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Thinking in C++
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Creating functions

In old (pre-Standard) C, you could call a function with any number or type of arguments and the compiler wouldn’t complain. Everything seemed fine until you ran the program. You got mysterious results (or worse, the program crashed) with no hints as to why. The lack of help with argument passing and the enigmatic bugs that resulted is probably one reason why C was dubbed a “high-level assembly language.” Pre-Standard C programmers just adapted to it.

Standard C and C++ use a feature called function prototyping. With function prototyping, you must use a description of the types of arguments when declaring and defining a function. This description is the “prototype.” When the function is called, the compiler uses the prototype to ensure that the proper arguments are passed in and that the return value is treated correctly. If the programmer makes a mistake when calling the function, the compiler catches the mistake.

Essentially, you learned about function prototyping (without naming it as such) in the previous chapter, since the form of function declaration in C++ requires proper prototyping. In a function prototype, the argument list contains the types of arguments that must be passed to the function and (optionally for the declaration) identifiers for the arguments. The order and type of the arguments must match in the declaration, definition, and function call. Here’s an example of a function prototype in a declaration:

int translate(float x, float y, float z);

You do not use the same form when declaring variables in function prototypes as you do in ordinary variable definitions. That is, you cannot say: float x, y, z. You must indicate the type of each argument. In a function declaration, the following form is also acceptable:

int translate(float, float, float);

Since the compiler doesn’t do anything but check for types when the function is called, the identifiers are only included for clarity when someone is reading the code.

In the function definition, names are required because the arguments are referenced inside the function:

int translate(float x, float y, float z) {
  x = y = z;
  // ...

It turns out this rule applies only to C. In C++, an argument may be unnamed in the argument list of the function definition. Since it is unnamed, you cannot use it in the function body, of course. Unnamed arguments are allowed to give the programmer a way to “reserve space in the argument list.” Whoever uses the function must still call the function with the proper arguments. However, the person creating the function can then use the argument in the future without forcing modification of code that calls the function. This option of ignoring an argument in the list is also possible if you leave the name in, but you will get an annoying warning message about the value being unused every time you compile the function. The warning is eliminated if you remove the name.

C and C++ have two other ways to declare an argument list. If you have an empty argument list, you can declare it as func( ) in C++, which tells the compiler there are exactly zero arguments. You should be aware that this only means an empty argument list in C++. In C it means “an indeterminate number of arguments (which is a “hole” in C since it disables type checking in that case). In both C and C++, the declaration func(void); means an empty argument list. The void keyword means “nothing” in this case (it can also mean “no type” in the case of pointers, as you’ll see later in this chapter).

The other option for argument lists occurs when you don’t know how many arguments or what type of arguments you will have; this is called a variable argument list. This “uncertain argument list” is represented by ellipses (...). Defining a function with a variable argument list is significantly more complicated than defining a regular function. You can use a variable argument list for a function that has a fixed set of arguments if (for some reason) you want to disable the error checks of function prototyping. Because of this, you should restrict your use of variable argument lists to C and avoid them in C++ (in which, as you’ll learn, there are much better alternatives). Handling variable argument lists is described in the library section of your local C guide.

Thinking in C++
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   Reproduced courtesy of Bruce Eckel, MindView, Inc. Design by Interspire