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Basic C

Table of Contents

As long as this note remains on this page, any information is subject to change and broken links, etc. are to be expected. Please be restrictive in reporting any errors for now.

This page is very much a work in progress and will grow gradually during 2018. Feel free to make requests!

c.jpg

Figure 1: The beauty of C is that it is a small language, where almost nothing happens under the hood that you did not explicitly ask for.

1 Anatomy of a C Program

A C program consists of one or more files. Files come in two forms: C ode and H eader files (with extensions .c and .h respectively). .c files contain declarations of functions and data structures. The .h files contain definitions of e.g. type aliases and function prototypes which simply names a function and states its parameter types and return type, but not its actual code.

In an executable C program, exactly one .c file has a main() function that starts the program.1

The figure below shows a typical .h file. It contains a set of include directives and type aliases which are used in the function prototypes.

#pragma once

[include directives]

[type aliases]

[function prototypes]

The include directives list names of .h files whose definitions will be included in the current file. For example, writing #include <stdlib.h> includes all the function defintions from the standard library into the curren file, allowing the compiler to check that calls to these functions are correct.

The line #pragma once states that no matter how many times the .h file is included, it will only be included once.2

In contrast, a typical .c file will look like this:

[include directives]

[type aliases]

[struct declarations]

[function prototypes]

[function definitions]

Here, there is no #pragma, which is because .c files are not usually included into other files. Commonly, the file file.c includes file.h, which means a .c file imports a list of its public functions. This is useful because the C compiler reads sources top to bottom, and will be confused3 if a function is called before it is defined.

The struct declaration part will declare how or memory objects are shaped. If there are function definitions in the .c file which are not in the .h file, they are typically listed before the definitions. If type aliase, struct declarations and function prototypes come before the function definitions, we are free to use them in the function defitions, no matter their order.

1.1 A Complete Example

Below shows three files, greeter.h, greeter.c and driver.c that together make up a complete C program. greeter.h defines a function, greet() that takes a message and a name. greeter.c implements this function. Finally, driver.c must include greeter.h to learn the existence of greet().

#pragma once

void greet(char *msg, char *name);
#include "greeter.h"

void greet(char *msg, char *name)
{
  printf("Hi, %s, %s!\n", name, msg);
}
#include "greeter.h"

int main(int arc, char *argv[])
{
  if (argc == 3)
    {
      greet(argv[1], argv[2]);
    }
  else
    {
      puts("Usage: ./driver <msg> <name>")
    }

  return 0;
}

These files can be compiled thus: gcc greeter.c driver.c -o driver. This produces the executable driver. Note how we do not mention the .h file when compiling. That would be redundant since the contents of greeter.h has already been included twice, once in each .c file.

2 Common Compiler Flags

Most C compilers support hundreds if not thousands of options. It is beyond the scope of this course to go beyond the absolute basics. Below are some flags that we will use frequently:

Flag Description
-c Separate compilation – produce an object file that can be linked to an executable later
-o filename Name the resulting executable filename rather than a.out
-lm Link with the mathematics library
-lcunit Link with the CUnit testing framework
-Wall Makes the compiler warn for things it considers dubious
-Wextra Makes the compiler even more suspicious than with -Wall
-pedantic Warns about use of C outside of what the standard supports
-g Add information to the output that facilitates debuggning (you can use -ggdb if using gdb)
-O2, -O3 Turn on (increasing) levels of optimisation (this may trigger errors in bad code)
-pg Add profiling information to the output

On this course, I recommend always using -g or -ggdb and -Wall. Warnings in C are often to be taken seriously, especially in an introductory course, and the overhead of adding debugging information to the code is negligable. This very line will get you quite far:4

gcc -Wall -pedantic -g file1.c file2.c file3.c

Note that unless you give a -o filename flag, the C compiler will name the resulting file a.out. That is often a fine file name for testing things out locally.

3 Loops

C has 3 kinds of loops. They are equally powerful. When you want to create a temporary loop variable just for a loop, the for loop is generally the right choice. If you know you will always go through at least one iteration, choose a do-while loop. Otherwise, while loops are great!

3.1 While Loops

Here is recursive fibonacci:

int fib(int n)
{
  if (n < 2)
    {
      return n;
    }
  else
    {
      return fib(n - 1) + fib(n - 2);
    }
}

And here, written using a while loop:

int fib(int n)
{
  int fib_1 = 0;
  int fib_2 = 1;
  int times = 0;

  while (times < n)
    {
      int tmp = fib_1 + fib_2;
      fib_1 = fib_2;
      fib_2 = tmp;

      times = times + 1;
    }

  return fib_2;
}

Note: bug if n == 0 – exercise!

3.2 Do-While Loops

A do-while loop is a good fit for loops where we know we will go through the loop body at least once. Here is an example of going through a password dialogue. If the correct password is entered, strcmp(password, answer) returns 0 and the loop exits. Otherwise, the password question is repeated.

char *password = "secret";
char *answer = NULL;
do
  {
    ask_question_string("Enter password:", &answer);
  }
while (strcmp(password, answer) != 0);

Concisely, if a do-while loop is do {body} while (guard), we could rewrite the code using a while loop as body; while (guard) {body}. What would the example above look like using a while-loop instead?

3.3 For Loops

Technically, there is nothing you can do with a for loop that you could not do with a while. However, in many (but not all) circumstances, a for loop can be much clearer – by providing a single place (at the start of the loop) for declaring loop variables, loop guards and incrementing the loop variables.

The following snippet uses a for loop to print i = 0, i = 1, etc. up to 1023. Note that the first line has three ;-separated compartments. the first is for declaring one or more loop variables and initialising them; the second is the guard, just like in while or do/while loops; the third is applied at the end of a loop body.

int N = 1024;
for (int i = 0; i < N; ++i)
  {
    printf("i = %d\n", i);
  }
/// Cannot use i variable here!

We could translate the for loop above to an equivalent while loop:

int N = 1024;
int i = 0; 

while (i < N)
  {
    printf("i = %d\n", i);
    ++i;
  }
/// __Can__ use i variable here!

4 Increment and Decrement Operators

Many C programs make use of the increment and decrement operators, ++ and --. A pretty strong and compelling case can be made for not using these operators, because they make code hard to read. Indeed, several “modern” languages5 do not support them. The ++ operator operates on SCALAR variables and fields and adds one to their value. The reason why the operator is sometimes confusing is that the result of applying it depends on whether it is used in a prefix (e.g., ++x) or postfix (e.g., x++ position).

Example: let x be an integer variable declared thus: int x = 5;. Table LINK shows the meaning of ++ and -- applied to x in both the postfix and prefix positions.

Expression Return Value Side Effect
x++ 5 x = 6
++x 6 x = 6
x-- 5 x = 4
--x 4 x = 4

4.1 Exercise I

What does the following code print?

int x = 42;
printf("%d ", x++);
printf("%d ", ++x);
printf("%d.", x)

What does the following code print?

int x = 42;
printf("%d ", ++x);
printf("%d ", x++);
printf("%d.", x)

Brain teaser (and sort-of trick question) What does the following code print?

int x = 42;
printf("%d.", x+++x);

The first and second example are quite simple. It is easy for your eyes to transpose the two printf()-lines and confuse one for the other. The final example is interesting because it stresses the parsing situation – does x+++x parse as (x++) + x or as x + (++x) – and does it matter?

4.2 Rationale

Historically, many programmers have enjoyed writing programs which use ++ (and --) when iterating over arrays. Here is a snippet that illustrates this in a very simple way.

char msg[4];
int i = 0;
msg[i++] = 'H';
msg[i++] = 'e';
msg[i++] = 'y';
msg[i++] = '\0';

Clearly, the ability to both look up an index and increment it at the same time is making the code above compact. In the code above, one could argue that adding four separate lines for incrementing i would add “a lot of noise” to the program. However, most-real world examples involve loops where we are mostly changing the index in a single line. For example:

void puts_equivalent(char *str)
{
  int i = 0;
  while (str[i]) putchar(str[i++]);
}

Before we dig in, let us write that code with a proper loop body:

void puts_equivalent(char *str)
{
  int i = 0;
  while (str[i])
    {
      putchar(str[i++]);
    }
}

One reason to dislike this code is because putchar(str[i++]); is a very busy statement – many things going on in a single line:

  1. Read the i:th character of str
  2. Increment i
  3. Print the character we read in 1.

Moving the increment to a line of its own makes the code much clearer:

void puts_equivalent(char *str)
{
  int i = 0;
  while (str[i])
    {
      putchar(str[i]);
      ++i;
    }
}

We can rewrite it thus using a for loop, which could be argued makes the code clearer by collecting the loop variable, guard and change to the loop variable in a coherent space, textually6.

void puts_equivalent(char *str)
{
  for (int i = 0; str[i]; ++i)
    {
      putchar(str[i]);
    }
}

Note that in the last two cases, the behaviour is the same if the increment is done using ++i or using i++. This is a good thing for readability and maintainability.

I strongly advocate only using ++ in the prefix position to the extent possible. Many modern programming languages have dropped ++ in favour of +=n which is clearer and more flexible.

4.3 Increments in Pointer Arithmetic

The increment operation is often used to do pointer arithmetic. For example, int *ip declares ip to be a pointer to a place in memory where an int is stored7.

Remember that ip + 1 returns a pointer to the next integer after the one that ip points to, meaning that pointer arithmetic moves pointers to values of type T in strides of sizeof(T) bytes.

Also, because of C’s preference order rules, *ip++ means read *ip, then increase ip by one, the following code prints 7, 42 and 4711.

int values[] = { 7, 42, 4711 }
int *ip = values;
printf("%d ", *ip++)
printf("%d ", *ip++)
printf("%d ", *ip++)

To increment the value pointed to by some pointer, put the dereference in parentheses: (*ip)++ means increase the value of *ip by one and does not change the value of ip.

4.4 Exercise II

Look at the following implementation of strcpy(), the string copying function, that copies a string from b to a. Do you understand how it works?

void strcpy(char *a, char *b)
{
  while (*a++ = *b++) ;
}

Because sometimes strings are not properly null-terminated, we should never use strcpy(). Instead, we should rely on strncpy() that takes an additional argument that upper-bounds the number of characters copied. Here is an implementation of that function using --.

void strncpy(char *a, char *b, int n)
{
  while (n-- > 0 && *a++ = *b++) ;
}

The documentation for strncpy() says (slightly adapted):

If the length of b is less than n, strncpy() writes additional null characters to a to ensure that a total of n bytes are written.

Update strncpy() above to adhere to that specification. Can you do it in a single construct on a single line? (Note – there is nothing better about doing it in a single line, this is just a bit of fun, and also to restrict you from inventing too complex machinery.)

4.5 Concluding Remarks

Several modern languages abolish ++ and -- because they make code hard to read. Many languages (including C) support more general += and -= operators that can be used to achieve the same effect with similar brevity.

I strongly advocate only using ++ in the prefix position to the extent possible. But even better, use += 1 and -= 1 instead. The ++ and -- are seductive, and it may be hard to stop using them once you have grown accustomed to them.

5 Avoid Global Variables

This slide set discusses this statement further, and explains how to refactor yourself free from global variables.


Questions about stuff on these pages? Use our Piazza forum.

Want to report a bug? Please place an issue here. Pull requests are graciously accepted (hint, hint).

Nerd fact: These pages are generated using org-mode in Emacs, a modified ReadTheOrg template, and a bunch of scripts.

Ended up here randomly? These are the pages for a one-semester course at 67% speed on imperative and object-oriented programming at the department of Information Technology at Uppsala University, ran by Tobias Wrigstad.

Footnotes:

1
There are rare cases where this is not true, but that’s out of scope of this course.
2
Aside: The #pragma is not part of the C standard! Nevertheless, it is supported by GCC and Clang, which are the two C compilers we will use in this course. Later on we will cover the canonical way, which involves digging into the C preprocessor a little deeper.
3
The nature of this confusion is often confusing to programmers. Rather than rejecting calls to functions that hasn’t been seen yet, the C compiler will assume that the function will eventually be defined, and that all its types are integers!
4
Of course, change the filenames!
5
For example Go and Python.
6
Of course, this argument is much stronger for loops with longer and/or more complicated bodies.
7
For simplicity, we don’t show the initialisation of ip – just assume ip points to something sensible.

Author: Tobias Wrigstad

Created: 2018-09-18 tis 09:11

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