Fritz asks about C structure types


Fritz asks:


I have a question regarding structures in C.

What’s the correct way to use it since I saw different styles using typedef struct, and naming struct before ‘{’ and after ‘}’.

Is this correct?

struct _foo {
  int a, b;};
struct _foo *foo;


(short answer yes, but don’t use “_foo”)

Thanks for the question Fritz, which normally I would expect to have seen on the Coming Soon page.

It’s good every once in a while to review even the basic parts of a language with which one is intimately familiar, so I will.

I will be discussing C not C++ (pretty much all I know about C++ is that it’s a bit different in this regard).The code Fritz presents is almost fine. The error is that it uses the struct tag «_foo» which renders it undefined (a point I discuss below). The same code using «struct foo» would be just fine. In the discussion below I’ll use «struct foo».

struct is a keyword in C and it has two related uses:

  • To declare a new structure type and possibly a tag (name) for that type; and,
  • To refer to a previously declared type by its tag.
  • Fritz’s short example shows both of these. The first use of struct:

    struct foo {
      int a, b;

    declares a new structure type and gives that type the name «struct foo». The «foo» in «struct foo» is called a tag and it is used to specify which structure type you mean when you want to refer to the stucture type later (or, as we see below, earlier).The second use:

    struct foo *foo;

    declares a new variable whose type is «struct foo *» (pointer to struct foo), referring to the type we declared earlier by its name. It so happens that the tag used to identify the struct, the «foo» in «struct foo», and the name of the variable are the same. That’s okay, it works because structure tags and variable names live in separate name spaces so they can never conflict (see [ISOC] section 6.2.3).These declarations can be combined; we can simultaneously declare a new structure type and a variable that uses that type:

    struct foo {
      int a,b;
    } *foo;

    This isn’t particular good style, but it is possible. It is downright dangerous in argument lists. Avoid it unless you know better.

    Incomplete types

    More usefully the declaration of the existence of a structure type can be separated from the definition of a structure type. The key idea is that you don’t need to know about the internal details of a structure type in order to have a pointer to it. So the declaration of a pointer type doesn’t have to have a full definition of the structure type.

    This is what makes linked list types possible in C:

    struct node {
      struct node *next;
      int v;

    Or structure types that refer to each other:

    struct bar {
      struct zon *z;
    struct zon {
      struct bar *b;

    Note that the definition of «struct bar» doesn’t have to see the definition of «struct zon» before being allowed to use «struct zon *» to declare a pointer type.The same technique allows us to have abstract datatypes in C. Simply define an interface that only uses a pointer type, «struct foo *» say, and never put the definition of «struct foo» in the header, reserve that for the implementation file. Clients of the interface are restricted from inspecting the contents of the structure and the compiler gives a lot of help in enforcing that.


    It’s common to use a typedef in conjunction with structure types. A typedef allows you create an alias, or another name, for a type. When used with structure type there are two common patterns of use. The first is to create a typedef for the structure type itself; the second is to create a typedef for a pointer to the structure type:

    typedef struct foo {
      int x;
    } foo_s;
    typedef struct foo *foo_p;

    The latter approach, making a typedef of the pointer type, is useful when you want the structure to be opaque so that clients can’t access it. This is the approach taken by the PAM client interface from Linux where all the functions take a pamc_handle_t which is defined as the opaque type «typedef struct pamc_handle_s *pamc_handle_t;». The client never gets to see the definition of the “inside” of the structure type so it can never (legally) access it except via the published interface. This is a good thing.

    The perils of _foo

    You can’t use a structure tag name that begins with an underscore at the top level of a file. At least, that’s my reading of this extract from [ISOC] section 7.1.3, Reserved Identifiers:

    All identifiers that begin with an underscore are always reserved for use as identifierswith file scope in both the ordinary and tag name spaces.

    Using a reserved identifier in your program leads to undefined behaviour (paragraph 2 of the same section, 7.1.3). So don’t do that then.

    One Response to “Fritz asks about C structure types”

    1. drj11 Says:

      Argh! Safari 3.0 (beta, ahem) and WordPress conspire to remove all my vertical space formatting just as I publish the article. I’ve gone over it with Firefox (which doesn’t screw me over quite so thoroughly), but some formatting may still be wrong. Could be the beginning of the end for WordPress.

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