Lesson #5

Built-in Arithmetic Types


The two programs printf_demo.c and types_demo.c are demonstration programs that you should compile and try out as part of this lesson. They are discussed more below.

In this lesson I will cover the following topics

  1. The C language types.

  2. How to print values of each type.

  3. How to declare and initialize variables.

  4. Variable names.


The type int

Programs that just output strings like "Hello, World" are friendly, but not too interesting. To do useful work, you will need to create and use variables. A variable is an entity that holds a value.

In C every variable has some sort of type. The type defines what kind of values can be stored in that variable and the range on those values. Different types have different properties, so choosing the right type for each of your variables is an important activity.

C also requires that you declare every variable before you use it. The compiler will object to any variable that it encounters in your program that is undeclared. The declaration tells the compiler the type of the variable (which the compiler needs to know in order to handle the variable correctly), its name, and its initial value, if any.

The most common type in C programs is the type int. Variables of type int can only hold integers such as 6, 3219, or -21. You can't store a value with a fractional part, such as 3.14, into an integer variable. This might sound limiting, but the good news is that integers don't take up much memory and are quite fast to manipulate. Thus you should use int for all of your variables unless you have a specific reason to use one of the other types. Below is a small program the demonstrates how integers might be used. The line numbers are not part of the program; I have included them to facilitate my discussion below.

(For the sake of brevity I have also left off the required comment block at the top of this program. In these lessons I will bend the rules of the VTC style guide in order to keep my presentation short and to the point. However, my example programs will conform to the guide)

   2: #include <stdio.h>
   4: int main( void )
   5: {
   6:     int age;
   8:     // Get the user's age.
   9:     printf( "How old are you? " );
  10:     scanf( "%d", &age );
  12:     // Let the user know what we got.
  13:     printf( "I understand that you are %d years old.\n", age );
  14:     return 0;
  15: }

On line 6 I create a variable named age and I tell the compiler that it is of type int.

On line 9 I print out a message asking the user how old he/she is. Notice that I didn't put a '\n' at the end. What effect does that have? Notice also that I did put a space there. That makes the output look nicer. I appreciate attention to these sorts of details. Your users will too. On line 10 I used function scanf from the standard library to read an integer value from the terminal. Let's take a closer look at that

  scanf( "%d",              &age );
  //      ^Format string     ^Place to put result.

The first argument to scanf is a character string (inside double quotation marks) that defines what we are looking for. In this case we are looking for a decimal integer (%d). The second argument, separated from the first by a comma, is the place where we want that integer value to go. An '&' is required here for reasons that I won't get into at this time. You need to know that if you leave the '&' off your program won't work---but it will still compile! This is a common error so watch out for it.

The overall effect of the call to scanf (when a function is used we say that it is "called") is to read an integer value from the terminal and put that value into the variable named age.

On line 13 I print that value back out again using printf. The printf function works similarly to scanf. The first argument is a format string that optionally contains format specifiers (%d is a format specifier that says to print an integer). If the format string contains format specifiers, the values to be printed appear as additional arguments to printf.

  printf( "Your age is: %d\n", age );
  //                    ^      |
  //                    |      |
  //                    +------+

Here I'm trying to show that the value of age is used to replace the %d in the format string. The printf function has many features. By inserting special characters between the '%' and the 'd' in the format specifier you can control the size of the output field and many other things.

The sample program printf_demo.c demonstrates many of printf's features. I suggest that you compile it and try it out. Compare the output you get with the program itself to see how some of printf's features work. The program printf_demo.c demonstrates features you might never want to use. But some of the features demonstrated are quite handy. If you are interested in reading about all of the details, check out your text or online references.

Now let's do a simple calculation using integers.

   2: #include <stdio.h>
   4: int main( void )
   5: {
   6:     int age;
   8:     printf( "What is your age? " );
   9:     scanf( "%d", &age );
  11:     age = age + 1;
  13:     printf( "At your next birthday you will be %d years old.\n", age );
  14:     return 0;
  15: }

On line 11 I compute a new value for age. In particular, I take the original value (as entered by the user on line 9), add one to it, and store the result back into the variable age. It is important to understand that = is not like '=' in algebra. An expression like age = age + 1 doesn't make any sense mathematically. (If you subtract age from both sides it seems to say that 0 = 1). But this is programming, not math. The = is not an assertion, it is an action. It says "take the value of the stuff on the right and put it into the place on the left." Thus age = age + 1 merely gives age a new value that happens (in this case) to be based on the old one. The = operator is called the assignment operator because you use it to assign a new value to a variable.

Actually, line 11 is unnecessary. I could have computed the new value of age right when I printed it.

  printf( "Next year you will be %d\n", age + 1 );

This differs from the first program, however, because in this case the value of age is not modified.

The other built-in types

The fact that variables of the type int can only hold integers might seem like a major drawback. Surprisingly it usually isn't. For many programs integers are good enough and they have the advantage of being very fast. However, it is true that there are times when other types are necessary. Here is a complete list of C's built-in types, with my comments.

short int

Variables of type short int may take up less memory than variables of type int. They are useful in cases where you need a very large number of variables and you are running out of memory. The disadvantage to them is that they can't hold as large a range of values. For example, on most modern machines variables of type int range from -2,147,483,648 to +2,147,483,647 (these strange values are actually round numbers in the computer world. In particular they are: -231 and 231 - 1). However, variables of type short int typically range from only -32,768 to +32,767 (that is: -215 to 215 - 1).

long int

Variables of type long int may have a greater range than variables of type int at the expense of taking up more memory. On some machines, long integers are 64 bits in size and range from -263 to 263 - 1. This is a very large range!

Typical C compilers that target 32 bit processors use 32 bit integers for both int and long int. This might seem strange but it is done because such processors can not manipulate 64 bit quantities as efficiently as one might like.

This might cause you to wonder: if int and long int are identical on such systems, why do those systems bother having both? It is done so that programs written for one machine will still at least make sense on another. The C standard requires that all compilers support three different "sizes" of integer, but it does not specify exactly what those sizes should be. The standard only requires that the types have a certain minimum size and that their sizes obey a rather loose ordering constraint. This means:

  1. You shouldn't assume any particular size for any of the types except for the standard required minimum. If you do your program might malfunction when you compile it on a different system. On the other hand, if you know that you are never going to compile your program on a different system, you can take full advantage of that system's special features.

  2. C compilers can be created for a wide variety of systems without compilers on "weak" systems having to do superhuman things to meet the standard requirements. This means that programs on weak systems can be faster and more efficient than they otherwise would be.

long long int

Starting with the C99 standard, C compilers are required to support the type long long int. This type is at least 64 bits in size and can thus hold a potentially very large range of values. Be aware, however, that long long int is not required by the earlier C standard and may not be available on older compilers.

unsigned int, unsigned short int, unsigned long int

These types are just like their signed counterparts except that they can't hold negative values. The advantage is that their range in the positive direction is twice as great. In addition, the unsigned types are better behaved in certain advanced operations (bit manipulation) that we will discuss at the very end of this course.

The unsigned types are trickier to use than they look. In particular, an unsigned integer can never be less than zero. This fact causes unpleasant surprises at times. I recommend that you stay away from the unsigned types unless you know exactly what you are doing.

C99 compilers also provide the 64 bit type unsigned long long int.

For all the integral types except for int itself, the word "int" is optional. In fact, it is hardly ever used. For example:

  int main( void )
      int            variable_1;
      short          variable_2;  // Really "short int"
      long           variable_3;  // Really "long int"
      unsigned       variable_4;  // Really "unsigned int"
      unsigned short variable_5;  // Really "unsigned short int"
      unsigned long  variable_6;  // Really "unsigned long int"

      // etc...
      return 0;

char, signed char, unsigned char

Many programs make extensive use of characters (letters). To deal with that C has a type char that is used to hold individual characters. The type char is really a small number. On many systems characters are associated with numbers by way of the ASCII encoding. Every letter, both upper and lower case, every digit and punctuation mark, and even the special control characters have associated numbers. These are small numbers in the range from 0 to 127. Variables of type char can hold such numbers.

  int main( void )
      char variable_1;
      char variable_2;

      variable_1 = 'x';
      variable_2 = 102;

      // etc...
      return 0;

When you put single quotes around a letter, the C compiler replaces that letter with its ASCII code. Above I'm assigning the ASCII code for the letter 'x' to variable_1. However, you can treat character variables like normal integers with a very small range. I can safely put the value of 102 into variable_2 because it is in the range 0 to 127.

What is the point of char variables? Actually they are very important. Many programs manipulate text, and text is nothing more than a large number of characters. Variables of type character take up very little memory (typically 8 bits) so they are also useful when dealing with a large number of small numbers.

If you do want to use character variables to hold numbers and don't care about text (and that is actually fairly rare) you might want to explicitly specify signed char or unsigned char. The type signed char has a minimum range from -128 to +127. It assures you that you can store negative values. The type unsigned char has a minimum range from 0 to 255. It assures you that you can use every bit in a byte. Actually the type char is exactly the same as either signed char or unsigned char. However, each compiler chooses which of those types are identical for itself. The only numbers you can be sure will fit into an ordinary char variable are 0 to 127.

float, double, long double

Some programs need to work with numbers that have a fractional part. Such numbers are called floating point numbers. C has three different floating point types: float, double, and long double. I've named these types in order of increasing precision and range. For example, the type float might support about 6 decimal digits of precision and a range of about +/- 1e38 (that's 1 times 10 raised to the power of 38). The type double might have 15 digits of precision and a range of +/- 1e308. The type long double might have 18 digits of precision and a range of +/- 1e4932.

I say "might have" because the exact ranges depend on the compiler. As with integers, the C standard defines only certain minimums. Also the exact ranges are strange looking numbers (not round) that are related to the way the floating point values are stored in memory.

It is actually quite rare for a program to need floating point numbers. Although they are a must for some programs, many programs don't use them at all. You should not use floating point numbers unless you absolutely must. They are sometimes slower and possibly far slower than integers and often take up more memory as well. In addition, floating point math is not exact. Due to the way the machine works, calculations like

  sqrt( 25.00000000 ) - 5.00000000

might actually give you a result of 1.293772494e-28 or some other strange value (the "e-28" at the end means "times 10 to the -28th power). When you do integer calculations, 5 - 5 is always exactly zero. The lesson to be learned here is: don't mess with floating point numbers unless you absolutely have to. Then, when you do, make sure you know what you are doing!

The sample program, types_demo.c, demonstrates all the built-in types that I have discussed so far. It also shows how you can print out each of the various built-in types using different format specifiers with printf. Compile that program and try it out. Compare the output with the program's listing.

Initializing variables

When you declare a variable the initial value that variable has is undefined. Using a variable without first giving it a value is a common error. Most compilers will produce a warning message if they see you doing it. Unfortunately it isn't always possible for a compiler to know for sure if you are using an uninitialized variable or not. Warning messages are not technically errors as far as the compiler is concerned, but they often point out strange or illogical things that you did. If you get a warning message from the compiler, you should investigate it!

If you want to give a variable an initial value when you declare it, you can do that like this

  int sum = 0;

This statement declares sum to be an integer and gives it an initial value of zero. You can initialize a variable with any value you like. Here is another example.

  double pi = 3.14159;

Variable names

This lesson would not be complete without a few comments about variable names. You can make your program much easier to understand if you choose variable names that reflect how the variable will be used. Generic names like "x" and "y" should be avoided (unless your variables are intended to be Cartesian coordinates). Choose names that are descriptive even if they are a bit long. Down the road you will be much happier with your program!

People vary in how to handle the issue of capitalization in variable names. C is case sensitive so if you declare a variable with a capital letter, then you must use it that way throughout your program. Here are a couple of different styles.

  int first_value;  // 1
  int First_Value;  // 2
  int FirstValue;   // 3
  int firstValue;   // 4

I, personally, prefer style #1 for my C programs. However, there are advocates for each of the styles above. The VTC style guide is relatively silent on this matter. This gives you the opportunity to explore the options a bit for yourself. However, the style guide does require that your variable names be spelled correctly or be "well known" abbreviations. Don't use something like "f_value" for the first value.

The language requires that variable names contain only letters, digits, or the underscore character ('_'). Names can't start with a digit and shouldn't start with an underscore. Names can be very long.


  1. The C language allows you to work with several different types of data. This allows you to choose a type that is the most efficient for your needs. In many programs, only integers are needed and integers should be used when possible (over floating point numbers) since they are more efficient and better behaved.

  2. To print the value of a variable, you must give printf a format string containing format specifiers. Each type of variable requires a different format specifier (see types_demo.c). For example, to print a float:

      float answer;
      printf( "The answer is: %f\n", answer );
  3. Every variable needs to be declared before you can use it. Declarations specify the type of the variable followed by the name of the variable. The initial value give to a variable is (normally) random. You can specify an initial value when you declare a variable. For example:

      int size = 10000;  // Give size an initial value of 10000.
  4. Variable names should be descriptive and clear. Used correctly spelled words or well known abbreviations. The style guide requires this.

© Copyright 2016 by Peter C. Chapin.
Last Revised: January 11, 2016