11 Classes [class]

11.5 Unions [class.union]

11.5.1 General [class.union.general]

A union is a class defined with the class-key union.
In a union, a non-static data member is active if its name refers to an object whose lifetime has begun and has not ended ([basic.life]).
At most one of the non-static data members of an object of union type can be active at any time, that is, the value of at most one of the non-static data members can be stored in a union at any time.
[Note 1:
One special guarantee is made in order to simplify the use of unions: If a standard-layout union contains several standard-layout structs that share a common initial sequence ([class.mem]), and if a non-static data member of an object of this standard-layout union type is active and is one of the standard-layout structs, it is permitted to inspect the common initial sequence of any of the standard-layout struct members; see [class.mem].
— end note]
The size of a union is sufficient to contain the largest of its non-static data members.
Each non-static data member is allocated as if it were the sole member of a non-union class.
[Note 2:
A union object and its non-static data members are pointer-interconvertible ([basic.compound], [expr.static.cast]).
As a consequence, all non-static data members of a union object have the same address.
— end note]
A union can have member functions (including constructors and destructors), but it shall not have virtual ([class.virtual]) functions.
A union shall not have base classes.
A union shall not be used as a base class.
If a union contains a non-static data member of reference type the program is ill-formed.
[Note 3:
Absent default member initializers ([class.mem]), if any non-static data member of a union has a non-trivial default constructor ([class.default.ctor]), copy constructor, move constructor ([class.copy.ctor]), copy assignment operator, move assignment operator ([class.copy.assign]), or destructor ([class.dtor]), the corresponding member function of the union must be user-provided or it will be implicitly deleted ([dcl.fct.def.delete]) for the union.
— end note]
[Example 1:
Consider the following union: union U { int i; float f; std::string s; };
Since std​::​string ([string.classes]) declares non-trivial versions of all of the special member functions, U will have an implicitly deleted default constructor, copy/move constructor, copy/move assignment operator, and destructor.
To use U, some or all of these member functions must be user-provided.
— end example]
When the left operand of an assignment operator involves a member access expression ([expr.ref]) that nominates a union member, it may begin the lifetime of that union member, as described below.
For an expression E, define the set S(E) of subexpressions of E as follows:
  • If E is of the form A.B, S(E) contains the elements of S(A), and also contains A.B if B names a union member of a non-class, non-array type, or of a class type with a trivial default constructor that is not deleted, or an array of such types.
  • If E is of the form A[B] and is interpreted as a built-in array subscripting operator, S(E) is S(A) if A is of array type, S(B) if B is of array type, and empty otherwise.
  • Otherwise, S(E) is empty.
In an assignment expression of the form E1 = E2 that uses either the built-in assignment operator ([expr.ass]) or a trivial assignment operator ([class.copy.assign]), for each element X of S(E1), if modification of X would have undefined behavior under [basic.life], an object of the type of X is implicitly created in the nominated storage; no initialization is performed and the beginning of its lifetime is sequenced after the value computation of the left and right operands and before the assignment.
[Note 4:
This ends the lifetime of the previously-active member of the union, if any ([basic.life]).
— end note]
[Example 2: union A { int x; int y[4]; }; struct B { A a; }; union C { B b; int k; }; int f() { C c; // does not start lifetime of any union member c.b.a.y[3] = 4; // OK: S(c.b.a.y[3]) contains c.b and c.b.a.y; // creates objects to hold union members c.b and c.b.a.y return c.b.a.y[3]; // OK: c.b.a.y refers to newly created object (see [basic.life]) } struct X { const int a; int b; }; union Y { X x; int k; }; void g() { Y y = { { 1, 2 } }; // OK, y.x is active union member ([class.mem]) int n = y.x.a; y.k = 4; // OK: ends lifetime of y.x, y.k is active member of union y.x.b = n; // undefined behavior: y.x.b modified outside its lifetime, // S(y.x.b) is empty because X's default constructor is deleted, // so union member y.x's lifetime does not implicitly start } — end example]
[Note 5:
In general, one must use explicit destructor calls and placement new-expression to change the active member of a union.
— end note]
[Example 3:
Consider an object u of a union type U having non-static data members m of type M and n of type N.
If M has a non-trivial destructor and N has a non-trivial constructor (for instance, if they declare or inherit virtual functions), the active member of u can be safely switched from m to n using the destructor and placement new-expression as follows: u.m.~M(); new (&u.n) N;
— end example]