Updated: 2015-10-06

I recently had the good fortune of talking to a graduate of a local web developer bootcamp1 who was interested in learning C. The syntax of C should be familiar to anyone who knows Java, but the real barriers are semantic. In my opinion, there are two main barriers for people to learning C, the difference between a pointer to a value and a value and the difference between memory on the stack and memory on the heap. I’m going to address a few errors in those areas, before suggesting a project that would be useful for testing yourself.

The basic idea2 of a pointer is that it’s a location in memory, where a value is stored and that we can give others access to our local values by passing around pointers to them. This implies that every value in the system must be assigned a location in memory where it is stored. We can also choose to pass around a copy of our value instead for simplicity and to prevent others from editing our values without our permission. contrast, a value is passed around entirely by people making local copies of it which aren’t shared and can be updated without affecting far off corners of the program.

A quick note on syntax before I give an example. A value can be converted to a pointer with the ampersand, as in &value. A pointer can be converted to a value with a *, as in *ptr and you can assign to the underlying value of a pointer with *ptr = value.

Consider this file containing a main and two slightly different methods

#include <stdio.h>
int add_five(int *source) {
	*source += 5;
	return *source;

int plus_five(int num) {
	num += 5;
	return num;

int main() {
	int val = 5;
	int result = plus_five(val);
	printf("val is now %d. result is %d.\n", val, result);
 	result = add_five(&val);
	printf("val is now %d. result is %d.\n", val, result); 

The result of compiling and executing this on my computer3 is:

val is now 5. result is 10.
val is now 10. result is 10.

Why? plus_five works by taking a value adding five to it and returning the result. add_five works by taking a pointer to a number, adding five to what’s stored at that location, and returning what’s stored there.

The other barrier is the difference between memory on the stack and memory on the heap. As a rule of thumb, malloc4 is on the heap and everything else, from plain ints to char[]’s, is on the stack. The practical difference is that memory on the heap has to be cleaned up by calling free when you’re done with it and memory on the stack is cleaned up whenever the method or block that needed it is over, regardless of whether you’re actually done with it. Consider this other file containing a main and two test methods. It allocates two arrays, one on the stack and one on the heap, fills them both in with the numbers 0 through 9, and then prints them out.

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
int* heap_alloc() {
	return (int*)malloc(sizeof(int)*10);

int* stack_alloc() {
	int stuff[10];
	return &stuff[0];

int main() {
	int *stack = stack_alloc();
	int *heap = heap_alloc();
	for (int x = 0; x< 10; x++) {
		stack[x] = x;
		heap[x] = x;
	for (int x = 0; x < 10; x++) {
		printf("stack: %d heap: %d\n", stack[x], heap[x]);

A naive perspective would expect them to have the same output. However, running it on my machine5 with gcc test.c -std=c99 && a.out gives me the output:

stack: 0 heap: 0
stack: 0 heap: 1
stack: 0 heap: 2
stack: 0 heap: 3
stack: 4196252 heap: 4
stack: 0 heap: 5
stack: -954667288 heap: 6
stack: 50 heap: 7
stack: 1 heap: 8
stack: 0 heap: 9

So, why are they different? The first method, heap_alloc, is completely valid and it’s sometimes useful to have a small method that takes a few arguments, mallocs a struct, and initializes the struct based on the supplied values.6 The second method, however, should never be used and gcc will give you a “function returns address of local variable” warning when you compile it. Here’s what happens under the hood: 40-80 bytes of memory are allocated for the stuff array on the stack, you take the address of the beginning of that array, the method ends, and the stack space is automatically reclaimed by the system. The system is then free to hand it off to the next person who wants it and since they’re free to edit that memory in whatever way they want they do.

Consider walking through a linked list. In Java, you would just take a java.util.LinkedList and walk it in a for-each loop like for (String elem : myList). In Python, you’d probably have to make your own linked list class and implement an __iter__ function to walk through it. In C however, we need to make a “struct” which is just a block of values and then create a separate function to walk it. Something like:

struct list_node
  int num;
  struct list_node *next;

int list_print(struct list_node *start) {
	while (start != NULL) {
		printf("%d\n", start->num);
		start = start->next;

A little project I would suggest is to implement a simulation of first-fit7 memory allocation. Consider the following API

  • void* my_malloc(int size): Walk through the list of free spaces, when you find a spot that can fit a block of the requested size allocate the block and adjust the list accordingly, return NULL and leave the state unchanged if you can’t.

  • int my_free(void *block): Given a pointer to a block, check if it’s something’s you’ve allocated before. If it’s one you’ve allocated, move it back to the list of free blocks and return zero. If it’s one you haven’t allocated, do nothing and return one.

  • void print_state(): Print the current status of the free blocks in whatever way allows you to check your work.

Think of what test cases you would want, work out those test cases by hand, write code to solve the problem (note that I suggested this after working them out by hand, that was intentional), and debug it with gdb until your code’s output matches what you did by hand. At this point you should know what the different thought processes needed for C programming are. If you’ve gotten this far, there’s one question I’d like you to consider. Suppose someone wants to allocate a block that’s bigger than any free space, but smaller than the sum amount of free space, what prevents us from moving the allocated blocks into one giant block so that all the free blocks are in one giant block and allocating from there?8


  1. General Assembly and John Master to be specific.

  2. Extremely dumbed down, of course.

  3. And in any compliant implementation of C.

  4. sbrk is another way to get memory from the heap and is what malloc uses internally. You shouldn’t use it unless you have really good reasons to.

  5. I encourage you in the strongest possible terms to run these programs on your own computer instead of just taking my word. Unlike the previous example, this behavior can vary between machines.

  6. This is basically a poor man’s constructor.

  7. First-fit is a largely arbitrary choice. Best-fit and worst-fit are also good choices.

  8. This is done by compacting garbage collectors in higher level languages. Why can’t we do it here?

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