Aliasing in Fortran


References to the ISO Fortran language standard here are given by subclause number or constraint number and pertain to Fortran 2018.

Dummy Arguments

Basic rule

Fortran famously passes actual arguments by reference, and forbids callers from associating multiple arguments on a call to conflicting storage when doing so would cause the called subprogram to write to a bit of that storage by means of one dummy argument and read or write that same bit by means of another. For example:

function f(a,b,j,k)
  real a(*), b(*)
  a(j) = 1.
  b(k) = 2.
  f = a(j) ! can optimize to: f = 1.
end function

This prohibition applies to programs (or programmers) and has been in place since Fortran acquired subroutines and functions in Fortran II.

A Fortran compiler is free to assume that a program conforms with this rule when optimizing; and while obvious violations should of course be diagnosed, the programmer bears the responsibility to understand and comply with this rule.

It should be noted that this restriction on dummy argument aliasing works “both ways”, in general. Modifications to a dummy argument cannot affect other names by which that bit of storage may be known; conversely, modifications to anything other than a dummy argument cannot affect that dummy argument.

When a subprogram modifies storage by means of a particular dummy argument, Fortran’s prohibition against dummy argument aliasing is not limited just to other dummy arguments, but to any other name by which that storage might be visible. For example:

module m
  real x
  function f(y)
    real y
    x = 1.
    y = 2.
    f = x ! can optimize to: f = 1.
  end function
  subroutine bad
    print *, f(x) ! nonconforming usage!
  end subroutine
end module

Similar examples can be written using variables in COMMON blocks, host-association in internal subprograms, and so forth.

Further, the general rule that a dummy argument by which some particular bit of storage has been modified must be the only means by which that storage is referenced during the lifetime of a subprogram extends to cover any associations with that dummy argument via pointer association, argument association in procedure references deeper on the call chain, and so on.


Subclause (“Restrictions on entities associated with dummy arguments”), which the reader is encouraged to try to understand despite its opacity, formalizes the rules for aliasing of dummy arguments.

In addition to the “basic rule” above, Fortran imposes these additional requirements on programs.

  1. When a dummy argument is ALLOCATABLE or POINTER, it can be deallocated or reallocated only through the dummy argument during the life of the subprogram.

  2. When a dummy argument has a derived type with a component, possibly nested, that is ALLOCATABLE or POINTER, the same restriction applies.

  3. If a subprogram ever deallocates or reallocates a dummy argument or one of its components, the program cannot access that data by any other means, even before the change in allocation.

That subclause also relaxes the rules against dummy argument aliasing in some situations.

  1. When a dummy argument is a POINTER, it is essentially treated like any other pointer for the purpose of alias analysis (see below), and its status as a dummy argument is reduced to being relevant only for deallocation and reallocation (see above).

  2. When a dummy argument is a TARGET, the actual argument is really a variable (not an expression or something that needs to be passed via a temporary), and that variable could be a valid data target in a pointer assignment statement, then the compiler has to worry about aliasing between that dummy argument and pointers if some other circumstances apply. (See the standard, this one is weird and complicated!)

  3. Aliasing doesn’t extend its restrictions to what other images might do to a coarray dummy argument’s associated local storage during the lifetime of a subprogram – i.e., other images don’t have to worry about avoiding accesses to the local image’s storage when its coarray nature is explicit in the declaration of the dummy argument. (But when the local image’s storage is associated with a non-coarray dummy argument, the rules still apply. In other words, the compiler doesn’t have to worry about corrays unless it sees coarrays.)

Implications for inlining

A naive implementation of inlining might rewrite a procedure reference something like this:

module m
  function addto(x, y)
    real, intent(in out) :: x
    real, intent(in) :: y
    x = x + y
    addto = y
  end function
  function f(a,j,k)
    real a(*)
    a(k) = 1.
    f = addto(a(j), a(k)) ! optimizable to 1.
  end function
end module

becoming, after inline expansion at the Fortran language level,

function f(a,j,k)
  real a(*)
  a(k) = 1.
  a(j) = a(j) + a(k)
  f = a(k) ! no longer optimizable to 1.
end function

The problem for a compiler is this: at the Fortran language level, no language construct has the same useful guarantees against aliasing as dummy arguments have. A program transformation that changes dummy arguments into something else needs to implement in its internal or intermediate representations some kind of metadata that preserves assumptions against aliasing.


A dummy argument may have anINTENT attribute. The relevant case for alias analysis is INTENT(IN), as constraint C844 prohibits the appearance of an INTENT(IN) non-pointer dummy argument in any “variable definition context” (19.6.7), which is Fortran’s way of saying that it might be at risk of modification.

It would be great if the compiler could assume that an actual argument that corresponds to an INTENT(IN) dummy argument is unchanged after the called subprogram returns. Unfortunately, the language has holes that admit ways by which an INTENT(IN) dummy argument may change, even in a conforming program (paragraph 2 and note 4 in subclause 8.5.10 notwithstanding). In particular, Fortran nowhere states that a non-pointer INTENT(IN) dummy argument is not “definable”.

  1. INTENT(IN) does not prevent the same variable from also being associated with another dummy argument in the same call without INTENT(IN) and being modified thereby, which is conforming so long as the subprogram never references the dummy argument that has INTENT(IN). In other words, INTENT(IN) is necessary but not sufficient to guarantee safety from modification.

  2. A dummy argument may have INTENT(IN) and TARGET attributes, and in a non-PURE subprogram this would allow modification of its effective argument by means of a local pointer.

  3. An INTENT(IN) dummy argument may be forwarded to another procedure’s dummy argument with no INTENT attribute, and is susceptible to being modified during that call. This case includes references to procedures with implicit interfaces.

So, for the purposes of use/def/kill analysis, associating a variable with a non-PURE procedure’s non-pointer dummy argument may be fraught even when INTENT(IN) is present without VALUE.

Arguing the other side of this: an interoperable procedure’s INTENT(IN) dummy arguments are forbidden from being modified, and it would be odd for calls to foreign C functions to be safer than native calls (18.7).


A dummy argument with the VALUE attribute is effectively meant to be copied into a temporary for a call and not copied back into its original variable (if any). A VALUE dummy argument is therefore as safe from aliasing as a local variable of the subprogram is.

Pointers and targets

Modern Fortran’s pointers can’t associate with arbitrary data. They can be pointed only at objects that have the explicit TARGET attribute, or at the targets of other pointers.

A variable that does not have the TARGET attribute is generally safe from aliasing with pointers (but see exceptions below). And generally, pointers must be assumed to alias all other pointers and all TARGET data (perhaps reduced with data flow analysis).

A VOLATILE pointer can only point to a VOLATILE target, and a non-VOLATILE pointer cannot. A clever programmer might try to exploit this requirement to clarify alias analysis, but I have not encountered such usage so far.

The TARGET hole for dummy arguments

An actual argument that doesn’t have the TARGET attribute can still be associated with a dummy argument that is a target. This allows a non-target variable to become a target during the lifetime of a call. In a non-PURE subprogram (15.7), a pointer may be assigned to such a dummy argument or to a portion of it. Such a pointer has a valid lifetime that ends when the subprogram does.

Valid lifetimes of pointers to dummy arguments

The Fortran standard doesn’t mention compiler-generated and -populated temporary storage in the context of argument association in 15.5.2, apart from VALUE, but instead tries to name all of the circumstances in which an actual argument’s value may have to be transmitted by means of a temporary in each of the paragraphs that constrain the usable lifetimes of a pointer that has been pointed to a dummy argument during a call. It would be more clear, I think, had the standard simply described the reasons for which an actual argument might have to occupy temporary storage, and then just said that pointers to temporaries must not be used once those temporaries no longer exist.

Lack of pointer target INTENT

INTENT attributes for dummy pointer arguments apply to the pointer itself, not to the data to which the pointer points. Fortran still has no means of declaring a read-only pointer. Fortran also has no rule against associating read-only data with a pointer.

Cray pointers

Cray pointers are, or were, an extension that attempted to provide some of the capabilities of modern pointers and allocatables before those features were standardized. They had some aliasing restrictions; in particular, Cray pointers were not allowed to alias each other.

They are now more or less obsolete and we have no plan in place to support them.

Type considerations

Pointers with distinct types may alias so long as their types are compatible in the sense of the standard.

Pointers to derived types and COMPLEX may alias with pointers to the types of their components. For example:

complex, pointer :: pz(:)
real, pointer :: pa(:)
pa => z(:)%re ! points to all of the real components

Shape and rank

Array rank is not a material consideration to alias analysis. Two pointers may alias even if their ranks or shapes differ. For example, a pointer may associate with a column in a matrix to which another pointer associates; or a matrix pointer with only one column or one row may associate with a vector.

It is also possible in Fortran to “remap” target data by establishing a pointer of arbitrary rank as a view of a storage sequence. For example:

real, target :: vector(100)
real, pointer :: matrix(:,:)
matrix(1:10,1:10) => v ! now vector's elements look like a matrix


Selectors in ASSOCIATE and related constructs may associate with either expression values or variables. In the case of variables, the language imposes no restriction on aliasing during the lifetime of the construct, and the compiler must not assume that a selector works in a manner that is analogous to that of a dummy argument.


There really isn’t anything special about ALLOCATABLE objects from the perspective of aliasing, apart from rules (above) that requiring ALLOCATABLE dummy arguments be (de)allocated only by way of the dummy argument.

Because an ALLOCATABLE dummy argument preserves the values of lower bounds and can be assumed to be contiguous, some programmers advocate the use of explicitly ALLOCATABLE dummy arguments even when subprograms do not modify their allocation status. The usual aliasing restrictions still apply, even when the same ALLOCATABLE is associated with two or more dummy arguments on a call.


These attributes can, unlike any other, be scoped in Fortran by means of redeclaration in a BLOCK construct or nested procedure.

ASYNCHRONOUS data must be assumed to be read or written by some other agent during its lifetime. For example, Fortran’s asynchronous I/O capabilities might be implemented in a runtime support library by means of threading or explicitly asynchronous system calls. An MPI implementation might use ASYNCHRONOUS dummy arguments to indicate that data transfers may take place during program execution in some way that is not visible to the Fortran compiler.

The optimizer must handle ASYNCHRONOUS and VOLATILE data with great care. Reads and writes of ASYNCHRONOUS data cannot be moved across statements that might initiate or complete background operations. Reads and writes of VOLATILE data should be treated like volatile in C: there are no “dead” writes, reads cannot be CSE’d, and both operations should be properly fenced.

Storage assocation via EQUIVALENCE

A non-allocatable object, or parts of one, may have multiple names in Fortran via EQUIVALENCE. These objects cannot be have the POINTER or TARGET attributes. Their offsets in static, stack, or COMMON storage is resolved by semantics prior to lowering.