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Programming in C _ A Tutorial

Brian W. Kernighan
Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, N. J.
1. Introduction.

C is a computer language available on the GCOS and UNIX
operating systems at Murray Hill and (in preliminary form)
on OS/360 at Holmdel. C lets you write your programs
clearly and simply _ it has decent control flow facilities
so your code can be read straight down the page, without
labels or GOTO's; it lets you write code that is compact
without being too cryptic; it encourages modularity and good
program organization; and it provides good data-structuring

This memorandum is a tutorial to make learning C as
painless as possible. The first part concentrates on the
central features of C; the second part discusses those parts
of the language which are useful (usually for getting more
efficient and smaller code) but which are not necessary for
the new user. This is "not" a reference manual. Details and
special cases will be skipped ruthlessly, and no attempt
will be made to cover every language feature. The order of
presentation is hopefully pedagogical instead of logical.
Users who would like the full story should consult the 'C
Reference Manual' by D. M. Ritchie [1], which should be read
for details anyway. Runtime support is described in [2] and
[3]; you will have to read one of these to learn how to com-
pile and run a C program.

We will assume that you are familiar with the mysteries
of creating files, text editing, and the like in the operat-
ing system you run on, and that you have programmed in some
language before.

2. A Simple C Program

main( ) {
printf("hello, world");

A C program consists of one or more functions, which
are similar to the functions and subroutines of a Fortran
program or the procedures of PL/I, and perhaps some external
data definitions. main is such a function, and in fact all
C programs must have a main. Execution of the program
begins at the first statement of main. main will usually
invoke other functions to perform its job, some coming from
the same program, and others from libraries.

One method of communicating data between functions is
by arguments. The parentheses following the function name
surround the argument list; here main is a function of no
arguments, indicated by ( ). The {} enclose the statements
of the function. Individual statements end with a semicolon
but are otherwise free-format.

printf is a library function which will format and
print output on the terminal (unless some other destination
is specified). In this case it prints

hello, world

A function is invoked by naming it, followed by a list of
arguments in parentheses. There is no CALL statement as in
Fortran or PL/I.

3. A Working C Program; Variables; Types and Type Declarations

Here's a bigger program that adds three integers and
prints their sum.

main( ) {
int a, b, c, sum;
a = 1; b = 2; c = 3;
sum = a + b + c;
printf("sum is %d", sum);

Arithmetic and the assignment statements are much the
same as in Fortran (except for the semicolons) or PL/I. The
format of C programs is quite free. We can put several
statements on a line if we want, or we can split a statement
among several lines if it seems desirable. The split may be
between any of the operators or variables, but NOT in the
middle of a name or operator. As a matter of style, spaces,
tabs, and newlines should be used freely to enhance reada-

C has four fundamental types of variables:

int integer (PDP-11: 16 bits; H6070: 36 bits; IBM360: 32 bits)
char one byte character (PDP-11, IBM360: 8 bits; H6070: 9 bits)
float single-precision floating point
double double-precision floating point

There are also arrays and structures of these basic types,
pointers to them and functions that return them, all of
which we will meet shortly.

All variables in a C program must be declared, although
this can sometimes be done implicitly by context. Declara-
tions must precede executable statements. The declaration

int a, b, c, sum;

declares a, b, c, and sum to be integers.

Variable names have one to eight characters, chosen
from A-Z, a-z, 0-9, and _, and start with a non-digit.
Stylistically, it's much better to use only a single case
and give functions and external variables names that are
unique in the first six characters. (Function and external
variable names are used by various assemblers, some of which
are limited in the size and case of identifiers they can
handle.) Furthermore, keywords and library functions may
only be recognized in one case.

4. Constants

We have already seen decimal integer constants in the
previous example _ 1, 2, and 3. Since C is often used for
system programming and bit-manipulation, octal numbers are
an important part of the language. In C, any number that
begins with 0 (zero!) is an octal integer (and hence can't
have any 8's or 9's in it). Thus 0777 is an octal constant,
with decimal value 511.

A ``character'' is one byte (an inherently machine-
dependent concept). Most often this is expressed as a character
constant, which is one character enclosed in single
quotes. However, it may be any quantity that fits in a
byte, as in flags below:

char quest, newline, flags;
quest = '?';
newline = '\n';
flags = 077;

The sequence `\n' is C notation for ``newline charac-
ter'', which, when printed, skips the terminal to the begin-
ning of the next line. Notice that `\n' represents only a
single character. There are several other ``escapes'' like
`\n' for representing hard-to-get or invisible characters,
such as `\t' for tab, `\b' for backspace, `\0' for end of
file, and `\\' for the backslash itself.

float and double constants are discussed in section 26.

5. Simple I/O _ getchar, putchar, printf

main( ) {
char c;
c = getchar( );

getchar and putchar are the basic I/O library functions
in C. getchar fetches one character from the standard input
(usually the terminal) each time it is called, and returns
that character as the value of the function. When it
reaches the end of whatever file it is reading, thereafter
it returns the character represented by `\0' (ascii NUL,
which has value zero). We will see how to use this very

putchar puts one character out on the standard output
(usually the terminal) each time it is called. So the pro-
gram above reads one character and writes it back out. By
itself, this isn't very interesting, but observe that if we
put a loop around this, and add a test for end of file, we
have a complete program for copying one file to another.

printf is a more complicated function for producing
formatted output. We will talk about only the simplest use
of it. Basically, printf uses its first argument as format-
ting information, and any successive arguments as variables
to be output. Thus

printf ("hello, world\n");

is the simplest use _ the string ``hello, world\n'' is
printed out. No formatting information, no variables, so
the string is dumped out verbatim. The newline is necessary
to put this out on a line by itself. (The construction

"hello, world\n"

is really an array of chars. More about this shortly.)

More complicated, if sum is 6,

printf ("sum is %d\n", sum);


sum is 6

Within the first argument of printf, the characters ``%d''
signify that the next argument in the argument list is to be
printed as a base 10 number.

Other useful formatting commands are ``%c'' to print
out a single character, ``%s'' to print out an entire
string, and ``%o'' to print a number as octal instead of
decimal (no leading zero). For example,

n = 511;
printf ("What is the value of %d in octal?", n);
printf (" %s! %d decimal is %o octal\n", "Right", n, n);


What is the value of 511 in octal? Right! 511 decimal
is 777 octal

Notice that there is no newline at the end of the first out-
put line. Successive calls to printf (and/or putchar, for
that matter) simply put out characters. No newlines are
printed unless you ask for them. Similarly, on input, char-
acters are read one at a time as you ask for them. Each
line is generally terminated by a newline (\n), but there is
otherwise no concept of record.

6. If; relational operators; compound statements

The basic conditional-testing statement in C is the if

c = getchar( );
if( c == '?' )
printf("why did you type a question mark?\n");

The simplest form of if is

if (expression) statement

The condition to be tested is any expression enclosed
in parentheses. It is followed by a statement. The expres-
sion is evaluated, and if its value is non-zero, the state-
ment is executed. There's an optional else clause, to be
described soon.

The character sequence `==' is one of the relational
operators in C; here is the complete set:

== equal to (.EQ. to Fortraners)
!= not equal to
> greater than
< less than
>= greater than or equal to
<= less than or equal to

The value of ``expression relation expression'' is 1 if
the relation is true, and 0 if false. Don't forget that the
equality test is `=='; a single `=' causes an assignment,
not a test, and invariably leads to disaster.

Tests can be combined with the operators `&&' (AND),
`||' (OR), and `!' (NOT). For example, we can test whether
a character is blank or tab or newline with

if( c==' ' || c=='\t' || c=='\n' ) ...

C guarantees that `&&' and `||' are evaluated left to right
_ we shall soon see cases where this matters.

One of the nice things about C is that the statement
part of an if can be made arbitrarily complicated by enclos-
ing a set of statements in {}. As a simple example, suppose
we want to ensure that a is bigger than b, as part of a sort
routine. The interchange of a and b takes three statements
in C, grouped together by {}:

if (a < b) {
t = a;
a = b;
b = t;

As a general rule in C, anywhere you can use a simple
statement, you can use any compound statement, which is just
a number of simple or compound ones enclosed in {}. There
is no semicolon after the } of a compound statement, but
there _i_s a semicolon after the last non-compound statement
inside the {}.

The ability to replace single statements by complex
ones at will is one feature that makes C much more pleasant
to use than Fortran. Logic (like the exchange in the previ-
ous example) which would require several GOTO's and labels
in Fortran can and should be done in C without any, using
compound statements.

7. While Statement; Assignment within an Expression; Null

The basic looping mechanism in C is the while state-
ment. Here's a program that copies its input to its output
a character at a time. Remember that `\0' marks the end of

main( ) {
char c;
while( (c=getchar( )) != '\0' )

The while statement is a loop, whose general form is

while (expression) statement

Its meaning is

(a) evaluate the expression
(b) if its value is true (i.e., not zero)
do the statement, and go back to (a)

Because the expression is tested before the statement is
executed, the statement part can be executed zero times,
which is often desirable. As in the if statement, the
expression and the statement can both be arbitrarily compli-
cated, although we haven't seen that yet. Our example gets
the character, assigns it to c, and then tests if it's a
`\0''. If it is not a `\0', the statement part of the while
is executed, printing the character. The while then
repeats. When the input character is finally a `\0', the
while terminates, and so does main.

Notice that we used an assignment statement

c = getchar( )

within an expression. This is a handy notational shortcut
which often produces clearer code. (In fact it is often the
only way to write the code cleanly. As an exercise, re-
write the file-copy without using an assignment inside an
expression.) It works because an assignment statement has a
value, just as any other expression does. Its value is the
value of the right hand side. This also implies that we can
use multiple assignments like

x = y = z = 0;

Evaluation goes from right to left.

By the way, the extra parentheses in the assignment
statement within the conditional were really necessary: if
we had said

c = getchar( ) != '\0'

c would be set to 0 or 1 depending on whether the character
fetched was an end of file or not. This is because in the
absence of parentheses the assignment operator `=' is
evaluated after the relational operator `!='. When in
doubt, or even if not, parenthesize.

Since putchar(c) returns c as its function value, we
could also copy the input to the output by nesting the calls
to getchar and putchar:

main( ) {
while( putchar(getchar( )) != '\0' ) ;

What statement is being repeated? None, or technically, the
null statement, because all the work is really done within
the test part of the while. This version is slightly dif-
ferent from the previous one, because the final `\0' is
copied to the output before we decide to stop.

8. Arithmetic

The arithmetic operators are the usual `+', `-', `*',
and `/' (truncating integer division if the operands are
both int), and the remainder or mod operator `%':

x = a%b;

sets x to the remainder after a is divided by b (i.e., a mod
b). The results are machine dependent unless a and b are
both positive.

In arithmetic, char variables can usually be treated
like int variables. Arithmetic on characters is quite
legal, and often makes sense:

c = c + 'A' - 'a';

converts a single lower case ascii character stored in c to
upper case, making use of the fact that corresponding ascii
letters are a fixed distance apart. The rule governing this
arithmetic is that all chars are converted to int before the
arithmetic is done. Beware that conversion may involve
sign-extension _ if the leftmost bit of a character is 1,
the resulting integer might be negative. (This doesn't hap-
pen with genuine characters on any current machine.)

So to convert a file into lower case:

main( ) {
char c;
while( (c=getchar( )) != '\0' )
if( 'A'<=c && c<='Z' )

Characters have different sizes on different machines.
Further, this code won't work on an IBM machine, because the
letters in the ebcdic alphabet are not contiguous.

9. Else Clause; Conditional Expressions

We just used an else after an if. The most general
form of if is

if (expression) statement1 else statement2

the else part is optional, but often useful. The canonical
example sets x to the minimum of a and b:

if (a < b)
x = a;
x = b;

Observe that there's a semicolon after x=a.

C provides an alternate form of conditional which is
often more concise. It is called the ``conditional expres-
sion'' because it is a conditional which actually has a
value and can be used anywhere an expression can. The value

is a if a is less than b; it is b otherwise. In general,
the form

expr1 ? expr2 : expr3

means ``evaluate expr1. If it is not zero, the value of the
whole thing is expr2; otherwise the value is expr3.''

To set x to the minimum of a and b, then:

x = (a
The parentheses aren't necessary because `?:' is evaluated
before `=', but safety first.

Going a step further, we could write the loop in the
lower-case program as

while( (c=getchar( )) != '\0' )
putchar( ('A'<=c && c<='Z') ? c-'A'+'a' : c );

If's and else's can be used to construct logic that
branches one of several ways and then rejoins, a common pro-
gramming structure, in this way:

else if(...)
else if(...)

The conditions are tested in order, and exactly one block is
executed _ either the first one whose if is satisfied, or
the one for the last else. When this block is finished, the
next statement executed is the one after the last else. If
no action is to be taken for the ``default'' case, omit the
last else.

For example, to count letters, digits and others in a
file, we could write

main( ) {
int let, dig, other, c;
let = dig = other = 0;
while( (c=getchar( )) != '\0' )
if( ('A'<=c && c<='Z') || ('a'<=c && c<='z') ) ++let;
else if( '0'<=c && c<='9' ) ++dig;
else ++other;
printf("%d letters, %d digits, %d others\n", let, dig, other);

The `++' operator means ``increment by 1''; we will get to
it in the next section.

10. Increment and Decrement Operators

In addition to the usual `-', C also has two other
interesting unary operators, `++' (increment) and `--'
(decrement). Suppose we want to count the lines in a file.

main( ) {
int c,n;
n = 0;
while( (c=getchar( )) != '\0' )
if( c == '\n' )
printf("%d lines\n", n);

++n is equivalent to n=n+1 but clearer, particularly when n
is a complicated expression. `++' and `--' can be applied
only to int's and char's (and pointers which we haven't got
to yet).

The unusual feature of `++' and `--' is that they can
be used either before or after a variable. The value of ++k
is the value of k AFTER it has been incremented. The value
of k++ is k BEFORE it is incremented. Suppose k is 5. Then

x = ++k;

increments k to 6 and then sets x to the resulting value,
i.e., to 6. But

x = k++;

first sets x to to 5, and THEN increments k to 6. The
incrementing effect of ++k and k++ is the same, but their
values are respectively 5 and 6. We shall soon see examples
where both of these uses are important.

11. Arrays

In C, as in Fortran or PL/I, it is possible to make
arrays whose elements are basic types. Thus we can make an
array of 10 integers with the declaration

int x[10];

The square brackets mean subscripting; parentheses are used
only for function references. Array indexes begin at zero,
so the elements of x are

x[0], x[1], x[2], ..., x[9]

If an array has n elements, the largest subscript is n-1.

Multiple-dimension arrays are provided, though not much
used above two dimensions. The declaration and use look

int name[10] [20];
n = name[i+j] [1] + name[k] [2];

Subscripts can be arbitrary integer expressions. Multi-
dimension arrays are stored by row (opposite to Fortran), so
the rightmost subscript varies fastest; name has 10 rows and
20 columns.

Here is a program which reads a line, stores it in a
buffer, and prints its length (excluding the newline at the

main( ) {
int n, c;
char line[100];
n = 0;
while( (c=getchar( )) != '\n' ) {
if( n < 100 )
line[n] = c;
printf("length = %d\n", n);

As a more complicated problem, suppose we want to print
the count for each line in the input, still storing the
first 100 characters of each line. Try it as an exercise
before looking at the solution:

main( ) {
int n, c; char line[100];
n = 0;
while( (c=getchar( )) != '\0' )
if( c == '\n' ) {
printf("%d0, n);
n = 0;
else {
if( n < 100 ) line[n] = c;

12. Character Arrays; Strings

Text is usually kept as an array of characters, as we
did with line[ ] in the example above. By convention in C,
the last character in a character array should be a `\0'
because most programs that manipulate character arrays
expect it. For example, printf uses the `\0' to detect the
end of a character array when printing it out with a `%s'.

We can copy a character array s into another t like

i = 0;
while( (t[i]=s[i]) != '\0' )

Most of the time we have to put in our own `\0' at the
end of a string; if we want to print the line with printf,
it's necessary. This code prints the character count before
the line:

main( ) {
int n;
char line[100];
n = 0;
while( (line[n++]=getchar( )) != '\n' );
line[n] = '\0';
printf("%d:\t%s", n, line);

Here we increment n in the subscript itself, but only after
the previous value has been used. The character is read,
placed in line[n], and only then n is incremented.

There is one place and one place only where C puts in
the `\0' at the end of a character array for you, and that
is in the construction

"stuff between double quotes"

The compiler puts a `\0' at the end automatically. Text
enclosed in double quotes is called a _s_t_r_i_n_g; its properties
are precisely those of an (initialized) array of characters.

13. For Statement

The for statement is a somewhat generalized while that
lets us put the initialization and increment parts of a loop
into a single statement along with the test. The general
form of the for is

for( initialization; expression; increment )

The meaning is exactly

while( expression ) {

Thus, the following code does the same array copy as the
example in the previous section:

for( i=0; (t[i]=s[i]) != '\0'; i++ );

This slightly more ornate example adds up the elements of an

sum = 0;
for( i=0; i sum = sum + array[i];

In the for statement, the initialization can be left
out if you want, but the semicolon has to be there. The
increment is also optional. It is NOT followed by a semi-
colon. The second clause, the test, works the same way as
in the while: if the expression is true (not zero) do
another loop, otherwise get on with the next statement. As
with the while, the for loop may be done zero times. If the
expression is left out, it is taken to be always true, so

for( ; ; ) ...


while( 1 ) ...

are both infinite loops.

You might ask why we use a for since it's so much like
a while. (You might also ask why we use a while because...)
The for is usually preferable because it keeps the code
where it's used and sometimes eliminates the need for com-
pound statements, as in this code that zeros a two-
dimensional array:

for( i=0; i for( j=0; j array[i][j] = 0;

14. Functions; Comments

Suppose we want, as part of a larger program, to count
the occurrences of the ascii characters in some input text.
Let us also map illegal characters (those with value>127 or
<0) into one pile. Since this is presumably an isolated
part of the program, good practice dictates making it a
separate function. Here is one way:

main( ) {
int hist[129]; /* 128 legal chars + 1 illegal group */
count(hist, 128); /* count the letters into hist */
printf( ... ); /* comments look like this; use them */
... /* anywhere blanks, tabs or newlines could appear */

count(buf, size)
int size, buf[ ]; {
int i, c;
for( i=0; i<=size; i++ )
buf[i] = 0; /* set buf to zero */
while( (c=getchar( )) != '\0' ) { /* read til eof */
if( c > size || c < 0 )
c = size; /* fix illegal input */

We have already seen many examples of calling a function, so
let us concentrate on how to define one. Since count has
two arguments, we need to declare them, as shown, giving
their types, and in the case of buf, the fact that it is an
array. The declarations of arguments go between the argu-
ment list and the opening `{'. There is no need to specify
the size of the array buf, for it is defined outside of

The return statement simply says to go back to the cal-
ling routine. In fact, we could have omitted it, since a
return is implied at the end of a function.

What if we wanted count to return a value, say the
number of characters read? The return statement allows for
this too:

int i, c, nchar;
nchar = 0;
while( (c=getchar( )) != '\0' ) {
if( c > size || c < 0 )
c = size;

Any expression can appear within the parentheses. Here is a
function to compute the minimum of two integers:

min(a, b)
int a, b; {
return( a < b ? a : b );

To copy a character array, we could write the function

strcopy(s1, s2) /* copies s1 to s2 */
char s1[ ], s2[ ]; {
int i;
for( i = 0; (s2[i] = s1[i]) != '\0'; i++ );

As is often the case, all the work is done by the assignment
statement embedded in the test part of the for. Again, the
declarations of the arguments s1 and s2 omit the sizes,
because they don't matter to strcopy. (In the section on
pointers, we will see a more efficient way to do a string

There is a subtlety in function usage which can trap
the unsuspecting Fortran programmer. Simple variables (not
arrays) are passed in C by ``call by value'', which means
that the called function is given a copy of its arguments,
and doesn't know their addresses. This makes it impossible
to change the value of one of the actual input arguments.

There are two ways out of this dilemma. One is to make
special arrangements to pass to the function the address of
a variable instead of its value. The other is to make the
variable a global or external variable, which is known to
each function by its name. We will discuss both possibili-
ties in the next few sections.

15. Local and External Variables

If we say

f( ) {
int x;
g( ) {
int x;

each x is LOCAL to its own routine _ the x in f is unrelated
to the x in g. (Local variables are also called
``automatic''.) Furthermore each local variable in a routine
appears only when the function is called, and _d_i_s_a_p_p_e_a_r_s
when the function is exited. Local variables have no memory
from one call to the next and must be explicitly initialized
upon each entry. (There is a static storage class for mak-
ing local variables with memory; we won't discuss it.)

As opposed to local variables, external variables are
defined external to all functions, and are (potentially)
available to all functions. External storage always remains
in existence. To make variables external we have to define
them external to all functions, and, wherever we want to use
them, make a declaration.

main( ) {
extern int nchar, hist[ ];
count( );

count( ) {
extern int nchar, hist[ ];
int i, c;

int hist[129]; /* space for histogram */
int nchar; /* character count */

Roughly speaking, any function that wishes to access an
external variable must contain an extern declaration for it.
The declaration is the same as others, except for the added
keyword extern. Furthermore, there must somewhere be a
definition of the external variables external to all func-

External variables can be initialized; they are set to
zero if not explicitly initialized. In its simplest form,
initialization is done by putting the value (which must be a
constant) after the definition:

int nchar 0;
char flag 'f';

This is discussed further in a later section.

This ends our discussion of what might be called the
central core of C. You now have enough to write quite sub-
stantial C programs, and it would probably be a good idea if
you paused long enough to do so. The rest of this tutorial
will describe some more ornate constructions, useful but not

16. Pointers

A pointer in C is the address of something. It is a
rare case indeed when we care what the specific address
itself is, but pointers are a quite common way to get at the
contents of something. The unary operator `&' is used to
produce the address of an object, if it has one. Thus

int a, b;
b = &a;

puts the address of a into b. We can't do much with it
except print it or pass it to some other routine, because we
haven't given b the right kind of declaration. But if we
declare that b is indeed a pointer to an integer, we're in
good shape:

int a, *b, c;
b = &a;
c = *b;

b contains the address of a and `c = *b' means to use the
value in b as an address, i.e., as a pointer. The effect is
that we get back the contents of a, albeit rather
indirectly. (It's always the case that `*&x' is the same as
x if x has an address.)

The most frequent use of pointers in C is for walking
efficiently along arrays. In fact, in the implementation of
an array, the array name represents the address of the
zeroth element of the array, so you can't use it on the left
side of an expression. (You can't change the address of
something by assigning to it.) If we say

char *y;
char x[100];

y is of type pointer to character (although it doesn't yet
point anywhere). We can make y point to an element of x by
either of

y = &x[0];
y = x;

Since x is the address of x[0] this is legal and consistent.

Now `*y' gives x[0]. More importantly,

*(y+1) gives x[1]
*(y+i) gives x[i]

and the sequence

y = &x[0];

leaves y pointing at x[1].

Let's use pointers in a function length that computes
how long a character array is. Remember that by convention
all character arrays are terminated with a `\0'. (And if
they aren't, this program will blow up inevitably.) The old

char s[ ]; {
int n;
for( n=0; s[n] != '\0'; )

Rewriting with pointers gives

char *s; {
int n;
for( n=0; *s != '\0'; s++ )

You can now see why we have to say what kind of thing s
points to _ if we're to increment it with s++ we have to
increment it by the right amount.

The pointer version is more efficient (this is almost
always true) but even more compact is

for( n=0; *s++ != '\0'; n++ );

The `*s' returns a character; the `++' increments the
pointer so we'll get the next character next time around.
As you can see, as we make things more efficient, we also
make them less clear. But `*s++' is an idiom so common that
you have to know it.

Going a step further, here's our function strcopy that
copies a character array s to another t.

char *s, *t; {
while(*t++ = *s++);

We have omitted the test against `\0', because `\0' is
identically zero; you will often see the code this way.
(You MUST have a space after the `=': see section 25.)

For arguments to a function, and there only, the

char s[ ];
char *s;

are equivalent _ a pointer to a type, or an array of
unspecified size of that type, are the same thing.

If this all seems mysterious, copy these forms until
they become second nature. You don't often need anything
more complicated.

17. Function Arguments

Look back at the function strcopy in the previous sec-
tion. We passed it two string names as arguments, then pro-
ceeded to clobber both of them by incrementation. So how
come we don't lose the original strings in the function that
called strcopy?

As we said before, C is a ``call by value'' language:
when you make a function call like f(x), the VALUE of x is
passed, not its address. So there's no way to ALTER x from
inside f. If x is an array (char x[10]) this isn't a prob-
lem, because x IS an address anyway, and you're not trying
to change it, just what it addresses. This is why strcopy
works as it does. And it's convenient not to have to worry
about making temporary copies of the input arguments.

But what if x is a scalar and you do want to change it?
In that case, you have to pass the ADDRESS of x to f, and
then use it as a pointer. Thus for example, to interchange
two integers, we must write

flip(x, y)
int *x, *y; {
int temp;
temp = *x;
*x = *y;
*y = temp;

and to call flip, we have to pass the addresses of the vari-

flip (&a, &b);

18. Multiple Levels of Pointers; Program Arguments

When a C program is called, the arguments on the com-
mand line are made available to the main program as an argu-
ment count argc and an array of character strings argv con-
taining the arguments. Manipulating these arguments is one
of the most common uses of multiple levels of pointers
(``pointer to pointer to ...''). By convention, argc is
greater than zero; the first argument (in argv[0]) is the
command name itself.

Here is a program that simply echoes its arguments.

main(argc, argv)
int argc;
char **argv; {
int i;
for( i=1; i < argc; i++ )

Step by step: main is called with two arguments, the argu-
ment count and the array of arguments. argv is a pointer to
an array, whose individual elements are pointers to arrays
of characters. The zeroth argument is the name of the com-
mand itself, so we start to print with the first argument,
until we've printed them all. Each argv[i] is a character
array, so we use a `%s' in the printf.

You will sometimes see the declaration of argv written

char *argv[ ];

which is equivalent. But we can't use char argv[ ][ ],
because both dimensions are variable and there would be no
way to figure out how big the array is.

Here's a bigger example using argc and argv. A common
convention in C programs is that if the first argument is
`-', it indicates a flag of some sort. For example, suppose
we want a program to be callable as

prog -abc arg1 arg2 ...

where the `-' argument is optional; if it is present, it may
be followed by any combination of a, b, and c.

main(argc, argv)
int argc;
char **argv; {
aflag = bflag = cflag = 0;
if( argc > 1 && argv[1][0] == '-' ) {
for( i=1; (c=argv[1][i]) != '\0'; i++ )
if( c=='a' )
else if( c=='b' )
else if( c=='c' )
printf("%c?\n", c);

There are several things worth noticing about this
code. First, there is a real need for the left-to-right
evaluation that && provides; we don't want to look at
argv[1] unless we know it's there. Second, the statements


let us march along the argument list by one position, so we
can skip over the flag argument as if it had never existed _
the rest of the program is independent of whether or not
there was a flag argument. This only works because argv is
a pointer which can be incremented.

19. The Switch Statement; Break; Continue

The switch statement can be used to replace the multi-
way test we used in the last example. When the tests are
like this:

if( c == 'a' ) ...
else if( c == 'b' ) ...
else if( c == 'c' ) ...
else ...

testing a value against a series of constants, the switch
statement is often clearer and usually gives better code.
Use it like this:

switch( c ) {

case 'a':
case 'b':
case 'c':
printf("%c?\n", c);

The case statements label the various actions we want;
default gets done if none of the other cases are satisfied.
(A default is optional; if it isn't there, and none of the
cases match, you just fall out the bottom.)

The break statement in this example is new. It is
there because the cases are just labels, and after you do
one of them, you fall through to the next unless you take
some explicit action to escape. This is a mixed blessing.
On the positive side, you can have multiple cases on a sin-
gle statement; we might want to allow both upper and lower
case 'a': case 'A': ...

case 'b': case 'B': ...

But what if we just want to get out after doing case `a' ?
We could get out of a case of the switch with a label and a
goto, but this is really ugly. The break statement lets us
exit without either goto or label.

switch( c ) {

case 'a':
case 'b':
/* the break statements get us here directly */

The break statement also works in for and while statements _
it causes an immediate exit from the loop.

The continue statement works _o_n_l_y inside for's and
while's; it causes the next iteration of the loop to be
started. This means it goes to the increment part of the
for and the test part of the while. We could have used a
continue in our example to get on with the next iteration of
the for, but it seems clearer to use break instead.

20. Structures

The main use of structures is to lump together collec-
tions of disparate variable types, so they can conveniently
be treated as a unit. For example, if we were writing a
compiler or assembler, we might need for each identifier
information like its name (a character array), its source
line number (an integer), some type information (a charac-
ter, perhaps), and probably a usage count (another integer).

char id[10];
int line;
char type;
int usage;

We can make a structure out of this quite easily. We
first tell C what the structure will look like, that is,
what kinds of things it contains; after that we can actually
reserve storage for it, either in the same statement or
separately. The simplest thing is to define it and allocate
storage all at once:

struct {
char id[10];
int line;
char type;
int usage;
} sym;

This defines sym to be a structure with the specified
shape; id, line, type and usage are members of the struc-
ture. The way we refer to any particular member of the
structure is

structure-name . member

as in

sym.type = 077;
if( sym.usage == 0 ) ...
while([j++] ) ...

Although the names of structure members never stand alone,
they still have to be unique _ there can't be another id or
usage in some other structure.

So far we haven't gained much. The advantages of
structures start to come when we have arrays of structures,
or when we want to pass complicated data layouts between
functions. Suppose we wanted to make a symbol table for up
to 100 identifiers. We could extend our definitions like

char id[100][10];
int line[100];
char type[100];
int usage[100];

but a structure lets us rearrange this spread-out informa-
tion so all the data about a single identifer is collected
into one lump:

struct {
char id[10];
int line;
char type;
int usage;
} sym[100];

This makes sym an array of structures; each array element
has the specified shape. Now we can refer to members as

sym[i].usage++; /* increment usage of i-th identifier */
for( j=0; sym[i].id[j++] != '\0'; ) ...

Thus to print a list of all identifiers that haven't been
used, together with their line number,

for( i=0; i if( sym[i].usage == 0 )
printf("%d\t%s\n", sym[i].line, sym[i].id);

Suppose we now want to write a function lookup(name)
which will tell us if name already exists in sym, by giving
its index, or that it doesn't, by returning a -1. We can't
pass a structure to a function directly _ we have to either
define it externally, or pass a pointer to it. Let's try
the first way first.

int nsym 0; /* current length of symbol table */

struct {
char id[10];
int line;
char type;
int usage;
} sym[100]; /* symbol table */

main( ) {
if( (index = lookup(newname)) >= 0 )
sym[index].usage++; /* already there ... */
install(newname, newline, newtype);

char *s; {
int i;
extern struct {
char id[10];
int line;
char type;
int usage;
} sym[ ];

for( i=0; i if( compar(s, sym[i].id) > 0 )

compar(s1,s2) /* return 1 if s1==s2, 0 otherwise */
char *s1, *s2; {
while( *s1++ == *s2 )
if( *s2++ == '\0' )

The declaration of the structure in lookup isn't needed if
the external definition precedes its use in the same source
file, as we shall see in a moment.

Now what if we want to use pointers?

struct symtag {
char id[10];
int line;
char type;
int usage;
} sym[100], *psym;

psym = &sym[0]; /* or p = sym; */

This makes psym a pointer to our kind of structure (the sym-
bol table), then initializes it to point to the first ele-
ment of sym.

Notice that we added something after the word struct: a
``tag'' called symtag. This puts a name on our structure
definition so we can refer to it later without repeating the
definition. It's not necessary but useful. In fact we
could have said

struct symtag {
... structure definition

which wouldn't have assigned any storage at all, and then

struct symtag sym[100];
struct symtag *psym;

which would define the array and the pointer. This could be
condensed further, to

struct symtag sym[100], *psym;

The way we actually refer to an member of a structure
by a pointer is like this:

ptr -> structure-member

The symbol `->' means we're pointing at a member of a

C Tutorial - 27 -

structure; `->' is only used in that context. ptr is a
pointer to the (base of) a structure that contains the
structure member. The expression ptr->structure-member
refers to the indicated member of the pointed-to structure.
Thus we have constructions like:

psym->type = 1;
psym->id[0] = 'a';

and so on.

For more complicated pointer expressions, it's wise to
use parentheses to make it clear who goes with what. For

struct { int x, *y; } *p;
p->x++ increments x
++p->x so does this!
(++p)->x increments p before getting x
*p->y++ uses y as a pointer, then increments it
*(p->y)++ so does this
*(p++)->y uses y as a pointer, then increments p

The way to remember these is that ->, . (dot), ( ) and [ ]
bind very tightly. An expression involving one of these is
treated as a unit. p->x, a[i], y.x and f(b) are names
exactly as abc is.

If p is a pointer to a structure, any arithmetic on p
takes into account the acutal size of the structure. For
instance, p++ increments p by the correct amount to get the
next element of the array of structures. But don't assume
that the size of a structure is the sum of the sizes of its
members _ because of alignments of different sized objects,
there may be ``holes'' in a structure.

Enough theory. Here is the lookup example, this time
with pointers.

struct symtag {
char id[10];
int line;
char type;
int usage;
} sym[100];

main( ) {
struct symtag *lookup( );
struct symtag *psym;
if( (psym = lookup(newname)) ) /* non-zero pointer */
psym -> usage++; /* means already there */
install(newname, newline, newtype);

C Tutorial - 28 -


struct symtag *lookup(s)
char *s; {
struct symtag *p;
for( p=sym; p < &sym[nsym]; p++ )
if( compar(s, p->id) > 0)

The function compar doesn't change: `p->id' refers to a

In main we test the pointer returned by lookup against
zero, relying on the fact that a pointer is by definition
never zero when it really points at something. The other
pointer manipulations are trivial.

The only complexity is the set of lines like

struct symtag *lookup( );

This brings us to an area that we will treat only hurriedly
_ the question of function types. So far, all of our func-
tions have returned integers (or characters, which are much
the same). What do we do when the function returns some-
thing else, like a pointer to a structure? The rule is that
any function that doesn't return an int has to say expli-
citly what it does return. The type information goes before
the function name (which can make the name hard to see).

char f(a)
int a; {

int *g( ) { ... }

struct symtag *lookup(s) char *s; { ... }

The function f returns a character, g returns a pointer to
an integer, and lookup returns a pointer to a structure that
looks like symtag. And if we're going to use one of these
functions, we have to make a declaration where we use it, as
we did in main above.

Notice th parallelism between the declarations

struct symtag *lookup( );
struct symtag *psym;

C Tutorial - 29 -

In effect, this says that lookup( ) and psym are both used
the same way _ as a pointer to a strcture _ even though one
is a variable and the other is a function.

21. Initialization of Variables

An external variable may be initialized at compile time
by following its name with an initializing value when it is
defined. The initializing value has to be something whose
value is known at compile time, like a constant.

int x 0; /* "0" could be any constant */
int a 'a';
char flag 0177;
int *p &y[1]; /* p now points to y[1] */

An external array can be initialized by following its name
with a list of initializations enclosed in braces:

int x[4] {0,1,2,3}; /* makes x[i] = i */
int y[ ] {0,1,2,3}; /* makes y big enough for 4 values */
char *msg "syntax error\n"; /* braces unnecessary here */
char *keyword[ ]{

This last one is very useful _ it makes keyword an array of
pointers to character strings, with a zero at the end so we
can identify the last element easily. A simple lookup rou-
tine could scan this until it either finds a match or
encounters a zero keyword pointer:

lookup(str) /* search for str in keyword[ ] */
char *str; {
int i,j,r;
for( i=0; keyword[i] != 0; i++) {
for( j=0; (r=keyword[i][j]) == str[j] && r != '\0'; j++ );
if( r == str[j] )

Sorry _ neither local variables nor structures can be

22. Scope Rules: Who Knows About What

A complete C program need not be compiled all at once;
the source text of the program may be kept in several files,
and previously compiled routines may be loaded from
libraries. How do we arrange that data gets passed from one
routine to another? We have already seen how to use func-
tion arguments and values, so let us talk about external
data. Warning: the words declaration and definition are
used precisely in this section; don't treat them as the same

A major shortcut exists for making extern declarations.
If the definition of a variable appears BEFORE its use in
some function, no extern declaration is needed within the
function. Thus, if a file contains

f1( ) { ... }

int foo;

f2( ) { ... foo = 1; ... }

f3( ) { ... if ( foo ) ... }

no declaration of foo is needed in either f2 or or f3,
because the external definition of foo appears before them.
But if f1 wants to use foo, it has to contain the declara-

f1( ) {
extern int foo;

This is true also of any function that exists on
another file _ if it wants foo it has to use an extern
declaration for it. (If somewhere there is an extern
declaration for something, there must also eventually be an
external definition of it, or you'll get an ``undefined sym-
bol'' message.)

There are some hidden pitfalls in external declarations
and definitions if you use multiple source files. To avoid
them, first, define and initialize each external variable
only once in the entire set of files:

int foo 0;

You can get away with multiple external definitions on UNIX,
but not on GCOS, so don't ask for trouble. Multiple ini-
tializations are illegal everywhere. Second, at the begin-
ning of any file that contains functions needing a variable
whose definition is in some other file, put in an extern
declaration, outside of any function:

extern int foo;

f1( ) { ... }

The #include compiler control line, to be discussed
shortly, lets you make a single copy of the external
declarations for a program and then stick them into each of
the source files making up the program.

23. #define, #include

C provides a very limited macro facility. You can say

#define name something

and thereafter anywhere ``name'' appears as a token, ``some-
thing'' will be substituted. This is particularly useful in
parametering the sizes of arrays:

#define ARRAYSIZE 100
int arr[ARRAYSIZE];
while( i++ < ARRAYSIZE )...

(now we can alter the entire program by changing only the
define) or in setting up mysterious constants:

#define SET 01
#define INTERRUPT 02 /* interrupt bit */
#define ENABLED 04
if( x & (SET | INTERRUPT | ENABLED) ) ...

Now we have meaningful words instead of mysterious con-
stants. (The mysterious operators `&' (AND) and `|' (OR)
will be covered in the next section.) It's an excellent
practice to write programs without any literal constants
except in #define statements.

There are several warnings about #define. First,
there's no semicolon at the end of a #define; all the text
from the name to the end of the line (except for comments)
is taken to be the ``something''. When it's put into the
text, blanks are placed around it. Good style typically
makes the name in the #define upper case _ this makes param-
eters more visible. Definitions affect things only after
they occur, and only within the file in which they occur.
Defines can't be nested. Last, if there is a #define in a
file, then the first character of the file MUST be a `#', to
signal the preprocessor that definitions exist.

The other control word known to C is #include. To
include one file in your source at compilation time, say

#include "filename"

This is useful for putting a lot of heavily used data defin-
itions and #define statements at the beginning of a file to
be compiled. As with #define, the first line of a file con-
taining a #include has to begin with a `#'. And #include
can't be nested _ an included file can't contain another

24. Bit Operators

C has several operators for logical bit-operations.
For example,

x = x & 0177;

forms the bit-wise AND of x and 0177, effectively retaining
only the last seven bits of x. Other operators are

| inclusive OR
^ (circumflex) exclusive OR
~ (tilde) 1's complement
! logical NOT
<< left shift (as in x<<2)
>> right shift (arithmetic on PDP-11; logical on H6070, IBM360)

25. Assignment Operators

An unusual feature of C is that the normal binary
operators like `+', `-', etc. can be combined with the
assignment operator `=' to form new assignment operators.
For example,

x =- 10;

uses the assignment operator `=-' to decrement x by 10, and

x =& 0177

forms the AND of x and 0177. This convention is a useful
notational shortcut, particularly if x is a complicated
expression. The classic example is summing an array:

for( sum=i=0; i sum =+ array[i];

But the spaces around the operator are critical! For
x = -10;

sets x to -10, while

x =- 10;

subtracts 10 from x. When no space is present,


also decreases x by 10. This is quite contrary to the
experience of most programmers. In particular, watch out
for things like


both of which are almost certainly not what you wanted.
Newer versions of various compilers are courteous enough to
warn you about the ambiguity.

Because all other operators in an expression are
evaluated before the assignment operator, the order of
evaluation should be watched carefully:

x = x<
means ``shift x left y places, then OR with z, and store in
x.'' But

x =<< y | z;

means ``shift x left by y|z places'', which is rather dif-

26. Floating Point

We've skipped over floating point so far, and the
treatment here will be hasty. C has single and double pre-
cision numbers (where the precision depends on the machine
at hand). For example,

double sum;
float avg, y[10];
sum = 0.0;
for( i=0; i sum =+ y[i];
avg = sum/n;

forms the sum and average of the array y.

All floating arithmetic is done in double precision.
Mixed mode arithmetic is legal; if an arithmetic operator in
an expression has both operands int or char, the arithmetic
done is integer, but if one operand is int or char and the
other is float or double, both operands are converted to
double. Thus if i and j are int and x is float,

(x+i)/j converts i and j to float
x + i/j does i/j integer, then converts

Type conversion may be made by assignment; for instance,

int m, n;
float x, y;
m = x;
y = n;

converts x to integer (truncating toward zero), and n to
floating point.

Floating constants are just like those in Fortran or
PL/I, except that the exponent letter is `e' instead of `E'.

pi = 3.14159;
large = 1.23456789e10;

printf will format floating point numbers: ``%w.df'' in
the format string will print the corresponding variable in a
field w digits wide, with d decimal places. An e instead of
an f will produce exponential notation.

27. Horrors! goto's and labels

C has a goto statement and labels, so you can branch
about the way you used to. But most of the time goto's
aren't needed. (How many have we used up to this point?)
The code can almost always be more clearly expressed by
for/while, if/else, and compound statements.

One use of goto's with some legitimacy is in a program
which contains a long loop, where a while(1) would be too
extended. Then you might write

goto mainloop;

Another use is to implement a break out of more than one
level of for or while. goto's can only branch to labels
within the same function.

28. Acknowledgements

I am indebted to a veritable host of readers who made
valuable criticisms on several drafts of this tutorial.
They ranged in experience from complete beginners through
several implementors of C compilers to the C language
designer himself. Needless to say, this is a wide enough
spectrum of opinion that no one is satisfied (including me);
comments and suggestions are still welcome, so that some
future version might be improved.


C is an extension of B, which was designed by D. M.
Ritchie and K. L. Thompson [4]. The C language design and
UNIX implementation are the work of D. M. Ritchie. The GCOS
version was begun by A. Snyder and B. A. Barres, and com-
pleted by S. C. Johnson and M. E. Lesk. The IBM version is
primarily due to T. G. Peterson, with the assistance of M.
E. Lesk.

[1] D. M. Ritchie, C Reference Manual. Bell Labs, Jan.

[2] M. E. Lesk & B. A. Barres, The GCOS C Library.
Bell Labs, Jan. 1974.

[3] D. M. Ritchie & K. Thompson, UNIX Programmer's
Manual. 5th Edition, Bell Labs, 1974.

[4] S. C. Johnson & B. W. Kernighan, The Programming
Language B. Computer Science Technical Report 8,
Bell Labs, 1972.

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