Hint Files


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The latest version of this topic can be found at Hint Files.

A hint file helps the Visual Studio integrated development environment (IDE) interpret Visual C++ identifiers, such as the names of functions and macros. When you open a Visual C++ project, the IDE's parsing system analyzes the code in each source file in the project and gathers information about every identifier. Then the IDE uses that information to support features such as the Class View browser and the Navigation Bar.

The parsing system, which is introduced in Visual C++ 2010, understands C/C++ syntax but can misinterpret a statement that contains a macro. The statement can be misinterpreted if the macro causes the source code to be syntactically incorrect as written. The statement can become syntactically correct when the source code is compiled and the preprocesser replaces the macro identifier with its definition. The parsing system works without having to build the project because it uses hint files to interpret macros. Therefore, a browsing feature such as Class View is immediately available.

A hint file contains user-customizable hints, which have the same syntax as C/C++ macro definitions. Visual C++ includes a built-in hint file that is sufficient for most projects, but you can create your own hint files to improve the way Visual Studio handles identifiers.

System_CAPS_ICON_important.jpg Important

If you modify or add a hint file, you must delete the .sdf file and/or VC.db file in the solution in order for the changes to take effect.

Assume that the following code is in a source file that you examine with the Class View browser. The STDMETHOD macro declares a method named myMethod that takes one parameter and returns a pointer to an HRESULT.

// Source code file.  
STDMETHOD(myMethod)(int parameter1);  

The following macro definitions are in a separate header file.

// Header file.  
#define STDMETHODCALLTYPE __stdcall  
#define HRESULT void*  

The parsing system cannot interpret the source code because a function named STDMETHOD appears to be declared, and that declaration is syntactically incorrect because it has two parameter lists. The parsing system does not open the header file to discover the definitions for the STDMETHOD, STDMETHODCALLTYPE, and HRESULT macros. Because the parsing system cannot interpret the STDMETHOD macro, it ignores the whole statement and then continues parsing.

The parsing system does not use header files because your project might depend on one or more important header files. If any header file changes, the parsing system might have to reexamine all of the header files in your project, which slows down the performance of the IDE. Instead, the parsing system uses hints that specify how to handle the STDMETHOD, STDMETHODCALLTYPE, and HRESULT macros.

How do you know that you need a hint? And if you need a hint, what kind should you create? One sign that a hint is needed is if the view of an identifier in Class View is inconsistent with the view in the Editor. For example, Class View might not display a class member that you know exists, or the name of the member is incorrect. For more information about the types of hints that solve common problems, see the What Macros Require A Hint? section later in this topic.

Hint files pertain to physical directories, not the logical directories depicted in Solution Explorer. You do not have to add a hint file to your project for the hint file to have an effect. The parsing system uses hint files only when it parses source files.

Every hint file is named cpp.hint. Therefore, many directories can contain a hint file but only one hint file can occur in a particular directory.

Your project can be affected by zero or more hint files. If there are no hint files, the parsing system uses error recovery techniques to ignore indecipherable source code. Otherwise, the parsing system uses the following strategy to find and gather hints.

Search Order

The parsing system searches directories for hint files in the following order.

  • The directory that contains the installation package for Visual C++ (vcpackages). This directory contains a built-in hint file that describes symbols in frequently used system files, such as windows.h. Consequently, your project automatically inherits most of the hints that it needs.

  • The path from the root directory of a source file to the directory that contains the source file itself. In a typical Visual C++ project, the root directory contains the solution or project file.

    The exception to this rule is if a stop file is in the path to the source file. A stop file provides additional control over the search order and is any file that is named cpp.stop. Instead of starting from the root directory, the parsing system searches from the directory that contains the stop file to the directory that contains the source file. In a typical project, you do not need a stop file.

Hint Gathering

A hint file contains zero or more hints. A hint is defined or deleted just like a C/C++ macro. That is, the #define preprocessor directive creates or redefines a hint, and the #undef directive deletes a hint.

The parsing system opens each hint file in the search order described earlier, accumulates each file's hints into a set of effective hints, and then uses the effective hints to interpret the identifiers in your code.

The parsing system uses the following rules to accumulate hints.

  • If the new hint specifies a name that is not already defined, the new hint adds the name to the effective hints.

  • If the new hint specifies a name that is already defined, the new hint redefines the existing hint.

  • If the new hint is an #undef directive that specifies an existing effective hint, the new hint deletes the existing hint.

The first rule means that effective hints are inherited from previously opened hint files. The last two rules mean that hints that occur later in the search order can override hints that occurred earlier. For example, you can override any previous hints if you create a hint file in the directory that contains a source file.

For a depiction of how hints are gathered, see the Example section later in this topic.


Hints are created and deleted with the same syntax as the preprocessor directives that create and delete macros. In fact, the parsing system uses the C/C++ preprocessor to evaluate the hints. For more information about the preprocessor directives, see #define Directive (C/C++) and #undef Directive (C/C++).

The only unusual syntax elements are the @<, @=, and @> replacement strings. These are hint-file specific replacement strings that are used with only map macros. A map is a set of macros that relate data, functions, or events to other data, functions, or event handlers. For example, MFC uses maps to create message maps, and ATL uses maps to create object maps. The hint-file specific replacement strings indicate the starting, intermediate, and ending elements of a map. Only the name of a map macro is significant. Therefore, each replacement string intentionally hides the implementation of the macro.

Hints use the following syntax.

#define hint-name replacement-string

 #define hint-name ( parameter, ...)replacement-string
A preprocesser directive that defines a new hint or redefines an existing hint. After the directive, the preprocessor replaces each occurrence of hint-name in source code with replacement-string.

The second syntax form defines a function-like hint. If a function-like hint occurs in source code, the preprocessor first replaces each occurrence of parameter in replacement-string with the corresponding argument in source code, and then replaces hint-name with replacement-string.
@<A hint-file specific replacement-string that indicates the start of a set of map elements.
@=A hint-file specific replacement-string that indicates an intermediate map element. A map can have multiple map elements.
@>A hint-file specific replacement-string that indicates the end of a set of map elements.
#undef hint-nameThe preprocessor directive that deletes an existing hint. The name of the hint is provided by the hint-name identifier.
// commentA single line comment.
/* comment */A multiline comment.

Certain types of macros can interfere with the parsing system. This section describes the types of macros that can cause a problem, and the type of hint you can create to solve that problem.

Disruptive Macros

Some macros cause the parsing system to misinterpret source code, but can be ignored without impairing your browsing experience. For example, the Source Code Annotation Language (SAL) macros resolve to C++ attributes that help you find programming bugs. If you want to ignore SAL annotations as you browse code, you might want to create a hint file that hides the annotation.

In the following source code, the parameter type for the FormatWindowClassName() function is PXSTR, and the parameter name is szBuffer. However, the parsing system mistakes the _Pre_notnull_ and _Post_z_ SAL annotations for either the parameter type or the parameter name.

Source Code:

static void FormatWindowClassName(_Pre_notnull__Post_z_ PXSTR szBuffer)  

Strategy: Null definition

The strategy in this situation is to treat the SAL annotations as if they did not exist. To do this, specify a hint whose replacement string is null. Consequently, the parsing system ignores the annotations, and the Class View browser does not display them. (Visual C++ includes a built-in hint file that hides SAL annotation.)

Hint file:

#define _Pre_notnull_  

Concealed C/C++ Language Elements

A typical reason that the parsing system misinterprets source code is if a macro hides a C/C++ punctuator or keyword token. That is, a macro might contain half of a pair of punctuators, such as <>, [], {}, and ().

In the following source code, the START_NAMESPACE macro hides an unpaired left brace ({).

Source Code:

#define START_NAMESPACE namespace MyProject {  

Strategy: Direct copy

If the semantics of a macro are critical to the browsing experience, create a hint that is identical to the macro. The parsing system resolves the macro to the definition in the hint file.

Note that if the macro in the source file contains other macros, those macros are interpreted only if they are already in the set of effective hints.

Hint File:

#define START_NAMESPACE namespace MyProject {  


A map consists of macros that designate a starting element, ending element, and zero or more intermediate elements. The parsing system misinterprets maps because each map macro hides C/C++ language elements, and the syntax of a complete C/C++ statement is distributed across many separate macros.

The following source code defines the BEGIN_CATEGORY_MAP, IMPLEMENTED_CATEGORY, and END_CATEGORY_MAP macros.

Source Code:

#define BEGIN_CATEGORY_MAP(x)\  
static const struct ATL::_ATL_CATMAP_ENTRY* GetCategoryMap() throw() {\  
static const struct ATL::_ATL_CATMAP_ENTRY pMap[] = {  
#define END_CATEGORY_MAP()\  
   return( pMap ); }  

Strategy: Identify map elements

Specify hints for the start, middle (if any), and end elements of a map. Use the special map replacement strings, @<, @=, and @>. For more information, see the Syntax section in this topic.

Hint File:

// Start of the map.  
#define BEGIN_CATEGORY_MAP(x) @<  
// Intermediate map element.  
#define IMPLEMENTED_CATEGORY( catid ) @=  
// Intermediate map element.  
#define REQUIRED_CATEGORY( catid ) @=  
// End of the map.  
#define END_CATEGORY_MAP() @>  

Composite Macros

Composite macros contain one or more of the types of macro that confuse the parsing system.

The following source code contains the START_NAMESPACE macro, which specifies the start of a namespace scope, and the BEGIN_CATEGORY_MAP macro, which specifies the start of a map.

Source Code:


Strategy: Direct copy

Create hints for the START_NAMESPACE and BEGIN_CATEGORY_MAP macros, and then create a hint for the NSandMAP macro that is the same as shown earlier for the source code. Alternatively, if a composite macro consists of only disruptive macros and white space, you can define a hint whose replacement string is a null definition.

In this example, assume START_NAMESPACE already has a hint as described in this topic in the Concealed C/C++ Language Elements subheading. And assume BEGIN_CATEGORY_MAP has a hint as described earlier in Maps.

Hint File:


Inconvenient Macros

Some macros can be interpreted by the parsing system, but the source code is difficult to read because the macro is long or complex. For the sake of readability, you can provide a hint that simplifies the display of the macro.

Source Code:

#define STDMETHOD(methodName) HRESULT (STDMETHODCALLTYPE * methodName)  

Strategy: Simplification

Create a hint that displays a simpler macro definition.

Hint File:

#define STDMETHOD(methodName) void* methodName  

The following example illustrates how hints are accumulated from hint files. Stop files are not used in this example.

The following illustration depicts some of the physical directories in a Visual C++ project. Hint files are in the vcpackages, Debug, A1, and A2 directories.

Hint File Directories

Common and project-specific hint file directories.

Directories and Hint File Contents

The following list shows the directories in this project that contain hint files, and the contents of those hint files. Only some of the many hints in the vcpackages directory hint file are listed.

  • vcpackages

    // vcpackages (partial list)  
    #define _In_  
    #define _In_opt_  
    #define _In_z_  
    #define _In_opt_z_  
    #define _In_count_(size)  
  • Debug

    // Debug  
    #undef _In_  
    #define OBRACE {  
    #define CBRACE }  
    #define RAISE_EXCEPTION(x) throw (x)  
    #define START_NAMESPACE namespace MyProject {  
    #define END_NAMESPACE }  
  • A1

    // A1  
    #define START_NAMESPACE namespace A1Namespace {  
  • A2

    // A2  
    #undef OBRACE  
    #undef CBRACE  

Effective Hints

The following table lists the effective hints for the source files in this project.

  • Source File: A1_A2_B.cpp

  • Effective hints:

    // vcpackages (partial list)  
    #define _In_opt_  
    #define _In_z_  
    #define _In_opt_z_  
    #define _In_count_(size)  
    // Debug...  
    #define RAISE_EXCEPTION(x) throw (x)  
    // A1  
    #define START_NAMESPACE namespace A1Namespace {   
    // ...Debug  
    #define END_NAMESPACE }  

The following notes apply to the preceding list.

  • The effective hints are from the vcpackages, Debug, A1, and A2 directories.

  • The #undef directive in the Debug hint file removed the #define _In_ hint in the vcpackages directory hint file.

  • The hint file in the A1 directory redefines START_NAMESPACE.

  • The #undef hint in the A2 directory removed the hints for OBRACE and CBRACE in the Debug directory hint file.

File Types Created for Visual C++ Projects
Creating and Controlling Environment Windows
#define Directive (C/C++)
#undef Directive (C/C++)
SAL Annotations
Message Maps
Message Map Macros
Object Map Macros