Sunday, December 28, 2008

Should I Learn C or C++?

The question comes up quite often, "Should I bother to learn C, or go straight to C++?" Many beginning programmers wonder if it's worth it to spend the time learning C, when they know a more advanced language is readily available. Others wonder if they're going to be missing out on anything important if they skip C, and proceed directly to C++ without passing Go or collecting $200.

While it is true that well-written C code will normally compile under C++, C is not a proper subset of C++. There are a few differences that can make a valid C program invalid in C++. The easiest examples to illustrate involve the addition of keywords such as new and class to C++, which were not reserved words in C. The following (contrived) valid C program will not compile as C++.
int main(void) {
int class, new; // both class and new are C++ keywords
printf("Enter two integers > ");
scanf("%d %d", &class, &new);
printf("The two numbers are: %d %d\n", class, new);
printf("Their sum is %d\n", class + new);
}

Another difference that's often cited between C and C++ is that C supplies an implicit cast when a void pointer is assigned to a pointer of a specific type, while C++ requires an explicit cast. The following valid C code will not compile using C++:
void* ptr;
int *i = ptr;
In order to make this code valid C++, an explicit cast to an int pointer must be supplied:
void* ptr;
int *i = (int *) ptr;
While it's important to understand that C and C++ are really two separate languages, it's just as important to understand that the parts of C that aren't valid C++ are extreme edge cases. C++ was originally intended to be just an extension of C (Stroustrup started out calling it C with Classes), so an effort was made to ensure that valid C syntax was broken in only a very few places. As Scott Meyer points out in Effective C++, C++ is really a federation of related programming languages: C, Object-Oriented C++, Template C++, and the STL. Almost all valid C programs will compile as C++, with very little, or often no changes necessary.

Most programmers who are deliberating between learning either C or C++ should probably skip C and learn C++. Start out with a book like C++ Primer and you will learn good programming style, not only in the C subset, but in all of the parts of the C++ language. Unless you plan on doing some work on the Linux kernel or another project that you know uses C, the only thing you will be really missing by not learning C first is Kernighan & Ritchie's C Programming Language. You can always go back and read K&R after you've taught yourself good C++ style and habits.


Further Reading

Wikipedia, Compatibility of C and C++.

2 comments:

christi parks said...

I am not a programmer but I have this C language subject this session and have to prepare for it. What all topics should be covered in it?
And has anyone studied from this course http://www.wiziq.com/course/2118-learn-how-to-program-in-c-language of C tutorial online?? or tell me any other guidance...
would really appreciate help

Bill the Lizard said...

christi parks,

I'd check out Learn C The Hard Way if I were learning C right now. The table of contents will give you some idea of what topics should be covered. Note that you need either OSX or Linux to complete the exercises. There's also an online video course and PDFs available for a small fee (see the link at the top of that page).