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32 Types Part V: Compound Literals and Generic Selections

This is the final chapter for types! We’re going to talk about two things:

They’re not particularly related, but don’t really each warrant their own chapters. So I crammed them in here like a rebel!

32.1 Compound Literals

This is a neat feature of the language that allows you to create an object of some type on the fly without ever assigning it to a variable. You can make simple types, arrays, structs, you name it.

One of the main uses for this is passing complex arguments to functions when you don’t want to make a temporary variable to hold the value.

The way you create a compound literal is to put the type name in parentheses, and then put an initializer list after. For example, an unnamed array of ints, might look like this:

(int []){1,2,3,4}

Now, that line of code doesn’t do anything on its own. It creates an unnamed array of 4 ints, and then throws them away without using them.

We could use a pointer to store a reference to the array…

int *p = (int []){1 ,2 ,3 ,4};

printf("%d\n", p[1]);  // 2

But that seems a little like a long-winded way to have an array. I mean, we could have just done this177:

int p[] = {1, 2, 3, 4};

printf("%d\n", p[1]);  // 2

So let’s take a look at a more useful example.

32.1.1 Passing Unnamed Objects to Functions

Let’s say we have a function to sum an array of ints:

int sum(int p[], int count)
    int total = 0;

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

    return total;

If we wanted to call it, we’d normally have to do something like this, declaring an array and storing values in it to pass to the function:

int a[] = {1, 2, 3, 4};

int s = sum(a, 4);

But unnamed objects give us a way to skip the variable by passing it directly in (parameter names listed above). Check it out—we’re going to replace the variable a with an unnamed array that we pass in as the first argument:

//                   p[]         count
//           |-----------------|  |
int s = sum((int []){1, 2, 3, 4}, 4);

Pretty slick!

32.1.2 Unnamed structs

We can do something similar with structs.

First, let’s do things without unnamed objects. We’ll define a struct to hold some x/y coordinates. Then we’ll define one, passing in values into its initializer. Finally, we’ll pass it to a function to print the values:

#include <stdio.h>

struct coord {
    int x, y;

void print_coord(struct coord c)
    printf("%d, %d\n", c.x, c.y);

int main(void)
    struct coord t = {.x=10, .y=20};

    print_coord(t);   // prints "10, 20"

Straightforward enough?

Let’s modify it to use an unnamed object instead of the variable t we’re passing to print_coord().

We’ll just take t out of there and replace it with an unnamed struct:

    //struct coord t = {.x=10, .y=20};

    print_coord((struct coord){.x=10, .y=20});   // prints "10, 20"

Still works!

32.1.3 Pointers to Unnamed Objects

You might have noticed in the last example that even through we were using a struct, we were passing a copy of the struct to print_coord() as opposed to passing a pointer to the struct.

Turns out, we can just take the address of an unnamed object with & like always.

This is because, in general, if an operator would have worked on a variable of that type, you can use that operator on an unnamed object of that type.

Let’s modify the above code so that we pass a pointer to an unnamed object

#include <stdio.h>

struct coord {
    int x, y;

void print_coord(struct coord *c)
    printf("%d, %d\n", c->x, c->y);

int main(void)
    //     Note the &
    //          |
    print_coord(&(struct coord){.x=10, .y=20});   // prints "10, 20"

Additionally, this can be a nice way to pass even pointers to simple objects:

// Pass a pointer to an int with value 3490

Easy as that.

32.1.4 Unnamed Objects and Scope

The lifetime of an unnamed object ends at the end of its scope. The biggest way this could bite you is if you make a new unnamed object, get a pointer to it, and then leave the object’s scope. In that case, the pointer will refer to a dead object.

So this is undefined behavior:

int *p;

    p = &(int){10};

printf("%d\n", *p);  // INVALID: The (int){10} fell out of scope

Likewise, you can’t return a pointer to an unnamed object from a function. The object is deallocated when it falls out of scope:

#include <stdio.h>

int *get3490(void)
    // Don't do this
    return &(int){3490};

int main(void)
    printf("%d\n", *get3490());  // INVALID: (int){3490} fell out of scope

Just think of their scope like that of an ordinary local variable. You can’t return a pointer to a local variable, either.

32.1.5 Silly Unnamed Object Example

You can put any type in there and make an unnamed object.

For example, these are effectively equivalent:

int x = 3490;

printf("%d\n", x);               // 3490 (variable)
printf("%d\n", 3490);            // 3490 (constant)
printf("%d\n", (int){3490});     // 3490 (unnamed object)

That last one is unnamed, but it’s silly. Might as well do the simple one on the line before.

But hopefully that provides a little more clarity on the syntax.

32.2 Generic Selections

This is an expression that allows you to select different pieces of code depending on the type of the first argument to the expression.

We’ll look at an example in just a second, but it’s important to know this is processed at compile time, not at runtime. There’s no runtime analysis going on here.

The expression begins with _Generic, works kinda like a switch, and it takes at least two arguments.

The first argument is an expression (or variable178) that has a type. All expressions have a type. The remaining arguments to _Generic are the cases of what to substitute in for the result of the expression if the first argument is that type.


Let’s try it out and see.

#include <stdio.h>

int main(void)
    int i;
    float f;
    char c;

    char *s = _Generic(i,
                    int: "that variable is an int",
                    float: "that variable is a float",
                    default: "that variable is some type"

    printf("%s\n", s);

Check out the _Generic expression starting on line 9.

When the compiler sees it, it looks at the type of the first argument. (In this example, the type of the variable i.) It then looks through the cases for something of that type. And then it substitutes the argument in place of the entire _Generic expression.

In this case, i is an int, so it matches that case. Then the string is substituted in for the expression. So the line turns into this when the compiler sees it:

    char *s = "that variable is an int";

If the compiler can’t find a type match in the _Generic, it looks for the optional default case and uses that.

If it can’t find a type match and there’s no default, you’ll get a compile error. The first expression must match one of the types or default.

Because it’s inconvenient to write _Generic over and over, it’s often used to make the body of a macro that can be easily repeatedly reused.

Let’s make a macro TYPESTR(x) that takes an argument and returns a string with the type of the argument.

So TYPESTR(1) will return the string "int", for example.

Here we go:

#include <stdio.h>

#define TYPESTR(x) _Generic((x), \
                        int: "int", \
                        long: "long", \
                        float: "float", \
                        double: "double", \
                        default: "something else")

int main(void)
    int i;
    long l;
    float f;
    double d;
    char c;

    printf("i is type %s\n", TYPESTR(i));
    printf("l is type %s\n", TYPESTR(l));
    printf("f is type %s\n", TYPESTR(f));
    printf("d is type %s\n", TYPESTR(d));
    printf("c is type %s\n", TYPESTR(c));

This outputs:

i is type int
l is type long
f is type float
d is type double
c is type something else

Which should be no surprise, because, like we said, that code in main() is replaced with the following when it is compiled:

    printf("i is type %s\n", "int");
    printf("l is type %s\n", "long");
    printf("f is type %s\n", "float");
    printf("d is type %s\n", "double");
    printf("c is type %s\n", "something else");

And that’s exactly the output we see.

Let’s do one more. I’ve included some macros here so that when you run:

int i = 10;
char *s = "Foo!";


you get the output:

i = 10
s = Foo!

We’ll have to make use of some macro magic to do that.

#include <stdio.h>
#include <string.h>

// Macro that gives back a format specifier for a type
#define FMTSPEC(x) _Generic((x), \
                        int: "%d", \
                        long: "%ld", \
                        float: "%f", \
                        double: "%f", \
                        char *: "%s")
                        // TODO: add more types
// Macro that prints a variable in the form "name = value"
#define PRINT_VAL(x) do { \
    char fmt[512]; \
    snprintf(fmt, sizeof fmt, #x " = %s\n", FMTSPEC(x)); \
    printf(fmt, (x)); \
} while(0)

int main(void)
    int i = 10;
    float f = 3.14159;
    char *s = "Hello, world!";


for the output:

i = 10
f = 3.141590
s = Hello, world!

We could have crammed that all in one big macro, but I broke it into two to prevent eye bleeding.

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