What is “:-!!” in C code?


I bumped into this strange macro code in /usr/include/linux/kernel.h:

/* Force a compilation error if condition is true, but also produce a
   result (of value 0 and type size_t), so the expression can be used
   e.g. in a structure initializer (or where-ever else comma expressions
   aren't permitted). */
#define BUILD_BUG_ON_ZERO(e) (sizeof(struct { int:-!!(e); }))
#define BUILD_BUG_ON_NULL(e) ((void *)sizeof(struct { int:-!!(e); }))

What does :-!! do?



This is, in effect, a way to check whether the expression e can be evaluated to be 0, and if not, to fail the build.

The macro is somewhat misnamed; it should be something more like BUILD_BUG_OR_ZERO, rather than...ON_ZERO. (There have been occasional discussions about whether this is a confusing name.)

You should read the expression like this:

sizeof(struct { int: -!!(e); }))
  1. (e): Compute expression e.
  2. !!(e): Logically negate twice: 0 if e == 0; otherwise 1.
  3. -!!(e): Numerically negate: 0 if e == 0; otherwise -1.
  4. struct{int: -!!(0);} --> struct{int: 0;}: If it was zero, then we declare a struct with an anonymous integer bitfield that has width zero. Everything is fine and we proceed as normal.
  5. struct{int: -!!(1);} --> struct{int: -1;}: On the other hand, if it isn’t zero, then it will be some negative number. Declaring any bitfield with negative width is a compilation error.

So we’ll either wind up with a bitfield that has width 0 in a struct, which is fine, or a bitfield with negative width, which is a compilation error. Then we take sizeof that field, so we get a size_t with the appropriate width (which will be zero in the case where e is zero).

Some people have asked: Why not just use an assert?

keithmo’s answer here has a good response:

These macros implement a compile-time test, while assert() is a run-time test.

Exactly right. You don’t want to detect problems in your kernel at runtime that could have been caught earlier! It’s a critical piece of the operating system. To whatever extent problems can be detected at compile time, so much the better.

John Feminella

Stack Overflow


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