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9.9. Variable numbers of arguments

It is often desirable to implement a function where the number of arguments is not known, or is not constant, when the function is written. Such a function is printf, described in Section 9.11. The following example shows the declaration of such a function.

int f(int, ... );

int f(int, ... ) {
        .
        .
        .
}

int g() {
        f(1,2,3);
}
Example 9.5

In order to access the arguments within the called function, the functions declared in the <stdarg.h> header file must be included. This introduces a new type, called a va_list, and three functions that operate on objects of this type, called va_start, va_arg, and va_end.

Before any attempt can be made to access a variable argument list, va_start must be called. It is defined as

#include <stdarg.h>
void va_start(va_list ap, parmN);

The va_start macro initializes ap for subsequent use by the functions va_arg and va_end. The second argument to va_start, parmN is the identifier naming the rightmost parameter in the variable parameter list in the function definition (the one just before the , ... ). The identifier parmN must not be declared with register storage class or as a function or array type.

Once initialized, the arguments supplied can be accessed sequentially by means of the va_arg macro. This is peculiar because the type returned is determined by an argument to the macro. Note that this is impossible to implement as a true function, only as a macro. It is defined as

#include <stdarg.h>
type va_arg(va_list ap, type);

Each call to this macro will extract the next argument from the argument list as a value of the specified type. The va_list argument must be the one initialized by va_start. If the next argument is not of the specified type, the behaviour is undefined. Take care here to avoid problems which could be caused by arithmetic conversions. Use of char or short as the second argument to va_arg is invariably an error: these types always promote up to one of signed int or unsigned int, and float converts to double. Note that it is implementation defined whether objects declared to have the types char, unsigned char, unsigned short and unsigned bitfields will promote to unsigned int, rather complicating the use of va_arg. This may be an area where some unexpected subtleties arise; only time will tell.

The behaviour is also undefined if va_arg is called when there were no further arguments.

The type argument must be a type name which can be converted into a pointer to such an object simply by appending a * to it (this is so the macro can work). Simple types such as char are fine (because char * is a pointer to a character) but array of char won't work (char [] does not turn into ‘pointer to array of char’ by appending a *). Fortunately, arrays can easily be processed by remembering that an array name used as an actual argument to a function call is converted into a pointer. The correct type for an argument of type ‘array of char’ would be char *.

When all the arguments have been processed, the va_end function should be called. This will prevent the va_list supplied from being used any further. If va_end is not used, the behaviour is undefined.

The entire argument list can be re-traversed by calling va_start again, after calling va_end. The va_end function is declared as

#include <stdarg.h>
void va_end(va list ap);

The following example shows the use of va_start, va_arg, and va_end to implement a function that returns the biggest of its integer arguments.

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

int maxof(int, ...) ;
void f(void);

main(){
        f();
        exit(EXIT_SUCCESS);
}

int maxof(int n args, ...){
        register int i;
        int max, a;
        va_list ap;

        va_start(ap, n args);
        max = va_arg(ap, int);
        for(i = 2; i <= n_args; i++) {
                if((a = va_arg(ap, int)) > max)
                        max = a;
        }

        va_end(ap);
        return max;
}

void f(void) {
        int i = 5;
        int j[256];
        j[42] = 24;
        printf("%d\n",maxof(3, i, j[42], 0));
}
Example 9.6