C Programming Overview

Steve Holmes
University of Strathclyde Computer Centre
Glasgow, Scotland U.K.

Please note: Steve no longer works for the University of Strathclyde, also bear in mind that this was written for students within the University and so some parts (e.g. Unix) may not be relevant to external readers.

About C

As a programming language, C is rather like Pascal or Fortran. Values are stored in variables. Programs are structured by defining and calling functions. Program flow is controlled using loops, if statements and function calls. Input and output can be directed to the terminal or to files. Related data can be stored together in arrays or structures.

Of the three languages, C allows the most precise control of input and output. C is also rather more terse than Fortran or Pascal. This can result in short efficient programs, where the programmer has made wise use of C's range of powerful operators. It also allows the programmer to produce programs which are impossible to understand.

Programmers who are familiar with the use of pointers (or indirect addressing, to use the correct term) will welcome the ease of use compared with some other languages. Undisciplined use of pointers can lead to errors which are very hard to trace. This course only deals with the simplest applications of pointers.

It is hoped that newcomers will find C a useful and friendly language. Care must be taken in using C. Many of the extra facilities which it offers can lead to extra types of programming error. You will have to learn to deal with these to successfully make the transition to being a C programmer.

C and UNIX

This course teaches C under the UNIX operating system. C programs will look similar under any other system (such as VMS or DOS), some other features will differ from system to system. In particular the method of compiling a program to produce a file of runnable code will be different on each system.

The UNIX system is itself written in C. In fact C was invented specifically to implement UNIX. All of the UNIX commands which you type, plus the other system facilities such as password checking, lineprinter queues or magnetic tape controllers are written in C.

In the course of the development of UNIX, hundreds of functions were written to give access to various facets of the system. These functions are available to the programmer in libraries. By writing in C and using the UNIX system libraries, very powerful system programs can be created. These libraries are less easy to access using other programming languages. C is therefore the natural language for writing UNIX system programs.

This Course

The course aims to introduce programmers to the C language. Previous programming experience is assumed, so we can quickly progress to looking at the features of C and their uses. Students with little programming experience will need to do some homework in order to keep up with the lectures.

Teaching will emphasise the use of supervised practical sessions, giving the student hands on programming experience. The student will collect a number of working practical programs which will be useful reference material for the future.

The notes will include examples and explanation as far as possible. We will try to avoid involved discussion of the syntax of the language. This subject is exhaustively covered in a range of books which are available from bookshops or the University Library.

We aim to introduce C in a structured manner, beginning with the simpler aspects of the language, and working up to more complex issues. Simple aspects will be dealt with rather quickly in order to leave more time for the more powerful features.

Common C

Until recently there was one dominant form of the C language. This was the native UNIX form, which for historical reasons is known as either Bell Labs C, after the most popular compiler, or K(ernighan)&R(itchie) C, after the authors of the most popular textbook on the language. It is now often called "Classic C."


The American National Standards Institute defined a standard for C, eliminating much uncertainty about the exact syntax of the language. This newcomer, called ANSI C, proclaims itself the standard version of the language. As such it will inevitably overtake, and eventually replace common C.

ANSI C does incorporate a few improvements over the old common C. The main difference is in the grammar of the language. The form of function declarations has been changed making them rather more like Pascal procedures.

This course introduces ANSI C since it is supported by the SUN workstation compilers. Most C programming texts are now available in ANSI editions.


A Very Simple Program

This program which will print out the message This is a C program

#include <stdio.h>

        printf("This is a C program\n");

Though the program is very simple, a few points are worthy of note.

Every C program contains a function called main. This is the start point of the program.

#include <stdio.h> allows the program to interact with the screen, keyboard and filesystem of your computer. You will find it at the beginning of almost every C program.

main() declares the start of the function, while the two curly brackets show the start and finish of the function. Curly brackets in C are used to group statements together as in a function, or in the body of a loop. Such a grouping is known as a compound statement or a block.

printf("This is a C program\n");

prints the words on the screen. The text to be printed is enclosed in double quotes. The \n at the end of the text tells the program to print a newline as part of the output.

Most C programs are in lower case letters. You will usually find upper case letters used in preprocessor definitions (which will be discussed later) or inside quotes as parts of character strings. C is case sensitive, that is, it recognises a lower case letter and it's upper case equivalent as being different.

While useful for teaching, such a simple program has few practical uses. Let us consider something rather more practical. The following program will print a conversion table for weight in pounds (U.S.A. Measurement) to pounds and stones (Imperial Measurement) or Kilograms (International).

A Weight Conversion Program

#include <stdio.h>
#define KILOS_PER_POUND .45359
{       int pounds;

        printf(" US lbs      UK st. lbs       INT Kg\n");

        for(pounds=10; pounds < 250; pounds+=10)
        {       int stones = pounds / 14;
                int uklbs = pounds % 14;
                float kilos = pounds * KILOS_PER_POUND;
                printf("   %d           %d   %d        %f\n",
                                   pounds, stones, uklbs, kilos);

Again notice that the only function is called main.

int pounds;   Creates a variable of integer type called pounds.

float kilos;   Creates a floating point variable (real number) called kilos.

#define KILOS_PER_POUND .45359

defines a constant called KILOS_PER_POUND. This definition will be true throughout the program. It is customary to use capital letters for the names of constants, since they are implemented by the C preprocessor.

for(pounds=10; pounds < 250; pounds+=10)

This is the start of the loop. All statements enclosed in the following curly brackets will be repeated. The loop definition contains three parts separated by semi-colons.

The effect of pounds += 10 is to add 10 to the value of the variable pounds. This is a shorthand way of writing pounds = pounds + 10.

The printf statement now contains the symbols %d and %f. These are instructions to print out a decimal (integer) or floating (real) value. The values to be printed are listed after the closing quote of the printf statement. Note also that the printf statement has been split over 2 lines so it can fit onto our page. The computer can recognise this because all C statements end with a semicolon.

Weight Conversion Table Using a Function

The previous program could be better structured by defining a function to convert the weights and print out their values. It will then look like this.

#include <stdio.h>

void print_converted(int pounds)
/* Convert U.S. Weight to Imperial and International Units. Print the results */
{       int stones = pounds / 14;
        int uklbs = pounds % 14;
        float kilos_per_pound = 0.45359;
        float kilos = pounds * kilos_per_pound;

        printf("   %3d          %2d  %2d        %6.2f\n",
                pounds, stones, uklbs, kilos);

{       int us_pounds;

        printf(" US lbs      UK st. lbs       INT Kg\n");

        for(us_pounds=10; us_pounds < 250; us_pounds+=10)

void print_converted(int pounds) is the beginning of the function definition. The line within the loop reading print_converted(us_pounds) is a call to that function. When execution of the main function reaches that call, print_converted is executed, after which control returns to main.

The text enclosed by symbols /* and */ is a comment. These are C's way of separating plain text comments from the body of the program. It is usually good practice to have a short comment to explain the purpose of each function.

Defining a function has made this program larger, but what have we gained? The structure has been improved. This may make little difference to the readability of such a small program. In a larger program, such structuring makes the program shorter, easier to read, and simplifies future maintenance of the program. Another benefit of defining a function, is that the function can easily be re-used as part of another program.

Fibonacci Series Using an Array

We have now used a variety the features of C. This final example will introduce the array. The program prints out a table of Fibonacci numbers. These are defined by a series in which any element is the sum of the previous two elements. This program stores the series in an array, and after calculating it, prints the numbers out as a table.

#include <stdio.h>

{       int fib[24];
        int i;

        fib[0] = 0;
        fib[1] = 1;

        for(i = 2; i < 24; i++)
                fib[i] = fib[i-1] + fib[i-2];

        for (i = 0; i < 24; i++)
                printf("%3d   %6d\n", i, fib[i]);

One new construct has been introduced here.

int fib[24];

This defines an array called fib of 24 integers. In C, the array index is bounded by square brackets (this avoids confusion with a function call). Also, the first element of the array has index zero, and for this 24 element array, the last element is index 23.

Following this brief scan through the language, we shall introduce the components of C in rather more detail.


Constant and Variable Types


In C, a variable must be declared before it can be used. Variables can be declared at the start of any block of code, but most are found at the start of each function. Most local variables are created when the function is called, and are destroyed on return from that function.

A declaration begins with the type, followed by the name of one or more variables. For example,

int high, low, results[20];
Declarations can be spread out, allowing space for an explanatory comment. Variables can also be initialised when they are declared, this is done by adding an equals sign and the required value after the declaration.
int high = 250;     /* Maximum Temperature */
int low = -40;      /* Minimum Temperature */
int results[20];    /* Series of temperature readings */
C provides a wide range of types. The most common are

There are also several variants on these types.

All of the integer types plus the char are called the integral types. float and double are called the real types.

Variable Names

Every variable has a name and a value. The name identifies the variable, the value stores data. There is a limitation on what these names can be. Every variable name in C must start with a letter, the rest of the name can consist of letters, numbers and underscore characters. C recognises upper and lower case characters as being different. Finally, you cannot use any of C's keywords like main, while, switch etc as variable names.

Examples of legal variable names include

x          result          outfile          bestyet
x1         x2              out_file         best_yet
power      impetus         gamma            hi_score
It is conventional to avoid the use of capital letters in variable names. These are used for names of constants. Some old implementations of C only use the first 8 characters of a variable name. Most modern ones don't apply this limit though.

The rules governing variable names also apply to the names of functions. We shall meet functions later on in the course.

Global Variables

Local variables are declared within the body of a function, and can only be used within that function. This is usually no problem, since when another function is called, all required data is passed to it as arguments. Alternatively, a variable can be declared globally so it is available to all functions. Modern programming practice recommends against the excessive use of global variables. They can lead to poor program structure, and tend to clog up the available name space.

A global variable declaration looks normal, but is located outside any of the program's functions. This is usually done at the beginning of the program file, but after preprocessor directives. The variable is not declared again in the body of the functions which access it.



An array is a collection of variables of the same type. Individual array elements are identified by an integer index. In C the index begins at zero and is always written inside square brackets.

We have already met single dimensioned arrays which are declared like this

int results[20];
Arrays can have more dimensions, in which case they might be declared as
int results_2d[20][5];
int results_3d[20][5][3];
Each index has its own set of square brackets.

Where an array is declared in the main function it will usually have details of dimensions included. It is possible to use another type called a pointer in place of an array. This means that dimensions are not fixed immediately, but space can be allocated as required. This is an advanced technique which is only required in certain specialised programs.

When passed as an argument to a function, the receiving function need not know the size of the array. So for example if we have a function which sorts a list (represented by an array) then the function will be able to sort lists of different sizes. The drawback is that the function is unable to determine what size the list is, so this information will have to be passed as an additional argument.

As an example, here is a simple function to add up all of the integers in a single dimensioned array.

int add_array(int array[], int size)
{       int i;
        int total = 0;

        for(i = 0; i < size; i++)
                total += array[i];


Expressions and Operators

One reason for the power of C is its wide range of useful operators. An operator is a function which is applied to values to give a result. You should be familiar with operators such as +, -, /.

Arithmetic operators are the most common. Other operators are used for comparison of values, combination of logical states, and manipulation of individual binary digits. The binary operators are rather low level for so are not covered here.

Operators and values are combined to form expressions. The values produced by these expressions can be stored in variables, or used as a part of even larger expressions.

Assignment Statement

The easiest example of an expression is in the assignment statement. An expression is evaluated, and the result is saved in a variable. A simple example might look like

y = (m * x) + c
This assignment will save the value of the expression in variable y.

Arithmetic operators

Here are the most common arithmetic operators

*, / and % will be performed before + or - in any expression. Brackets can be used to force a different order of evaluation to this. Where division is performed between two integers, the result will be an integer, with remainder discarded. Modulo reduction is only meaningful between integers. If a program is ever required to divide a number by zero, this will cause an error, usually causing the program to crash.

Here are some arithmetic expressions used within assignment statements.

velocity = distance / time;

force = mass * acceleration;

count = count + 1;
C has some operators which allow abbreviation of certain types of arithmetic assignment statements.

These operations are usually very efficient. They can be combined with another expression.

Versions where the operator occurs before the variable name change the value of the variable before evaluating the expression, so

These can cause confusion if you try to do too many things on one command line. You are recommended to restrict your use of ++ and - to ensure that your programs stay readable.

Another shorthand notation is listed below

These are simple to read and use.

Type conversion

You can mix the types of values in your arithmetic expressions. char types will be treated as int. Otherwise where types of different size are involved, the result will usually be of the larger size, so a float and a double would produce a double result. Where integer and real types meet, the result will be a double.

There is usually no trouble in assigning a value to a variable of different type. The value will be preserved as expected except where:

Values passed as function arguments must be of the correct type. The function has no way of determining the type passed to it, so automatic conversion cannot take place. This can lead to corrupt results. The solution is to use a method called casting which temporarily disguises a value as a different type.

e.g. The function sqrt finds the square root of a double.

int i = 256;
int root;

root = sqrt( (double) i);
The cast is made by putting the bracketed name of the required type just before the value. (double) in this example. The result of sqrt( (double) i) is also a double, but this is automatically converted to an int on assignment to root.


C has no special type to represent logical or boolean values. It improvises by using any of the integral types char, int, short, long, unsigned, with a value of 0 representing false and any other value representing true. It is rare for logical values to be stored in variables. They are usually generated as required by comparing two numeric values. This is where the comparison operators are used, they compare two numeric values and produce a logical result.

Note that == is used in comparisons and = is used in assignments. Comparison operators are used in expressions like the ones below.

x == y

i > 10

a + b != c
In the last example, all arithmetic is done before any comparison is made.

These comparisons are most frequently used to control an if statement or a for or a while loop. These will be introduced in a later chapter.

Logical Connectors

These are the usual And, Or and Not operators.

They are frequently used to combine relational operators, for example

x < 20 && x >= 10
In C these logical connectives employ a technique known as lazy evaluation. They evaluate their left hand operand, and then only evaluate the right hand one if this is required. Clearly false && anything is always false, true || anything is always true. In such cases the second test is not evaluated.

Not operates on a single logical value, its effect is to reverse its state. Here is an example of its use.

if ( ! acceptable )
        printf("Not Acceptable !!\n");


Three types of expression have been introduced here:

C also provides bit manipulation operators. These are too specialised for the scope of this course.


Control Statements

A program consists of a number of statements which are usually executed in sequence. Programs can be much more powerful if we can control the order in which statements are run.

Statements fall into three general types:

This section will discuss the use of control statements in C. We will show how they can be used to write powerful programs by;

The if else Statement

This is used to decide whether to do something at a special point, or to decide between two courses of action.

The following test decides whether a student has passed an exam with a pass mark of 45

if (result >= 45)
It is possible to use the if part without the else.
if (temperature < 0)
Each version consists of a test, (this is the bracketed statement following the if). If the test is true then the next statement is obeyed. If is is false then the statement following the else is obeyed if present. After this, the rest of the program continues as normal.

If we wish to have more than one statement following the if or the else, they should be grouped together between curly brackets. Such a grouping is called a compound statement or a block.

if (result >= 45)
{       printf("Passed\n");
{       printf("Failed\n");
        printf("Good luck in the resits\n");
Sometimes we wish to make a multi-way decision based on several conditions. The most general way of doing this is by using the else if variant on the if statement. This works by cascading several comparisons. As soon as one of these gives a true result, the following statement or block is executed, and no further comparisons are performed. In the following example we are awarding grades depending on the exam result.
if (result >= 75)
        printf("Passed: Grade A\n");
else if (result >= 60)
        printf("Passed: Grade B\n");
else if (result >= 45)
        printf("Passed: Grade C\n");
In this example, all comparisons test a single variable called result. In other cases, each test may involve a different variable or some combination of tests. The same pattern can be used with more or fewer else if's, and the final lone else may be left out. It is up to the programmer to devise the correct structure for each programming problem.

The switch Statement

This is another form of the multi way decision. It is well structured, but can only be used in certain cases where;

Hopefully an example will clarify things. This is a function which converts an integer into a vague description. It is useful where we are only concerned in measuring a quantity when it is quite small.
int number;
/* Estimate a number as none, one, two, several, many */
{       switch(number) {
        case 0 :
        case 1 :
        case 2 :
        case 3 :
        case 4 :
        case 5 :
        default :
Each interesting case is listed with a corresponding action. The break statement prevents any further statements from being executed by leaving the switch. Since case 3 and case 4 have no following break, they continue on allowing the same action for several values of number.

Both if and switch constructs allow the programmer to make a selection from a number of possible actions.

The other main type of control statement is the loop. Loops allow a statement, or block of statements, to be repeated. Computers are very good at repeating simple tasks many times, the loop is C's way of achieving this.


C gives you a choice of three types of loop, while, do while and for.

The while Loop

The while loop repeats a statement until the test at the top proves false.

As an example, here is a function to return the length of a string. Remember that the string is represented as an array of characters terminated by a null character '\0'.

int string_length(char string[])
{       int i = 0;

        while (string[i] != '\0')

The string is passed to the function as an argument. The size of the array is not specified, the function will work for a string of any size.

The while loop is used to look at the characters in the string one at a time until the null character is found. Then the loop is exited and the index of the null is returned. While the character isn't null, the index is incremented and the test is repeated.

The do while Loop

This is very similar to the while loop except that the test occurs at the end of the loop body. This guarantees that the loop is executed at least once before continuing. Such a setup is frequently used where data is to be read. The test then verifies the data, and loops back to read again if it was unacceptable.

{       printf("Enter 1 for yes, 0 for no :");
        scanf("%d", &input_value);
} while (input_value != 1 && input_value != 0)

The for Loop

The for loop works well where the number of iterations of the loop is known before the loop is entered. The head of the loop consists of three parts separated by semicolons.

The example is a function which calculates the average of the numbers stored in an array. The function takes the array and the number of elements as arguments.
float average(float array[], int count)
{       float total = 0.0;
        int i;

        for(i = 0; i < count; i++)
                total += array[i];

        return(total / count);
The for loop ensures that the correct number of array elements are added up before calculating the average.

The three statements at the head of a for loop usually do just one thing each, however any of them can be left blank. A blank first or last statement will mean no initialisation or running increment. A blank comparison statement will always be treated as true. This will cause the loop to run indefinitely unless interrupted by some other means. This might be a return or a break statement.

It is also possible to squeeze several statements into the first or third position, separating them with commas. This allows a loop with more than one controlling variable. The example below illustrates the definition of such a loop, with variables hi and lo starting at 100 and 0 respectively and converging.

for (hi = 100, lo = 0; hi >= lo; hi--, lo++)
The for loop is extremely flexible and allows many types of program behaviour to be specified simply and quickly.

The break Statement

We have already met break in the discussion of the switch statement. It is used to exit from a loop or a switch, control passing to the first statement beyond the loop or a switch.

With loops, break can be used to force an early exit from the loop, or to implement a loop with a test to exit in the middle of the loop body. A break within a loop should always be protected within an if statement which provides the test to control the exit condition.

The continue Statement

This is similar to break but is encountered less frequently. It only works within loops where its effect is to force an immediate jump to the loop control statement.

Like a break, continue should be protected by an if statement. You are unlikely to use it very often.

Functions in C

Almost all programming languages have some equivalent of the function. You may have met them under the alternative names subroutine or procedure.

Some languages distinguish between functions which return variables and those which don't. C assumes that every function will return a value. If the programmer wants a return value, this is achieved using the return statement. If no return value is required, none should be used when calling the function.

Here is a function which raises a double to the power of an unsigned, and returns the result.

double power(double val, unsigned pow)
{       double ret_val = 1.0;
        unsigned i;

        for(i = 0; i < pow; i++)
                ret_val *= val;

The function follows a simple algorithm, multiplying the value by itself pow times. A for loop is used to control the number of multiplications, and variable ret_val stores the value to be returned. Careful programming has ensured that the boundary condition is correct too.

Let us examine the details of this function.

double power(double val, unsigned pow)

This line begins the function definition. It tells us the type of the return value, the name of the function, and a list of arguments used by the function. The arguments and their types are enclosed in brackets, each pair separated by commas.

The body of the function is bounded by a set of curly brackets. Any variables declared here will be treated as local unless specifically declared as static or extern types.


On reaching a return statement, control of the program returns to the calling function. The bracketed value is the value which is returned from the function. If the final closing curly bracket is reached before any return value, then the function will return automatically, any return value will then be meaningless.

The example function can be called by a line in another function which looks like this

result = power(val, pow);
This calls the function power assigning the return value to variable result.

Here is an example of a function which does not return a value.

void error_line(int line)
{      fprintf(stderr, "Error in input data: line %d\n", line);
The definition uses type void which is optional. It shows that no return value is used. Otherwise the function is much the same as the previous example, except that there is no return statement. Some void type functions might use return, but only to force an early exit from the function, and not to return any value. This is rather like using break to jump out of a loop.

This function also demonstrates a new feature.

fprintf(stderr, "Error in input data: line %d\n", line);

This is a variant on the printf statement, fprintf sends its output into a file. In this case, the file is stderr. stderr is a special UNIX file which serves as the channel for error messages. It is usually connected to the console of the computer system, so this is a good way to display error messages from your programs. Messages sent to stderr will appear on screen even if the normal output of the program has been redirected to a file or a printer.

The function would be called as follows


Scope of Function Variables

Only a limited amount of information is available within each function. Variables declared within the calling function can't be accessed unless they are passed to the called function as arguments. The only other contact a function might have with the outside world is through global variables.

Local variables are declared within a function. They are created anew each time the function is called, and destroyed on return from the function. Values passed to the function as arguments can also be treated like local variables.

Static variables are slightly different, they don't die on return from the function. Instead their last value is retained, and it becomes available when the function is called again.

Global variables don't die on return from a function. Their value is retained, and is available to any other function which accesses them.

Modifying Function Arguments

Some functions work by modifying the values of their arguments. This may be done to pass more than one value back to the calling routine, or because the return value is already being used in some way. C requires special arrangements for arguments whose values will be changed.

You can treat the arguments of a function as variables, however direct manipulation of these arguments won't change the values of the arguments in the calling function. The value passed to the function is a copy of the calling value. This value is stored like a local variable, it disappears on return from the function.

There is a way to change the values of variables declared outside the function. It is done by passing the addresses of variables to the function. These addresses, or pointers, behave a bit like integer types, except that only a limited number of arithmetic operators can be applied to them. They are declared differently to normal types, and we are rarely interested in the value of a pointer. It is what lies at the address which the pointer references which interests us.

To get back to our original function, we pass it the address of a variable whose value we wish to change. The function must now be written to use the value at that address (or at the end of the pointer). On return from the function, the desired value will have changed. We manipulate the actual value using a copy of the pointer.

Pointers in C

Pointers are not exclusive to functions, but this seems a good place to introduce the pointer type.

Imagine that we have an int called i. Its address could be represented by the symbol &i. If the pointer is to be stored as a variable, it should be stored like this.

int *pi = &i;
int * is the notation for a pointer to an int. & is the operator which returns the address of its argument. When it is used, as in &i we say it is referencing i.

The opposite operator, which gives the value at the end of the pointer is *. An example of use, known as de-referencing pi, would be

i = *pi;

Take care not to confuse the many uses of the * sign; Multiplication, pointer declaration and pointer de-referencing.

This is a very confusing subject, so let us illustrate it with an example. The following function fiddle takes two arguments, x is an int while y is a pointer to int. It changes both values.

fiddle(int x, int *y)
{   printf(" Starting fiddle: x = %d, y = %d\n", x, *y);
    x ++;
    printf("Finishing fiddle: x = %d, y = %d\n", x, *y);

since y is a pointer, we must de-reference it before incrementing its value.

A very simple program to call this function might be as follows.

{   int i = 0;
    int j = 0;

    printf(" Starting main  : i = %d, j = %d\n", i, j);
    printf("Calling fiddle now\n");.
    fiddle(i, &j);
    printf("Returned from fiddle\n");
    printf("Finishing main  : i = %d, j = %d\n", i, j);
Note here how a pointer to int is created using the & operator within the call fiddle(i, &j);.

The result of running the program will look like this.

 Starting main  : i =   0 ,j =   0
Calling fiddle now
 Starting fiddle: x =   0, y =   0
Finishing fiddle: x =   1, y =   1
Returned from fiddle
Finishing main  : i =   0, j =   1

After the return from fiddle the value of i is unchanged while j, which was passed as a pointer, has changed.

To summarise, if you wish to use arguments to modify the value of variables from a function, these arguments must be passed as pointers, and de-referenced within the function.

Where the value of an argument isn't modified, the value can be passed without any worries about pointers.

Arrays and Pointers

To fully understand the workings of C you must know that pointers and arrays are related.

An array is actually a pointer to the 0th element of the array. Dereferencing the array name will give the 0th element. This gives us a range of equivalent notations for array access. In the following examples, arr is an array.

There are some differences between arrays and pointers. The array is treated as a constant in the function where it is declared. This means that we can modify the values in the array, but not the array itself, so statements like arr ++ are illegal, but arr[n] ++ is legal.

Since an array is like a pointer, we can pass an array to a function, and modify elements of that array without having to worry about referencing and de-referencing. Since the array is implemented as a hidden pointer, all the difficult stuff gets done automatically.

A function which expects to be passed an array can declare that parameter in one of two ways.

Either of these definitions is independent of the size of the array being passed. This is met most frequently in the case of character strings, which are implemented as an array of type char. This could be declared as char string[]; but is most frequently written as char *string; In the same way, the argument vector argv is an array of strings which can be supplied to function main. It can be declared as one of the following.

Don't panic if you find pointers confusing. While you will inevitably meet pointers in the form of strings, or as variable arguments for functions, they need not be used in most other simple types of programs.

Input and Output

Input and output are covered in some detail. C allows quite precise control of these. This section discusses input and output from keyboard and screen.

The same mechanisms can be used to read or write data from and to files. It is also possible to treat character strings in a similar way, constructing or analysing them and storing results in variables. These variants of the basic input and output commands are discussed in the next section

The Standard Input Output File

UNIX supplies a standard package for performing input and output to files or the terminal. This contains most of the functions which will be introduced in this section, along with definitions of the datatypes required to use them. To use these facilities, your program must include these definitions by adding the line This is done by adding the line

  #include <stdio.h>
near the start of the program file.

If you do not do this, the compiler may complain about undefined functions or datatypes.

Character Input / Output

This is the lowest level of input and output. It provides very precise control, but is usually too fiddly to be useful. Most computers perform buffering of input and output. This means that they'll not start reading any input until the return key is pressed, and they'll not print characters on the terminal until there is a whole line to be printed.


getchar returns the next character of keyboard input as an int. If there is an error then EOF (end of file) is returned instead. It is therefore usual to compare this value against EOF before using it. If the return value is stored in a char, it will never be equal to EOF, so error conditions will not be handled correctly.

As an example, here is a program to count the number of characters read until an EOF is encountered. EOF can be generated by typing CTRL-D.

  #include <stdio.h>

  {   int ch, i = 0;

      while((ch = getchar()) != EOF)
          i ++;

      printf("%d\n", i);


putchar puts its character argument on the standard output (usually the screen).

The following example program converts any typed input into capital letters. To do this it applies the function toupper from the character conversion library ctype.h to each character in turn.

  #include <ctype.h>  /* For definition of toupper */
  #include <stdio.h>  /* For definition of getchar, putchar, EOF */

  {   int ch;

      while((ch = getchar()) != EOF)

Formatted Input / Output

We have met these functions earlier in the course. They are closest to the facilities offered by Pascal or Fortran, and usually the easiest to use for input and output. The versions offered under C are a little more detailed, offering precise control of layout.


This offers more structured output than putchar. Its arguments are, in order; a control string, which controls what gets printed, followed by a list of values to be substituted for entries in the control string.

There are several more types available. For full details type

  man printf
on your UNIX system.

It is also possible to insert numbers into the control string to control field widths for values to be displayed. For example %6d would print a decimal value in a field 6 spaces wide, %8.2f would print a real value in a field 8 spaces wide with room to show 2 decimal places. Display is left justified by default, but can be right justified by putting a - before the format information, for example %-6d, a decimal integer right justified in a 6 space field.


scanf allows formatted reading of data from the keyboard. Like printf it has a control string, followed by the list of items to be read. However scanf wants to know the address of the items to be read, since it is a function which will change that value. Therefore the names of variables are preceded by the & sign. Character strings are an exception to this. Since a string is already a character pointer, we give the names of string variables unmodified by a leading &.

Control string entries which match values to be read are preceded by the percentage sign in a similar way to their printf equivalents.

Type man scanf for details of all options on your system.

Whole Lines of Input and Output

Where we are not too interested in the format of our data, or perhaps we cannot predict its format in advance, we can read and write whole lines as character strings. This approach allows us to read in a line of input, and then use various string handling functions to analyse it at our leisure.


gets reads a whole line of input into a string until a newline or EOF is encountered. It is critical to ensure that the string is large enough to hold any expected input lines.

When all input is finished, NULL as defined in stdio.h is returned.


puts writes a string to the output, and follows it with a newline character.

Example: Program which uses gets and puts to double space typed input.

#include <stdio.h>

{       char line[256]; /* Define string sufficiently large to
                            store a line of input */

        while(gets(line) != NULL)   /* Read line        */
        {        puts(line);        /* Print line       */
                 printf("\n");      /* Print blank line */

Note that putchar, printf and puts can be freely used together. So can getchar, scanf and gets.

C File Handling

File Pointers

C communicates with files using a new datatype called a file pointer. This type is defined within stdio.h, and written as FILE *. A file pointer called output_file is declared in a statement like

  FILE *output_file;

Opening a file pointer using fopen

Your program must open a file before it can access it. This is done using the fopen function, which returns the required file pointer. If the file cannot be opened for any reason then the value NULL will be returned. You will usually use fopen as follows

  if ((output_file = fopen("output_file", "w")) == NULL)
           fprintf(stderr, "Cannot open %s\n", "output_file");
fopen takes two arguments, both are strings, the first is the name of the file to be opened, the second is an access character, which is usually one of:

As usual, use the man command for further details by typing man fopen.

Closing a file using fclose

The fclose command can be used to disconnect a file pointer from a file. This is usually done so that the pointer can be used to access a different file. Systems have a limit on the number of files which can be open simultaneously, so it is a good idea to close a file when you have finished using it.

This would be done using a statement like


If files are still open when a program exits, the system will close them for you. However it is usually better to close the files properly.

Formatted Input Output with File Pointers

Similarly there are equivalents to the functions printf and scanf which read or write data to files. These are called fprintf and fscanf. You have already seen fprintf being used to write data to stderr.

The functions are used in the same way, except that the fprintf and fscanf take the file pointer as an additional first argument.

Formatted Input Output with Strings

These are the third set of the printf and scanf families. They are called sprintf and sscanf.

puts formatted data into a string which must have sufficient space allocated to hold it. This can be done by declaring it as an array of char. The data is formatted according to a control string of the same form as that for printf.
takes data from a string and stores it in other variables as specified by the control string. This is done in the same way that scanf reads input data into variables. sscanf is very useful for converting strings into numeric v values.

Whole Line Input and Output using File Pointers

Predictably, equivalents to gets and puts exist called fgets and fputs. The programmer should be careful in using them, since they are incompatible with gets and puts. gets requires the programmer to specify the maximum number of characters to be read. fgets and fputs retain the trailing newline character on the line they read or write, wheras gets and puts discard the newline.

When transferring data from files to standard input / output channels, the simplest way to avoid incompatibility with the newline is to use fgets and fputs for files and standard channels too.

For Example, read a line from the keyboard using

  fgets(data_string, 80, stdin);
and write a line to the screen using
  fputs(data_string, stdout);

Special Characters

C makes use of some 'invisible' characters which have already been mentioned. However a fuller description seems appropriate here.

NULL, The Null Pointer or Character

NULL is a character or pointer value. If a pointer, then the pointer variable does not reference any object (i.e. a pointer to nothing). It is usual for functions which return pointers to return NULL if they failed in some way. The return value can be tested. See the section on fopen for an example of this.

NULL is returned by read commands of the gets family when they try to read beyond the end of an input file.

Where it is used as a character, NULL is commonly written as '\0'. It is the string termination character which is automatically appended to any strings in your C program. You usually need not bother about this final \0', since it is handled automatically. However it sometimes makes a useful target to terminate a string search. There is an example of this in the string_length function example in the section on Functions in C.

EOF, The End of File Marker

EOF is a character which indicates the end of a file. It is returned by read commands of the getc and scanf families when they try to read beyond the end of a file.


The variety of different types of input and output, using standard input or output, files or character strings make C a very powerful language. The addition of character input and output make it highly suitable for applications where the format of data must be controlled very precisely.

Structures in C

A structure is a collection of variables under a single name. These variables can be of different types, and each has a name which is used to select it from the structure. A structure is a convenient way of grouping several pieces of related information together.

A structure can be defined as a new named type, thus extending the number of available types. It can use other structures, arrays or pointers as some of its members, though this can get complicated unless you are careful.

Defining a Structure

A structure type is usually defined near to the start of a file using a typedef statement. typedef defines and names a new type, allowing its use throughout the program. typedefs usually occur just after the #define and #include statements in a file.

Here is an example structure definition.

  typedef struct {
          char name[64];
          char course[128];
          int age;
          int year;
  } student;

This defines a new type student variables of type student can be declared as follows.

  student st_rec;
Notice how similar this is to declaring an int or float.

The variable name is st_rec, it has members called name, course, age and year.

Accessing Members of a Structure

Each member of a structure can be used just like a normal variable, but its name will be a bit longer. To return to the examples above, member name of structure st_rec will behave just like a normal array of char, however we refer to it by the name

Here the dot is an operator which selects a member from a structure.

Where we have a pointer to a structure we could dereference the pointer and then use dot as a member selector. This method is a little clumsy to type. Since selecting a member from a structure pointer happens frequently, it has its own operator -> which acts as follows. Assume that st_ptr is a pointer to a structure of type student We would refer to the name member as

  st_ptr -> name

Structures as Function Arguments

A structure can be passed as a function argument just like any other variable. This raises a few practical issues.

Where we wish to modify the value of members of the structure, we must pass a pointer to that structure. This is just like passing a pointer to an int type argument whose value we wish to change.

If we are only interested in one member of a structure, it is probably simpler to just pass that member. This will make for a simpler function, which is easier to re-use. Of course if we wish to change the value of that member, we should pass a pointer to it.

When a structure is passed as an argument, each member of the structure is copied. This can prove expensive where structures are large or functions are called frequently. Passing and working with pointers to large structures may be more efficient in such cases.

Further Uses of Structures

As we have seen, a structure is a good way of storing related data together. It is also a good way of representing certain types of information. Complex numbers in mathematics inhabit a two dimensional plane (stretching in real and imaginary directions). These could easily be represented here by

  typedef struct {
          double real;
          double imag;
  } complex;

doubles have been used for each field because their range is greater than floats and because the majority of mathematical library functions deal with doubles by default.

In a similar way, structures could be used to hold the locations of points in multi-dimensional space. Mathematicians and engineers might see a storage efficient implementation for sparse arrays here.

Apart from holding data, structures can be used as members of other structures. Arrays of structures are possible, and are a good way of storing lists of data with regular fields, such as databases.

Another possibility is a structure whose fields include pointers to its own type. These can be used to build chains (programmers call these linked lists), trees or other connected structures. These are rather daunting to the new programmer, so we won't deal with them here.

The C Preprocessor

The C preprocessor is a tool which filters your source code before it is compiled. The preprocessor allows constants to be named using the #define notation. The preprocessor provides several other facilities which will be described here. It is particularly useful for selecting machine dependent pieces of code for different computer types, allowing a single program to be compiled and run on several different computers.

The C preprocessor isn't restricted to use with C programs, and programmers who use other languages may also find it useful, however it is tuned to recognise features of the C language like comments and strings, so its use may be restricted in other circumstances.

The preprocessor is called cpp, however it is called automatically by the compiler so you will not need to call it while programming in C.

Using #define to Implement Constants

We have already met this facility, in its simplest form it allows us to define textual substitutions as follows.

  #define MAXSIZE 256
This will lead to the value 256 being substituted for each occurrence of the word MAXSIZE in the file.

Using #define to Create Functional Macros

#define can also be given arguments which are used in its replacement. The definitions are then called macros. Macros work rather like functions, but with the following minor differences.

Macros are full of traps for the unwary programmer. In particular the textual substitution means that arithmetic expressions are liable to be corrupted by the order of evaluation rules.

Here is an example of a macro which won't work.

  #define DOUBLE(x) x+x
Now if we have a statement
  a = DOUBLE(b) * c;
This will be expanded to
  a = b+b * c;
And since * has a higher priority than +, the compiler will treat it as.
  a = b + (b * c);
The problem can be solved using a more robust definition of DOUBLE
  #define DOUBLE(x) (x+x)
Here the brackets around the definition force the expression to be evaluated before any surrounding operators are applied. This should make the macro more reliable.

In general it is better to write a C function than risk using a macro.

Reading in Other Files using #include

The preprocessor directive #include is an instruction to read in the entire contents of another file at that point. This is generally used to read in header files for library functions. Header files contain details of functions and types used within the library. They must be included before the program can make use of the library functions.

Library header file names are enclosed in angle brackets, < >. These tell the preprocessor to look for the header file in the standard location for library definitions. This is /usr/include for most UNIX systems.

For example

  #include <stdio.h>
Another use for #include for the programmer is where multi-file programs are being written. Certain information is required at the beginning of each program file. This can be put into a file called globals.h and included in each program file. Local header file names are usually enclosed by double quotes, " ". It is conventional to give header files a name which ends in .h to distinguish them from other types of file.

Our globals.h file would be included by the following line.

  #include "globals.h"

Precedence of C operators

The following table shows the precedence of operators in C. Where a statement involves the use of several operators, those with the lowest number in the table will be applied first.

Some of these operators have not been described in this course, consult a textbook if you want details about them.

C Language Keywords

The following names are reserved by the C language. Their meaning is already defined, and they cannot be re-defined to mean anything else.

Other than these names, you can choose any names of reasonable length for variables, functions etc. The names must begin with a letter or underscore (letters are better), and then can contain letters, numbers and underscores.

Originally by Steve Holmes (1995) of the University of Strathclyde

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