techniques - turbo c tricks

Hidden features of C (20)

I know there is a standard behind all C compiler implementations, so there should be no hidden features. Despite that, I am sure all C developers have hidden/secret tricks they use all the time.

Constant string concatenation

I was quite surprised not seeing it allready in the answers, as all compilers I know of support it, but many programmers seems to ignore it. Sometimes it's really handy and not only when writing macros.

Use case I have in my current code: I have a #define PATH "/some/path/" in a configuration file (really it is setted by the makefile). Now I want to build the full path including filenames to open ressources. It just goes to:

fd = open(PATH "/file", flags);

Instead of the horrible, but very common:

char buffer[256];
snprintf(buffer, 256, "%s/file", PATH);
fd = open(buffer, flags);

Notice that the common horrible solution is:

  • three times as long
  • much less easy to read
  • much slower
  • less powerfull at it set to an arbitrary buffer size limit (but you would have to use even longer code to avoid that without constant strings contatenation).
  • use more stack space

initializing structure to zero

struct mystruct a = {0};

this will zero all stucture elements.

C has a standard but not all C compilers are fully compliant (I've not seen any fully compliant C99 compiler yet!).

That said, the tricks I prefer are those that are non-obvious and portable across platforms as they rely on the C semantic. They usually are about macros or bit arithmetic.

For example: swapping two unsigned integer without using a temporary variable:

a ^= b ; b ^= a; a ^=b;

or "extending C" to represent finite state machines like:

  STATE(x) {

  STATE(y) {
    if (x == 0) 

that can be achieved with the following macros:

#define FSM
#define STATE(x)      s_##x :
#define NEXTSTATE(x)  goto s_##x

In general, though, I don't like the tricks that are clever but make the code unnecessarily complicated to read (as the swap example) and I love the ones that make the code clearer and directly conveying the intention (like the FSM example).

C99 has some awesome any-order structure initialization.

struct foo{
  int x;
  int y;
  char* name;

void main(){
  struct foo f = { .y = 23, .name = "awesome", .x = -38 };

Compile-time assertions, as already discussed here.

//--- size of static_assertion array is negative if condition is not met
#define STATIC_ASSERT(condition) \
    typedef struct { \
        char static_assertion[condition ? 1 : -1]; \
    } static_assertion_t

//--- ensure structure fits in 
STATIC_ASSERT(sizeof(mystruct_t) <= 4096);

Compile-time assumption-checking using enums: Stupid example, but can be really useful for libraries with compile-time configurable constants.

#define D 1
#define DD 2

enum CompileTimeCheck
    MAKE_SURE_DD_IS_TWICE_D = 1/(2*(D) == (DD)),
    MAKE_SURE_DD_IS_POW2    = 1/((((DD) - 1) & (DD)) == 0)

Gcc (c) has some fun features you can enable, such as nested function declarations, and the a?:b form of the ?: operator, which returns a if a is not false.

I discoverd recently 0 bitfields.

struct {
  int    a:3;
  int    b:2;
  int     :0;
  int    c:4;
  int    d:3;

which will give a layout of

000aaabb 0ccccddd

instead of without the :0;

0000aaab bccccddd

The 0 width field tells that the following bitfields should be set on the next atomic entity (char)

I'm very fond of designated initializers, added in C99 (and supported in gcc for a long time):

#define FOO 16
#define BAR 3

myStructType_t myStuff[] = {
    [FOO] = { foo1, foo2, foo3 },
    [BAR] = { bar1, bar2, bar3 },

The array initialization is no longer position dependent. If you change the values of FOO or BAR, the array initialization will automatically correspond to their new value.

Interlacing structures like Duff's Device:

strncpy(to, from, count)
char *to, *from;
int count;
    int n = (count + 7) / 8;
    switch (count % 8) {
    case 0: do { *to = *from++;
    case 7:      *to = *from++;
    case 6:      *to = *from++;
    case 5:      *to = *from++;
    case 4:      *to = *from++;
    case 3:      *to = *from++;
    case 2:      *to = *from++;
    case 1:      *to = *from++;
               } while (--n > 0);

Multi-character constants:

int x = 'ABCD';

This sets x to 0x41424344 (or 0x44434241, depending on architecture).

EDIT: This technique is not portable, especially if you serialize the int. However, it can be extremely useful to create self-documenting enums. e.g.

enum state {
    stopped = 'STOP',
    running = 'RUN!',
    waiting = 'WAIT',

This makes it much simpler if you're looking at a raw memory dump and need to determine the value of an enum without having to look it up.

My favorite "hidden" feature of C, is the usage of %n in printf to write back to the stack. Normally printf pops the parameter values from the stack based on the format string, but %n can write them back.

Check out section 3.4.2 here. Can lead to a lot of nasty vulnerabilities.

Struct assignment is cool. Many people don't seem to realize that structs are values too, and can be assigned around, there is no need to use memcpy(), when a simple assignment does the trick.

For example, consider some imaginary 2D graphics library, it might define a type to represent an (integer) screen coordinate:

typedef struct {
   int x;
   int y;
} Point;

Now, you do things that might look "wrong", like write a function that creates a point initialized from function arguments, and returns it, like so:

Point point_new(int x, int y)
  Point p;
  p.x = x;
  p.y = y;
  return p;

This is safe, as long (of course) as the return value is copied by value using struct assignment:

Point origin;
origin = point_new(0, 0);

In this way you can write quite clean and object-oriented-ish code, all in plain standard C.

The comma operator isn't widely used. It can certainly be abused, but it can also be very useful. This use is the most common one:

for (int i=0; i<10; i++, doSomethingElse())
  /* whatever */

But you can use this operator anywhere. Observe:

int j = (printf("Assigning variable j\n"), getValueFromSomewhere());

Each statement is evaluated, but the value of the expression will be that of the last statement evaluated.

Well, I've never used it, and I'm not sure whether I'd ever recommend it to anyone, but I feel this question would be incomplete without a mention of Simon Tatham's co-routine trick.

Well... I think that one of the strong points of C language is its portability and standardness, so whenever I find some "hidden trick" in the implementation I am currently using, I try not to use it because I try to keep my C code as standard and portable as possible.

When using sscanf you can use %n to find out where you should continue to read:

sscanf ( string, "%d%n", &number, &length );
string += length;

Apparently, you can't add another answer, so I'll include a second one here, you can use "&&" and "||" as conditionals:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

int main()
   1 || puts("Hello\n");
   0 || puts("Hi\n");
   1 && puts("ROFL\n");
   0 && puts("LOL\n");

   exit( 0 );

This code will output:


anonymous structures and arrays is my favourite one. (cf.

setsockopt(yourSocket, SOL_SOCKET, SO_REUSEADDR, (int[]){1}, sizeof(int));


void myFunction(type* values) {
    while(*values) x=*values++;

it can even be used to instanciate linked lists...

the (hidden) feature that "shocked" me when I first saw is about printf. this feature allows you to use variables for formatting format specifiers themselves. look for the code, you will see better:

#include <stdio.h>

int main() {
    int a = 3;
    float b = 6.412355;
    return 0;

the * character achieves this effect.

using INT(3) to set break point at the code is my all time favorite