C pointers : pointing to an array of fixed size


This question goes out to the C gurus out there:

In C, it is possible to declare a pointer as follows:

char (* p)[10];

.. which basically states that this pointer points to an array of 10 chars. The neat thing about declaring a pointer like this is that you will get a compile time error if you try to assign a pointer of an array of different size to p. It will also give you a compile time error if you try to assign the value of a simple char pointer to p. I tried this with gcc and it seems to work with ANSI, C89 and C99.

It looks to me like declaring a pointer like this would be very useful – particularly, when passing a pointer to a function. Usually, people would write the prototype of such a function like this:

void foo(char * p, int plen);

If you were expecting a buffer of an specific size, you would simply test the value of plen. However, you cannot be guaranteed that the person who passes p to you will really give you plen valid memory locations in that buffer. You have to trust that the person who called this function is doing the right thing. On the other hand:

void foo(char (*p)[10]);

..would force the caller to give you a buffer of the specified size.

This seems very useful but I have never seen a pointer declared like this in any code I have ever ran across.

My question is: Is there any reason why people do not declare pointers like this? Am I not seeing some obvious pitfall?

Best Solution

What you are saying in your post is absolutely correct. I'd say that every C developer comes to exactly the same discovery and to exactly the same conclusion when (if) they reach certain level of proficiency with C language.

When the specifics of your application area call for an array of specific fixed size (array size is a compile-time constant), the only proper way to pass such an array to a function is by using a pointer-to-array parameter

void foo(char (*p)[10]);

(in C++ language this is also done with references

void foo(char (&p)[10]);


This will enable language-level type checking, which will make sure that the array of exactly correct size is supplied as an argument. In fact, in many cases people use this technique implicitly, without even realizing it, hiding the array type behind a typedef name

typedef int Vector3d[3];

void transform(Vector3d *vector);
/* equivalent to `void transform(int (*vector)[3])` */
Vector3d vec;

Note additionally that the above code is invariant with relation to Vector3d type being an array or a struct. You can switch the definition of Vector3d at any time from an array to a struct and back, and you won't have to change the function declaration. In either case the functions will receive an aggregate object "by reference" (there are exceptions to this, but within the context of this discussion this is true).

However, you won't see this method of array passing used explicitly too often, simply because too many people get confused by a rather convoluted syntax and are simply not comfortable enough with such features of C language to use them properly. For this reason, in average real life, passing an array as a pointer to its first element is a more popular approach. It just looks "simpler".

But in reality, using the pointer to the first element for array passing is a very niche technique, a trick, which serves a very specific purpose: its one and only purpose is to facilitate passing arrays of different size (i.e. run-time size). If you really need to be able to process arrays of run-time size, then the proper way to pass such an array is by a pointer to its first element with the concrete size supplied by an additional parameter

void foo(char p[], unsigned plen);

Actually, in many cases it is very useful to be able to process arrays of run-time size, which also contributes to the popularity of the method. Many C developers simply never encounter (or never recognize) the need to process a fixed-size array, thus remaining oblivious to the proper fixed-size technique.

Nevertheless, if the array size is fixed, passing it as a pointer to an element

void foo(char p[])

is a major technique-level error, which unfortunately is rather widespread these days. A pointer-to-array technique is a much better approach in such cases.

Another reason that might hinder the adoption of the fixed-size array passing technique is the dominance of naive approach to typing of dynamically allocated arrays. For example, if the program calls for fixed arrays of type char[10] (as in your example), an average developer will malloc such arrays as

char *p = malloc(10 * sizeof *p);

This array cannot be passed to a function declared as

void foo(char (*p)[10]);

which confuses the average developer and makes them abandon the fixed-size parameter declaration without giving it a further thought. In reality though, the root of the problem lies in the naive malloc approach. The malloc format shown above should be reserved for arrays of run-time size. If the array type has compile-time size, a better way to malloc it would look as follows

char (*p)[10] = malloc(sizeof *p);

This, of course, can be easily passed to the above declared foo


and the compiler will perform the proper type checking. But again, this is overly confusing to an unprepared C developer, which is why you won't see it in too often in the "typical" average everyday code.