, and is not exposed to the user at all. Overall, it’s a lovely feature to have, and it makes C macros far more valuable.

Recursion is an incredibly powerful tool, so I expect that some truly terrifying macros will be built around it. Regardless of whether recursive macros are a good idea, cpp_va_map() provides a great deal of useful functionality in a manner that is difficult to abuse, and it should be supported in some fashion or the other even if fully-general recursion is unwanted.

Although the solution here is still fairly hacky, it’s much better than the workarounds used by Boost.Preprocessor and metalang99; they appear to use an “evaluation engine” to force indirectly self-referential macros to be expanded by the preprocessor up to a fixed number of times (currently, 16384 for metalang99), a solution that is far more verbose and error-prone.

It’s quite unfortunate that Clang doesn’t allow for this hack; LLVM is able to optimize code much better than GCC in some cases, and I was hoping to use its optimizer combined with this feature for some more craziness. I suppose it’s possible to manually pre-process code with GCC before passing it to Clang…