[TUHS] C declarations.

Michael Kjörling michael at kjorling.se
Sat May 13 22:20:50 AEST 2017

On 12 May 2017 22:45 -0400, from ron at ronnatalie.com (Ron Natalie):
> About the only thing it would have broken (and would still break today), is
> the fact that function parameters that are defined to be arrays, really pass
> pointers.
> char x[4];
> void foo(char a[4]);
> foo(x);
> would be costlier than it is now doing the pass by value.

Correct me if I am wrong, but _pass by value_ as opposed to _pass by
reference_ requires making a copy, no? That's the whole point, to
allow the callee to poke at the value it is given at will. At the very
least, it would require making a copy when a part of the passed value
is modified. Where is that memory going to come from, when even
malloc() isn't a part of the language but rather a part of the
standard library? Where is all that going to come from if you pass a
large array on a memory-constrained system of specs common back in the
days when C was designed, especially one that lacks virtual memory

What if (yes, somewhat contrived example) we had pass by value
semantics, and foo() is implemented as

    void foo(char a[4])
        a[8] = 123;

What exactly should happen? The function delcaration says we are
interested in four char, but the function uses far more than that. You
could of course invoke the almighty term _undefined behavior_, but you
really have to say _something_. And of course, nothing stops us from
calling that function as

    char x[100];

To reliably prevent that, it seems to me you'd need to at least amend
arrays to know their own size, especially if you don't want the
compiler to throw its hands in the air as soon as it sees a malloc()
(and recognizes it).

Now consider instead something like

    struct foo_t { char a[4]; char b[10]; };
    union foo_u { char[14] x; struct foo_t s; };
    void foo(foo_u u)
        u.s.a[8] = 123;

(Please excuse any syntax errors there; unions have never been my
strong side.)

While I agree that _you shouldn't be doing that in the first place_,
the fact remains that doing it is not _disallowed_ by the language. It
could be disallowed by the language if the array knows its size, but
to reliably disallow it, you'd need to be able to detect it at compile
time. That would seem to significantly increase the complexity of the
compiler, which of course we wouldn't want on a low-spec system. (I
have a strong suspicion that my microwave oven has more computing
power and memory than some of the systems C was designed to run on...)

> Of course you
> could always fudge if you wanted to pass the pointer by actually doing it
> that way...
> char x[4]
> void foo(char *a);
> foo(x);

...in which case you need to know from somewhere else whether foo()
wants a zero-terminated char array or not. Not impossible -- we
already have a similar situation with, say, memcmp() and strncmp() --
but unless you're willing to introduce some additional syntax, it
seems to me that you lose expressiveness in the language by lumping
the two cases together.

All the above said, _please don't get me wrong_. Pass by value
semantics is a really nice feature to have, and I have been known to
curse at certain languages more than once where the normal behavior is
pass by reference and pass by value requires a good deal of extra
code. But for potentially large (or even undefined-size) types, pass
by value comes at a significant cost in terms of memory, and even the
copying itself. Copy-on-write solves some of that but requires
elaborate bookkeeping instead, to know what goes where (it's at least
one additional layer of indirection), and risks fragmentation. For
simplicity and predictability, it's hard to beat pass by reference.

Michael Kjörling • https://michael.kjorling.semichael at kjorling.se
                 “People who think they know everything really annoy
                 those of us who know we don’t.” (Bjarne Stroustrup)

More information about the TUHS mailing list