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Learn C Programming
Learn C Programming

Learn C Programming: A beginner's guide to learning C programming the easy and disciplined way

By Jeff Szuhay
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Book Jun 2020 646 pages 1st Edition
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Publication date : Jun 26, 2020
Length 646 pages
Edition : 1st Edition
Language : English
ISBN-13 : 9781789349917
Category :
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Learn C Programming

Running Hello, World!

Computer programming is about learning how to solve problems with a computer – about how to get a computer to do all the tedious work for us. The basic development cycle, or process of writing a computer program, is to determine the steps that are necessary to solve the problem at hand and then tell the computer to perform those steps. Our first problem, as we learn this process, is to learn how to write, build, run, and verify a minimal C program.

The following topics will be covered in this chapter:

  • Writing your first C program
  • Understanding the program development cycle
  • Creating, typing into a text editor, and saving your C program
  • Compiling your first C program
  • Running your program, verifying its result, and, if necessary, fixing it
  • Exploring different commenting styles and using them
  • Employing guided chaos, followed by careful observation for deeper learning

Let's get started!

Technical requirements

To complete this chapter and the rest of this book, you will need a running computer that has the following capabilities:

  • A basic text editor that is able to save unformatted plain text
  • A Terminal window that commands can be entered into via the command line
  • A compiler to build your C programs with

Each of these will be explained in more detail as we encounter them in this chapter.

The source code for this chapter can be found at However, please make every effort to type the source code in yourself. Even if you find this frustrating at first, you will learn far more and learn far more quickly if you do all the code entry for yourself.

Writing your first C program

We will begin with one of the simplest, most useful programs that can be created in C. This program was first used to introduce C by its creators, Brian W. Kernighan and Dennis M. Ritchie, in their now-classic work, The C Programming Language, published in 1978. The program prints a single line of output – the greeting Hello, world! – on the computer screen.

This simple program is important for a number of reasons. First, it gives us a flavor of what a C program is like, but more importantly, it proves that the necessary pieces of the development environment – the Operating System (OS), text editor, command-line interface, and compiler – are installed and working correctly. Finally, it gives us the first taste of the basic programming development cycle. In the process of learning to program and, later, actually solving real problems with programming, you will repeat this cycle often. It is essential that you become both familiar and comfortable with this cycle.

This program is useful because it prints something out to the Terminal, also known as the console, telling us that it actually did something – it displays a message to us. We could write shorter programs in C but they would not be of much use. We would be able to build and run them but would have little evidence that anything actually happened. So, here is your first C program. Throughout this book, and during the entirety of your programming experience, obtaining evidence of what actually happened is essential.

Since Kernighan and Ritchie introduced the Hello, world! program over 40 years ago, this simple program has been reused to introduce many programming languages and used in various settings. You can find variations of this program in Java, C++, Objective-C, Python, Ruby, and many others. GitHub, an online source code repository, even introduces their website and its functions with a Hello World beginner's guide.

Hello, world!

Without further ado, here is the Hello, world! C program. It does no calculations, nor does it accept any input. It only displays a short greeting and then ends, as follows:

#include <stdio.h>

int main()
printf( "Hello, world!\n" );
return 0;

Some minor details of this program have changed since it was first introduced. What is here will build and run with all C compilers that have been created in the last 20 years.

Before we get into the details of what each part of this program does, see if you can identify which line of the program prints our greeting. You may find the punctuation peculiar; we will explain this in the next chapter. Notice how some punctuation marks come in pairs, while others do not. There are five paired and five unpaired punctuation marks in all. Can you identify them? (We are not counting the punctuation in the message "Hello, world!".)

There is another pairing in this simple program that is not obvious at this time, but one that we will explore further in the next chapter. As a hint, this pairing involves the lines int main() and return 0;.

Before we jump into creating, compiling, and running this program, we need to get an overview of the whole development process and the tools we'll be using.

Understanding the program development cycle

There are two main types of development environments:

  • Interpreted: In an interpreted environment such as Python or Ruby, the program can be entered line by line and run at any point. Each line is evaluated and executed as it's entered and the results are immediately returned to the console. Interpreted environments are dynamic because they provide immediate feedback and are useful for the rapid exploration of algorithms and program features. Programs entered here tend to require the interpreting environment to be running as well.
  • Compiled: In a compiled environment such as C, C++, C#, or Objective-C, programs are entered into one or more files, then compiled all at once, and if no errors are found, the program can be run as a whole. Each of these phases is distinct, with separate programs used for each phase. Compiled programs tend to execute faster since there is a separate, full compilation phase, and can be run independently of the interpreting environment.

As with shampoo, where we are accustomed to wet hair, lather, rinse, and repeat, we will do the same with C – we will become familiar with the edit, compile, run, verify, and repeat cycle.


Programs are generated from text files whose filenames use predefined file extensions. These are known as source files, or source code files. For C, the .c file extension indicates a C source code file. An .h extension (which is present in our Hello, world! program) indicates a C header file. The compiler looks for .c and .h files as it encounters them and because each has a different purpose, it treats each differently as well. Other languages have their own file extensions; the contents of a source code file should match the language that the compiler expects.

To create and modify C files, you will need a plain text editor. This is a program that allows you to open, modify, and save plain text without any formatting such as font size, font family, font style, and much more. For instance, on Windows, Notepad is a plain text editor while Word is not. The plain text editor should have the following capabilities:

  • File manipulation: Open a file, edit a file, save the file and any changes that have been made to it, and save the file with another name.
  • The ability to navigate the file: Move up, down, left, right, to the beginning of the line, end of the line, beginning of the file, end of the file, and so on.
  • Text manipulation: Insert text, delete text, insert line, delete line, selection, cut, copy, paste, undo/redo, and so on.
  • Search and replace: Find text, replace text, and so on.

The following capabilities are handy but not essential:

  • Automatic indentation
  • Syntax coloring for the specific programming language
  • Automatic periodic saving

Almost any plain text editor will do. Do not get too caught up in the features of any given text editor. Some are better than others; some are free, while others are costly, and may not immediately be worth the expense (perhaps later, one or more might be worthwhile but not at this time), and none will do 100% of what you might want them to do.

Here are some free plain text editors worth installing on your computer and trying out:

  • Everywhere:Nano, which runs in a Terminal; a moderate learning curve.
  • Linux/Unix:
    • Vim, or vi: Runs in a Terminal; a moderate learning curve. It is on every Linux/Unix system, so it's worth learning how to use its basic features.
    • gedit: A powerful general-purpose editor.
    • Emacs: An everything and the kitchen sink editor; a very large learning curve.
  • Windows:
    • Notepad: Very simple – sometimes too simple for programming – but included in every Windows system.
    • Notepad++: A better version of Notepad with many features for programming.
  • macOS only: BBEdit (free version), which is a full-featured GUI programming text editor.

There are many, many text editors, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Pick a text editor and get used to it. Over time, as you use it more and more, it will become second nature.


The compiler is a program that takes input source code files – in our case, .c and .h files – translates the textural source code found there into machine language, and links together all the predefined parts needed to enable the program to run on our specific computer hardware and OS. It generates an executable file that consists of machine language.

Machine language is a series of instructions and data that a specific CentralProcessingUnit (CPU) knows how to fetch from the program execution stream and execute on the computer one by one. Each CPU has its own machine language or instruction set. By programming in a common language, such as C, the programmer is shielded from the details of machine language; that knowledge is embodied in the compiler.

Sometimes, assembler language is called machine language, but that is not quite accurate since assembler language still contains text and symbols, whereas machine language is only binary numbers. Very few people today have the skills to read machine language directly; at one time, many more programmers were able to do it. Times have changed!

When we compile our programs, we invoke the compiler to process one or more source files. The result of this invocation is either a success and an executable file is generated or it will identify the programming errors it found during compilation. Programming errors can be a simple misspellings of names or omitted punctuation, to more complex syntax errors. Typically, the compiler tries to make sense of any errors it finds; it attempts to provide useful information for the problem it found. Note that try and attempts are merely goals; in reality, the compiler may spew many lines of error messages that originate from a single error. Furthermore, the compiler will process the entire source code when invoked. You may find many different errors in different parts of the program for each compiler invocation.

A complete, runnable program consists of our compiled source code – the code we write – and predefined compiled routines that come with the OS – code written by the authors of the OS. The predefined program code is sometimes called the runtime library. It consists of a set of callable routines that know how to interact in detail with the various parts of the computer. For example, in Hello, world!, we don't have to know the detailed instructions to send characters to the computer's screen – we simply call a predefined function, printf();, to do it for us. printf() is part of the C runtime library, as are many other routines, as we will see later. The way in which one v sends text to the console is likely different from any other OS, even if they both run on the same hardware. So, the programmers are shielded not only from the minutia of machine language, but they are also shielded from the varying implementation details of the computer itself.

It follows from this that for each OS, there is a compiler and a runtime library specific to it. A compiler designed for one OS will most likely not work on a different OS. If, by chance, a compiler from one OS just happens to or even appears to run on a different OS, the resulting programs and their executions would be highly unpredictable. Mayhem is likely.

Many C compilers for every OS

You can learn C on many computer platforms. Common compilers in use on Unix and Linux OS are the GNU Compile Collection (GCC) or the LLVM compiler project, clang. For Windows, GCC is available via the Cygwin Project or the MinGW Project. You could even learn C using a Raspberry Pi or Arduino, but this is not ideal because of special considerations for these minimal computer systems. It is recommended that you use a desktop computer since many more computer resources (memory, hard drive space, CPU capability, and so on) are available on any such computer that can run a web browser.

A note about IDEs

On many OS, the compiler is installed as a part of an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) for that OS. An IDE consists of a set of programs needed to create, build, and test programs for that OS. It manages one or more files associated with a program, has its own integrated text editor, can invoke the compiler and present its results, and can execute the compiled program. The programmer typically never leaves this environment while developing. The IDE often streamlines the production of a standalone working program.

There are many such IDEs – Microsoft's Windows-only Visual Studio, Microsoft's multi-platform Visual Studio Code, Apple's Xcode for macOS and other Apple hardware platforms, Eclipse Foundation's Eclipse, and Oracle's Netbeans, to name a few. Each of these IDEs is able to develop programs in a variety of languages. Nearly all of the programs used in this book were developed using a simple IDE named CodeRunner for macOS.

We willnotuse an IDE for learning C. In fact, at this stage of your learning, it is not advisedfor several reasons. First, learning and using an IDE can be a daunting learning task in and of itself. This task can and should be put off until you have more experience with each of the individual parts of the program development cycle. IDEs, while they have common functions, are sometimes implemented in vastly different ways with far too many different features to explore. Learn C first; you can learn an IDE for your desiredenvironmentlater.

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Key benefits

  • Learn essential C concepts such as variables, data structures, functions, loops, arrays, and pointers
  • Get to grips with the core programming aspects that form the base of many modern programming languages
  • Explore the expressiveness and versatility of the C language with the help of sample programs


C is a powerful general-purpose programming language that is excellent for beginners to learn. This book will introduce you to computer programming and software development using C. If you're an experienced developer, this book will help you to become familiar with the C programming language. This C programming book takes you through basic programming concepts and shows you how to implement them in C. Throughout the book, you'll create and run programs that make use of one or more C concepts, such as program structure with functions, data types, and conditional statements. You'll also see how to use looping and iteration, arrays, pointers, and strings. As you make progress, you'll cover code documentation, testing and validation methods, basic input/output, and how to write complete programs in C. By the end of the book, you'll have developed basic programming skills in C, that you can apply to other programming languages and will develop a solid foundation for you to advance as a programmer.

What you will learn

Understand fundamental programming concepts and implement them in C Write working programs with an emphasis on code indentation and readability Break existing programs intentionally and learn how to debug code Adopt good coding practices and develop a clean coding style Explore general programming concepts that are applicable to more advanced projects Discover how you can use building blocks to make more complex and interesting programs Use C Standard Library functions and understand why doing this is desirable

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Product feature icon Instant access to your Digital eBook purchase
Product feature icon Download this book in EPUB and PDF formats
Product feature icon Access this title in our online reader with advanced features
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Product Details

Publication date : Jun 26, 2020
Length 646 pages
Edition : 1st Edition
Language : English
ISBN-13 : 9781789349917
Category :
Languages :

Table of Contents

33 Chapters
Preface Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
1. Section 1: C Fundamentals Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
2. Running Hello, World! Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
3. Understanding Program Structure Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
4. Working with Basic Data Types Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
5. Using Variables and Assignment Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
6. Exploring Operators and Expressions Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
7. Exploring Conditional Program Flow Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
8. Exploring Loops and Iteration Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
9. Creating and Using Enumerations Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
10. Section 2: Complex Data Types Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
11. Creating and Using Structures Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
12. Creating Custom Data Types with typedef Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
13. Working with Arrays Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
14. Working with Multi-Dimensional Arrays Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
15. Using Pointers Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
16. Understanding Arrays and Pointers Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
17. Working with Strings Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
18. Creating and Using More Complex Structures Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
19. Section 3: Memory Manipulation Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
20. Understanding Memory Allocation and Lifetime Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
21. Using Dynamic Memory Allocation Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
22. Section 4: Input and Output Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
23. Exploring Formatted Output Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
24. Getting Input from the Command Line Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
25. Exploring Formatted Input Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
26. Working with Files Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
27. Using File Input and File Output Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
28. Section 5: Building Blocks for Larger Programs Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
29. Working with Multi-File Programs Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
30. Understanding Scope Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
31. Other Books You May Enjoy Chevron down icon Chevron up icon
Appendix Chevron down icon Chevron up icon

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