Lesson #18

Arrays: Declaring, Accessing, Initializing


In this lesson I will cover the following topics

  1. What is an array and how do you declare them and access their elements.

  2. The importance of arrays.

  3. How to initialize an array.


What is an array?

So far all of the variables we have talked about have been able to hold only a single value. While that is fine in many cases, it is also handy to have a way of storing a number of related values together. The C language provides two basic ways to create an "aggregate" variable. The first, that we will talk about now, is with arrays. The second, that we will talk about in Lesson #26, is with structures.

Here are the important characteristics of an array.

  1. It contains a group of variables that are presumably related in some way. The number of variables in the array is something you specify when you declare the array.

  2. The size of an array must be a constant. It can't change while the program executes. This is sometimes a significant disadvantage. There are ways of creating arrays that can change in size while the program runs, but doing so involves elaborate techniques that we won't discuss in this course.

  3. Every variable in the array has the same type.

  4. Although the array has a name, the individual variables in the array do not have names of their own. Instead you refer to them using an integer index. I will show you what I mean in just a moment.

  5. The individual variables in an array are called "elements" of the array.

Here is a simple example to illustrate.

#include <stdio.h>

int main(void)
  int i;            // An integer variable. I will use this as an index.
  int my_array[10]; // An array of 10 integer elements.

  // Load up the array with interesting numbers.
  for (i = 0; i < 10; i++) {
    my_array[i] = 2 * i;

  // Print out every array element.
  for (i = 0; i < 10; i++) {
    printf("Array element %d is %d\n", i, my_array[i]);

  return 0;

The array my_array contains 10 integers numbered from 0 to 9. It is important to remember that in C array indicies always start at zero. Thus the first element of my_array is my_array[0] and the last element of my_array is my_array[9]. Despite how it might look in the declaration, there is no my_array[10]. Forgetting this is a very common error.

As you can probably guess by now, you use square brackets to access a particular array element. For example, I could do

my_array[4] = 17;

To put the value 17 into the element my_array[4]. In this example, my_array is an array of integers so the value 17 is an appropriate value to store in the array. It is possible to create arrays of any type as I will show below. However the index into the array is always an integer.

In my example above, I wrote a loop that runs i from 0 to 9. I then use i as the array index so that different array elements are accessed during each loop pass. This is VERY common. People sometimes call this "scanning down an array" or "sweeping over an array." When that first loop is done it has stored the following values into the various array elements.

my_array[0] ==  0
my_array[1] ==  2
my_array[2] ==  4
my_array[3] ==  6
my_array[4] ==  8
my_array[5] == 10
my_array[6] == 12
my_array[7] == 14
my_array[8] == 16
my_array[9] == 18

My simple loop stores a value into each array element that is twice that element's index. You can probably imagine doing much more complicated things. In fact, in general, the value stored in an array element has nothing to do with the index. I just did that way here so that my example would be simple to write.

The fact that I can use any integer expression to index an array is a big advantage to using arrays. Suppose I wanted to create 10 separate variables to hold the values 0 through 18 in steps of two (like I'm doing with the array above). How would it look?

#include <stdio.h>

int main(void)
  int var_0;
  int var_1;
  int var_2;
  int var_3;
  int var_4;
  int var_5;
  int var_6;
  int var_7;
  int var_8;
  int var_9;

  var_0 =  0;
  var_1 =  2;
  var_2 =  4;
  var_3 =  6;
  var_4 =  8;
  var_5 = 10;
  var_6 = 12;
  var_7 = 14;
  var_8 = 16;
  var_9 = 18;

  // etc...

Can you say "ugly?" With arrays I was able to manipulate every element by writing a single expression involving a generic "ith" element and looping i over the entire range of the array. (If you are wondering how to pronouce "ith" think of it this way... you have "forth" to talk about element number 4, "fifth" to talk about element number 5, and "sixth" to talk about element number six. Thus to talk about element number i you should say "ith". Make sense?)

The advantage of arrays is even more apparent when the number of elements becomes large. You can create arrays with thousands (even millions) of elements. Can you just imagine trying to write a program with thousands or millions of different variables! Since most programs need to manipulate large quantities of data, arrays are incredibly useful and essential.

Before I move on, I just want to emphasize that you can create arrays of any type. Here is an example similar to the one above that loads an array with the square roots of the numbers from zero to 99.

#include <stdio.h>
#include <math.h>   // Needed for the sqrt function.

int main(void)
  double square_roots[100];
  int    i;

  // Figure out all these square roots and stash them for later.
  for (i = 0; i < 100; i++) {
    square_roots[i] = sqrt(i);

  // etc...

Here I declare square_roots to be an array of 100 doubles. Don't forget: that means I have square_roots[0] to square_roots[99] and no square_roots[100]. Next I run a loop over the range from 0 to 99 (note the < in the loop condition... it's not <=). For each pass of that loop I use the standard library function sqrt to compute the square root of i and I store that value into the ith array element.

My main point here is that I have an array of doubles and that I can store a double into each element. Notice that the index is still just an integer. Array indicies are always integers.

Actually doing things this way might be useful in real life too. Suppose that later in this program I wanted to use the square root of 2. I could just look it up in the array like this

printf("The square root of 2 is %f\n", square_roots[2]);

Of course I could also do this

printf("The square root of 2 is %f\n", sqrt(2));

However, looking up an array element is very fast. Computing a square root is slow. If my program needed to use the square roots of the integers from 0 to 99 many, many times it would be faster to precompute all the square roots, store them in an array, and then fetch them out of the array later as needed. Such an approach would not be appropriate for every program but in certain programs it might make a big improvement in performance.

Notice in my printfs above I used %f as a format specifier. That's because I'm trying to print an element of the array square_roots and those elements are doubles. A %d would be the wrong choice.

Off the end!

When you use an array you have to be very careful to never try and access an element that does not exist. Traditionally C compilers do not check for such errors. To do so would require, in general, that the compiler insert instructions into your program to verify each index before it is used. Such instructions would make your program larger and slower. C does not bother with such checks since correct programs don't need them. However as a consequence if your program is incorrect it will just end up doing strange things. Consider my first example where I load up the elements of my_array. I had a loop like this

for (i = 0; i < 10; i++) {
  my_array[i] = 2 * i;

This loop runs i from 0 to 9 which is just right since there are 10 elements in my_array. If the compiler inserted checks on the array indicies it would have effectively transformed the loop above into

for (i = 0; i < 10; i++) {
  if (i < 0 || i >= 10) {
  else {
    my_array[i] = 2 * i;

Many languages do check the bounds on arrays in a manner like this regardless of what the programmer wants. The problem is that in this case the extra checking is totally unnecessary. It is clear enough (to us) that the value of i will always be in bounds. The check is a waste of time. C does not bother with it because C was designed for high performance.

The bad news is that if the programmer gets it wrong, bad things happen without warning. Take a look at this version of the loop.

for (i = 0; i <= 10; i++) {
  my_array[i] = 2 * i;

Everything is fine until i is incremented to 10. The loop condition is still true and thus we end up trying to do

my_array[10] = 2 * 10;

The problem is that there is no my_array[10]. The statement above will store the value 20 into a "random" place in memory---a place that is probably being used by something else. When the program tries to access that something else it will have an unexpected value and the program will do something unpredictable. AVOID THIS AT ALL COST!

Most of the time when this happens the program will try to do something illegal such as access a memory location that has not been given to the program by the operating system. In that case, the operating system will catch the error and abort the program at once so as to prevent system wide damage. Under Unix you will see the message "core dumped" on the terminal. The program will be killed and a copy of its memory space will be written to a file named "core" in the working directory. This "core file" is sort of like the program's dead body. Using the debugger you can examine the file (like doing an autopsy) and find out what went wrong.

Under Windows instead of seeing "core dumped" you will get a message box with a red X icon that says "This program has performed an illegal operation and must be shut down." If you've used Windows much you have probably seen this message before. It is due to an error in the program (not necessarily an error in Windows as some people think).

If you are very unlucky the "unpredictable" thing your program does after you go off the end of an array will not be strictly illegal in the eyes of the operating system, but will still be highly undesirable to you. For example, the program might go crazy and delete all of your files. This is highly unlikely, but it is possible. The bottom line: do not ever try to access an array element that doesn't exist. In the interests of speed C does not check for this; yet if you do it bad things will happen.

Initializing arrays.

You can initialize an individual variable when you declare it using a syntax like this

int max = 100;

You can also initialize an array when you declare it. If you do not initialize an array, the elements are all initialized according to the usual rules. Static duration arrays (global arrays and local arrays with declared with the "static" keyword) have all their elements initialized to zero. Automatic duration arrays (ordinary local arrays) come to life with unpredictable values in their elements. To explicitly initialize an array you can write

int table[5] = { 45, -2, 37, 101, 6 };

In this example, table[0] is being initialized to 45, table[1] is being initialized to -2, etc. Notice that the initializers are integers here because Table is an array of integers. Here is another example using an array of characters.

char hex_digits[16] =
  { '0', '1', '2', '3', 
    '4', '5', '6', '7', 
    '8', '9', 'A', 'B', 
    'C', 'D', 'E', 'F' };

Each element of the array is a character and is being intialized with a character constant. I put the initializers on separate lines to make them look nicer. As always, the spacing doesn't matter. What matters is that there is a comma between each initializer and braces around the entire list. Notice the semicolon at the end of the statement. The braces that are used in if statements, loops, etc, do not have a semicolon after them. But these braces are different and the semicolon is required here.

In my examples so far I've created an array with exactly the same size as the number of initializers. This is not actually necessary. If you specify a larger array the extra elements are all initialized to zero. For example

int table[100] = { 1 };

causes table[0] to be initialized to 1 and all the other elements to be initialized to zero. There is no way to specify initializers that are just "in the middle" of the array. The initializers always start with element zero.

If you have more initializers than you have space in the array, the compiler will call it an error. For example

int table[3] = { 1, 2, 3, 4, 5};

is an error. This only makes sense. How can you fit five initializers into an array of three elements? However, as a special case, if you don't specify the size of the array at all, the compiler will count the initializers and use that for the size. This is very handy and commonly done.

int table[] = { 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 };

In this case the compiler gives the array five elements so that it can exactly hold the initializers. A common thing to do is something like this

int table[] = { 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 };
int table_size = sizeof(table)/sizeof(int);

The sizeof operator gives the amount of memory (in bytes) used by whatever it is applied to. Thus sizeof(table) is the total number of bytes used by the table array. Similary, sizeof(int) is the number of bytes used by an integer. By dividing those two quantities you can compute the number of elements in the table. This approach is very handy if you create a large, initialized array. You probably don't want to count all the elements yourself (imagine that there might be hundreds). Instead you just let the compiler do it. However, you probably do need to know how many elements there are so that you can write proper loops:

for (i = 0; i < table_size; i++) {
  // Expression involving table[i].

One last rule you should know with regards to array initialization is this: you can only initialize an array with constants. This is true even for automatic arrays. For example, you can't do this

void f(int start)
  int table[3] = { start + 1, start + 2, start + 3 };
  // etc...

Instead you would have to do this

void f(int start)
  int table[3] = { 1, 2, 3 };
  int i;

  for (i = 0; i < 3; i++) {
    table[i] += start;
  // etc...

In other words you have to make your run-time calculations explicitly part of your function. You can't have the compiler set them up for you as part of an array initialization. C++ lifts this restriction.


  1. An array is a collection of variables that all go together under the same name. Each variable in an array is called an "element" and must be accessed by specifying it's numeric place in the array. If you declare an array named my_array to have 100 elements, then you can refer to the first element by writing my_array[0], the second element by writing my_array[1], and so on. Array elements are always numbered starting at zero.

    Each array element acts like a totally independent variable. You are free to put whatever value you like in an element. It doesn't matter what value might be in any other element. Typically array elements are being used for some related purpose so that they can be operated on "generically" inside of a loop. This is the way it typically looks:

    double my_array[100];
      // Declares my_array to have 100 doubles. You can create arrays of
      // any type.
    int index;
      // Array indicies must be integers.
    for (index = 0; index < 100; index++) {
      // Some operation on my_array[index].

    This allows you to perform a related operation on a large number of variables easily.

  2. Arrays are essential. Almost every program uses them. Programs often need to manipulate large quantities of data and that data is often stored in an array.

  3. You can initialize an array when you declare it by using curly braces around a list of initializers. It looks like this:

    int my_array[] = { 10, 12, -34, 9823, 1 };
      /* my_array has 5 elements. my_array[0] is given the value 10,
         my_array[1] is given the value 12, and so forth. */

    Initializing an array is commonly done, but it is not always necessary.

© Copyright 2003 by Peter C. Chapin.
Last Revised: July 15, 2003