One of the biggest traps C lays for beginners is its idiosyncratic and confusing treatment of arrays. I often times see people learn, or conclude themselves, that arrays in C are just pointers, which is not the case. In C, arrays are not pointers, and in this post I want to go over the main reasons why that is the case.1

1. sizeof()

This is the first situation that caused me to see how arrays and pointers are really distinct. Consider the following code:

#include<stdio.h>
#include<stdlib.h>

int main(void) {
    int *ptr = calloc(5, sizeof(int));
    int arr[5] = {0};
    printf("sizeof(ptr) = %ld\n", sizeof(ptr));
    printf("sizeof(arr) = %ld\n", sizeof(arr));
}

First, let’s understand what sizeof() is supposed to do, from the ISO C Standard:

6.5.3.4, item 2

The sizeof operator yields the size (in bytes) of its operand, which may be an expression or the parenthesized name of a type.

So, given that I’m on a 64-bit system, we’d expect to see the following output, were arrays and pointers to be the same:

sizeof(ptr) = 8
sizeof(arr) = 8

The output is the number of bytes, so it’d be indicating they are both 64-bit addresses, all golden, right? Well, no, this is what you actually see:

sizeof(ptr) = 8
sizeof(arr) = 20

wat?

Alright, let’s go take a gander at the standard again

6.2.5 item 20

An array type describes a contiguously allocated nonempty set of objects with a particular member object type, called the element type. Array types are characterized by their element type and by the number of elements in the array. An array type is said to be derived from its element type, and if its element type is T, the array type is sometimes called “array of T”. The construction of an array type from an element type is called “array type derivation”. [Emphasis mine]

The first clue lies here, where we already learn that arrays are decidedly not pointers! Pointers have no relationship, from the compiler’s point of view, to the length of the data they point to. It’s up to you, the programmer, to keep track of how large the object you are pointing to is. Arrays, on the other hand, are characterized by their length. The type of a given “array of T” is really “array of T with length N."2 There can be no array without a known length3, in stark contrast to pointers, where the compiler never knows their length.

6.5.3.4 item 4

When sizeof is applied to an operand that has type char, unsigned char, or signed char, (or a qualified version thereof) the result is 1. When applied to an operand that has array type, the result is the total number of bytes in the array. When applied to an operand that has structure or union type, the result is the total number of bytes in such an object, including internal and trailing padding. [Emphasis mine]

And there’s the final clue, sizeof() has special behavior for arrays4! For an array it will look at the sizeof() the object type, the length of the array, and compute the total length. For example, if I have int foo[5]; and I do sizeof(foo) I will hit this special behavior, and get the size as being sizeof(int) * 5 = 4 * 5 = 20.

With this in mind our initial example starts making more sense, let’s look at it again:

int *ptr = calloc(5, sizeof(int));
int arr[5] = {0};
printf("sizeof(ptr) = %ld\n", sizeof(ptr));
printf("sizeof(arr) = %ld\n", sizeof(arr));

And we got

sizeof(ptr) = 8
sizeof(arr) = 20

The first sizeof() hits the normal behavior and evaluates to the size of the pointer itself (not the data it points to), which in x86_64 is 8 bytes. The second sizeof() hits the special behavior for arrays, and computes the total length of arr in bytes, which is 20.

2. Function Arguments

Consider the following example:

#include<stdio.h>
#include<stdlib.h>

// Prints an array
void print_arr(int *arr, size_t len) {
    printf("arr[ ");
    for(size_t i = 0; i < len; ++i) {
        printf("%d ", arr[i]);
    }
    printf("]\n");
}

// Fills an array with random ints
void randomize(int arr[]) {
    // First find the length of the array
    size_t len = sizeof(arr) / sizeof(int);
    // For clarity's sake
    printf("(randomize) len = %zu\n", len);
    // Now let's fill the array with random values
    for(size_t i = 0; i < len; ++i) {
        arr[i] = rand();
    }
}

int main(void) {
    // Initialize the seed.
    sranddev();
    // 0-initialize it.
    int arr[10] = {0};
    // Let's randomize it!
    size_t len = sizeof(arr) / sizeof(int);
    printf("(main) len = %zu\n", len);
    randomize(arr);
    // And now let's see what happened.
    print_arr(arr, 10);
}

We have two simple functions, print_arr() and randomize(), we initialize an array of length 10 with zeroes, compute and print it’s length, call randomize() on it, and finally print it.

We’d hope to see output that looks like this:

(main) len = 10
(randomize) len = 10
arr[ 2834979 0827650 48721364 8723 73 427360 4 0297346 72 9273 ]

We never modify the length of our data, so we see length as the same in main() and randomize(), and we successfully fill our array with random data and print it. Great!

Or it would be, if that code worked at all. If you were to actually run that snippet this is what you’d get:

(main) len = 10
(randomize) len = 2
arr[ 987922591 1583865774 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 ]

What? How did the length change? And why is only the beginning of the array getting filled up with data? What the hell is going on here! Let’s go back to the standard for a moment:

6.7.5.3 item 7

A declaration of a parameter as “array of type” shall be adjusted to “qualified pointer to type”, where the type qualifiers (if any) are those specified within the [ and ] of the array type derivation. If the keyword static also appears within the [ and ] of the array type derivation, then for each call to the function, the value of the corresponding actual argument shall provide access to the first element of an array with at least as many elements as specified by the size expression. [Emphasis mine]

As if things weren’t confusing enough, the standard defines that whenever you declare a parameter to a function as an array, such as void randomize(int arr[]), it is automatically “adjusted” to a pointer such that you end up with, for example, void randomize(int *arr). So even though arrays are not pointers, when you put an array in argument position, you are actually writing a pointer as argument! Sometimes you’ll hear people refer to this as the array being “demoted” to a pointer.

This means that whenever you have a function taking in an array as argument, you fall into the sizeof() issue we saw in the previous section. In the caller scope, sizeof(arr) will evaluate to the total length in bytes of the array, whereas in the function scope sizeof(arr) will evaluate to the length in bytes of a pointer.

With this in mind, let’s revisit the output we got:

(main) len = 10
(randomize) len = 2
arr[ 987922591 1583865774 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 ]

Recall that we had size_t len = sizeof(arr) / sizeof(int), and sizeof(int) == 4.

So, the length in the caller scope is 10 because sizeof(arr) computes the total length of our array, which is 40, and 40 / 4 == 10. On the scope of the randomize() function though, arr is not an array, despite looking like it in the function signature, but a pointer. Due to this we get sizeof(arr) == 8 and 8 / 4 == 2. Finally, because this caused us to compute len incorrectly, we only actually randomize the first two elements of the array, which is what we see in the output.

To reiterate, whenever you have someType my_function(myType my_arg[]) it may look like you have an argument my_arg of type “array of myType”, but that is an illusion, you will actually end up with a pointer to myType. Personally, I find the usage of [] in function arguments misleading, and that you’re always better off by just making it clear that the input is a pointer.

Luckily, nowadays we have smart compilers that will yield warnings in case you try to do something like this, as I was building this example locally I got the following warning5:

sizeof.c:14:24: warning: sizeof on array function parameter will return size of 'int *' instead of 'int []' [-Wsizeof-array-argument]
    size_t len = sizeof(arr)/sizeof(int);
                       ^
sizeof.c:12:20: note: declared here
void randomize(int arr[]) {
                   ^

This is trying to tell us “Hey, this sizeof(arr) call that you think is returning the size of an array, will actually return the type of a pointer, and you should wise up.” Despite these warnings, this issue with automatic demotion of arrays to pointers when crossing scopes is something I see beginners trip on often.

Not incidentally, the print_arr() function shows the correct way to pass an array to a function; you have to pass the array’s length alongside a pointer to the first element of the array.

3. Provenance

If you’ve ever learned that pointers in C are just numeric values, maybe representing an address in memory, then you may want to sit down. In response to Defect Report 260 (DR-260), the Committee says:

If two objects have identical bit-pattern representations and their types are the same they may still compare as unequal (for example if one object has an indeterminate value) and if one is an indeterminate value attempting to read such an object invokes undefined behavior. Implementations are permitted to track the origins of a bit-pattern and treat those representing an indeterminate value as distinct from those representing a determined value. They may also treat pointers based on different origins as distinct even though they are bitwise identical. [Emphasis mine]

This answer brings forth the idea of pointer provenance, that pointers are characterized not only by their value, but also by their origin. Pointers with identical numerical values, but distinct origins, can still be different.

It is no surprise, then, that pointers created by passing an array to a function, like we saw in the previous section, and pointers created by, for example, malloc() have different provenances. The standard touches on this indirectly when they talk about library functions that take an array as argument:

7.1.4 item 1

If a function argument is described as being an array, the pointer actually passed to the function shall have a value such that all address computations and accesses to objects (that would be valid if the pointer did point to the first element of such an array) are in fact valid.

Now, this isn’t precisely the same issue that motivates DR-260, but nonetheless it alludes to the fact that there is a semantic difference between a function that takes a pointer as argument and one that takes an array. There are different expectations in place.

There is a lot more to be said about provenance beyond the shallow point I’m making here, I recommend anyone interest take a look at “n2263: Clarifying Pointer Provenance v4” for an in-depth analysis of the issues that arise from pointer provenance and the proposed changes to the standard.

Conclusion

So there you have it folks, arrays are definitely not pointers and now you know way too much about why!

If you believe I missed something in this post, please feel free to mention it in the comments bellow, or reach me at bernardo@arraysarenotpointers.dev.


  1. This post is aimed at beginners and, to a lesser degree, intermediate users of C. If you are an expert you are unlikely to be surprised by what I show here but, hey, maybe you realize I missed something and help me improve the list :) ↩︎

  2. You’ll commonly see this type of data structure, a pointer to the first element together with the length of the data, be referred to as a fat pointer. It’s called that because it’s larger than a normal pointer, since it needs to contain the length information too. ↩︎

  3. Okay, I’m lying! There are these things called variable length arrays, VLAs, that don’t have a length known at compile time. The standard lays out some special behavior for them, for example, while sizeof(x) is usually guaranteed to not evaluate x and be done at compile time, that isn’t the case with VLAs. If x is a VLA then it’s evaluated at runtime and the length computed. See 6.5.3.4 item 2↩︎

  4. For VLAs (Variable Length Arrays) the standard specifies similar behavior to arrays, with the additional complications coming from their runtime-determined sizes. ↩︎

  5. That we now have warnings that are this easy to read and grasp in C is absolutely amazing, and a crucial effort that often goes overlooked. ↩︎