This post aims to be an intuitive (rather than a thorough) explanation of value categories. It assumes a certain degree of prior knowledge regarding move semantics and the C++ language. You’re encouraged to report errors / unclear parts / suggestions on the issue tracker.


An expression in C++ is defined as

n4687 - §8/p1

a sequence of operators and their operands, that specifies a computation. An expression can result in a value and can cause side effects

Some examples:

x = 42; // Assignment expression

42; // An expression as well, with no side effects

int a; // A declaration statement (not an expression)

int b = fun(42); // A declaration statement with an expression initializer
                 // fun(42) is an expression

A side-effect is defined as a change of the execution environment. If an expression modifies some state outside of its scope or has an observable interaction with the outside world besides returning a value, it has side effects.

a = ++x; // ++x is an expression and has side effects (it doesn't just return a value)

An expression is characterized by two important properties:

  • its type
  • its value category

Understanding the value category of an expression is important because instructs the programmer on what kind of operations are allowed on it and possibly on the lifetime expectancy of the entities involved as well.

Value categories

The three primary value categories of an expression are

  • lvalue
  • xvalue
  • prvalue

these can in turn be grouped into glvalues and rvalues

There were historically only two value categories: lvalues and rvalues, and they were simplistically referred to as the left-hand and right-hand of a variable assignment. This definition is no longer generally true.

lvalue expressions represent storage location values (they can often appear on the left-hand side of an assignment) while rvalues are usually associated with temporary or disposable objects.

The importance of distinguishing between a variable’s type and the value categories of the expressions where it is used can’t be stressed enough:

int&& x = 42;

The variable x has type reference to an rvalue but that doesn’t mean the expression x is an rvalue:

void foo(int&& x) {
    int *v = &x; // x is an lvalue here

The distinction between the variable type and its value category in expressions is important: x is an lvalue expression in the line where its address is taken.

Also notice that lvalue references and rvalue references are both reference types but they’re different with respect to what binds to them. An lvalue expression can bind to lvalue references

int a = 42;
int& lvr = a; // lvalue expression binding to lvalue reference

while rvalue expressions can’t bind to them

// int& lvr = 42; // Error
int&& rvr = 42;

The second line works just fine because the literal 42 is an rvalue expression and binding it to a reference prolongs its lifetime (n4687 - §15.2/p6). The language also allows temporaries to bind to const lvalue references

const int& v = 42;

to prevent accidental modifications to temporaries (that will be destroyed anyway). rvalue references can’t be bound to lvalue expressions though

int a = 42;
// int&& rvr = a; // Not allowed

Takeaway is:

  • there are three main value categories: lvalue, xvalue, prvalue
  • variable_type != value_category, the latter is a property of expressions
  • binding temporaries or disposables to references prolongs their lifetime

Identity vs movability

Two particular traits that render value categories more understandable and might aid in explaining the need for the three aforementioned main categories are having an identity and being movable (cfr. n4687 - [basic.lval], notice that we’ll be simplifying “having an identity” as “having a name/being bound to a reference” for explanation’s sake)

This allows us to dive more into the definitions given in the standard:

  • lvalues are glvalues that are not xvalues: they’re expressions associated with storage areas whose address can be requested, they have a name or are bound to a reference and are not marked as movable from

    int x = 42;
    int *addr_of_x = &x; // I can request x's address
    *addr_of_x; // lvalue expression referring to whatever the variable points to
    // int&& rvr = x; // Wrong: the expression x doesn't designate an rvalue

    A call to a function which returns an lvalue reference is an lvalue as well

    int x;
    int& foo() { return x; } // decltype(foo()) = int&
    // I can take the address of a reference as well (it'll be the one of its referent)

    lvalue references are always lvalue expressions

    int x = 42;
    int& ref = x;
    int& foo() {return x;}
    int expr1 = ref; // ref is an lvalue
    int expr2 = foo(); // foo() is also an lvalue

    The main point here is that lvalues used in an expression are not marked as expiring (their resources are not marked for moving) and they also have an identity (they have a name or are bound to a reference, so their lifetime doesn’t need immediate attention in the expression to be prolonged).

    A lvalue reference is bound to an entity not marked as expiring while a rvalue reference is bound to an entity marked as expiring.

  • xvalues are eXpiring values: glvalues (they do have an identity) whose resources are also marked as movable.

    A call to a function which returns an rvalue reference is an xvalue

    int x;
    int&& foo() {
      return std::move(x); // Mark x as 'movable'
    } // decltype(foo()) = int&&
    class A {
      A(int&& v) { /* Cannibalize v */ }
    A obj{foo()};

    Invoking foo() will yield an xvalue, i.e. an expression which has an identity (the function is returning a reference type bound to an entity marked as expiring, still a reference though - doesn’t need immediate lifetime prolonging) and has been marked as movable (in the example above obj’s move constructor is called to potentially cannibalize v’s resources). Using std::move produces an xvalue as well since it marks an object as suitable for moving from and casts it to an rvalue reference.

  • prvalues are pure rvalues: rvalues which are not xvalues. They’re marked as can be moved from (temporaries are constructed if needed), but don’t have an identity of their own: if one intends to retain/save them, they will need to bind them to a reference. Unnamed temporaries (X()) and literals (42) are prvalues. The result of calling a function whose return type is not a reference is a prvalue: something that can bind to rvalue references (or const lvalue references) but that does not refer to an identity-owning entity.

prvalues are expressions whose evaluations are temporary entities marked as movable and immediately expiring unless a life-prolonging reference binding happens. xvalues yield entities marked as movable but that do not require immediate binding to a reference to see their life prolonged (they will be destroyed but this is not going to happen automatically at the end of the full expression). lvalues are the most “stable” state.

The remaining two broader categories lie at the intersection of the ones outlined above

  • glvalues are generalized lvalues: they’re either lvalues or xvalues. The standard adds

    A glvalue is an expression whose evaluation determines the identity of an object

  • rvalues are either xvalues or prvalues

The distinction is often subtle but key to instruct programs to better manipulate objects/memory regions and understanding move semantics (and lengthy compiler errors as well).

References and credits

Special thanks to Simon Brand and lounge<C++> for reviewing this post.