4.5 — Enumerated types

C++ contains quite a few built in data types. But these types aren’t always sufficient for the kinds of things we want to do. So C++ contains capabilities that allow programmers to create their own data types. These data types are called user-defined data types.

Perhaps the simplest user-defined data type is the enumerated type. An enumerated type (also called an enumeration) is a data type where every possible value is defined as a symbolic constant (called an enumerator). Enumerations are declared via the enum keyword. Let’s look at an example:

Declaring an enumeration does not allocate any memory. When a variable of the enumerated type is defined (such as variable paint in the example above), memory is allocated for that variable at that time.

Note that each enumerator is separated by a comma, and the entire enumeration is ended with a semicolon.

Prior to C++11, a trailing comma after the last enumerator (e.g. after COLOR_MAGENTA) is not allowed (though many compilers accepted it anyway). However, starting with C++11, a trailing comma is allowed. Now that C++11 compilers are more prevalent, use of a trailing comma after the last element is generally considered acceptable.

Naming enums

Enum identifiers are often named starting with a capital letter, and the enumerators are often named using all caps. Because enumerators are placed into the same namespace as the enumeration, an enumerator name can’t be used in multiple enumerations within the same namespace:

Consequently, it’s common to prefix enumerators with a standard prefix like ANIMAL_ or COLOR_, both to prevent naming conflicts and for code documentation purposes.

Enumerator values

Each enumerator is automatically assigned an integer value based on its position in the enumeration list. By default, the first enumerator is assigned the integer value 0, and each subsequent enumerator has a value one greater than the previous enumerator:

The cout statement above prints the value 4.

It is possible to explicitly define the value of enumerator. These integer values can be positive or negative and can share the same value as other enumerators. Any non-defined enumerators are given a value one greater than the previous enumerator.

Note in this case, ANIMAL_HORSE and ANIMAL_GIRAFFE have been given the same value. When this happens, the enumerations become non-distinct -- essentially, ANIMAL_HORSE and ANIMAL_GIRAFFE are interchangeable. Although C++ allows it, assigning the same value to two enumerators in the same enumeration should generally be avoided.

Best practice: Don’t assign specific values to your enumerators.
Rule: Don’t assign the same value to two enumerators in the same enumeration unless there’s a very good reason.

Enum type evaluation and input/output

Because enumerated values evaluate to integers, they can be assigned to integer variables. This means they can also be output (as integers), since std::cout knows how to output integers.

This produces the result:


The compiler will not implicitly convert an integer to an enumerated value. The following will produce a compiler error:

However, you can force it to do so via a static_cast:

The compiler also will not let you input an enum using std::cin:

One workaround is to read in an integer, and use a static_cast to force the compiler to put an integer value into an enumerated type:

Each enumerated type is considered a distinct type. Consequently, trying to assign enumerators from one enum type to another enum type will cause a compile error:

As with constant variables, enumerated types show up in the debugger, making them more useful than #defined values in this regard.

Printing enumerators

As you saw above, trying to print an enumerated value using std::cout results in the integer value of the enumerator being printed. So how can you print the enumerator itself as text? One way to do so is to write a function and use an if statement:

Once you’ve learned to use switch statements, you’ll probably want to use those instead of a bunch of if/else statements, as it’s a little more readable.

Enum allocation and forward declaration

Enum types are considered part of the integer family of types, and it’s up to the compiler to determine how much memory to allocate for an enum variable. The C++ standard says the enum size needs to be large enough to represent all of the enumerator values. Most often, it will make enum variables the same size as a standard int.

Because the compiler needs to know how much memory to allocate for an enumeration, you cannot forward declare enum types. However, there is an easy workaround. Because defining an enumeration does not allocate any memory, if an enumeration is needed in multiple files, it is fine to define the enumeration in a header, and #include that header wherever needed.

What are enumerators useful for?

Enumerated types are incredibly useful for code documentation and readability purposes when you need to represent a specific, predefined set of states.

For example, functions often return integers to the caller to represent error codes when something went wrong inside the function. Typically, small negative numbers are used to represent different possible error codes. For example:

However, using magic numbers like this isn’t very descriptive. An alternative method would be through use of an enumerated type:

This is much easier to read and understand than using magic number return values. Furthermore, the caller can test the function’s return value against the appropriate enumerator, which is easier to understand than testing the return result for a specific integer value.

Enumerated types are best used when defining a set of related identifiers. For example, let’s say you were writing a game where the player can carry one item, but that item can be several different types. You could do this:

Or alternatively, if you were writing a function to sort a bunch of values:

Many languages use Enumerations to define booleans. A boolean is essentially just an enumeration with 2 enumerators: false and true! However, in C++, true and false are defined as keywords instead of enumerators.


1) Define an enumerated type to choose between the following monster races: orcs, goblins, trolls, ogres, and skeletons.

2) Declare a variable of the enumerated type you defined in question 1 and assign it the troll enumerator.

3) True or false. Enumerators can be:
3a) assigned integer values
3b) not assigned a value
3c) explicitly assigned floating point values
3d) negative
3e) non-unique
3f) assigned the value of prior enumerators (eg. COLOR_MAGENTA = COLOR_RED)

Quiz answers

1) Show Solution

2) Show Solution

3) Show Solution

4.5a -- Enum classes
4.4b -- An introduction to std::string

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