Variadic function

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In mathematics and in computer programming, a variadic function is a function of indefinite arity, i.e., one which accepts a variable number of arguments. Support for variadic functions differs widely among programming languages.

The term variadic is a neologism, dating back to 1936–1937.[1] The term was not widely used until the 1970s.


There are many mathematical and logical operations that come across naturally as variadic functions. For instance, the summing of numbers or the concatenation of strings or other sequences are operations that can be thought of as applicable to any number of operands (even though formally in these cases the associative property is applied).

Another operation that has been implemented as a variadic function in many languages is output formatting. The C function printf and the Common Lisp function format are two such examples. Both take one argument that specifies the formatting of the output, and any number of arguments that provide the values to be formatted.

Variadic functions can expose type-safety problems in some languages. For instance, C's printf, if used incautiously, can give rise to a class of security holes known as format string attacks. The attack is possible because the language support for variadic functions is not type-safe: it permits the function to attempt to pop more arguments off the stack than were placed there, corrupting the stack and leading to unexpected behavior. As a consequence of this, the CERT Coordination Center considers variadic functions in C to be a high-severity security risk.[2]

In functional languages variadics can be considered complementary to the apply function, which takes a function and a list/sequence/array as arguments, and calls the function with the arguments supplied in that list, thus passing a variable number of arguments to the function.[citation needed] In the functional language Haskell, variadic functions can be implemented by returning a value of a type class T; if instances of T are a final return value r and a function (T t) => x -> t, this allows for any number of additional arguments x.[further explanation needed]

A related subject in term rewriting research is called hedges, or hedge variables.[3] Unlike variadics, which are functions with arguments, hedges are sequences of arguments themselves. They also can have constraints ('take no more than 4 arguments', for example) to the point where they are not variable-length (such as 'take exactly 4 arguments') - thus calling them variadics can be misleading. However they are referring to the same phenomenon, and sometimes the phrasing is mixed, resulting in names such as variadic variable (synonymous to hedge). Note the double meaning of the word variable and the difference between arguments and variables in functional programming and term rewriting. For example, a term (function) can have three variables, one of them a hedge, thus allowing the term to take three or more arguments (or two or more if the hedge is allowed to be empty).


In C[edit]

To portably implement variadic functions in the C programming language, the standard stdarg.h header file is used. The older varargs.h header has been deprecated in favor of stdarg.h. In C++, the header file cstdarg is used.[4]

#include <stdarg.h>
#include <stdio.h>

double average(int count, ...) {
    va_list ap;
    int j;
    double sum = 0;

    va_start(ap, count); /* Requires the last fixed parameter (to get the address) */
    for (j = 0; j < count; j++) {
        sum += va_arg(ap, int); /* Increments ap to the next argument. */

    return sum / count;

int main(int argc, char const *argv[]) {
    printf("%f\n", average(3, 1, 2, 3));
    return 0;

This will compute the average of an arbitrary number of arguments. Note that the function does not know the number of arguments or their types. The above function expects that the types will be int, and that the number of arguments is passed in the first argument (this is a frequent usage but by no means enforced by the language or compiler). In some other cases, for example printf, the number and types of arguments are figured out from a format string. In both cases, this depends on the programmer to supply the correct information. (Alternatively, a sentinel value like NULL may be used to indicate the number.) If fewer arguments are passed in than the function believes, or the types of arguments are incorrect, this could cause it to read into invalid areas of memory and can lead to vulnerabilities like the format string attack.

stdarg.h declares a type, va_list, and defines four macros: va_start, va_arg, va_copy, and va_end. Each invocation of va_start and va_copy must be matched by a corresponding invocation of va_end. When working with variable arguments, a function normally declares a variable of type va_list (ap in the example) that will be manipulated by the macros.

  1. va_start takes two arguments, a va_list object and a reference to the function's last parameter (the one before the ellipsis; the macro uses this to get its bearings). It initialises the va_list object for use by va_arg or va_copy. The compiler will normally issue a warning if the reference is incorrect (e.g. a reference to a different parameter than the last one, or a reference to a wholly different object), but will not prevent compilation from completing normally.
  2. va_arg takes two arguments, a va_list object (previously initialised) and a type descriptor. It expands to the next variable argument, and has the specified type. Successive invocations of va_arg allow processing each of the variable arguments in turn. Unspecified behavior occurs if the type is incorrect or there is no next variable argument.
  3. va_end takes one argument, a va_list object. It serves to clean up. If one wanted to, for instance, scan the variable arguments more than once, the programmer would re-initialise your va_list object by invoking va_end and then va_start again on it.
  4. va_copy takes two arguments, both of them va_list objects. It clones the second (which must have been initialised) into the first. Going back to the "scan the variable arguments more than once" example, this could be achieved by invoking va_start on a first va_list, then using va_copy to clone it into a second va_list. After scanning the variable arguments a first time with va_arg and the first va_list (disposing of it with va_end), the programmer could scan the variable arguments a second time with va_arg and the second va_list. Don't forget to va_end the cloned va_list.

In C#[edit]

C# describes variadic functions using the params keyword. A type must be provided for the arguments, although object[] can be used as a catch-all.

using System;

class Program
    static int Foo(int a, int b, params int[] args)
        // Return the sum of the integers in args, ignoring a and b.
        int sum = 0;
        foreach (int i in args)
            sum += i;
        return sum;
    static void Main(string[] args)
        Console.WriteLine(Foo(1, 2));  // 0
        Console.WriteLine(Foo(1, 2, 3, 10, 20));  // 33

In C++[edit]

The basic variadic facility in C++ is largely identical to that in C. The only difference is in the syntax, where the comma before the ellipsis can be omitted.

#include <iostream>
#include <cstdarg>
void simple_printf(const char* fmt...) ;

int main()
    simple_printf("dcff", 3, 'a', 1.999, 42.5); 

void simple_printf(const char* fmt...)      // C-style "const char* fmt, ..." is also valid
    va_list args;
    va_start(args, fmt);
    while (*fmt != '\0') {
        if (*fmt == 'd') {
            int i = va_arg(args, int);
            std::cout << i << '\n';
        } else if (*fmt == 'c') {
            // note automatic conversion to integral type
            int c = va_arg(args, int);
            std::cout << static_cast<char>(c) << '\n';
        } else if (*fmt == 'f') {
            double d = va_arg(args, double);
            std::cout << d << '\n';

The CERT Coding Standards for C++ strongly prefers the use of variadic templates (parameter pack) in C++ over the C-style variadic function due to a lower risk of misuse.[5]

In Go[edit]

Variadic functions in Go can be called with any number of trailing arguments.[6] fmt.Println is a common variadic function; it uses an empty interface as a catch-all type.

package main

import "fmt"

// This variadic function takes an arbitrary number of ints as arguments.
func sum(nums {
	fmt.Print("The sum of ", nums) // Also a variadic function.
	total := 0
	for _, num := range nums {
		total += num
	fmt.Println(" is", total) // Also a variadic function.

func main() {
	// Variadic functions can be called in the usual way with individual
	// arguments.
	sum(1, 2)  // "The sum of [1 2] is 3"
	sum(1, 2, 3) // "The sum of [1 2 3] is 6"

	// If you already have multiple args in a slice, apply them to a variadic
	// function using func(slice...) like this.
	nums := []int{1, 2, 3, 4}
	sum(nums...) // "The sum of [1 2 3 4] is 10"


The sum of [1 2] is 3 
The sum of [1 2 3] is 6 
The sum of [1 2 3 4] is 10

In Java[edit]

As with C#, the Object type in Java is available as a catch-all.

public class Program {
    private static void printArgs(String... strings) {
        for (String string : strings) {

    public static void main(String[] args) {

        // the compiler wraps the argument(s) passed to printArgs inside an array
        // meaning printArgs is just method that takes a single argument which is a string array of variable length
        printArgs("hello");                 // short for printArgs( ["hello"] )
        printArgs("hello", "world");        // short for printArgs( ["hello", "world"] )

In JavaScript[edit]

JavaScript does not care about types of variadic arguments.

function sum(...numbers) {
    return numbers.reduce((a, b) => a + b);

sum(1, 2, 3) // 6
sum(3, 2) // 5

In Pascal[edit]

Pascal has four built-in procedures which are defined as variadic, which, because of this special condition, are intrinsic to the compiler. These are the read, readln, write, and writeln procedures. However, there are alternate specifications allowing for default arguments to procedures or functions which make them work variadically, as well as polymorphism which allows a procedure or function to have different parameters.

The read[ln] and write[ln] procedures all have the same format:

read[ln] [( [file ,] variable [, variable ...] )] ;
write[ln] [( [file][, value [, value ...] )] ;


  • file is an optional file variable, which if omitted, defaults to input for read and readln, or defaults to output for write and writeln;
  • variable is a scalar such as a char (character), integer, or real (or for some compilers, certain record types or array types such as strings), and
  • value is a variable or a constant.


   f: text;
   ch: char;
   n,a,I,B: Integer;
   S: String;

    Write('Enter name of file to write results: ');
    Write('What is your name? ');
    Write('Hello, ',S,'! Enter the number of calculations you want to do:');
    Write('? ');
    Write('For each of the ',n,' formulas, enter ');
    write('two integers separated by one or more spaces');
    for i := 1 to N do
       Write('Enter pair #',i,'? ');
       WRITELN(Out,'A [',a,'] + B [',B,'] =',A+B);

In the above example, as far as the compiler is concerned, lines 9 and 13 are identical, because if input is the file variable being read into by a read or readln statement, the file variable may be omitted. Also, the compiler considers lines 15 and 20 to be identical, because if the file variable being wriiten to is output, it can be omitted, which means (on line 20) since there are no arguments being passed to the procedure the parentheses listing arguments can be omitted. Line 26 shows the writeln statement can have any number of arguments, and they can be a quoted string, a variable, or even a formula result.

Object Pascal supports polymorphic procedures and functions, where different procedure(s) or function(s) can have the same name but are distinguished by the arguments supplied to them.

Pascal also supports default arguments, where the value of an argument, if not provided, is given a default value.

For the first example, polymorphism, consider the following:

function add(a1,a2:integer):Integer; begin add := a1+a2 end;                                
function add(r1,r2:real):real;  begin add := a1+a2 end;                                 
function add(a1:integer;r2:real):real;  begin add := real(a1)+a2 end;                                
function add(r1:real,a2:integer):real;  begin add := a1+real(a2) end;

In the above example, if add as called with two integer values, the function declared on line 1 would be called; if one of the arguments is an integer and one is real, either the function on line 3 or 4 is called depending on which is integer. If both are real, the function on line 2 is called.

For default parameters, consider the following:

   Three = 3;
   K: Integer; 

function add(i1: integer = 0; 
             i2: integer = 0;
             i3: integer = 0; 
             i4: integer = 0; 
             i5: integer = 0; 
             i6: integer = 0;  
             i7: integer = 0;  
             i8: integer = 0): integer;
   add := i1+i2+i3+I4+I5+i6+I7+I8;

   K := add; { K is 0}
   K := add(K,1); { K is 1}
   K := add(1,2); { K is 3}
   K := add(1,2,Three); { K is 6, etc.}

On Line 6, (and the lines below) the parameter = 0 tells the compiler, "if no argument is provided, presume the argument to be zero." On line 19, no arguments were given, so the function returns 0. On line 20, either a number or a variable can be supplied for any argument, and as shown on line 22, a constant.

In PHP[edit]

PHP does not care about types of variadic arguments unless the argument is typed.

function sum(...$nums): int
    return array_sum($nums);

echo sum(1, 2, 3); // 6

And typed variadic arguments:

function sum(int ...$nums): int
    return array_sum($nums);

echo sum(1, 'a', 3); // TypeError: Argument 2 passed to sum() must be of the type int (since PHP 7.3)

In Python[edit]

Python does not care about types of variadic arguments.

def foo(a, b, *args):
    print(args)  # args is a tuple (immutable sequence).

foo(1, 2) # ()
foo(1, 2, 3) # (3,)
foo(1, 2, 3, "hello") # (3, "hello")

Keyword arguments can be stored in a dictionary, e.g. def bar(*args, **kwargs).

In Raku[edit]

In Raku, the type of parameters that create variadic functions are known as slurpy array parameters and they're classified into three groups:

Flattened slurpy
These parameters are declared with a single asterisk (*) and they flatten arguments by dissolving one or more layers of elements that can be iterated over (i.e, Iterables).
sub foo($a, $b, *@args) {
    say @args.perl;

foo(1, 2)                  # []
foo(1, 2, 3)               # [3]
foo(1, 2, 3, "hello")      # [3 "hello"]
foo(1, 2, 3, [4, 5], [6]); # [3, 4, 5, 6]
Unflattened slurpy
These parameters are declared with two asterisks () and they do not flatten any iterable arguments within the list, but keep the arguments more or less as-is:
sub bar($a, $b, **@args) {
    say @args.perl;

bar(1, 2);                 # []
bar(1, 2, 3);              # [3]
bar(1, 2, 3, "hello");     # [3 "hello"]
bar(1, 2, 3, [4, 5], [6]); # [3, [4, 5], [6]]
Contextual slurpy
These parameters are declared with a plus (+) sign and they apply the "single argument rule", which decides how to handle the slurpy argument based upon context. Simply put, if only a single argument is passed and that argument is iterable, that argument is used to fill the slurpy parameter array. In any other case, +@ works like **@ (i.e., unflattened slurpy).
sub zaz($a, $b, +@args) {
    say @args.perl;

zaz(1, 2);                 # []
zaz(1, 2, 3);              # [3]
zaz(1, 2, 3, "hello");     # [3 "hello"]
zaz(1, 2, [4, 5]);         # [4, 5], single argurment fills up array
zaz(1, 2, 3, [4, 5]);      # [3, [4, 5]], behaving as **@
zaz(1, 2, 3, [4, 5], [6]); # [3, [4, 5], [6]], behaving as **@

In Ruby[edit]

Ruby does not care about types of variadic arguments.

def foo(*args)
  print args

# prints `[1]=> nil`

foo(1, 2)
# prints `[1, 2]=> nil`

In Rust[edit]

Rust does not support variadic arguments in functions. Instead, it uses macros.[7]

macro_rules! calculate {
    // The pattern for a single `eval`
    (eval $e:expr) => {{
            let val: usize = $e; // Force types to be integers
            println!("{} = {}", stringify!{$e}, val);

    // Decompose multiple `eval`s recursively
    (eval $e:expr, $(eval $es:expr),+) => {{
        calculate! { eval $e }
        calculate! { $(eval $es),+ }

fn main() {
    calculate! { // Look ma! Variadic `calculate!`!
        eval 1 + 2,
        eval 3 + 4,
        eval (2 * 3) + 1

Rust is able to interact with C's variadic system via a c_variadic feature switch. As with other C interfaces, the system is considered unsafe to Rust.[8]

In Swift[edit]

Swift cares about the type of variadic arguments, but the catch-all Any type is available.

func greet(timeOfTheDay: String, names: String...) {
    // here, names is [String]
    print("Looks like we have \(names.count) people")
    for name in names {
        print("Hello \(name), good \(timeOfTheDay)")

greet(timeOfTheDay: "morning", names: "Joseph", "Clara", "William", "Maria")

// Output:
// Looks like we have 4 people
// Hello Joseph, good morning
// Hello Clara, good morning
// Hello William, good morning
// Hello Maria, good morning

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Henry S. Leonard and H. N. Goodman, A calculus of individuals. Abstract of a talk given at the Second Meeting of the Association for Symbolic Logic, held in Cambridge MA on December 28–30, 1936, [1], Journal of Symbolic Logic 2(1) 1937, 63.
  2. ^ Klemens, Ben (2014). 21st Century C: C Tips from the New School. O'Reilly Media, Inc. p. 224. ISBN 1491904445.
  3. ^ CLP (H): Constraint Logic Programming for Hedges
  4. ^ "<cstdarg> (stdarg.h) - C++ Reference".
  5. ^ "DCL50-CPP. Do not define a C-style variadic function".
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Variadics". Rust By Example.
  8. ^ "2137-variadic". The Rust RFC Book.

External links[edit]