Are C++ enums signed or unsigned?

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Are C++ enums signed or unsigned? And by extension is it safe to validate an input by checking that it is <= your max value, and leave out >= your min value (assuming you started at 0 and incremented by 1)?

You shouldn't rely on any specific representation. Read the following link. Also, the standard says that it is implementation-defined which integral type is used as the underlying type for an enum, except that it shall not be larger than int, unless some value cannot fit into int or an unsigned int.

In short: you cannot rely on an enum being either signed or unsigned.

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Let's go to the source. Here's what the C++03 standard (ISO/IEC 14882:2003) document says in 7.2-5 (Enumeration declarations):

The underlying type of an enumeration is an integral type that can represent all the enumerator values defined in the enumeration. It is implementation-defined which integral type is used as the underlying type for an enumeration except that the underlying type shall not be larger than int unless the value of an enumerator cannot fit in an int or unsigned int.

In short, your compiler gets to choose (obviously, if you have negative numbers for some of your ennumeration values, it'll be signed).

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You shouldn't depend on them being signed or unsigned. If you want to make them explicitly signed or unsigned, you can use the following:

enum X : signed int { ... };    // signed enum
enum Y : unsigned int { ... };  // unsigned enum

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You shouldn't rely on it being either signed or unsigned. According to the standard it is implementation-defined which integral type is used as the underlying type for an enum. In most implementations, though, it is a signed integer.

In C++0x strongly typed enumerations will be added which will allow you to specify the type of an enum such as:

enum X : signed int { ... };    // signed enum
enum Y : unsigned int { ... };  // unsigned enum

Even now, though, some simple validation can be achieved by using the enum as a variable or parameter type like this:

enum Fruit { Apple, Banana };

enum Fruit fruitVariable = Banana;  // Okay, Banana is a member of the Fruit enum
fruitVariable = 1;  // Error, 1 is not a member of enum Fruit
                    // even though it has the same value as banana.

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The compiler can decide whether or not enums are signed or unsigned.

Another method of validating enums is to use the enum itself as a variable type. For example:

enum Fruit
{
    Apple = 0,
    Banana,
    Pineapple,
    Orange,
    Kumquat
};

enum Fruit fruitVariable = Banana;  // Okay, Banana is a member of the Fruit enum
fruitVariable = 1;  // Error, 1 is not a member of enum Fruit even though it has the same value as banana.

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Comments
  • When we are using an enum type in a context that requires the sign of it, we are actually talking about converting the enum to an integral type implicitly. The C++03 standard says this is done by Integral Promotion, nothing related to the underlying type of the enum. So, I don't understand why every answer here mentions the underlying type is not defined by the standard? I described the expected behaviou here: stackoverflow.com/questions/24802322/…
  • Michael Burr's answer (which quotes the standard) actually implies you can rely on it being signed if you define an enum value as negative due to the type being able to "represent all the enumerator values defined in the enumeration".
  • How can we avoid compiler guesses and tell it to use an underlying unsigned type when all the enumeration values are small, positive integers? (We are catching a UBsan finding because the compiler is picking an int, and int's suffer overflow. The value is unsigned and positive, and our use depends on unsigned wrap to provide a decrement or "negative stride").
  • @jww - that'll depend on what compiler exactly you are using, I guess. Since the standard does not dictate the underlying type, and leaves this to the implementation, then need to look at your tool's documentation and see if this option is at all possible. If you want to guarantee a certain behaviour in your code, why not cast the enum member you use in the expression?
  • Only in the future C++0x standard.
  • @dalle Microsoft compilator also allows typed enums msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/2dzy4k6e(v=vs.80).aspx
  • I think your second example is a bit confused :)
  • It matters when you are compiling with -Wsign-conversion. We use it to help catch unintended mistakes in our code. But +1 for citing the standard, and pointing out that an enum has no type (signed versus unsigned) associated with it.