Support defining C-compatible variadic functions in Rust, via new intrinsics. Rust currently supports declaring external variadic functions and calling them from unsafe code, but does not support writing such functions directly in Rust. Adding such support will allow Rust to replace a larger variety of C libraries, avoid requiring C stubs and error-prone reimplementation of platform-specific code, improve incremental translation of C codebases to Rust, and allow implementation of variadic callbacks.


Rust can currently call any possible C interface, and export almost any interface for C to call. Variadic functions represent one of the last remaining gaps in the latter. Currently, providing a variadic function callable from C requires writing a stub function in C, linking that function into the Rust program, and arranging for that stub to subsequently call into Rust. Furthermore, even with the arguments packaged into a va_list structure by C code, extracting arguments from that structure requires exceptionally error-prone, platform-specific code, for which the ecosystem provides only partial solutions for a few target architectures.

This RFC does not propose an interface intended for native Rust code to pass variable numbers of arguments to a native Rust function, nor an interface that provides any kind of type safety. This proposal exists primarily to allow Rust to provide interfaces callable from C code.

Guide-level explanation

C code allows declaring a function callable with a variable number of arguments, using an ellipsis (...) at the end of the argument list. For compatibility, unsafe Rust code may export a function compatible with this mechanism.

Such a declaration looks like this:

pub unsafe extern "C" fn func(arg: T, arg2: T2, mut args: ...) {
    // implementation

The use of ... as the type of args at the end of the argument list declares the function as variadic. This must appear as the last argument of the function, and the function must have at least one argument before it. The function must use extern "C", and must use unsafe. To expose such a function as a symbol for C code to call directly, the function may want to use #[no_mangle] as well; however, Rust code may also pass the function to C code expecting a function pointer to a variadic function.

The args named in the function declaration has the type core::intrinsics::VaList<'a>, where the compiler supplies a lifetime 'a that prevents the arguments from outliving the variadic function.

To access the arguments, Rust provides the following public interfaces in core::intrinsics (also available via std::intrinsics):

/// The argument list of a C-compatible variadic function, corresponding to the
/// underlying C `va_list`. Opaque.
pub struct VaList<'a> { /* fields omitted */ }

// Note: the lifetime on VaList is invariant
impl<'a> VaList<'a> {
    /// Extract the next argument from the argument list. T must have a type
    /// usable in an FFI interface.
    pub unsafe fn arg<T>(&mut self) -> T;

    /// Copy the argument list. Destroys the copy after the closure returns.
    pub fn copy<'ret, F, T>(&self, F) -> T
        F: for<'copy> FnOnce(VaList<'copy>) -> T, T: 'ret;

The type returned from VaList::arg must have a type usable in an extern "C" FFI interface; the compiler allows all the same types returned from VaList::arg that it allows in the function signature of an extern "C" function.

All of the corresponding C integer and float types defined in the libc crate consist of aliases for the underlying Rust types, so VaList::arg can also extract those types.

Note that extracting an argument from a VaList follows the C rules for argument passing and promotion. In particular, C code will promote any argument smaller than a C int to an int, and promote float to double. Thus, Rust’s argument extractions for the corresponding types will extract an int or double as appropriate, and convert appropriately.

Like the underlying platform va_list structure in C, VaList has an opaque, platform-specific representation.

A variadic function may pass the VaList to another function. However, the lifetime attached to the VaList will prevent the variadic function from returning the VaList or otherwise allowing it to outlive that call to the variadic function. Similarly, the closure called by copy cannot return the VaList passed to it or otherwise allow it to outlive the closure.

A function declared with extern "C" may accept a VaList parameter, corresponding to a va_list parameter in the corresponding C function. For instance, the libc crate could define the va_list variants of printf as follows:

extern "C" {
    pub unsafe fn vprintf(format: *const c_char, ap: VaList) -> c_int;
    pub unsafe fn vfprintf(stream: *mut FILE, format: *const c_char, ap: VaList) -> c_int;
    pub unsafe fn vsprintf(s: *mut c_char, format: *const c_char, ap: VaList) -> c_int;
    pub unsafe fn vsnprintf(s: *mut c_char, n: size_t, format: *const c_char, ap: VaList) -> c_int;

Note that, per the C semantics, after passing VaList to these functions, the caller can no longer use it, hence the use of the VaList type to take ownership of the object. To continue using the object after a call to these functions, use VaList::copy to pass a copy of it instead.

Conversely, an unsafe extern "C" function written in Rust may accept a VaList parameter, to allow implementing the v variants of such functions in Rust. Such a function must not specify the lifetime.

Defining a variadic function, or calling any of these new functions, requires a feature-gate, c_variadic.

Sample Rust code exposing a variadic function:


pub unsafe extern "C" fn func(fixed: u32, mut args: ...) {
    let x: u8 = args.arg();
    let y: u16 = args.arg();
    let z: u32 = args.arg();
    println!("{} {} {} {}", fixed, x, y, z);

Sample C code calling that function:

#include <stdint.h>

void func(uint32_t fixed, ...);

int main(void)
    uint8_t x = 10;
    uint16_t y = 15;
    uint32_t z = 20;
    func(5, x, y, z);
    return 0;

Compiling and linking these two together will produce a program that prints:

5 10 15 20

Reference-level explanation

LLVM already provides a set of intrinsics, implementing va_start, va_arg, va_end, and va_copy. The compiler will insert a call to the va_start intrinsic at the start of the function to provide the VaList argument (if used), and a matching call to the va_end intrinsic on any exit from the function. The implementation of VaList::arg will call va_arg. The implementation of VaList::copy will call va_copy, and then va_end after the closure exits.

VaList may become a language item (#[lang="VaList"]) to attach the appropriate compiler handling.

The compiler may need to handle the type VaList specially, in order to provide the desired parameter-passing semantics at FFI boundaries. In particular, some platforms define va_list as a single-element array, such that declaring a va_list allocates storage, but passing a va_list as a function parameter occurs by pointer. The compiler must arrange to handle both receiving and passing VaList parameters in a manner compatible with the C ABI.

The C standard requires that the call to va_end for a va_list occur in the same function as the matching va_start or va_copy for that va_list. Some C implementations do not enforce this requirement, allowing for functions that call va_end on a passed-in va_list that they did not create. This RFC does not define a means of implementing or calling non-standard functions like these.

Note that on some platforms, these LLVM intrinsics do not fully implement the necessary functionality, expecting the invoker of the intrinsic to provide additional LLVM IR code. On such platforms, rustc will need to provide the appropriate additional code, just as clang does.

This RFC intentionally does not specify or expose the mechanism used to limit the use of VaList::arg only to specific types. The compiler should provide errors similar to those associated with passing types through FFI function calls.


This feature is highly unsafe, and requires carefully written code to extract the appropriate argument types provided by the caller, based on whatever arbitrary runtime information determines those types. However, in this regard, this feature provides no more unsafety than the equivalent C code, and in fact provides several additional safety mechanisms, such as automatic handling of type promotions, lifetimes, copies, and cleanup.

Rationale and Alternatives

This represents one of the few C-compatible interfaces that Rust does not provide. Currently, Rust code wishing to interoperate with C has no alternative to this mechanism, other than hand-written C stubs. This also limits the ability to incrementally translate C to Rust, or to bind to C interfaces that expect variadic callbacks.

Rather than having the compiler invent an appropriate lifetime parameter, we could simply require the unsafe code implementing a variadic function to avoid ever allowing the VaList structure to outlive it. However, if we can provide an appropriate compile-time lifetime check, doing would make it easier to correctly write the appropriate unsafe code.

Rather than naming the argument in the variadic function signature, we could provide a VaList::start function to return one. This would also allow calling start more than once. However, this would complicate the lifetime handling required to ensure that the VaList does not outlive the call to the variadic function.

We could use several alternative syntaxes to declare the argument in the signature, including ...args, or listing the VaList or VaList<'a> type explicitly. The latter, however, would require care to ensure that code could not reference or alias the lifetime.

Unresolved questions

When implementing this feature, we will need to determine whether the compiler can provide an appropriate lifetime that prevents a VaList from outliving its corresponding variadic function.

Currently, Rust does not allow passing a closure to C code expecting a pointer to an extern "C" function. If this becomes possible in the future, then variadic closures would become useful, and we should add them at that time.

This RFC only supports the platform’s native "C" ABI, not any other ABI. Code may wish to define variadic functions for another ABI, and potentially more than one such ABI in the same program. However, such support should not complicate the common case. LLVM has extremely limited support for this, for only a specific pair of platforms (supporting the Windows ABI on platforms that use the System V ABI), with no generalized support in the underlying intrinsics. The LLVM intrinsics only support using the ABI of the containing function. Given the current state of the ecosystem, this RFC only proposes supporting the native "C" ABI for now. Doing so will not prevent the introduction of support for non-native ABIs in the future.