What is __wchar_t (with the leading double underscores) and why am I getting errors about it?

Raymond Chen

The Microsoft Visual C++ compiler has a compiler option called /Zc:wchar_t which lets you control what the symbol wchar_t means.

According to the C++ standard, wchar_t is a distinct native type, and that’s what the Visual C++ compiler defaults to. However, you can set /Zc:wchar_t-, and that suppresses the intrinsic definition of wchar_t, allowing you to define it to whatever you like. And for Windows, this historically means

typedef unsigned short wchar_t;

because Windows predates the versions of the C and C++ standards that introduced wchar_t as a native type.

So now you have a problem if you are writing a library that will be consumed both by old-school code written with wchar_t defined as an alias for unsigned short and by new-school code written with wchar_t as an intrinsic type. What data type do you use for your string parameters?

Well, if your library uses C linkage, then you’re in luck. Since the intrinsic wchar_t is a 16-bit unsigned integer in Visual C++, it is binary-compatible with unsigned short, so you can declare your function as accepting wchar_t in the header file, and each client will interpret it through their own wchar_t-colored glasses: Code that is wearing the /Zc:wchar_t glasses will see the native wchar_t Type. Code that is wearing the /Zc:wchar_t- glasses will see an unsigned short. And since C linkage is not decorated, you can export one function that accepts a wchar_t, and it will interoperate with either definition.

That works for undecorated functions, but what about languages like C++ that use decoration to encode the types of the parameters? Which decoration do you use?

Let’s do both.

What you do is write two versions of your function, one that takes an unsigned short and one that takes a __wchar_t. That double-underscore version represents “The native type for wchar_t that is used by /Zc:wchar_t.”

In other words, /Zc:wchar_t results in the compiler internally doing the equivalent of

typedef __wchar_t wchar_t;

It makes the symbol wchar_t an alias for the internal __wchar_t type.

So let’s say you have a function called DoSomething that takes a wide string, and you want to accept clients compiled with either setting for /Zc:wchar_t.

// Something.h

bool DoSomething(const __wchar_t* s);
bool DoSomething(const unsigned short* s);

This declares two versions of the function. The first will be matched by code compiled with /Zc:wchar_t. The second will be matched by code compiled with /Zc:wchar_t-.

Your implementation goes like this:

// Something.cpp
#include <Something.h>

bool DoSomethingWorker(const wchar_t* s)
 ... implementation ...

bool DoSomething(const __wchar_t* s)
    return DoSomethingWorker(reinterpret_cast<const wchar_t*>(s));

bool DoSomething(const unsigned short* s)
    return DoSomethingWorker(reinterpret_cast<const wchar_t*>(s));

As noted earlier, callers who compile with /Zc:wchar_t will match the first version of Do­Something; callers who compile with /Zc:wchar_t- will match the second. But both of them funnel into a common implementation, which we declare with wchar_t, so that it matches the /Zc:wchar_t setting used by the library itself.

Okay, so to answer the opening question: __wchar_t is the name for the intrinsic data type for wide strings. If you compile with /Zc:wchar_t, then that’s the data type that wchar_t maps to. The funny name exists so that code compiled with /Zc:wchar_t- can access it too, and so that code which wants to be /Zc:wchar_t-agnostic can explicitly refer to the internal native type.


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