const and volatile Pointers

The const and volatile keywords change how pointers are treated. The const keyword specifies that the pointer cannot be modified after initialization; the pointer is protected from modification thereafter.

The volatile keyword specifies that the value associated with the name that follows can be modified by actions other than those in the user application. Therefore, the volatile keyword is useful for declaring objects in shared memory that can be accessed by multiple processes or global data areas used for communication with interrupt service routines.

When a name is declared as volatile, the compiler reloads the value from memory each time it is accessed by the program. This dramatically reduces the possible optimizations. However, when the state of an object can change unexpectedly, it is the only way to ensure predictable program performance.

To declare the object pointed to by the pointer as const or volatile, use a declaration of the form:

const char *cpch;
volatile char *vpch;

To declare the value of the pointer — that is, the actual address stored in the pointer — as const or volatile, use a declaration of the form:

char * const pchc;
char * volatile pchv;

The C++ language prevents assignments that would allow modification of an object or pointer declared as const. Such assignments would remove the information that the object or pointer was declared with, thereby violating the intent of the original declaration. Consider the following declarations:

const char cch = 'A';
char ch = 'B';

Given the preceding declarations of two objects (cch, of type const char, and ch, of type char), the following declaration/initializations are valid:

const char *pch1 = &cch;
const char *const pch4 = &cch;
const char *pch5 = &ch;
char *pch6 = &ch;
char *const pch7 = &ch;
const char *const pch8 = &ch;

The following declaration/initializations are erroneous.

char *pch2 = &cch;   // Error
char *const pch3 = &cch;   // Error

The declaration of pch2 declares a pointer through which a constant object might be modified and is therefore disallowed. The declaration of pch3 specifies that the pointer is constant, not the object; the declaration is disallowed for the same reason the pch2 declaration is disallowed.

The following eight assignments show assigning through pointer and changing of pointer value for the preceding declarations; for now, assume that the initialization was correct for pch1 through pch8.

*pch1 = 'A';  // Error: object declared const
pch1 = &ch;   // OK: pointer not declared const
*pch2 = 'A';  // OK: normal pointer
pch2 = &ch;   // OK: normal pointer
*pch3 = 'A';  // OK: object not declared const
pch3 = &ch;   // Error: pointer declared const
*pch4 = 'A';  // Error: object declared const
pch4 = &ch;   // Error: pointer declared const

Pointers declared as volatile, or as a mixture of const and volatile, obey the same rules.

Pointers to const objects are often used in function declarations as follows:

errno_t strcpy_s( char *strDestination, size_t numberOfElements, const char *strSource );

The preceding statement declares a function, strcpy_s, where two of the three arguments are of type pointer to char. Because the arguments are passed by reference and not by value, the function would be free to modify both strDestination and strSource if strSource were not declared as const. The declaration of strSource as const assures the caller that strSource cannot be changed by the called function.


Because there is a standard conversion from typename * to const typename *, it is legal to pass an argument of type char * to strcpy_s. However, the reverse is not true; no implicit conversion exists to remove the const attribute from an object or pointer.

A const pointer of a given type can be assigned to a pointer of the same type. However, a pointer that is not const cannot be assigned to a const pointer. The following code shows correct and incorrect assignments:

// const_pointer.cpp
int *const cpObject = 0;
int *pObject;

int main() {
pObject = cpObject;
cpObject = pObject;   // C3892

The following sample shows how to declare an object as const if you have a pointer to a pointer to an object.

// const_pointer2.cpp
struct X {
   X(int i) : m_i(i) { }
   int m_i;

int main() {
   // correct
   const X cx(10);
   const X * pcx = &cx;
   const X ** ppcx = &pcx;

   // also correct
   X const cx2(20);
   X const * pcx2 = &cx2;
   X const ** ppcx2 = &pcx2;

See Also