Generate tag file for C++ source code, using the clang C++ compiler's parsing libraries
Shell Python Makefile C++



Generate tag file for C++ source code
Copyright:Copyright (c) 2012-2014 David Röthlisberger and contributors.
Author:David Röthlisberger <>
License:UIUC license (a BSD-like license; the same license as Clang). See LICENSE file in source distribution for details.
Manual section:1
Manual group:Clang Tools Documentation


clang-ctags [options] -- compilation command line

clang-ctags [options] --compile-commands path/to/compile_commands.json
source-file [source-file...]


clang-ctags and clang-etags generate (in a format understood by Vi and Emacs, respectively) a "tag" file indexing the C++ definitions found in the specified files.

(Hereafter both variants will be collectively referred to as clang-ctags, except where distiguished.)

Note that only the Emacs (etags) format is currently implemented.

Unlike other ctags implementations, clang-ctags uses a real C++ compiler (clang) to parse source files, allowing for more accurate indexing. (C++ is notoriously difficult to parse, and other ctags implementations rely on heuristics to disambiguate certain constructs.) Unlike other implementations, clang-ctags only understands C and C++ source files; and because clang-ctags needs to run each source file through the C pre-processor, its usage is somewhat more complicated than other ctags implementations.


The command-line interface of clang-ctags is not compatible with GNU etags, Exuberant Ctags, or other existing ctags implementations. This is because clang-ctags needs the full compilation command line to pass on to clang.

-a, --append Append tag entries to existing tag file.
-e Output tags in Emacs format (the default is Vi format). Implied if the program name contains "etags".
-o tagfile, -f tagfile
 Write the tags to tagfile; "-" writes tags to stdout (the default is "tags", or "TAGS" when -e supplied).
-v, --verbose Print debugging information to stderr.
--version Print version identifier to stdout, and exit. This is guaranteed to always contain the string "clang-ctags".
--compile-commands path/to/compile_commands.json
A "compilation database" containing the compilation command line for every source file in your project. See Compilation database, below.
--all-headers Write tags for all header files encountered while preprocessing the source file(s), not just the headers specified on the command line. Note that if you include any system headers (even indirectly) this will result in increased processing time and a very large tag file; I recommend you only use this option when generating a tag file for a single source file.

Write tags for all non-system header files encountered while preprocessing the source file(s), not just the headers specified on the command line. (A system header file is one found in certain system-dependent directories and included with <header.h> instead of "header.h".) This increases processing time and tag file size.

libclang doesn't currently expose the list of system directories, so clang-ctags employs the following heuristic to decide that a file is not a system header: (a) the file is found via a relative path (as specified to the preprocessor with -I), or (b) the file is located under the directory where clang-ctags is run from. Note that (b) is necessary because clang converts all header search paths to absolute paths if the source filename (as specified on the compiler command line) is an absolute path.


Write a separate tag for each namespace/class qualifier. For example, given a source file containing namespace ns { class cls { int member; }; } clang-ctags will generate 4 separate tags: ::ns::cls::member, ns::cls::member, cls::member, and member.

This greatly inflates the size of the generated tag file. This is only necessary when your editor doesn't perform sub-string matches on the tag name; with Emacs I don't need this option because I use "ido-ubiquitous"[1], a package that provides the "ido"[2] fuzzy matching everywhere in Emacs, including at the "find-tag" prompt.


When called with the form clang-ctags -- compilation command line, the compilation command line is the full command line that you would pass to the C++ compiler if you were to compile the source file, excluding the name of the C++ compiler itself (i.e. argv[0]). This form can only process one source file per invocation, and is useful for running clang-ctags during a build.

When called with the form clang-ctags --compile-commands=compile_commands.json, the compilation command line is taken from the specified file, described in Compilation database, below.

In reality clang-ctags only needs the preprocessor flags (-I, -D, etc.) and the name of the source file, but it is often easier to pass the full compilation command line; clang-ctags will ignore linker flags and most compiler flags.

Interposing the compiler to run clang-ctags during the build

Most Unix makefile-based build systems allow the user to specify a compiler in the CC and CXX make variables. You can point these variables to a script that invokes clang-ctags, and then invokes the real compiler:

clang-ctags -e -f tagfile --append -- "$@"
g++ "$@"

Note that this is only useful when starting from a clean build and an empty tag file, because clang-ctags --append doesn't remove previous tags for a file that it has already processed. So you would end up with the up-to-date tags at the end of the tag file; Emacs will use the first, out of date, tag it finds.

Note that autoconf-generated configure scripts create makefiles with hard-coded paths to the compiler, so you will need to set CC and CXX when running configure.

Prior art for this technique:

Compilation database

If you build your C++ project with CMake, you can generate a database of compilation commands with:


The format of this compilation database is documented at

clang-ctags understands the format of this database (and so do some other clang-based tools).

If you don't use cmake, Build EAR ( is a tool that generates a compilation database. It figures out the compilation commands by intercepting your build system's exec calls, so it works with any build system.


clang-ctags requires libclang version 3.2 or greater, and the libclang python bindings (libclang and its python bindings are both part of the official clang project).

libclang and its python bindings may be available from your system's package manager (probably in the clang or clang-devel package). You can test the python bindings by running the python interpreter and typing:

import clang.cindex

If you see a python ImportError, you will need to build clang from source (see, point LD_LIBRARY_PATH at the built (on OS X: DYLD_LIBRARY_PATH and libclang.dylib), and point PYTHONPATH at bindings/python/ in the clang source directory.

Please help me out by pestering your system's maintainers to include libclang and its python bindings in the official clang package for your system (Debian, Ubuntu, FreeBSD, MacPorts, etc).


Running clang-ctags over the lib directory of the clang source code (480 files totalling 470k lines of code) took 4.3 minutes on a 1.8GHz Intel Core i7. 72% of this time is the parsing done by libclang itself (the calls to clang_parseTranslationUnit, or clang.cindex.Index.parse in the python bindings). The result is a 3MB tag file with 23k tags.

By comparison, GNU etags takes 0.5 seconds on the same input and produces a 1.4MB tag file with 25k tags.

(The command line used was:

time find llvm/tools/clang/lib -name '*.[ch]' -o -name '*.[ch]pp' |
xargs clang-ctags -v -e --suppress-qualifier-tags \

clang-ctags didn't generate tags for any of the header files in lib/Headers, because no source files included them. GNU etags generated about 4k tags from these header files.)

Running clang-ctags over a much larger input, such as the entire llvm C/C++ sources (7k files, 1.8 million lines of code) took 98 minutes and a peak memory usage of 140MB.

A better solution might be to run clang-ctags over a single source file at a time, as part of the build (see "Interposing the compiler to run clang-ctags during the build", above), using --append to update an existing tag file. This would require modifying clang-ctags so that, when appending, it reads in the tag file and removes existing tags for the same source file.

Another possible way to speed up clang-ctags is parallelization: If clang-ctags supported multiple processes writing to the same file, one could use GNU parallel instead of xargs:

find . -name '*.[ch]*' | parallel clang-ctags --append ...


The clang-ctags source file is light on comments but there is a lot of information in the commit messages, which I have tried to structure in a tutorial-like fashion. Start by browsing the oldest commits at and make good use of git annotate.