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It Is a Pity That Byte Elements of Go Constant Strings Are Not Constants. And It Is a Luck

Does the following Go program compile okay?

package main

const S = "Go"

const G = S[0]

func main() {}

Many gophers might think it should compile okay. But it fails to compile. Because element values of a string are always non-constant in Go, even if the string is a constant.

It is a pity that Go 1.0 didn't specify that elements of constant strings are also constants.

For backward-compatibility, the pity is hard to make up. For example, currently, the following program compiles okay. It prints 185 (-71 + 256).

package main

const S = "Go" // S[0] == 71

func main() {

But if elements of constant strings become into constants, then the program will not compile, because the type of -S[0] is byte (aka. uint8), whereas -71 owerflows the range of byte.

It is a pity, it is also a luck.

If elements of constant strings are constants, then there will be parsing ambiguities in Go custom generic age. Since Go 1.18, the following line will be treated as generic type declaration, in which S is a type parameter and [4]*int is its constraint.

type T [S [4]*int] struct{}

However, if elements of constant strings are constants, then S [4] may be treated as constant byte value if S is a constant string. In the parsing phase, the compiler doesn't know what the identifier int denotes. A type or an integer constant? If it denotes an integer constant, and S [4] may be treated as constant byte value, then the above line is a valid ordinary array type declaration.

Luckily, now, Go compiler knows S [4] will never be constant, so it always tries to think the above line is not an ordinary array type declaration. No ambiguities happen here. Were elements of constant strings constants, the simplified type parameter declaration syntax couldn't be possible.

There is a proposal to let Go support constant arrays (and other constant composite values). However, the Go custom generics design has almost sentenced that proposal to death. Because, similarly, the following code will lead to parsing ambiguities if array values may be declared as constants.

const A = [2]int{1, 2}
type BoolArray [A [1] * int]bool

BTW, substrings are also never constants

The following code line doesn't compile in Go:

const _ = "Google"[:2]

Instead, the following line compiles:

var _ = "Google"[:2]

By this fact, the following program will print 128 0 (the reason is explained here).

package main

const S = "Go"

var a byte = 64 << len(S) / 2
var b byte = 64 << len(S[:]) / 2

func main() {
	println(a, b) // 128 0

So making substrings of constant strings constant will also break backward-compatibility.


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