Getting started with C Language
C is a general-purpose, imperative computer programming language, supporting structured programming, lexical variable scope and recursion, while a static type system prevents many unintended operations. By design, C provides constructs that map efficiently to typical machine instructions, and therefore it has found lasting use in applications that had formerly been coded in assembly language, including operating systems, as well as various application software for computers ranging from supercomputers to embedded systems.
Despite its low-level capabilities, the language was designed to encourage cross-platform programming. A standards-compliant and portably written C program can be compiled for a very wide variety of computer platforms and operating systems with few changes to its source code. The language has become available on a very wide range of platforms, from embedded microcontrollers to supercomputers.
C was originally developed by Dennis Ritchie between 1969 and 1973 at Bell Labs and used to re-implement the Unix operating systems. It has since become one of the most widely used programming languages of all time, with C compilers from various vendors available for the majority of existing computer architectures and operating systems.
The process to compile a C program differs between compilers and operating systems. Most operating systems ship without a compiler, so you will have to install one. Some common compilers choices are:
- GCC, the GNU Compiler Collection
- clang: a C language family front-end for LLVM
- MSVC, Microsoft Visual C/C++ build tools
The following documents should give you a good overview on how to get started using a few of the most common compilers:
Compiler C version Support
Note that compilers have varying levels of support for standard C with many still not completely supporting C99. For example, as of the 2015 release, MSVC supports much of C99 yet still has some important exceptions for support of the language itself (e.g the preprocessing seems non-conformant) and for the C library (e.g.
<tgmath.h>), nor do they necessarily document their "implementation dependent choices". Wikipedia has a table showing support offered by some popular compilers.
Some compilers (notably GCC) have offered, or continue to offer, compiler extensions that implement additional features that the compiler producers deem necessary, helpful or believe may become part of a future C version, but that are not currently part of any C standard. As these extensions are compiler specific they can be considered to not be cross-compatible and compiler developers may remove or alter them in later compiler versions. The use of such extensions can generally be controlled by compiler flags.
Additionally, many developers have compilers that support only specific versions of C imposed by the environment or platform they are targeting.
If selecting a compiler, it is recommended to choose a compiler that has the best support for the latest version of C allowed for the target environment.
Code style (off-topic here):
Because white space is insignificant in C (that is, it does not affect the operation of the code), programmers often use white space to make the code easier to read and comprehend, this is called the code style. It is a set of rules and guidelines used when writing the source code. It covers concerns such as how lines should be indented, whether spaces or tabs should be used, how braces should be placed, how spaces should be used around operators and brackets, how variables should be named and so forth.
Code style is not covered by the standard and is primarily opinion based (different people find different styles easier to read), as such, it is generally considered off-topic on SO. The overriding advice on style in one's own code is that consistency is paramount - pick, or make, a style and stick to it. Suffice it to explain that there are various named styles in common usage that are often chosen by programmers rather than creating their own style.
Some common indent styles are: K & R style, Allman style, GNU style and so on. Some of these styles have different variants. Allman, for example, is used as either regular Allman or the popular variant, Allman-8. Information on some of the popular styles may be found on Wikipedia. Such style names are taken from the standards the authors or organizations often publish for use by the many people contributing to their code, so that everyone can easily read the code when they know the style, such as the GNU formatting guide that makes up part of the GNU coding standards document.
Some common naming conventions are: UpperCamelCase, lowerCamelCase, lower_case_with_underscore, ALL_CAPS, etc. These styles are combined in various ways for use with different objects and types (e.g., macros often use ALL_CAPS style)
K & R style is generally recommended for use within SO documentation, whereas the more esoteric styles, such as Pico, are discouraged.
Libraries and APIs not covered by the C Standard (and therefore being off-topic here):
To create a simple C program which prints "Hello, World" on the screen, use a text editor to create a new file (e.g.
hello.c — the file extension must be
containing the following source code:
Let's look at this simple program line by line
This line tells the compiler to include the contents of the standard library header file
stdio.h in the program. Headers are usually files containing function declarations, macros and data types, and you must include the header file before you use them. This line includes
stdio.h so it can call the function
This line starts the definition of a function. It states the name of the function (
main), the type and number of arguments it expects (
void, meaning none), and the type of value that this function returns (
int). Program execution starts in the
The curly braces are used in pairs to indicate where a block of code begins and ends. They can be used in a lot of ways, but in this case they indicate where the function begins and ends.
This line calls the
puts() function to output text to standard output (the screen, by default), followed by a newline. The string to be output is included within the parentheses.
"Hello, World" is the string that will be written to the screen. In C, every string literal value must be inside the double quotes
In C programs, every statement needs to be terminated by a semi-colon (i.e.
When we defined
main(), we declared it as a function returning an
int, meaning it needs to return an integer. In this example, we are returning the integer value 0, which is used to indicate that the program exited successfully.
return 0; statement, the execution process will terminate.
Editing the program
The editor must create plain text files, not RTF or other any other format.
Compiling and running the program
To run the program, this source file (
hello.c) first needs to be compiled into an executable file (e.g.
hello on Unix/Linux system or
hello.exe on Windows). This is done using a compiler for the C language.
Compile using GCC
GCC (GNU Compiler Collection) is a widely used C compiler. To use it, open a terminal, use the command line to navigate to the source file's location and then run:
If no errors are found in the the source code (
hello.c), the compiler will create a binary file, the name of which is given by the argument to the
-o command line option (
hello). This is the final executable file.
We can also use the warning options
-Wall -Wextra -Werror, that help to identify problems that can cause the program to fail or produce unexpected results. They are not necessary for this simple program but this is way of adding them:
Using the clang compiler
To compile the program using
clang you can use:
By design, the
clang command line options are similar to those of GCC.
Using the Microsoft C compiler from the command line
If using the Microsoft
cl.exe compiler on a Windows system which supports Visual Studio and if all environment variables are set, this C example may be compiled using the following command which will produce an executable
hello.exe within the directory the command is executed in (There are warning options such as
cl, roughly analogous to
-Wall etc for GCC or clang).
Executing the program
Once compiled, the binary file may then be executed by typing
./hello in the terminal. Upon execution, the compiled program will print
Hello, World, followed by a newline, to the command prompt.
Original "Hello, World!" in K&R C
The following is the original "Hello, World!" program from the book The C Programming Language by Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie (Ritchie was the original developer of the C programming language at Bell Labs), referred to as "K&R":
Notice that the C programming language was not standardized at the time of writing the first edition of this book (1978), and that this program will probably not compile on most modern compilers unless they are instructed to accept C90 code.
This very first example in the K&R book is now considered poor quality, in part because it lacks an explicit return type for
main() and in part because it lacks a
return statement. The 2nd edition of the book was written for the old C89 standard. In C89, the type of
main would default to
int, but the K&R example does not return a defined value to the environment. In C99 and later standards, the return type is required, but it is safe to leave out the
return statement of
main (and only
main), because of a special case introduced with C99 126.96.36.199.3 — it is equivalent to returning 0, which indicates success.
The recommended and most portable form of
main for hosted systems is
int main (void) when the program does not use any command line arguments, or
int main(int argc, char **argv) when the program does use the command line arguments.
C90 §188.8.131.52.3 Program termination
A return from the initial call to the
mainfunction is equivalent to calling the
exitfunction with the value returned by the
mainfunction as its argument. If the
mainfunction executes a return that specifies no value, the termination status returned to the host environment is undefined.
C90 §184.108.40.206 The
returnstatement without an expression is executed, and the value of the function call is used by the caller, the behavior is undefined. Reaching the
}that terminates a function is equivalent to executing a
returnstatement without an expression.
C99 §220.127.116.11.3 Program termination
If the return type of the
mainfunction is a type compatible with
int, a return from the initial call to the
mainfunction is equivalent to calling the
exitfunction with the value returned by the
mainfunction as its argument; reaching the
}that terminates the
mainfunction returns a value of 0. If the return type is not compatible with
int, the termination status returned to the host environment is unspecified.