Standard C loop idioms

What’s your standard idioms for doing loops in C? A summary of a Twitter thread betweeen me, Per Vognsen and Shachaf.

Looping over Arrays

One of the most common idioms in a programming language is the form of a loop. The idiomatic form is like this:

for (int i = 0; i < n; i++)  // or i += stride
    a[i] = 1.0;

And for pointers:

for (T *p = start; p != end; p++)  // or p += stride
    *p = 1.0

This is not an arbitrary choice. It visits each member of an n-element array indexed from 0 to n-1. It places all loop control in the for itself, runs in increasing order, and uses the very idiomatic ++ operator to update the loop variable. It leaves the index variable at a known value just beyond the last element.

But what about backwards iteration? How do you do that? Some use the --> “operator”:

for (int i = n; i-->0;)
    a[i] = 1.0;

Others prefers to start iterating at n-1 (it was my preferred way in the past):

for (int i = n-1; i >= 0; i--)
    a[i] = 1.0;

In a twitter thread, Per Vognsen said that he prefers to start at n due to it being analoguous to the pointer case1:

for (int i = n; i > 0; i--)
    a[i-1] = 1.0;

for (T *p = end; i != start; p++)
    p[-1] = 1.0;

His motivation:

The n-1 and i >= 0 form doesn’t translate to the pointer case without invoking undefined behavior (you can’t point past the start of an object in C). […] BTW, this is all related to the choice of using 0-based indices/addresses and lower-inclusive, upper-exclusive ranges. With 1-based indexing and lower-inclusive, upper-exclusive you have mirror symmetry.2

Using Unsigned Index Variables

In C the sizeof operator returns size_t and malloc takes a size_t parameter. In C++ the containers size() method3 returns size_t . Even more the std::string uses size_t in many parameters and it uses (size_t)-1 as a sentinel for value not found. So C and C++ programmers need to deal with using unsigned index variables.

I like the idea of using size_t for showing intent: this variable represents an index into memory. But it’s easy to end up with unintended underflow in the for condition expression. Using size_t works fine for looping forward over a collection i = [0, n).

for (size_t i = 0; i < n; i++) 
    a[i] = 1.0;

But statements where the condition expression might be negative causes endless loops, such as this when offset is larger than n:

for (size_t i = 0; i < n-offset; i++) 
    a[i] = 1.0;

So you have to guard each such for-statement inside an if-statement. Clumsy! I haven’t found a way around that.

size_t len = n - offset;
if (len < n) {
    for (size_t i = 0; i < len; i++) {
        a[i] = 1.0;


I’ve, like twitter user Shachaf done C iterators in this style:

Iterator it = foo_start();
while (foo_next(&it)) {

Per pointed out that this is a conflation of iterator state vs iterator value. He places the return value of the next call inside the struct and ends up with an API similar to this:

for (Iterator it = iterator_init(); iterator_next(&val);) 

Per has written a line, word and token iterator using his Ion language in a gist. A C implementation of a line iterator in his style would be:

typedef struct StrLinesIter {
    const char *next;
    const char *start;
    const char *end;
} StrLinesIter;

StrLinesIter str_lines(const char *str) {
    return (StrLinesIter){ .next = str };

bool str_lines_next(StrLinesIter *iter) {
    if (!*iter->next) {
        return false;
    iter->start = iter->next;
    iter->end = iter->next;
    while (*iter->end && *iter->end != '\n') {
    iter->next = *iter->end ? iter->end + 1 : iter->end;
    return true;

That iterator can be called like this:

for (StrLinesIter iter = str_lines(buf); str_lines_next(&iter);) {
        printf("...'%.*s'\n", (int)(iter.end - iter.start), iter.start);

  1. Another way of thinking about it is if we let Indices Point Between Elements. Then the end index does not point one past the last element, but it points directly at the end. So when traversing an array backward, we start at the end and scan it until we reach the start. 

  2. Numbering can start at 0 or 1. Edgar Djikstras Why Numbering Should Start at Zero prefers [a,b) and (a,b] when choosing between [a, b), (a, b], [a, b] or (a, b) for denoting ranges. The [a, b) and (a, b] cases has the advantage of the difference b-a being equal to the size of the range. Djikstras argument for choosing [a, b) over (a, b] is that the range 0 to N otherwise would have to be specified as (-1, N]. A mathematician don’t want to use unnatural numbers unless he has to. Lastly, he prefers the range to start at 0, since it gives the better-looking range [0, N) instead of [1, N+1). But as Per points out, 1-based indexing shares the same properties as 0-based. 

  3. The STL size() functions have ambiguous naming: many people use size for representing number of bytes and len for number of elements.