More reasons why C++ can be safer than C

In previous articles, I’ve explained how you can use C along with a few selected C++ features to write better and less error-prone code than you can in plain C. However, even if you don’t use any C++ constructs at all, you can still get a few benefits by compiling your C code using a C++ compiler. Here’s why:

Type of string literals: in C, a string literal has type char[ ]. There is nothing to prevent you from passing a string literal as a parameter to a function that writes to it. The C standard specifies that the effect of writing to a string literal is undefined, so you had better avoid it. Things are better in C++, where the type of a string literal is const char[ ]. If you want to use a C++ string literal in some context that eventually modifies it, you will usually to cast away const-ness – which is a much easier thing for a static checker to detect. Unfortunately, there are still some situations in which C++ allows a string literal to be converted implicitly to char[ ], however any good static analyser can be used to enforce a ban on such conversions.

Type of enumeration constants: in C you can declare enumerations, but the enumeration constants you declare have type int. So an enumeration declaration is just a shorthand for declaring a pile of integer constants, and provides no additional type safety. In C++, each enumeration is a distinct type. So you can’t assign a value of type int to a variable of an enumeration type, unless you use an explicit conversion. Unfortunately, you can still assign a value of an enumeration type to a variable of type int, because enumeration types can be implicitly converted by integral promotion. However, a static checker can easily detect this implicit conversion and warn about it.

Type of character literals: In C a character literal has type int. Therefore, if you want to pass a character literal as a parameter to a function expecting a char, or you want to assign a character literal to a variable of type char, then you are performing a narrowing type conversion. Good practice states that such a conversion must be explicit, and a static checker should report any implicit int to char conversion. This is of course absurd. In C++ a character literal has type char as you would expect.

If you don’t need to keep the ability to compile your program using a C compiler, you can take advantage of a few other improvements of C++ over C. For example, you can use the // form of comment – safer than the /*..*/ form because you can see immediately where it ends (i.e. the end of the line). You can also stop writing typedef struct _Foo { … } Foo and just write struct Foo { .. } instead, because in C++ any class, struct or enum declaration defines a type name. Finally, you can stop writing those dangerous function-like macros, because the inline keyword of C++ lets you declare a proper function instead, without (for any reasonable compiler) worrying about efficiency.

Is there any risk in compiling existing C code using a C++ compiler? Well, there are a few ways in which you can write programs that have different meanings in C and C++. One is to use a character literal as the operand of sizeof ( ). Some static checkers will warn about this, and it’s banned in my safety-critical C++ subset. Another way is to declare a struct or an enum with the same name as a variable in an outer scope, and then take sizeof() that name – possible, but unlikely because types are typically declared only at file scope. See this Wikipedia article for a summary of the ways in which C++ isn’t backwards compatible with C.

Switching compilers does of course introduce risks. Fortunately, many vendors use a single compiler for both C and C++. If your C compiler also supports C++, then you can just tell it to compile in C++ mode instead of C mode. The chances are that you will be using very little functionality of that compiler that you weren’t using before – until you start using major new language features of C++. However, if for you moving to C++ compilation requires using a compiler from a different vendor, then you’ll probably want to wait for a new project before you do it.

I’ve digressed a little from the main theme of this blog, which is verification of safety-critical code written in C/C++. I’ll get back to that in another post.

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