Sunday, February 9, 2014

C standard quibbles

This article is a collection of personal quibbles regarding the ISO C standard. Expect it to be updated sporadically.

There have been three major editions of the ISO C standard:

  • C89/C90: The original ISO C standard was published in 1990, and was closely based on the 1989 ANSI C standard. The 1989 ANSI and 1990 ISO standards describe exactly the same language; ISO added some introductory material and renumbered the sections. This web page appears to be a draft of the ANSI version of the standard. The 1995 amendment added digraphs and wide character support.
  • C99: The second version was published in 1999. N1256 includes the full 1999 standard with the three Technical Corrigenda merged into it.
  • C11: The third version was published in 2011. The N1570 draft is freely available, and is very nearly identical to the released standard. (There has been one minor Technical Corrigendum.)

Subtopics (these links work on my GitHub page. TODO: Figure out how to fix that or give up and delete the links):

Is int main() necessarily valid? Should it be?

ISO C Program startup defines two permitted definitions for main:

  • int main(void) { /* ... */}
  • int main(int argc, char *argv[]) { /* ... */ }

followed by:

or equivalent; or in some other implementation-defined manner.

Which means that compilers may accept void main(void), but are not required to do so (more on that later and elsewhere).

This is a very commonly used definition:

  • int main() { /* ... */ }

As a definition, it says that main has no parameters. As a declaration, though, it doesn't say that main takes no arguments; rather, it says that main takes an unspecified but fixed number and type(s) of parameters -- and if you call it with arguments that are incompatible with the definition, the behavior is undefined.

I argue that int main() is not equivalent to int main(void), and therefore is not a valid definition unless it's covered by the "or in some other implementation-defined manner" clause (i.e., unless the implementation explicitly documents that it supports it).

int main() { /* ... */ } is an old-style non-prototype definition. Support for such definitions is obsolescent feature (C11 6.11.7).

Furthermore, this program:

int main(void) {
    if (0) {

violates a constraint, whereas this program:

int main() {
    if (0) {

does not, which implies that the two forms are not equivalent.

I wonder whether those who argue that int main() is valid because it's "equivalent" to int main(void) would make the same argument for:

int main(argc, argv)
int argc;
char *argv[];
    /* ... */

On the other hand, as long as non-prototype function declarations and definitions are part of the standard, int main() { /* ... */ } probably should be valid. The entire point of continuing to support such definitions and declarations is to avoid breaking pre-ANSI code, written before prototypes were added to the language (it's not as if non-prototype declarations are useful other than for backward compatibility). If int main() is invalid, then no pre-ANSI program is a valid C90, C99, or C11 program, which was surely not the intent.

What is an lvalue?

ISO C Lvalues, arrays, and function designators

The definition of the term lvalue (sometimes written l-value) has changed several times over the years. The "L" part of the name was originally an abbreviation of the word "left"; an lvalue can appear on the left hand side of an assignment, and an rvalue can appear on the right hand side.

My (somewhat vague) recollection is that the term "l-value" originally referred to a kind of value, not (as it does now in C) to a kind of expression. Given that n is an integer variable, the expression n could be "evaluated for its l-value" (which identifies the object that it designates, ignoring any value stored in that object), or it could be "evaluated for its r-value" (which retrieves the value stored in the object). The expression n would be evaluated for its l-value if it appeared on the left side of an assignment, or for its r-value in most other contexts. Apparently the terms "l-value" and "r-value" originated in CPL), the ancestor of BCPL, which led to B, which led to C.

Note carefully that, under this definition, an "l-value" is not a pointer value. An "l-value" was the identity of an object, not its address. (Evaluating an expression for its l-value might well involve computing an address internally.)

I've tried and failed to find a reference for these definitions, but a footnote in section of the C standard:

The name "lvalue" comes originally from the assignment expression
**`E1 = E2`**, in which the left operand **`E1`** is required
to be a (modifiable) lvalue.  It is perhaps better considered as
representing an object "locator value".  What is sometimes called
"rvalue" is in this International Standard described as the
"value of an expression".

at least strongly suggests that an rvalue is a value, not an expression that yields a value -- though an lvalue is a kind of expression. The term "rvalue" does not appear anywhere else in the C standard.

But that's all pre-C history.

  • Kernigan & Ritchie, "The C Programming Language", 1st edition, 1978:

    An object is a manipulatable region of storage; an lvalue is an expression referring to an object.

    This suffers from the same problem as the later ISO C90 definition; see below.

  • C90

    An lvalue is an expression (with an object type or an incomplete type other than void) that designates an object.

    Problem: Though this conveys the intent, it implies that a dereferenced null pointer is not an lvalue, which makes lvalue-ness an execution time property. This is clearly not the intent.

  • C99

    An lvalue is an expression with an object type or an incomplete type other than void; if an lvalue does not designate an object when it is evaluated, the behavior is undefined.

    Problem: This says that any expression of an appropriate type is an lvalue, which is certainly not the intent. For example, it says that 42 (which is an expression of an object type) is an value, and that since it doesn't designate an object, the behavior of any program containing 42 is undefined. What a mess. The intent is that an the evaluation of an lvalue that's in a context that requires an lvalue has undefined behavior if it doesn't designate an object.

  • C11

    An lvalue is an expression (with an object type other than void) that potentially designates an object; if an lvalue does not designate an object when it is evaluated, the behavior is undefined.

    This goes back to the C90 definition and adds the word "potentially" (which was my idea, BTW). This clarifies that a dereferenced null pointer is an lvalue, but if it's evaluated in a context that requires an lvalue it has undefined behavior.

    I'm still not entirely happy with this, because it's not clear just what "potentially designates" means.

Ultimately, I think that the term lvalue can be defined syntactically. I think you can go through section 6.5 of the standard and determine that certain kinds of expressions are always lvalues, other kinds of expressions never are, and others are an lvalue or not based on criteria that are easy to specify.

An expression is an lvalue if and only if it one of the following:

  • An identifier that is not a function name or enumeration constant;
  • A string literal;
  • A parenthesized expression, if and only if the unparenthesized expression is an lvalue;
  • An indirection expression *x;
  • A subscript expression (x[y]) (this follows from the definition of the subscript operator and the fact that *x is an lvalue)
  • A reference to a struct or union member (x.y, x->y); or
  • A compound literal.

(I don't guarantee this is 100% correct.)

The standard's definition of lvalue should, IMHO, use a list similar to the above. The description of the intent can still use the wording of the current definition, perhaps as a footnote.

Null pointer constants and parenthesized expressions

ISO C Pointers (under 6.3 Conversions)

Paragraph 3:

An integer constant expression with the value 0, or such an
expression cast to type **`void *`**, is called a *null pointer

The problem: 6.5.1 (Primary expressions) says that a parenthesized expression

is an lvalue, a function designator, or a void expression if
the unparenthesized expression is, respectively, an lvalue,
a function designator, or a void expression.

It doesn't say that a parenthesized null pointer constant is a null pointer constant.

Which implies, strictly speaking, that (void*)0 is a null pointer constant, but ((void*)0) is not.

And since 7.1.2 "Standard headers" requires:

Any definition of an object-like macro described in this clause shall
expand to code that is fully protected by parentheses where necessary,
so that it groups in an arbitrary expression as if it were a single

this implies that the NULL macro may not be defined as (void*)0, since, for example, that would cause sizeof NULL to be a syntax error.

I'm sure that most C implementations do treat a parenthesized null pointer constant as a null pointer constant, and define NULL either as 0, ((void*)0), or in some other manner.

What is an expression?

ISO C 6.5 Expressions

The syntax and semantics of expressions are described in section 6.5 of the ISO C standard (which covers 30 pages). But the formal definition of the word "expression" is in 6.5p1:

An expression is a sequence of operators and operands that specifies computation of a value, or that designates an object or a function, or that generates side effects, or that performs a combination thereof.

That sounds reasonable -- except that a strict reading of that definition implies that 42 is not an expression. Why not? It contains no operators, and 42 can't be an operand if there is no operator, so it's not "a sequence of operators and operands".

The real definition of expression is syntactic; anything that satisfies the syntactic definition of expression (in 6.5.17, and referring to definitions in the rest of section 6.5) is an expression.

The definition in 6.5p1 either needs to be re-worded so that it includes primary expressions, or it needs to refer to the grammar. A more reader-friendly (but perhaps less precise) English description of what an expression is should still be included.

Integer constant expressions

ISO C 6.6.6 Constant expressions, paragraph 6

Credit for this goes to Stack Overflow user pablo1977 who posted this question.

6.6.6p6 says:

An integer constant expression shall have integer type and shall only have operands that are integer constants, enumeration constants, character constants, sizeof expressions whose results are integer constants, _Alignof expressions, and floating constants that are the immediate operands of casts. Cast operators in an integer constant expression shall only convert arithmetic types to integer types, except as part of an operand to the sizeof or _Alignof operator.

The problem: There's no indication that a parenthesized constant is a constant. So (int)3.14 is a constant expression, but (int)(3.14), strictly speaking, is not, because 3.14 is a floating constant but (3.14) is not.

It seems obvious that if (int)3.14 is an integer constant expression, then there's no reason that (int)(3.14) shouldn't be one as well, and though I haven't checked I suspect that all existing compilers treat it as one. If the wording of the standard is to be corrected, some care will have to be taken so that both (int)(3.14) and (int)((3.14)) are integer constant expressions

Infinite loops

ISO C 6.8.5 Iteration statements, paragraph 6

This was a change made in ISO C 2011.

6.8.5p6 says:

An iteration statement whose controlling expression is not a constant expression, that performs no input/output operations, does not access volatile objects, and performs no synchronization or atomic operations in its body, controlling expression, or (in the case of a for statement) its expression-3, may be assumed by the implementation to terminate.

with a footnote:

This is intended to allow compiler transformations such as removal of empty loops even when termination cannot be proven.

So this clause is all about enabling optimizations, and I'm guessing that it was influenced by the C compiler implementers on the committee.

I presume that they had good reasons for adding this, and that it makes a signicant difference in the performance of real-world code. And if you want to write an infinite loop deliberately, you can still do so because of the "constant expression" exception.

But it means that I can write code whose behavior is well defined in terms of pre-2011 C, and that can behave differently in C11. For example:

const int keep_going = 1;
while (keep_going) {
puts("This should never appear");

In C90 and C99, the message "This should never appear" will never be printed. In C11, because keep_going is not a constant expression, the compiler can legally assume that the loop terminates, and the message may or may not be printed.

I'd be interested in seeing cases where this additional permission is actually helpful.

Furthermore, I find the way this permission is worded to be clumsy. It's a statement about what the implementation is permitted to assume. What really matters is what the implementation is permitted to do. A better and more consistent way of expressing this, I think, would have been something like:

If an iteration statement whose controlling expression is not a constant expression, that performs no input/output operations, does not access volatile objects, and performs no synchronization or atomic operations in its body, controlling expression, or (in the case of a for statement) its expression-3 does not explicitly terminate, it is unspecified whether it terminates or not.

Or it could say that if such a loop does not terminate, the behavior is undefined -- but that would give compilers much more latitude than the current wording.

fgetc() when sizeof (int) == 1

ISO C The fgetc function

The standard makes some implicit assumptions about how character input works. If sizeof (int) == 1 (which requires CHAR_BIT >= 16), EOF isn't distinct from any valid char value. I think there are also some assumptions about how unsigned-to-signed conversion works; the result is implementation-defined, but some possible implementation definitions would break stdio character input. I need to study this further.

More stuff ...

... as I think of it.

Last updated Wed Mar 19 14:42:43 2014 -0700


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