C++17 attributes - maybe_unused, fallthrough and nodiscard

on under c++

C++17 adds three new attributes for programmers to better express their intent to the compiler and readers of the code: maybe_unused, fallthrough, and nodiscard. This is a quick post to outline what they do and why they are useful.

In case you aren’t familiar with the concept, attributes in C++ allow you mark functions, variables, and other entities with compiler-specific or standard properties. The standard attributes prior to C++17 are noreturn (function doesn’t return), deprecated (entity is going to be removed in a later version) and carries_dependency (used for optimizing atomic operations). You mark an entity with an attribute like this:

void do_thing_the_old_way();

void do_thing_the_new_way();

do_thing_the_old_way(); // Compiler warning: deprecated
do_thing_the_new_way(); // No warning

With that out of the way, on to the new attributes!


[[maybe_unused]] suppresses compiler warnings about unused entities. Usually unused functions or variables indicates a programmer error – if you never use it, why is it there? – but sometimes they can be intentional, such as variables which are only used in release mode, or functions only called when logging is enabled.


void emits_warning(bool b) {
     bool result = get_result();
     // Warning emitted in release mode
     assert (b == result);

void warning_suppressed(bool b [[maybe_unused]]) {
     [[maybe_unused]] bool result = get_result();
     // Warning suppressed by [[maybe_unused]]
     assert (b == result);


static void log_with_warning(){}
[[maybe_unused]] static void log_without_warning() {}

log_with_warning();    // Warning emitted if LOGGING_ENABLED is not defined
log_without_warning(); // Warning suppressed by [[maybe_unused]]

I feel like this attribute is more useful to supress compiler warnings than to document your code for others, but at least we now have a standard way to do so.


[[fallthrough]] indicates that a fallthrough in a switch statement is intentional. Missing a break or return in a switch case is a very common programmer error, so compilers usually warn about it, but sometimes a fallthrough can result in some very terse code.

Say we want to process an alert message. If it’s green, we do nothing; if it’s yellow, we record the alert; if it’s orange we record and trigger the alarm; if it’s red, we record, trigger the alarm and evacuate.

void process_alert (Alert alert) {
     switch (alert) {
     case Alert::Red:
         // Warning: this statement may fall through

     case Alert::Orange:
         [[fallthrough]]; //yes, you do need the semicolon
         // Warning suppressed by [[fallthrough]]

     case Alert::Yellow:

     case Alert::Green:

The most important function of fallthrough is as documentation for maintainers. The presence of it in the code above shows anyone looking at the code that an orange alert is absolutely supposed to be recorded. Without the fallthrough in the Alert::Red case, it is not obvious whether a red alert is supposed to trigger the alarm and be recorded, or just evacuate everyone.


Functions declared with [[nodiscard]] should not have their return values ignored by the caller. This can be useful if you want to ensure that callers check a return value, or that some scope guard object has a reasonable lifetime. Types can be marked [[nodiscard]] to implicitly mark all functions returning that type as the same.


[[nodiscard]] error do_something (thing&);
error do_something_else (thing&);

do_something(my_thing); // Warning: ignored return value


struct lock_guard;

lock_guard lock (mutex& m);

    lock(my_mutex); // Warning: ignored return value
    // critical section

Those warnings will help the user notice that do_something_else might be given a bad object, or the critical section won’t be locked.

Compilers have shipped non-standard extensions to express these concepts for years, but it’s great that we now have standard methods to do the same. Leave a comment if you have ideas for other attributes you would like to be added to the language!

For some more examples of using these attributes, see posts by Kenneth Benzie, Bartłomiej Filipek, and Arne Mertz.

c++, c++17
comments powered by Disqus