ref readonly parameters


This article is a feature specification. The specification represents the proposed feature specification. There may be some discrepancies between the feature specification and the completed implementation. Those differences are captured in the pertinent language design meeting (LDM) notes. Links to pertinent meetings are included at the bottom of the spec. You can learn more about the process for merging feature speclets into the C# language standard in the article on the specifications.


Allow parameter declaration-site modifier ref readonly and change callsite rules as follows:

Callsite annotation ref parameter ref readonly parameter in parameter out parameter
ref Allowed Allowed Warning Error
in Error Allowed Allowed Error
out Error Error Error Allowed
No annotation Error Warning Allowed Error

(Note that there is one change to the existing rules: in parameter with ref callsite annotation produces a warning instead of an error.)

Change argument value rules as follows:

Value kind ref parameter ref readonly parameter in parameter out parameter
rvalue Error Warning Allowed Error
lvalue Allowed Allowed Allowed Allowed

Where lvalue means a variable (i.e., a value with a location; does not have to be writable/assignable) and rvalue means any kind of value.


C# 7.2 introduced in parameters as a way to pass readonly references. in parameters allow both lvalues and rvalues and can be used without any annotation at the callsite. However, APIs which capture or return references from their parameters would like to disallow rvalues and also enforce some indication at the callsite that a reference is being captured. ref readonly parameters are ideal in such cases as they warn if used with rvalues or without any annotation at the callsite.

Furthermore, there are APIs that need only read-only references but use

  • ref parameters since they were introduced before in became available and changing to in would be a source and binary breaking change, e.g., QueryInterface, or
  • in parameters to accept readonly references even though passing rvalues to them doesn't really make sense, e.g., ReadOnlySpan<T>..ctor(in T value), or
  • ref parameters to disallow rvalues even though they don't mutate the passed reference, e.g., Unsafe.IsNullRef.

These APIs could migrate to ref readonly parameters without breaking users. For details on binary compatibility, see the proposed metadata encoding. Specifically, changing

  • refref readonly would only be a binary breaking change for virtual methods,
  • refin would also be a binary breaking change for virtual methods, but not a source breaking change (because the rules change to only warn for ref arguments passed to in parameters),
  • inref readonly would not be a breaking change (but no callsite annotation or rvalue would result in a warning),
    • note that this would be a source breaking change for users using older compiler versions (as they interpret ref readonly parameters as ref parameters, disallowing in or no annotation at the callsite) and new compiler versions with LangVersion <= 11 (for consistency with older compiler versions, an error will be emitted that ref readonly parameters are not supported unless the corresponding arguments are passed with the ref modifier).

In the opposite direction, changing

  • ref readonlyref would be potentially a source breaking change (unless only ref callsite annotation was used and only readonly references used as arguments), and a binary breaking change for virtual methods,
  • ref readonlyin would not be a breaking change (but ref callsite annotation would result in a warning).

Detailed design

In general, rules for ref readonly parameters are the same as specified for in parameters in their proposal, except where explicitly changed in this proposal.

Parameter declarations

No changes in grammar are necessary. The modifier ref readonly will be allowed for parameters. Apart from normal methods, ref readonly will be allowed for indexer parameters (like in but unlike ref), but disallowed for operator parameters (like ref but unlike in).

Default parameter values will be allowed for ref readonly parameters with a warning since they are equivalent to passing rvalues. This allows API authors to change in parameters with default values to ref readonly parameters without introducing a source breaking change.

Value kind checks

Note that even though ref argument modifier is allowed for ref readonly parameters, nothing changes w.r.t. value kind checks, i.e.,

  • ref can only be used with assignable values;
  • to pass readonly references, one has to use the in argument modifier instead;
  • to pass rvalues, one has to use no modifier (which results in a warning for ref readonly parameters as described in the summary of this proposal).

Overload resolution

Overload resolution will allow mixing ref/ref readonly/in/no callsite annotations and parameter modifiers as denoted by the table in the summary of this proposal, i.e., all allowed and warning cases will be considered as possible candidates during overload resolution. Specifically, there's a change in existing behavior where methods with in parameter will match calls with the corresponding argument marked as ref—this change will be gated on LangVersion.

However, the warning for passing an argument with no callsite modifier to a ref readonly parameter will be suppressed if the parameter is

  • the receiver in an extension method invocation,
  • used implicitly as part of custom collection initializer or interpolated string handler.

By-value overloads will be preferred over ref readonly overloads in case there is no argument modifier (in parameters have the same behavior).

Method conversions

Similarly, for the purpose of anonymous function [§10.7] and method group [§10.8] conversions, these modifiers are considered compatible (but the conversion results in a warning):

  • ref readonly can be interchanged with in or ref modifier,
  • in can be interchanged with ref modifier (this change will be gated on LangVersion).

Note that there is no change in behavior of function pointer conversions. As a reminder, implicit function pointer conversions are disallowed if there is a mismatch between reference kind modifiers, and explicit casts are always allowed without any warnings.

Signature matching

Members declared in a single type cannot differ in signature solely by ref/out/in/ref readonly. For other purposes of signature matching (e.g., hiding or overriding), ref readonly can be interchanged with in modifier, but that results in a warning at the declaration site [§7.6]. This doesn't apply when matching partial declaration with its implementation and when matching interceptor signature with intercepted signature. Note that there is no change in overriding for ref/in and ref readonly/ref modifier pairs, they cannot be interchanged, because the signatures aren't binary compatible. For consistency, the same is true for other signature matching purposes (e.g., hiding).

Metadata encoding

As a reminder,

  • ref parameters are emitted as plain byref types (T& in IL),
  • in parameters are like ref plus they are annotated with System.Runtime.CompilerServices.IsReadOnlyAttribute. In C# 7.3 and later, they are also emitted with [in] and if virtual, modreq(System.Runtime.InteropServices.InAttribute).

ref readonly parameters will be emitted as [in] T&, plus annotated with the following attribute:

namespace System.Runtime.CompilerServices
    [AttributeUsage(AttributeTargets.Parameter, AllowMultiple = false, Inherited = false)]
    public sealed class RequiresLocationAttribute : Attribute

Furthermore, if virtual, they will be emitted with modreq(System.Runtime.InteropServices.InAttribute) to ensure binary compatibility with in parameters. Note that unlike in parameters, no [IsReadOnly] will be emitted for ref readonly parameters to avoid increasing metadata size and also to make older compiler versions interpret ref readonly parameters as ref parameters (and hence refref readonly won't be a source breaking change even between different compiler versions).

The RequiresLocationAttribute will be matched by namespace-qualified name and synthesized by the compiler if not already included in the compilation.

Specifying the attribute in source will be an error if it's applied to a parameter, similarly to ParamArrayAttribute.

Function pointers

In function pointers, in parameters are emitted with modreq(System.Runtime.InteropServices.InAttribute) (see function pointers proposal). ref readonly parameters will be emitted without that modreq, but instead with modopt(System.Runtime.CompilerServices.RequiresLocationAttribute). Older compiler versions will ignore the modopt and hence interpret ref readonly parameters as ref parameters (consistent with older compiler behavior for normal methods with ref readonly parameters as described above) and new compiler versions aware of the modopt will use it to recognize ref readonly parameters to emit warnings during conversions and invocations. For consistency with older compiler versions, new compiler versions with LangVersion <= 11 will report errors that ref readonly parameters are not supported unless the corresponding arguments are passed with the ref modifier.

Note that it is a binary break to change modifiers in function pointer signatures if they are part of public APIs, hence it will be a binary break when changing ref or in to ref readonly. However, a source break will only occur for callers with LangVersion <= 11 when changing inref readonly (if invoking the pointer with in callsite modifier), consistent with normal methods.

Breaking changes

The ref/in mismatch relaxation in overload resolution introduces a behavior breaking change demonstrated in the following example:

class C
    string M(in int i) => "C";
    static void Main()
        int i = 5;
        System.Console.Write(new C().M(ref i));
static class E
    public static string M(this C c, ref int i) => "E";

In C# 11, the call binds to E.M, hence "E" is printed. In C# 12, C.M is allowed to bind (with a warning) and no extension scopes are searched since we have an applicable candidate, hence "C" is printed.

There is also a source breaking change due to the same reason. The example below prints "1" in C# 11, but fails to compile with an ambiguity error in C# 12:

var i = 5;
System.Console.Write(C.M(null, ref i));

interface I1 { }
interface I2 { }
static class C
    public static string M(I1 o, ref int x) => "1";
    public static string M(I2 o, in int x) => "2";

The examples above demonstrate the breaks for method invocations, but since they are caused by overload resolution changes, they can be similarly triggered for method conversions.


Parameter declarations

API authors could annotate in parameters designed to accept only lvalues with a custom attribute and provide an analyzer to flag incorrect usages. This would not allow API authors to change signatures of existing APIs that opted to use ref parameters to disallow rvalues. Callers of such APIs would still need to perform extra work to get a ref if they have access only to a ref readonly variable. Changing these APIs from ref to [RequiresLocation] in would be a source breaking change (and in case of virtual methods, also a binary breaking change).

Instead of allowing the modifier ref readonly, the compiler could recognize when a special attribute (like [RequiresLocation]) is applied to a parameter. This was discussed in LDM 2022-04-25, deciding this is a language feature, not an analyzer, so it should look like one.

Value kind checks

Passing lvalues without any modifiers to ref readonly parameters could be permitted without any warnings, similarly to C++'s implicit byref parameters. This was discussed in LDM 2022-05-11, noting that the primary motivation for ref readonly parameters are APIs which capture or return references from these parameters, so marker of some kind is a good thing.

Passing rvalue to a ref readonly could be an error, not a warning. That was initially accepted in LDM 2022-04-25, but later e-mail discussions relaxed this because we would lose the ability to change existing APIs without breaking users.

in could be the "natural" callsite modifier for ref readonly parameters and using ref could result in warnings. This would ensure a consistent code style and make it obvious at the callsite that the reference is readonly (unlike ref). It was initially accepted in LDM 2022-04-25. However, warnings could be a friction point for API authors to move from ref to ref readonly. Also, in has been redefined as ref readonly + convenience features, hence this was rejected in LDM 2022-05-11.

Pending LDM review

Parameter declarations

Inverse ordering of modifiers (readonly ref instead of ref readonly) could be allowed. This would be inconsistent with how readonly ref returns and fields behave (inverse ordering is disallowed or means something different, respectively) and could clash with readonly parameters if implemented in the future.

Default parameter values could be an error for ref readonly parameters.

Value kind checks

Errors could be emitted instead of warnings when passing rvalues to ref readonly parameters or mismatching callsite annotations and parameter modifiers. Similarly, special modreq could be used instead of an attribute to ensure ref readonly parameters are distinct from in parameters on the binary level. This would provide stronger guarantees, so it would be good for new APIs, but prevent adoption in existing runtime APIs which cannot introduce breaking changes.

Value kind checks could be relaxed to allow passing readonly references via ref into in/ref readonly parameters. That would be similar to how ref assignments and ref returns work today—they also allow passing references as readonly via the ref modifier on the source expression. However, the ref there is usually close to the place where the target is declared as ref readonly, so it is clear we are passing a reference as readonly, unlike invocations whose argument and parameter modifiers are usually far apart. Furthermore, they allow only the ref modifier unlike arguments which allow also in, hence in and ref would become interchangeable for arguments, or in would become practically obsolete if users wanted to make their code consistent (they would probably use ref everywhere since it's the only modifier allowed for ref assignments and ref returns).

Overload resolution

Overload resolution, overriding, and conversion could disallow interchangeability of ref readonly and in modifiers.

The overload resolution change for existing in parameters could be taken unconditionally (not considering LangVersion), but that would be a breaking change.

Invoking an extension method with ref readonly receiver could result in warning "Argument 1 should be passed with ref or in keyword" as would happen for non-extension invocations with no callsite modifiers (user could fix such warning by turning the extension method invocation into static method invocation). The same warning could be reported when using custom collection initializer or interpolated string handler with ref readonly parameter, although user could not work around it.

ref readonly overloads could be preferred over by-value overloads when there is no callsite modifier or there could be an ambiguity error.

Method conversions

Function pointer conversions could warn on ref readonly/ref/in mismatch, but if we wanted to gate that on LangVersion, a significant implementation investment would be required as today type conversions do not need access to compilation. Furthermore, even though mismatch is currently an error, it is easy for users to add a cast to allow the mismatch if they want.

Metadata encoding

Specifying the RequiresLocationAttribute in source could be allowed, similarly to In and Out attributes. Alternatively, it could be an error when applied in other contexts than just parameters, similarly to IsReadOnly attribute; to preserve further design space.

Function pointer ref readonly parameters could be emitted with different modopt/modreq combinations (note that "source break" in this table means for callers with LangVersion <= 11):

Modifiers Can be recognized across compilations Old compilers see them as refref readonly inref readonly
modreq(In) modopt(RequiresLocation) yes in binary, source break binary break
modreq(In) no in binary, source break ok
modreq(RequiresLocation) yes unsupported binary, source break binary, source break
modopt(RequiresLocation) yes ref binary break binary, source break

We could emit both [RequiresLocation] and [IsReadOnly] attributes for ref readonly parameters. Then inref readonly would not be a breaking change even for older compiler versions, but refref readonly would become a source breaking change for older compiler versions (as they would interpret ref readonly as in, disallowing ref modifiers) and new compiler versions with LangVersion <= 11 (for consistency).

We could make the behavior for LangVersion <= 11 different from the behavior for older compiler versions. For example, it could be an error whenever a ref readonly parameter is called (even when using the ref modifier at the callsite), or it could be always allowed without any errors.

Breaking changes

This proposal suggests accepting a behavior breaking change because it should be rare to hit, is gated by LangVersion, and users can work around it by calling the extension method explicitly. Instead, we could mitigate it by

  • disallowing the ref/in mismatch (that would only prevent migration to in for old APIs that used ref because in wasn't available yet),
  • modifying the overload resolution rules to continue looking for a better match (determined by betterness rules specified below) when there's a ref kind mismatch introduced in this proposal,
    • or alternatively continue only for ref vs. in mismatch, not the others (ref readonly vs. ref/in/by-value).
Betterness rules

The following example currently results in three ambiguity errors for the three invocations of M. We could add new betterness rules to resolve the ambiguities. This would also resolve the source breaking change described earlier. One way would be to make the example print 221 (where ref readonly parameter is matched with in argument since it would be a warning to call it with no modifier whereas for in parameter that's allowed).

interface I1 { }
interface I2 { }
class C
    static string M(I1 o, in int i) => "1";
    static string M(I2 o, ref readonly int i) => "2";
    static void Main()
        int i = 5;
        System.Console.Write(M(null, ref i));
        System.Console.Write(M(null, in i));
        System.Console.Write(M(null, i));

New betterness rules could mark as worse the parameter whose argument could have been passed with a different argument modifier to make it better. In other words, user should be always able to turn a worse parameter into a better parameter by changing its corresponding argument modifier. For example, when an argument is passed by in, a ref readonly parameter is preferred over an in parameter because user could pass the argument by-value to choose the in parameter. This rule is just an extension of by-value/in preference rule that is in effect today (it's the last overload resolution rule and the whole overload is better if any of its parameter is better and none is worse than the corresponding parameter of another overload).

argument better parameter worse parameter
ref/in ref readonly in
ref ref ref readonly/in
by-value by-value/in ref readonly
in in ref

We should handle method conversions similarly. The following example currently results in two ambiguity errors for the two delegate assignments. New betterness rules could prefer a method parameter whose refness modifier matches the corresponding target delegate parameter refness modifier over one that has a mismatch. Hence, the following example would print 12.

class C
    void M(I1 o, ref readonly int x) => System.Console.Write("1");
    void M(I2 o, ref int x) => System.Console.Write("2");
    void Run()
        D1 m1 = this.M;
        D2 m2 = this.M;

        var i = 5;
        m1(null, in i);
        m2(null, ref i);
    static void Main() => new C().Run();
interface I1 { }
interface I2 { }
class X : I1, I2 { }
delegate void D1(X s, ref readonly int x);
delegate void D2(X s, ref int x);

Design meetings