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Calling Constructors with Placement New

Placement new

Bjarne Stroustrup, the designer of C++, explained in The Design and Evolution of C++ that his primary motivation for extending the syntax of new-expressions was to pass information about where to place the created object [3]. Hence, he dubbed the argument list after the keyword new the "placement syntax." A new-expression that includes the placement syntax is called "new with placement" or just "placement new."

The Standard C++ Library provides a placement form of operator new declared in the standard header <new> as:

void *operator new(std::size_t, void *p) throw ();

Most C++ implementations define it as an inline function:

void *operator new(std::size_t, void *p) throw ()
    return p;

It does nothing but return the value of its second parameter. It completely ignores its first parameter. The exception-specification throw () indicates that the function isn't allowed to propagate any exceptions.

Programs can use this operator new to construct an object at a particular address. For example, if you declare the timer object as:

extern timer_type the_timer;

you can apply the constructor via the placement new-expression:

new (&the_timer) timer_type;

This placement new-expression compiles into a call to placement operator new, followed immediately by a call to the constructor:

operator new(sizeof(timer_type), &the_timer);

Recall that this operator new does nothing but return its second argument, and it's typically defined as an inline function. Most compilers completely eliminate the first statement during optimization.

The second statement:


is equivalent to:


which applies the timer_type constructor to the_timer. But, again, these notations are just what I'm using to convey the concept of a constructor call. Neither one actually compiles if you try to write it yourself.

If you define the timer as a constant pointer:

timer_type *const the_timer
    = reinterpret_cast<timer_type>(0xFFFF6000);

then you can apply the constructor via the placement new-expression:

new (the_timer) timer_type;

This placement new-expression differs from the earlier ones only in that it omits the unary & (address-of) operator from the placement argument: the_timer instead of &the_timer.

The C++ Standard doesn't specify the order of implicit initialization as precisely as some programmers would like. I've heard many embedded developers express a desire for more explicit control over initialization order. Using placement new offers that control.

For example, if you have some master device that must be initialized before some slave device, just write the calls to placement new in that order within some larger initialization function, as in:

void initialize()
    new (&the_master) master_type;
    new (&the_slave) slave_type;

Still Room for Improvement

C++ programmers expect classes to use constructors to perform object initialization. Classes for memory-mapped devices should be no different. However, many common declarations for such objects don't invoke constructors implicitly. Placement new offers a way to invoke constructors explicitly, which might be what you want sometimes, but not necessarily always. At other times, implicit initialization might still be preferable. I'll be looking at other more flexible alternatives in the future.


  1. Saks, Dan. "Throw and catch," ESD, May, 2007.
  2. Saks, Dan. "Function Name Overloading," Embedded Systems Programming, May 1999.
  3. Bjarne Stroustrup. The Design and Evolution of C++. Addison-Wesley, 1994.

Dan Saks is president of Saks & Associates, a C/C++ training and consulting company. For more information about Dan Saks, visit his website at This article is adapted from an article that appeared in 2011 in EE Times.

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