Understanding Qualifiers In C


Imagine you’re a director crafting a scene in a movie, and you need your actors to convey not just lines but emotions, tones, and even subtle cues. You give them specific directions: “Say this line with a hint of sarcasm,” or “Whisper this line as if sharing a secret.” In programming, especially in the C language, variables are akin to actors, and qualifiers are the director’s special instructions.

In this article we will learn about these qualifiers in C and how they can be used along with in-built data types provided. So, let’s dive deeper into these qualifiers in C.

Qualifiers In C Programming

Qualifiers in C are special keywords that we pair with data types to tweak how they normally work. Think of them as little flags or tags that tell the computer’s compiler, “Hey, treat this particular piece of data a bit differently than usual.” These qualifiers give the compiler extra hints about how we plan to use the variables or functions in our code.

By using them, we can make our programs more efficient and avoid potential issues. They’re like giving specific care instructions for different types of laundry — just as you’d treat a delicate silk shirt differently from rugged jeans, qualifiers help the compiler treat data in the specific way it needs to be handled.

Importance and Usage of Qualifiers in C:

  1. Modification Control: Qualifiers can be used to restrict or modify the behaviour of variables. For example, using the const qualifier prevents a variable from being modified, which can be essential for ensuring that specific data remains unchanged throughout a program’s execution.
  2. Optimisation: Some qualifiers help the compiler perform optimisations. For instance, the register keyword suggests that the variable is frequently used and should be stored in a CPU register.
  3. Unique Behaviour: Qualifiers can indicate a variable has a behaviour outside the standard program flow. For example, the volatile keyword tells the compiler that a variable can be changed outside the current code section, possibly by an external process or an interrupt. This prevents the compiler from making assumptions or optimisations based on the current state of that variable.
  4. Memory Management: Qualifiers can provide information about the location of a variable. For instance, the static qualifier ensures a variable retains its value between function calls.
  5. Enhanced Readability and Maintenance: Developers can provide clues about the intent or assumptions behind a piece of code using qualifiers. This can make the code more readable and easier to maintain.

In essence, qualifiers in C are tools for the developer to convey additional intentions and instructions about their code to the compiler. Properly using qualifiers can lead to more efficient, reliable, and understandable programs.

Different Qualifiers In C Programming

There are majorly three types of Quaifiers In C Programming:

  1. Type Qualifier
  2. Size Qualifier
  3. Sign Qualifier
Qualifiers In C-Teachingbee
Qualifiers In C

Type Qualifiers In C

Type qualifiers in C provide additional information about the variables they modify. They specify how the variables are stored and how they can be accessed. The two primary type qualifiers in C are:

  1. const: This qualifier tells the compiler that the variable is constant, meaning its value cannot be modified after it is initially set. If you try to change the value of a const variable, the compiler will throw an error.
  2. Volatile: A variable declared as volatile tells the compiler that the variable can be changed at any time without any action being taken by the code the compiler finds. It’s often used in systems programming, especially when dealing with hardware registers or shared variables in multithreaded applications. It prevents the compiler from optimising repeated accesses to the variable.

Apart from these, there’s another less commonly used qualifier:

  1. Restrict: Introduced in C99, it’s a pointer qualifier that asserts that the pointer is the only means to access the object it points to during its lifetime. This helps the compiler perform specific optimisations that might not be possible otherwise.
  2. _Atomic : _Atomic is a type qualifier introduced in the C11 standard. It’s used to indicate that operations on a variable are atomic. Declining a variable with the _Atomic qualifier means that reads and writes to that variable are atomic operations. This is especially valuable in multithreaded programming, where multiple threads might attempt to read or write to a variable concurrently. Using atomic operations ensures these concurrent accesses don’t result in undefined behaviour.

However, declaring a variable as _Atomic doesn’t automatically make all operations on that variable atomic. The C11 standard also introduced a set of atomic functions (like atomic_fetch_add, atomic_store, etc.) in the <stdatomic.h> header to perform various atomic operations on atomic types.

Example C Program For Type Qualifiers

Let’s see a program that demonstrates the use of type qualifiers:

// Type Qualifiers In C

#include <stdio.h>

int main() {
    // Using const qualifier
    const int a = 5;
    // a = 10;  // This would cause a compile-time error
    // Using volatile qualifier
    volatile int count = 0;
    // In a real-world scenario, 'count' might be changed outside the current code flow.
    // But for demonstration purposes, we're just incrementing it here.
    printf("Value of const a: %d\n", a);
    printf("Value of volatile count: %d\n", count);

    return 0;

When you run this program, you’ll see:

Value of const a: 5
Value of volatile count: 1


  • The const qualifier is useful when you want to protect certain variables from accidental modification.
  • The volatile qualifier is more nuanced and is generally used when you know a variable can be changed by external factors and you want to ensure the compiler doesn’t make assumptions about its value.
  • The restrict qualifier is less common in general-purpose applications but can be valuable in performance-critical code where pointer aliasing could be a concern.

Size Qualifiers In C

Size qualifiers in C specify the amount of memory storage a particular data type should occupy. They are helpful when you need to control the storage of a variable based on the architecture (16-bit, 32-bit, 64-bit, etc.) of the system.

There are primarily three size qualifiers in C:

  1. short: Generally used to tell the compiler to use less memory than normal for storing a particular type. It’s commonly used with the int data type. A short int typically uses less memory than a regular int.
  2. long: Indicates that more memory should be used than normal for storing a particular type. It’s also commonly used with the int data type. A long int typically occupies more memory than a regular int. Additionally, the long qualifier can be applied twice for types like long long int, which indicates even larger storage than long int.
  3. long long: Introduced in the C99 standard, “long long” is an extension of the “long” qualifier, providing even more memory for an integer type. This allows for the representation of much larger integer values.
Size OperatorMinimum Size
short int16 bits
long int32 bits
long long int64 bits
Size Qualifiers In C

Note: The storage size can vary based on the compiler and architecture. It’s always a good idea to use the sizeof the operator to find the exact size.

Size qualifiers in C are used with data types to specify the amount of memory storage a particular type should occupy. Here’s a simple C program that demonstrates the use of size qualifiers and checks their sizes on the system:

Example C Program For Size Qualifiers

// Size Qualifiers In C

#include <stdio.h>

int main() {

    // Different types with size qualifiers
    short int shInt;
    int normalInt;
    long int lgInt;
    long long int llInt;
    long double ldDouble;

    printf("Size of short int: %zu bytes\n", sizeof(shInt));
    printf("Size of int: %zu bytes\n", sizeof(normalInt));
    printf("Size of long int: %zu bytes\n", sizeof(lgInt));
    printf("Size of long long int: %zu bytes\n", sizeof(llInt));
    printf("Size of long double: %zu bytes\n", sizeof(ldDouble));

    return 0;

When you run this program on a typical 64-bit system, you might get output like:

Size of short int: 2 bytes
Size of int: 4 bytes
Size of long int: 8 bytes
Size of long long int: 8 bytes
Size of long double: 16 bytes

The exact sizes can vary based on the compiler and system architecture. On other systems or with different compilers, the sizes of these data types might differ.

Always use the sizeof the operator if you need to determine the size of a data type on your specific system/compiler.

Sign Qualifiers In C

In C, “sign” is not precisely described as a “qualifier” in the same way “const” or “volatile” are. Instead, “signed” and “unsigned” are used to determine whether a numeric type represents positive and negative values or only non-negative values, respectively. These are typically applied to integer types.

Let’s dive into the details:

  1. signed: By default, integer types like int, char, short, long, and long long are signed. This means they can represent both positive and negative values. For instance, a signed 8-bit integer can represent values from -128 to 127.
  2. unsigned: This specifies that the type can only represent non-negative values. For instance, an unsigned 8-bit integer (often just unsigned char) can represent values from 0 to 255. Using unsigned integers can give you a more extensive range of positive values since the bit typically used for the sign is now used for the value.

Note: While char is technically an integer type, it’s unique in that it can be either signed or unsigned depending on the system and compiler defaults. Some systems define char as signed char by default, while others use unsigned char. If you need to ensure a char is signed or unsigned, you should explicitly use a signed char or unsigned char.

Example C Program For Sign Qualifiers

Here’s a program that demonstrates the use of signed and unsigned qualifiers:

// Sign Qualifiers In C

#include <stdio.h>

int main() {

    signed int si = -10;           // This can hold negative values
    unsigned int ui = 4294967295;  // This can hold only non-negative values, assuming 32-bit int

    // Demonstrate wrapping around when crossing boundaries
    ui += 1;  // This will wrap around to 0

    signed char sc = -128;     // assuming char is 8 bits
    unsigned char uc = 255;    // assuming char is 8 bits

    // When incremented, these will wrap around their boundaries
    sc += 1;
    uc += 1;

    printf("signed int: %d\n", si);
    printf("unsigned int (after wrap-around): %u\n", ui);
    printf("signed char (after wrap-around): %d\n", sc);
    printf("unsigned char (after wrap-around): %u\n", uc);

    return 0;

When you run the program, you’ll see the effects of wrap-around for both signed and unsigned types:

signed int: -10
unsigned int (after wrap-around): 0
signed char (after wrap-around): -127
unsigned char (after wrap-around): 0

Understanding the implications of signed and unsigned types, especially regarding arithmetic operations and comparisons, is crucial to avoid unexpected behaviours.

Putting All Together

constTypeDefines a constant value/object that cannot be altered after declaration
volatileTypeIndicates the variable can change unexpectedly, disabling optimizations
restrictTypeAsserts a pointer is the only way to access an object in scope
atomicTypeDefines a variable that can be updated atomically
signedSignAllows negative and positive values for integer types
unsignedSignRestricts values to 0 or positive for integer types
shortSizeAllocates less memory than default for integer types
longSizeAllocates more memory than default for integer types
short intSizeAt least 16 bits
long intSizeAt least 32 bits
long long intSizeAt least 64 bits
long doubleSizeExtended precision float, usually 128 bits
Qualifiers In C

Key Takeaways

  1. Qualifiers like const, volatile, restrict, and _Atomic provide additional information to the compiler about how variables should behave. Proper use of qualifiers can optimise code and prevent errors.
  2. Type qualifiers like const and volatile control mutability and optimisation assumptions for variables. restrict asserts exclusive pointer access. _Atomic enables atomic operations. 
  3. Size qualifiers like short, long, and long long control the memory storage allocated for basic types like int. Explicit-sized types like int16_t provide absolute control.
  4. Sign qualifiers signed and unsigned specify whether an integer type represents only non-negative or positive/negative values. unsigned provides a more comprehensive positive range.
  5. Understanding qualifier implications, especially for arithmetic/comparisons, prevents unintended behaviours like wrap-around. Qualifiers are powerful tools but must be applied judiciously.

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Why do we even need qualifiers in C? Can’t we just use basic data types?

How does const qualifier differ from size qualifiers like short or long?

Is there any downside to always using long long int since it offers the largest size?

How can I determine the exact size of a data type with a qualifier on my specific system?

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