Replacing ‘bool’ Values

Replacing ‘bool’ Values

By Spencer Collyer

Overload, 29(163):4-10, June 2021

Booleans seem simple to use. Spencer Collyer considers when they can actually cause a world of pain.

When used in the context of programming, the term Dimensional Analysis refers to the technique of defining types to represent the kinds of values used in the program. With the appropriate operations between objects of those types defined the compiler can check the expressions in the code to make sure they are valid. This is not generally possible if you rely on using the fundamental types like int or double.

For instance, say you have a program that deals with distances, durations, and speeds. It should be obvious that adding or subtracting a distance and a speed are invalid operations, but the compiler would not be able to tell you that this code is incorrect:

  double distance = 10;
  double speed = 2;
  double duration = distance - speed;

However, if you have types Distance, Duration, and Speed, with only the valid operations between them defined, the compiler can issue an error for this code:

  Distance distance = 10;
  Speed speed = 2;
  Duration duration = distance - speed;

To be useable, when using this technique most types need to be defined as classes or structures. There are libraries available for many languages that make this task easier – a recent (2018) survey of them for many languages can be found in [Preussner].

However, if you would normally think of using a bool variable to hold the value, there are several mechanisms available in the C++ language that can be used instead, with no need for library support. We will outline some of them in this article, as well as try to explain why you might choose to do so.

When reading the problem descriptions and suggested solutions below, and wondering if you want to use them, it is worth applying what I call the TLAMP principle. Pronounced ‘tee lamp’, it stands for Think Like A Maintenance Programmer. What may seem obvious to you when first writing a piece of code can look completely opaque to someone doing maintenance work on that code in the future. They want the code to be as clear as possible on first reading. That later programmer could be yourself in six months – when you haven’t looked at the code for that length of time what seemed obvious when you were writing it may not be so later.

Why bother when bools are so simple?

You might ask why we would bother replacing a bool value with some other mechanism when bools are so simple to use. In this section, we will outline some of the problems with using bools that make it worthwhile to at least consider doing so.

Many of these problems arise because programmers decide to use bool variables or parameters just because the value being represented can only take two values. If you get into the habit of only using bool for values that are going to be used in boolean expressions, you can avoid them to a large extent.

To illustrate some of the problems we will use the following example1.

Imagine a water company wants a system written to monitor and control its water network. There is a large amount of equipment on the network, such as sensors for measuring things like flow rate, temperature, chemical concentrations, and also control equipment such as valves and pumps to allow the flows in the network to be controlled. This network has evolved over many years, and the equipment is from different manufacturers and of different ages, with a variety of protocols used to talk to it.

The initial analysis leads to a design in which the connections to this equipment are handled by a Connection base class which provides a standard interface, with a set of classes derived from Connection that handle the details of each protocol. There is a factory function, called CreateConnection, which returns an object of the correct class for each connection. Each class is designed to handle either input or output on the connection. The initial design for the CreateConnection function interface looks like the following:

  ConnectionPtr CreateConnection(
    std::string_view id
  , bool is_output);

The is_output parameter determines whether an output (true) or input (false) connection is being created.

An additional requirement is for some users to have elevated permissions on some connections. This allows for operations like controlling pump speeds to alter flow rates, for instance. To handle this, a second bool parameter is added to indicate if the user is privileged or not.

During testing of the system, it is found that some parts of the network are so old that they only support 7-bit data. As a result, communications over these connections have to be encoded from binary to ASCII. To indicate this a further bool parameter is added to the function, called is_encoded, to indicate if this encoding is required or not.

Finally, a security review of the system raises concerns that some of the connections go over public networks, and a requirement is made that those connections need to be encrypted. A final parameter is added to the function called is_encrypted which indicates if the connection needs to be encrypted or not.

The final prototype for the function now looks like Listing 1.

ConnectionPtr CreateConnection( 
  std::string_view id
  , bool is_output
  , bool is_authorised
  , bool is_encoded
  , bool is_encrypted);
Listing 1

The meaning of true

Or rather, the meaning of true. And, indeed, false. In many cases where a variable can take just two values, and so at first looks like a good candidate to use a bool, it is not obvious which value should map to true and which to false.

The is_output parameter in the CreateConnection function is a perfect example of this. The parameter allows the caller of the function to determine if an outgoing or incoming connection is required, but other than the name of the parameter there is nothing that indicates which of those is selected by passing true and which by passing false.

You could argue that the name of the parameter shows how it is used, but that relies on anyone reading the code either knowing the prototype because they have seen if before, or else are willing to look it up. Neither of which is guaranteed to be done by a maintenance programmer who is under pressure to get a fix out quickly.

All bools look the same

In many cases, the bool values do match what we would expect for a given parameter, but they can still be problematic, especially if you have more than one bool in the parameter list. This is because all bools look the same to the compiler.

The CreateConnection function illustrates this problem. If we ignore the problem with it outlined above, it is reasonable that the is_output parameter is the first bool in the list, as the direction of the connection is the most important property it has.

Good arguments could be made for any order of the other three bool parameters however – the one chosen here has arisen simply because of the order the requirement for them came up in the development process. For instance, it could be argued that the is_encoded and is_encrypted parameters are the wrong way around for an outbound connection, as encryption occurs before encoding when sending a message.

Unless a programmer knows the function prototype off by heart, it would be easy for them to get the parameter order wrong, and the compiler won’t warn about it. Only extensive testing will ensure all calls are correct.

What can be even more confusing for someone reading the code later is if it uses named variables for the parameters, but gets them in the wrong order. For instance, consider the code in Listing 2.

bool is_encoded = 
     /* code that sets value to true */;
bool is_encrypted = 
     /* code that sets value to true */;
auto connptr = CreateConnection(id, is_output,
  is_authorised, is_encrypted, is_encoded);
Listing 2

This will work, in the sense of giving the expected result, because the is_encoded and is_encrypted variables have the same value. However, if one of those values needs to change later, or someone copies the code elsewhere and changed one of the values, the result would be incorrect, but it wouldn’t be obvious why unless the person reading the code recognises that the last two parameters are in the wrong order.

The compiler cannot report this problem because it just sees the types of parameters passed in. The names of the variables are relevant only to tell it where to read the parameter value from – it doesn’t check that they match the names in the function prototype.

Note: This problem doesn’t just apply to the bool type of course – lists of parameters all with the same type can be problematic when trying to work out what each parameter means. This article doesn’t deal with that situation but it is worth being aware of it.

Conversions to and from bool

The built-in C++ scalar types all implicitly convert to and from the bool type. This implicit conversion is useful when writing code that tests that a value is not zero or a null pointer.

Some classes in the standard library also provide an operator bool to test that an object is in a valid state – for instance, the std::basic_ios class that is the base of many iostreams classes class provides one to check if an error has occurred on the stream.

Another use for this implicit conversion is in the !! pseudo-operator, which can be used to return the bool equivalent of an expression2 in any cases where automatic conversion doesn’t happen.

However, this implicit conversion can cause problems if it happens when you are not expecting it. For instance when calling a function, if you pass a scalar value in a parameter that expects a bool, it will be converted.

Consider the code in Listing 3. The two PrintArgs functions simply output their prototype and the values they have been called with. The second one allows the bool parameter to be defaulted, hence why the short is placed before it in the parameter list.

#include <iostream>
#include <string_view>

void PrintArgs(const std::string& s,
  bool to_uc = false)
      << "Called PrintArgs(string, bool) with (" 
      << s << ", " << to_uc << ")\n";
void PrintArgs(const std::string& s, short len,
  bool to_uc = false)
  std::cout << "Called PrintArgs(string, short,
    bool) with (" << s << ", " << len << ",
    " << to_uc << ")\n";

int main()
    std::cout << std::boolalpha;
    PrintArgs("Abc");          // 1
    PrintArgs("Abc", true);    // 2
    PrintArgs("Abc", 2);       // 3
    PrintArgs("Abc", 2, true); // 4
Listing 3

Unfortunately, when this program is compiled, the line labelled // 3 fails to compile. The output in Listing 4 shows the errors when the code is compiled with the GCC on my Linux system.

conversion-1.cpp: In function ‘int main()’:
conversion-1.cpp:19:23: error: call of overloaded ‘PrintArgs(const char [4], int)’ is ambiguous
   19 |     PrintArgs("Abc", 2);       // 3
      |                       ^
conversion-1.cpp:4:6: note: candidate: ‘void PrintArgs(const string&, bool)’
    4 | void PrintArgs(const std::string& s, bool to_uc = false)
      |      ^~~~~~~~~
conversion-1.cpp:9:6: note: candidate: ‘void PrintArgs(const string&, short int, bool)’
    9 | void PrintArgs(const std::string& s, short len, bool to_uc = false)
      |      ^~~~~~~~~
Listing 4

The problem arises during the overload resolution process to decide which function should be called. The full details of overload resolution are complex (see [CppRef1]) but the case here is relatively simple. An important point is that an integer with no suffix in the code has type int so the 2 in the problematic call has type int.

When the compiler sees the call in the line labelled // 3, it first finds all the declared functions named PrintArgs and adds them to the overload set. It then checks each one to see if it matches the arguments given. This proceeds as follows:

  • For the two-parameter function, the "Abc" can be converted to a std::string, so the first argument matches the first parameter. The 2 is an int, and it can be implicitly converted to the bool type of the second parameter. Both arguments match the function parameters, so the function is a candidate.
  • For the three-parameter function, the "Abc" is a match as above. The 2 is an int, and that can be implicitly converted to a short using a narrowing conversion. The third argument is missing but the parameter has a default value, so it is ignored in the matching. The arguments match the parameter list for this function, so it is also a candidate.

At this point, the overload resolution process is done, and we still have two candidates with no way to pick between them, and hence the call is ambiguous.

To solve the ambiguity the programmer changes the second definition so it looks like the one in Listing 5 (overleaf). Unfortunately, the default value for the bool parameter can no longer be used, but the ambiguity no longer occurs.

#include <iostream>
#include <string_view>

void PrintArgs(const std::string& s, 
  bool to_uc = false)
    << "Called PrintArgs(string, bool) with 
    (" << s << ", " << to_uc << ")\n";
void PrintArgs(const std::string& s, bool to_uc,
   short len)
  std::cout << "Called PrintArgs(string, bool,
    short) with (" << s << ", " << to_uc << ",
    " << len << ")\n";
int main()
  std::cout << std::boolalpha;
  PrintArgs("Abc");          // 1
  PrintArgs("Abc", true);    // 2
  PrintArgs("Abc", 2);       // 3
  PrintArgs("Abc", 2, true); // 4
Listing 5

The program now compiles without any problems and appears to run fine as well, producing the output in Listing 6. However, looking closely at the output shows that the output from the lines labelled // 3 and // 4 do not match the arguments in the code. This is again because of implicit conversions.

Called PrintArgs(string, bool) with (Abc, false)
Called PrintArgs(string, bool) with (Abc, true)
Called PrintArgs(string, bool) with (Abc, true)
Called PrintArgs(string, bool, short) with (Abc,
  true, 1)
Listing 6

In the case of the call in line // 3, the 2 is converted from int to bool, ending up with the value true.

In the case of the call in line // 4, the 2 in the second argument is again converted from int to the bool value true, and the true in the third argument is converted from bool to short, ending up with the value 1.

This kind of bug can arise if you change the interface of a function and rely on the compiler to catch any calls with incorrect arguments. As can be seen in this example, it does not always issue warnings or errors for calls that you should have changed. A refactoring tool may be able to find them, or you might simply have to check each call by hand.

This kind of problem with implicit conversions can arise in other cases, but the one going to or from a bool is more insidious because the values of a bool are fundamentally different from the values of a scalar type, in that they are logical truth values, not numbers. The fact that the C++ spec dictates that false maps to a value of 0 and true maps to a value of 1 when converted to a number is just a convention to allow the conversion to occur. Other languages don’t allow such conversion, or if they do they use different mappings3.

It may not matter to you if an int gets converted to a short as long as the value doesn’t change, but with a bool you are going from a logical value to a number or from a number to a logical value, which is a more fundamental change, and one that may well make no sense in the context of the code.

More than two values

It might sound trite to say it, but a bool value can only hold two different values. This may become a problem if you realise that a parameter needs to hold more than two values.

For instance, in our water company example, the binary-to-ASCII encoding on some connections might need doing using UUencoding [Wikipedia-1], while others might use Base64 [Wikipedia-2].

With just two values for is_encoded and one of those used to indicate no encoding is required, you cannot represent those two different types of encoding in the parameter. You have two options in this case – either add another parameter to give the encoding or else convert the bool parameter to some other kind that can represent three (or more) values. The first extends the function interface even more, and the second has all the possible problems associated with conversion to/from bool given above.

Alternatives to bool

We have seen why you might want to avoid using bool variables and parameters, now we will show some methods that you can use to do so. As mentioned previously, all of these are available from the core language, with no library support required.

Some of these methods are designed primarily for replacing function parameters, while the others are more general and can be used to replace variables as well.

Split one function into two (or more)

Rather than having a single function with different functionality selected by passing a bool parameter, split the functionality into two different functions, with their names indicating what is being done. Any common functionality can be split off into a third function that the two new functions call.

This is particularly useful for the case where it is not obvious what the mapping from the true or false values to the selected functionality is.

In our water company example, rather than passing the is_output parameter, you would instead create functions called CreateOutboundConnection and CreateInboundConnection, where the names indicate what type of connection is being created.

This method is fine for replacing one or maybe two parameters. The problem with doing more than that is that each additional parameter replaced doubles the number of new functions required. Also, with descriptive function names, they can get unmanageably long very quickly.

Using a flags variable

This method involves replacing one or more bool values with a variable holding a collection of single-bit fields. This will generally be an integer value or a std::bitset.

An example of a flags variable in the standard library is the mode parameter of the std::ifstream and std::ofstream constructors, which uses the std::ios_base::openmode type.

When using this method with an integer, you would normally define a set of constants, one for each flag value. The value of each constant has its particular flag bit set to 1, all other bits set to 0, so the constant represents the flag being turned on. You then use normal binary operations to turn on the flags and to test if they are turned on or not.

You can do the same when using a std::bitset, but you also have the option of accessing individual bits using the [] operator or the test() function, which take the position of the bit in the bitset to check and return true if it is set to 1, else false.

One advantage of using a flag variable is that the user just has to turn on the flags they want, and all the others default to off. On the other hand, it is awkward to explicitly say that a flag is turned off, should you wish to do so.

If you find a flag needs more than two values, you just need to increase the size of the field and adjust the constants appropriately. If you are using a bitset, the direct bit access through [] or test() could not be used in this case.

A useful trick in case this might happen is to not make bitfields adjacent to each other when they are first defined. For instance with four flags in a four byte integer, set the fields up as the lowest bit in each byte. That way if you do need to increase the number of values represented by a flag, you won’t have to change any of the constants that don’t relate to that flag.

Using a flags structure

This method uses a structure to hold the flags. The structure members can be either bools or single-bit bitfields.

If using this method, you can directly set the individual fields to turn the flag on or off. For the bitfields version you would usually use 0 for off and 1 for on.

If using the bitfield version you need to define them as unsigned, as they are just one bit wide. If they are defined as signed then setting the value to 1 will end up with it being treated as -1. Listing 7 illustrates this. Checking the output, you can see that structure with int fields outputs -1 for each one, while the structure with unsigned int values outputs 1 for them:

#include <iostream>

struct A
  int a1 : 1;
  int a2 : 1;
  int a3 : 1;
struct B
  unsigned int b1 : 1;
  unsigned int b2 : 1;
  unsigned int b3 : 1;
int main()
  A a; a.a1 = 1; a.a2 = 1; a.a3 = 1;
  std::cout << a.a1 << " " << a.a2 << " " 
            << a.a3 << "\n";
  B b; b.b1 = 1; b.b2 = 1; b.b3 = 1;
  std::cout << b.b1 << " " << b.b2 << " " 
            << b.b3 << "\n";
Listing 7
  -1 -1 -1
  1 1 1

If you don’t want to create a variable of the structure type to pass to a function you can use an initializer-list as the parameter and the structure will be created for you. Listing 8 shows examples of both types.

#include <iostream>

struct BitFlags
  unsigned int flag1 : 1;
  unsigned int flag2 : 1;
  unsigned int flag3 : 1;
struct BoolFlags
  bool flag1;
  bool flag2;
  bool flag3;
void fbit(BitFlags flags)
  std::cout << flags.flag1 << " " << flags.flag2
            << " " << flags.flag3 << "\n";
void fbool(BoolFlags flags)
  std::cout << std::boolalpha << flags.flag1 
            << " " << flags.flag2 << " " 
            << flags.flag3 << "\n";
int main()
  BitFlags bitflags;
  bitflags.flag1 = 0;
  bitflags.flag2 = 1;
  bitflags.flag3 = 0;
  fbit({1, 0, 1});

  BoolFlags boolflags;
  boolflags.flag1 = false;
  boolflags.flag2 = true;
  boolflags.flag3 = false;
  fbool({true, false, true});
Listing 8

The advantage of setting up a variable before passing it to the function is that someone reading the code later can see exactly which flags are being set, whereas when using an initializer list they have to know what the structure looks like to know which flags are being set.

When using the bitfield version, if you need to extend a field to hold more than two fields you can just extend its width. For the bool version, you can just replace the bool with a different type.

Using enums

This method simply uses enums with two enumerators defined. Using appropriate names means the values can be self-documenting. Either scoped or unscoped enums can be used.

Unscoped enums have the disadvantage that the enumerators are defined in the scope enclosing the enum, so you cannot have the same enumerator name in two enums that will be used at the same time. On the other hand, it does mean that the enumerators can be used with no qualification.

For scoped enums the enumerators are defined in the scope of the enum, so two enums can have enumerators with the same name if that makes sense. This does mean that they have to be qualified with the enum name when used.

If an unscoped enum is passed as a function parameter that expects an integer, the value in the enum variable will be converted to an integer. This does not happen for a scoped enum – no conversion takes place.

Listing 9 is the scoped enum equivalent of Listing 3. This version compiles with no ambiguous function calls detected, and if you run the resulting program you will see that the PrintArgs functions called in each case are the correct ones. The output for the program is shown in Listing 10.

#include <iostream>
#include <string_view>

enum class RedBlue { Red, Blue };
std::ostream& operator<<(std::ostream& ostr,
  const RedBlue conv)
     << (conv == RedBlue::Red ? "Red" : "Blue");
    return ostr;
void PrintArgs(const std::string& s,
  RedBlue to_uc = RedBlue::Red)
  std::cout << "Called PrintArgs(string, RedBlue)
    with (" << s << ", " << to_uc << ")\n";
void PrintArgs(const std::string& s, short len,
  RedBlue to_uc = RedBlue::Red)
    << "Called PrintArgs(string, short, RedBlue)
    with (" << s << ", " << len << ", 
    " << to_uc << ")\n";
int main()
  std::cout << std::boolalpha;
  PrintArgs("Abc");                   // 1
  PrintArgs("Abc", RedBlue::Blue);    // 2
  PrintArgs("Abc", 2);                // 3
  PrintArgs("Abc", 2, RedBlue::Blue); // 4
Listing 9
Called PrintArgs(string, RedBlue) with (Abc, Red)
Called PrintArgs(string, RedBlue) with (Abc, Blue)
Called PrintArgs(string, short, RedBlue) with
  (Abc, 2, Red)
Called PrintArgs(string, short, RedBlue) with
  (Abc, 2, Blue)
Listing 10
C++20 and using enum

The point was made above that when using scoped enums you need need to precede the enumeration name with the scoped enum name. This has been addressed in C++20 with the addition of the using enum construct to pull all the names in the named enum into the current scope.

A brief description of this facility can be found at [CppRef2] – look for Using-enum-declaration. The facility was added by P1099r5 [P1099r5], and a fuller description of it can be found by reading that (brief) paper.

As of the time of writing (April 2021), the C++20 language features pages for GCC (at version 11) and MSVC (at VS 2019 16.4) show this feature as being implemented. The equivalent Clang page shows this feature has not yet implemented.

Problems versus suggested alternatives

In this section, we will check if the suggested alternatives solve any of the problems outlined.

The meaning of true

Splitting into two functions works, as long as you use sensible names for the new functions.

Using a flags variable mostly works, as long as you use sensible names for the constants representing the flags. As noted in the description it is not as simple to explicitly indicate the flag is turned off.

Using a flags structure works as long as the structure members have sensible names. Unlike the case above, it is also simple to set the correct member to indicate the flag is turned off.

Using enums works as long as the enumerators have sensible names.

All bools look alike

Splitting into two functions can work if you only have two bool parameters, but any more than that and it becomes impractical.

Using a flags variable or a flags structure works as we no longer have multiple variables.

Using enums works because all enums are distinct from each other.

Conversions to and from bool

Splitting into two functions works for the parameter that has been removed, although any remaining bool parameters being passed could still suffer from conversion.

Using a flags variable held in an integer can undergo all the normal integer conversions, so it does not solve this problem.

Using a flags variable held in a std::bitset is better because you cannot assign an integer to a bitset or vice versa. Note however that you can initialize a bitset with an integer, so passing an integer to a function when it expects a bitset will use the integer to initialize the bitset.

Using a flags structure works as structs do not implicitly convert to anything else.

Using unscoped enums partially solves the conversion problem. An integer or floating-point type cannot be converted to the enum type implicitly4. On the other hand, values of the enum type are implicitly convertible to integral types.

Using scoped enums solves the implicit conversion problem completely4, 5.

More than two values

Splitting into two functions could solve this problem as you just need to add a function for each new value. If your functions are handling two conditions then you’ll need a new function for each possible new combination, so it may be worth redesigning at this point to stop the number of functions from exploding.

Using a flags variable works as you can just increase the number of bits each flag uses to represent its value. You do have to be careful that the constants for different flags don’t overlap each other.

Using a flags structure works by allowing you to easily determine the size of each member of the structure. Unlike for the flags variable above you do not need to keep fields separated manually.

Using enum types works as you just need to add new enumerators for the new values. If using unscoped enums you have to be careful not to create any name clashes with enumerators belonging to other unscoped enum types.

Potential disadvantages with suggested alternatives

This section will discuss some potential disadvantages with the suggested alternatives, and hopefully show that they are either not a problem or else the pros outweigh the cons.

More verbose code

All of the alternatives suggested make the code more verbose. For most of them this is simply a case of replacing code like

  if (x) { ... }

with an explicit test like

  if (x == value) { ... }

It could be argued that making the test explicit does make the code more self-documenting, so should not be seen as a disadvantage.

The alternative using constants to define flag bits, either in an integer or a std::bitset, does have code that looks more complicated, as you have to use a binary ‘and’ to isolate the flag bit and test if it is set, like

  if ((x & flagbit) == flagbit)

or if you are happy to rely on the implicit conversion to bool you can use

  if (x & flagbit)

instead. Neither is as clear as the simple test against a value. On the other hand with the std::bitset you can use the [] operator or test function to check a bit at a position.

Namespace pollution

All of the suggested alternatives insert new entities into the current namespace, whether functions, constants, or types. All of those entities introduce new names into the current namespace which wouldn’t need to exist if you just used bool values. This will cause problems if they clash with any names already in that namespace.

Of course, this isn’t specific to this case – it occurs whenever you add new entities to a scope, so do whatever you normally would to get around it.

An easy solution is to add the new entities in their own namespace. This does mean that the names need the namespace as an extra qualifier, but you can use a using declaration to bring the name into the current namespace. If the new entities are only used in a single \*.cpp file you can put them in an anonymous namespace in that file and you won’t even need the extra qualifier.

Size and speed of compiled programs

A common concern when using the alternatives is that the code will be larger and/or slower than when using bools. This should not be a concern as modern compilers are intelligent enough to recognise what the code is doing and optimizing it appropriately.

Sample code to show this can be found on [BitBucket], [GitHub], or [GitLab], depending on your preferred supplier. The various \*.cpp files each demonstrate one alternative, except the bools.cpp one which shows the original form with bool variables.

The shell script in that directory runs all the programs and captures the runtimes, then works out the median and mode runtimes for each one. Running this script on my main machine gives the runtimes shown in Table 1 for code optimized with -O3.

Test Case Median Mode
Bools 387 387
Bitset with constants 387 388
Bitset with indexing 387 388
Scoped enum 387 387
Unscoped enum 387 387
Functions 382 382
Integer flags 387 387
Struct with bitfields 387 386
Struct with bools 387 387
Table 1

As can be seen, the runtimes for the optimized programs are virtually identical for all the programs. This shows that you don’t lose much if any speed when using the alternatives.

As far as code size is concerned, for the optimized code the program sizes range from 17160 bytes for functions.opt to 17320 for bitset-consts.opt. The bools.cpp file is 17272 bytes. So there is little difference in code size either.

So no more bools then?

It might seem that this article is saying that you shouldn’t use bool values in your programs at all. This is not the intention.

One target is the use of bools in what might be termed long-range code. What do we mean by long-range code?

Calling a function is long-range, as you are leaving the current function’s scope and entering the called one. You should think carefully before using bools as parameters of functions. As this article has tried to show, there are alternatives which can be both safer and clearer, with little or no loss of program speed.

Code in a single function could also be considered long-range if the whole usage cannot be seen on a single screenful of code6. Using a bool to store the result of a logical operation which is used in the immediately following code is fine, as it’s obvious what is going on. Even if the value is only used once, if it simplifies a condition expression it can still be valid to do so.

Another target is the use of bool for class member variables. This is an ideal case for using one of the alternatives, especially enums. Classes provide their own scope, so the potential for namespace pollution is immediately reduced. And if the member variable is private (as they should normally be), all the code using it will be written by the class maintainer, so the users of the class won’t have to handle it at all.

So in summary, if the use of the bool would be obvious from the immediate context of the code, it is fine to use it. In all other cases, consider using an alternative. This article provides several such alternatives as a starting point.







[P1099r5] Gašper Ažman and Jonathan Müller, ‘Using Enum’,

[Preussner] ‘Dimensional Analysis in Programming Languages’,

[Wikipedia-1] UUencode:

[Wikipedia-2] Base64:


  1. This example may seem contrived, but I once worked on a system that had many functions with three or four bool parameters. A lot of the calls were done using literal values for some or all of the parameters, and only checking the surrounding code could confirm whether the values were correct.
  2. I have seen this pseudo-operator referred to as the ‘normalise operator’. The way it works is by relying on the right-to-left binding of the ! operator. The right-hand ! applies to the operand, forcing it to the bool equivalent and then negating the result. The left-hand ! then applies to the resulting value and negates it again, giving us back the bool equivalent of the original operand.
  3. Anyone old enough to have used one of the microcomputers released during the 1980s home computer boom might remember that the BASIC built into many of them used -1 for the ‘true’ value, presumably because the representation of that value has all bits set to 1. Sinclair Basic, as used on the ZX81 and Spectrum, went its own way and used 1 for the ‘true’ value.
  4. Although you can use an explicit cast, such as a static_cast, to convert integer, floating-point, or enumeration values to an enum type, whether unscoped or scoped.
  5. Scoped enum values can be converted to integer values using a static_cast though.
  6. And by a single screenful of code I don’t mean using huge monitors and small fonts to get 150+ lines of code on a screen at a time. Think more like 40 to 50 lines maximum, so a quick scan up and down is easy to do.

Spencer Collyer Spencer has been programming for more years than he cares to remember, mostly in the financial sector, although in his younger years he worked on projects as diverse as monitoring water treatment works on the one hand, and television programme scheduling on the other..

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