C++ FAQ Celebrating Twenty-One Years of the C++ FAQ!!!
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Section 18:
[18.10] What is a "const member function"?

A member function that inspects (rather than mutates) its object.

A const member function is indicated by a const suffix just after the member function's parameter list. Member functions with a const suffix are called "const member functions" or "inspectors." Member functions without a const suffix are called "non-const member functions" or "mutators."

class Fred {
  void inspect() const;   // This member promises NOT to change *this
  void mutate();          // This member function might change *this

void userCode(Fred& changeable, Fred const& unchangeable)
  changeable.inspect();   // OK: doesn't change a changeable object
  changeable.mutate();    // OK: changes a changeable object

  unchangeable.inspect(); // OK: doesn't change an unchangeable object
  unchangeable.mutate();  // ERROR: attempt to change unchangeable object
The error in unchangeable.mutate() is caught at compile time. There is no runtime space or speed penalty for const.

The trailing const on inspect() member function means that the abstract (client-visible) state of the object isn't going to change. This is slightly different from promising that the "raw bits" of the object's struct aren't going to change. C++ compilers aren't allowed to take the "bitwise" interpretation unless they can solve the aliasing problem, which normally can't be solved (i.e., a non-const alias could exist which could modify the state of the object). Another (important) insight from this aliasing issue: pointing at an object with a pointer-to-const doesn't guarantee that the object won't change; it promises only that the object won't change via that pointer.