Follow Techotopia on Twitter

On-line Guides
All Guides
eBook Store
iOS / Android
Linux for Beginners
Office Productivity
Linux Installation
Linux Security
Linux Utilities
Linux Virtualization
Linux Kernel
System/Network Admin
Scripting Languages
Development Tools
Web Development
GUI Toolkits/Desktop
Mail Systems
Eclipse Documentation

How To Guides
General System Admin
Linux Security
Linux Filesystems
Web Servers
Graphics & Desktop
PC Hardware
Problem Solutions
Privacy Policy




Thinking in C++
Prev Contents / Index Next

Importance of header files

When using a function from a library, C allows you the option of ignoring the header file and simply declaring the function by hand. In the past, people would sometimes do this to speed up the compiler just a bit by avoiding the task of opening and including the file (this is usually not an issue with modern compilers). For example, here’s an extremely lazy declaration of the C function printf( ) (from <stdio.h>):


The ellipses specify a variable argument list[34], which says: printf( ) has some arguments, each of which has a type, but ignore that. Just take whatever arguments you see and accept them. By using this kind of declaration, you suspend all error checking on the arguments.

This practice can cause subtle problems. If you declare functions by hand, in one file you may make a mistake. Since the compiler sees only your hand-declaration in that file, it may be able to adapt to your mistake. The program will then link correctly, but the use of the function in that one file will be faulty. This is a tough error to find, and is easily avoided by using a header file.

If you place all your function declarations in a header file, and include that header everywhere you use the function and where you define the function, you ensure a consistent declaration across the whole system. You also ensure that the declaration and the definition match by including the header in the definition file.

If a struct is declared in a header file in C++, you must include the header file everywhere a struct is used and where struct member functions are defined. The C++ compiler will give an error message if you try to call a regular function, or to call or define a member function, without declaring it first. By enforcing the proper use of header files, the language ensures consistency in libraries, and reduces bugs by forcing the same interface to be used everywhere.

The header is a contract between you and the user of your library. The contract describes your data structures, and states the arguments and return values for the function calls. It says, “Here’s what my library does.” The user needs some of this information to develop the application and the compiler needs all of it to generate proper code. The user of the struct simply includes the header file, creates objects (instances) of that struct, and links in the object module or library (i.e.: the compiled code).

The compiler enforces the contract by requiring you to declare all structures and functions before they are used and, in the case of member functions, before they are defined. Thus, you’re forced to put the declarations in the header and to include the header in the file where the member functions are defined and the file(s) where they are used. Because a single header file describing your library is included throughout the system, the compiler can ensure consistency and prevent errors.

There are certain issues that you must be aware of in order to organize your code properly and write effective header files. The first issue concerns what you can put into header files. The basic rule is “only declarations,” that is, only information to the compiler but nothing that allocates storage by generating code or creating variables. This is because the header file will typically be included in several translation units in a project, and if storage for one identifier is allocated in more than one place, the linker will come up with a multiple definition error (this is C++’s one definition rule: You can declare things as many times as you want, but there can be only one actual definition for each thing).

This rule isn’t completely hard and fast. If you define a variable that is “file static” (has visibility only within a file) inside a header file, there will be multiple instances of that data across the project, but the linker won’t have a collision[35]. Basically, you don’t want to do anything in the header file that will cause an ambiguity at link time.

Thinking in C++
Prev Contents / Index Next

   Reproduced courtesy of Bruce Eckel, MindView, Inc. Design by Interspire