Compatibility of C and C++

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The C and C++ programming languages are closely related. C++ grew out of C, as it was designed to be source-and-link compatible with C.[1] Due to this, development tools for the two languages (such as IDEs and compilers) are often integrated into a single product, with the programmer able to specify C or C++ as their source language. However, due to minor semantic differences, most non-trivial C programs will not compile as C++ code without modification — C++ is not a superset of C.[2]

Likewise, C++ introduces many features that are not available in C and in practice almost all code written in C++ is not conforming C code. This article, however, focuses on differences that cause conforming C code to be ill-formed C++ code, or to be conforming/well-formed in both languages, but to behave differently in C and C++.

Bjarne Stroustrup, the creator of C++, has suggested[3] that the incompatibilities between C and C++ should be reduced as much as possible in order to maximize inter-operability between the two languages. Others have argued that since C and C++ are two different languages, compatibility between them is useful but not vital; according to this camp, efforts to reduce incompatibility should not hinder attempts to improve each language in isolation. The official rationale for the 1999 C standard (C99) "endorse[d] the principle of maintaining the largest common subset" between C and C++ "while maintaining a distinction between them and allowing them to evolve separately", and stated that the authors were "content to let C++ be the big and ambitious language."[4]

Several additions of C99 are or were not supported in C++ or conflicted with C++ features, such as variadic macros, compound literals, designated initializers, variable-length arrays, and native complex number types. The long long int datatype and restrict type qualifier defined in C99 were not included in the C++03 standard, but most mainstream compilers such as the GNU Compiler Collection,[5] Microsoft Visual C++, and Intel C++ Compiler provided them as an extension. The long long datatype along with variadic macros are present in the new C++ standard, C++11. On the other hand, C99 has reduced some other incompatibilities by incorporating C++ features such as // comments and mixed declarations and code.[6]

Constructs valid in C but not in C++[edit]

One commonly encountered difference is that C allows a void* pointer to be assigned to any pointer type without a cast, whereas C++ does not; this idiom appears often in C code using malloc memory allocation.[7] For example, the following is valid in C but not C++:

void* ptr;
int *i = ptr;       /* Implicit conversion from void* to int* */

or similarly:

int *j = malloc(sizeof(int) * 5);     /* Implicit conversion from void* to int* */

In order to make the code compile in C++, one must use an explicit cast:

void* ptr;
int *i = (int *) ptr;
int *j = (int *) malloc(sizeof(int) * 5);

Another portability issue from C to C++ are the numerous additional keywords that C++ introduced. This makes C code that uses them as identifiers invalid in C++. For example:

struct template 
{
    int new;
    struct template* class;
};

is valid C code, but is rejected by a C++ compiler, since the keywords "template", "new" and "class" are reserved.

C++ compilers prohibit using goto or switch from crossing an initialization, as in the following C99 code:

void fn(void)
{
  goto flack;
  int i = 1;
flack:
  ;
}

There are many other C syntaxes which are invalid or behave differently in C++:[8]

  • The comma operator can result in an "l-value" (a quantity that can be used for the left-hand side of an assignment) in C++, but not in C.
  • C does not allow a given typedef to be duplicated in the same scope, whereas C++ allows repeated typedefs. Note that this is only true for C99 and before. C11 allows duplicate typedef names.[9]
  • Enumeration constants (enum values) are always of type int in C, whereas they are distinct types in C++ and may have a size different from that of int.
  • C++ also changes some C standard library functions to add additional polymorphic functions with const type qualifiers, e.g. strchr returns char* in C, while C++ acts as if there were two polymorphic functions const char *strchr(const char *) and a char *strchr(char *).
  • In both C and C++, one can define nested struct types, but the scope is interpreted differently (in C++, a nested struct is defined only within the scope/namespace of the outer struct).
  • Non-prototype ("K&R"-style) function declarations are not allowed in C++, although they have also been deprecated in C since 1990. Similarly, implicit function declarations (using functions that have not been declared) are not allowed in C++, but have also been deprecated in C since 1999.
  • C allows struct, union, and enum types to be declared in function prototypes, whereas C++ does not.
  • A struct, union, or enum declaration in C++ usually results in an implicit typedef of the same name, while in C, it does not.
  • In C, a function prototype without arguments, e.g. int foo();, implies that the parameters are unspecified. Therefore, it is legal to call such a function with one or more arguments, e.g. foo(42, "hello world"). In contrast, in C++ a function prototype without arguments means that the function takes no arguments, and calling such a function with arguments is ill-formed. In C, the correct way to declare a function that takes no arguments is by using 'void', as in int foo(void);.
  • C++ is more strict than C about pointer assignments that discard a const qualifier (e.g. assigning a const int* value to an int* variable): in C++ this is invalid and generates a compiler error (unless an explicit typecast is used),[10] whereas in C this is allowed (although many compilers emit a warning).
  • C++ allows to use const variable in case: operator, C doesn't. Also in C++ const variable must be initialized, in C it's not necessary.
  • in C99 and above, the _Complex type exists to represent complex numbers. This data type does not currently exist at all in any standard of C++, which instead provides its own specialized class, std::complex, to represent complex numbers. Some compilers, such as GCC, provide _Complex as a C++ extension.
  • Initialization designators can be used to initialize elements of an array by index, e.g. int foo[] = { [42] = 1, [0] = -1 };

Constructs that behave differently in C and C++[edit]

There are a few syntactical constructs that are valid in both C and C++, but produce different results in the two languages.[11]

For example, character literals such as 'a' are of type int in C and of type char in C++, which means that sizeof 'a' will generally give different results in the two languages: in C++, it will be 1, while in C it will be sizeof(int) which on architectures with 8 bit wide char will be at least 2. As another consequence of this type difference, in C, 'a' will always be a signed expression, regardless of whether or not char is a signed or unsigned type, whereas for C++ this is compiler implementation specific.

C++ implicitly treats any const global as file scope unless it is explicitly declared extern, unlike C in which extern is the default. Conversely, inline functions in C are of file scope whereas they have external linkage by default in C++.[7]

Several of the other differences from the previous section can also be exploited to create code that compiles in both languages but behaves differently. For example, the following function will return different values in C and C++:

extern int T;
 
int size(void)
{
    struct T {  int i;  int j;  };
 
    return sizeof(T);
    /* C:   return sizeof(int)
     * C++: return sizeof(struct T)
     */
}

This is due to C requiring struct in front of structure tags (and so sizeof(T) refers to the variable), but C++ allowing it to be omitted (and so sizeof(T) refers to the implicit typedef). Beware that the outcome is different when the extern declaration is placed inside the function: then the presence of an identifier with same name in the function scope inhibits the implicit typedef to take effect for C++, and the outcome for C and C++ would be the same. Observe also that the ambiguity in the example above is due to the use of the parenthesis with the sizeof operator. Using sizeof T would expect T to be an expression and not a type, and thus the example would not compile with C++.

Both C99 and C++ have a boolean type bool with constants true and false, but they behave differently. In C++, bool is a built-in type and a reserved keyword. In C99, a new keyword, _Bool, is introduced as the new boolean type. In many aspects, it behaves much like an unsigned int, but conversions from other integer types or pointers always constrained to 0 and 1. Other than for other unsigned types, and as one would expect for a boolean type, such a conversion is 0 if and only if the expression in question evaluates to 0 and it is 1 in all other cases. The header stdbool.h provides macros bool, true and false that are defined as _Bool, 1 and 0, respectively.

Linking C and C++ code[edit]

While C and C++ maintain a large degree of source compatibility, the object files their respective compilers produce can have important differences that manifest themselves when intermixing C and C++ code. Notably:

  • C compilers do not name mangle symbols in the way that C++ compilers do.[12]
  • Depending on the compiler and architecture, it also may be the case that calling conventions differ between the two languages.

For these reasons, for C++ code to call a C function foo(), the C++ code must prototype foo() with extern "C". Likewise, for C code to call a C++ function bar(), the C++ code for bar() must be declared with extern "C".

A common practice for header files to maintain both C and C++ compatibility is to make its declaration be extern "C" for the scope of the header:[13]

/* Header file foo.h */
#ifdef __cplusplus /* If this is a C++ compiler, use C linkage */
extern "C" {
#endif
 
/* These functions get C linkage */
void foo();
 
struct bar { /* ... */ };
 
#ifdef __cplusplus /* If this is a C++ compiler, end C linkage */
}
#endif

Differences between C and C++ linkage and calling conventions can also have subtle implications for code that uses function pointers. Some compilers will produce non-working code if a function pointer declared extern "C" points to a C++ function that is not declared extern "C".[14]

For example, the following code:

void my_function();
extern "C" void foo(void (*fn_ptr)(void));
 
void bar()
{
   foo(my_function);
}

Using Sun Microsystems' C++ compiler, this produces the following warning:

$ CC -c test.cc
"test.cc", line 6: Warning (Anachronism): Formal argument fn_ptr of type
extern "C" void(*)() in call to foo(extern "C" void(*)()) is being passed
void(*)().

This is because my_function() is not declared with C linkage and calling conventions, but is being passed to the C function foo().

References[edit]

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