Types of Constants in C++ - dummies

By Stephen R. Davis

Here’s where the const declaration in C++ rears its head. A constant value is an explicit number or character such as 1 or 0.5 or ‘c’.

  • Constant values cannot be changed; that is, they cannot appear on the left-hand side of an assignment statement.

  • Every constant value has a type. The type of 1 is const int. The type of 0.5 is const double.

The table explains how to declare constant values with different types. For example, 1L is of type const long.

The Common C++ Variable Types
Type Declaring a Constant What It Is
int 1 A simple counting number, either positive or negative.
unsigned int 1U A non-negative counting number.
short int A potentially smaller version of the int. It uses less memory but has a more limited
long int 1L A potentially larger version of the int. It may use more memory but has a larger
long long int 1LL A version of the int that is
potentially even larger.
float 1.0F A single-precision real number.
double 1.0 A double-precision real number.
long double A potentially larger floating-point number. On the PC, long double is the native size for numbers
internal to the numeric processor.
char ‘c’ A single char variable stores a
single character. Not suitable for arithmetic.
wchar_t L’c’ A wide character. Used to store larger character sets such as
Chinese ideograms and Japanese kanji symbols. Also known as UTF or

A variable can be declared constant using the const keyword:

const double PI = 3.14159;  // declare a constant variable

A const variable must be initialized when it is declared since you will not get another chance in the future — just like a constant value, a const variable cannot appear on the left-hand side of an assignment statement.

It is common practice to declare const variables using all capitals. Multiple words within a variable name are divided by an underscore as in TWO_PI. As always, this is just convention — C++ doesn’t care.

It may seem odd to declare a variable and then say that it can’t be changed. Why bother? Largely because a carefully named constant can make a program a lot easier to understand. Consider the following two equivalent expressions:

double dC = 6.28318 * dR;  // what does this mean?
double dCircumference = TWO_PI * dRadius; // this is a lot
                           // easier to understand

It should be a lot clearer to the reader of this code that the second expression is multiplying the radius by 2π to calculate the circumference.

The 2011 C++ standard allows you to specify the type of a variable from the type of the initialization value. To do this, declare the variable with the keyword auto rather than with a type:

long function();
auto nIntVar = 1;
auto lLongVar = function();
auto dVar = 1.0;

Here the variable nIntVar is declared to be an int because 1 is an int. Similarly, lLongVar is a long because function() is declared as returned a long.

Notice that the type of the initialization value must be known at compile time and once declared, the type of the variable is fixed; you can’t change it later.