6.6 — Internal linkage

In lesson 6.3 -- Local variables, we said, “An identifier’s linkage determines whether other declarations of that name refer to the same object or not”, and we discussed how local variables have no linkage.

Global variable and functions identifiers can have either internal linkage or external linkage. We’ll cover the internal linkage case in this lesson, and the external linkage case in lesson 6.7 -- External linkage.

An identifier with internal linkage can be seen and used within a single file, but it is not accessible from other files (that is, it is not exposed to the linker). This means that if two files have identically named identifiers with internal linkage, those identifiers will be treated as independent.

Global variables with internal linkage

Global variables with internal linkage are sometimes called internal variables.

To make a non-constant global variable internal, we use the static keyword.

Const and constexpr global variables have internal linkage by default (and thus don’t need the static keyword -- if it is used, it will be ignored).

Here’s an example of multiple files using internal variables:



This program prints:


Because g_x is internal to each file, main.cpp has no idea that a.cpp also has a variable named g_x (and vice versa).

For advanced readers

The use of the static keyword above is an example of a storage class specifier, which sets both the name’s linkage and its storage duration (but not its scope). The most commonly used storage class specifier values are static, extern, and mutable. The term storage class specifier is mostly used in technical documentations.

The one-definition rule and internal linkage

In lesson 2.7 -- Forward declarations and definitions, we noted that the one-definition rule says that an object or function can’t have more than one definition, either within a file or a program.

However, it’s worth noting that internal objects (and functions) that are defined in different files are considered to be independent entities (even if their names and types are identical), so there is no violation of the one-definition rule. Each internal object only has one definition.

Functions with internal linkage

Because linkage is a property of an identifier (not of a variable), functions have the same linkage property that variables do. Functions default to external linkage (which we’ll cover in the next lesson), but can be set to internal linkage via the static keyword:



This program won’t link, because function add is not accessible outside of add.cpp.

Quick Summary

We provide a comprehensive summary in lesson 6.11 -- Scope, duration, and linkage summary.

6.7 -- External linkage
6.5 -- Variable shadowing (name hiding)

3 comments to 6.6 — Internal linkage

  • kavin

    I was thinking that till now that warnings are actually legit errors in main code that program would ignore to compile if "Treat warnings as errors" was disabled. Thanks for clearing my doubt @nascardriver

  • kavin

    Under "Functions with internal linkage", if i add
    int add(int x, int y)
        return x - y;
    to main.cpp and remove int add(int x, int y); then i get this error.

    Source.cpp(1,12): error C2220: the following warning is treated as an error
    Source.cpp(1,12): warning C4505: 'add': unreferenced local function has been removed

    why is that? since add.cpp has a static function, the program should auto ignore the function in add.cpp  and compile without any problem right ? But it behaves differently here.

    • nascardriver

      You're not getting an error as a violation of a language rule.
      You're getting an error because you got a warning and your treating warnings as errors.
      You're getting a warning as a friendly reminder from the compiler that you wrote a function but you're never using it (`add` in "add.cpp").

      The code is fine, but you made a mistake, and you told your compiler not to let you make mistakes. If you want to compile the code anyway, you can temporarily disable "Treat warnings as errors" (or similar) in your project settings.

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