About C - Online Article

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.


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.

Using C with UNIX

A little knowledge is necessary before you can write and compile programs on the UNIX system. Every programmer goes through the same three step cycle.

  • Writing the program into a file.
  • Compiling the program.
  • Running the program.

During program development, the programmer may repeat this cycle many times, refining, testing and debugging a program until a satisfactory result is achieved. The UNIX commands for each step are discussed below.

Compiling the Program

There are a number of ways to achieve this, though all of them eventually rely on the compiler (called cc on our system).

The C Compiler (cc)

The simplest method is to type:

cc testprog.c

This will try to compile testprog.c, and, if successful, will produce a runnable file called a.out. If you want to give the runnable file a better name you can type:

cc testprog.c -o testprog

This will compile testprog.c, creating runnable file testprog.

Make, a Program Builder

UNIX also includes a very useful program called make. Make allows very complicated programs to be compiled quickly, by reference to a configuration file (usually called Makefile). If your C program is a single file, you can usually use make by simply typing:

make testprog

This will compile testprog.c and put the executable code in testprog.

Improved Type Checking Using Lint

The C compiler is rather liberal about type checking function arguments, it doesn't check bounds of array indices. There is a stricter checker called lint which won't generate any runnable code. It is a good idea to use lint to check your programs before they are completed. This is done by typing:

lint testprog.c

Lint is very good at detecting errors which cause programs to crash at run time. However, lint is very fussy, and generally produces a long list of messages about minor problems with the program. Many of these will be quite harmless. Experience will teach you to distinguish the important messages from those which can be ignored.

Running the Program

To run a program under UNIX you simply type in the filename. So to run program testprog, you would type:


or if this fails to work, you could type


You will see your prompt again after the program is done.

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.


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).

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Bipin Kumar Srivastava on 2011-11-08 08:13:38 wrote,

How nice it is??