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Chapter 4. Conditionals

A conditional is a directive that instructs the preprocessor to select whether or not to include a chunk of code in the final token stream passed to the compiler. Preprocessor conditionals can test arithmetic expressions, or whether a name is defined as a macro, or both simultaneously using the special defined operator.

A conditional in the C preprocessor resembles in some ways an if statement in C, but it is important to understand the difference between them. The condition in an if statement is tested during the execution of your program. Its purpose is to allow your program to behave differently from run to run, depending on the data it is operating on. The condition in a preprocessing conditional directive is tested when your program is compiled. Its purpose is to allow different code to be included in the program depending on the situation at the time of compilation.

However, the distinction is becoming less clear. Modern compilers often do test if statements when a program is compiled, if their conditions are known not to vary at run time, and eliminate code which can never be executed. If you can count on your compiler to do this, you may find that your program is more readable if you use if statements with constant conditions (perhaps determined by macros). Of course, you can only use this to exclude code, not type definitions or other preprocessing directives, and you can only do it if the code remains syntactically valid when it is not to be used.

GCC version 3 eliminates this kind of never-executed code even when not optimizing. Older versions did it only when optimizing.

4.1. Conditional Uses

There are three general reasons to use a conditional.

  • A program may need to use different code depending on the machine or operating system it is to run on. In some cases the code for one operating system may be erroneous on another operating system; for example, it might refer to data types or constants that do not exist on the other system. When this happens, it is not enough to avoid executing the invalid code. Its mere presence will cause the compiler to reject the program. With a preprocessing conditional, the offending code can be effectively excised from the program when it is not valid.

  • You may want to be able to compile the same source file into two different programs. One version might make frequent time-consuming consistency checks on its intermediate data, or print the values of those data for debugging, and the other not.

  • A conditional whose condition is always false is one way to exclude code from the program but keep it as a sort of comment for future reference.

Simple programs that do not need system-specific logic or complex debugging hooks generally will not need to use preprocessing conditionals.

  Published under the terms of the GNU General Public License Design by Interspire