I would like to define several names for the same type and have the compiler distinguish between them.

My motivation is that different int variables could represent very different units, and I would like the compiler to catch errors in units.

typedef int Speed does not generate any warnings, when assigning to Speed from int. One possible solution is using an enum. Furthermore, the enum "hack" does not let me specify the underlying representation e.g. uint8_t.

Is what I am trying to do a bad practice? How do I achieve it in C++?


Grim. I tied using enum Speed {};.

error: invalid conversion from 'int' to 'Speed' [-fpermissive] 
error: no match for 'operator+=' in 'a += b'

Those are just a couple of errors I encountered. Enums can't be the right way.

I will think about structs, and if in my case some members and predefined operators can actually make the rest of the code cleaner.

Hmm, here is quite some research, to the point of making my question a duplicate.

  • 1
    Not specific to C++, but could you not use a struct for this? e.g. (psuedo) struct Speed { int value };? Jun 17, 2014 at 16:36
  • @jimbobmcgee, that would work. However 1) users must type .value in addition to the name of the variable 2) is a bit of a WTF moment. I can't believe that a language this strict doesn't have an out-of-the-box solution.
    – Vorac
    Jun 17, 2014 at 16:42
  • 1
    but you would write your public methods to only accept Speeds not ints, e.g. (psuedo) void move(Direction dir, Speed speed) { ... }, so they would have to pass the struct. Your method would have to know to use speed.value, the consumer would have to pass a fully-formed Speed struct. Jun 17, 2014 at 16:46
  • 2
    Have a look at the Boost library for units of measure
    – user53019
    Jun 17, 2014 at 16:47
  • @jimbobmcgee has it right - using structs is probably the way to go about that. This is how it's handled in the Boost library at least (not that you need to use Boost to solve this problem), but you can get some ideas from the library. Jun 17, 2014 at 17:33

1 Answer 1


You can't really do this in C++, as far as I know.

You might be able to sort of do it, using templates and template metaprogramming, like the Boost library for units of measure that GlenH7 mentioned, but that approach will take a LOT of typing and a lot of pain. You lose ALL of your predefined operations, and have to reimplement the ones you need, in the template metaprogramming syntax.

What you want is something like the Ada type and subtype system. Ada allows you to define new types, derived from an existing type, that might have identical ranges, but are not directly assignable or type-compatible, and new subtypes, that are directly assignable and type-compatible.

  • -1: For this purpose, C++ templates are much more powerful than Ada generics. With automatic instantiation of types and functions, it is possible to get complete compile-time dimensional analysis. Ada generics are not as powerful because all types and free functions must be explicitly instantiated. Compile-time dimensional analysis is not practical in Ada without compiler modifications. See people.cs.kuleuven.be/~dirk.craeynest/ada-belgium/events/13/… Jun 17, 2014 at 18:31
  • @kevincline, the explicit instantiation requirement is arguably a Good Thing. As I recall, it was Tony Hoare who proposed a set of default typing rules, analogous to the FORTRAN I-N integer rule, to the ALGOL committee. They chastised him most severely, explaining that requiring explicit declaration of variables, and their types, reduced programming errors. (The author of that tale added that this happened BEFORE anyone knew the possibly-apocryphal story of the lost interplanetary probe, caused by a typo combined with default typing in FORTRAN.) Jun 17, 2014 at 20:40
  • perhaps, but explicit instantiation prevents a lot of very useful compile-time type calculus. The result is that for many applications (e.g. engineering calculations involving diverse physical units) C++ can provide more compile-time type safety than Ada. There's no analogy between the implicit typing of FORTRAN and the automatic generation of new types for the results of computations. Also FORTRAN had implicit type conversions making the consequences of an unfortunate name choice potentially catastrophic. Jun 17, 2014 at 21:16
  • The question is whether you want to catch the error the moment you utter it, or when you try to store it and discover the types don't match up. Over fifty years of computer science seems to suggest that you want to catch the error as early as possible. A complicated expression with two errors, in the presence of implicit type calculus, could wind up generating total garbage with a correct result signature, which is the worst-case scenario. Jun 17, 2014 at 21:48

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