5 C Programming Tips You Must Learn to Get Started
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If you’ve heard of programming, you’ve heard of C. It’s one of the oldest coding languages around. Some fear it, and others love it.

C has a reputation for being hard for beginners. There are many good reasons to learn the language, but there are a few essential tips to bear in mind while starting out.

What Is the C Programming Language?

To understand what the C programming language is, it is worth learning what coding is What Is Coding and How Does It Work? What Is Coding and How Does It Work? Confused about coding? Don't understand scripting? Here's what you need to know about the building blocks of programming. Read More before continuing!

C is a low-level procedural programming language. C is much closer to the actual machine code your computer runs on. This makes it incredibly fast, but challenging to use, and capable of breaking your system if you are not careful!

Why Learn to Program in C?

If C is so complicated and dangerous, why learn it?

Well, C is everywhere.

  • Almost every computer operating system is written in C.
  • Most smartphones and tablets have a C based operating system.
  • Almost every microcontroller, whether it runs the display on your microwave door or the internal telemetry in a car, is programmed in C.
  • C++, Objective C, and C# all are built directly on top of C, and Python was written in it.
  • A good knowledge of C looks great on any programmer’s resume.

Some people think learning C before any other programming language results in a better understanding of programming as a whole.

Learning C is also learning about how your computer works. C programmers can have a deeper understanding of the way code affects systems, and find learning other programming languages easier as a result.

1. Learn the Basic Variable Types

Data comes in different types. It is important to know what type of data you are working with, as they can be easy to confuse. An example is knowing that the number 5 can be an integer (as in the number 5), as well as a character (the written character 5).

int number = 5;

Now there is no confusion, the variable number is assigned the integer value 5. C needs to be told what types to expect in order to work the way you want it to.

Data types and how they are assigned to variables is an essential part of your C course, and it’s important to understand.

Knowing how to give data the correct type is an important skill in all programming, but it is essential in C.

2. Learn the Operators

If C is the first language you are learning, you will likely be learning operators for the first time. Operators are symbols that tell the compiler to carry out a task. Perhaps the simplest example is the + operator.

answer = number + anotherNumber;

No prizes for guessing that this code adds together two integer variables. Not all operators are this simple though.

C uses many operators for arithmetic, assignment, and logic among others. Knowing what each of these operators do will help you pick up core programming concepts quicker.

3. Use the Standard Libraries

C may be low level, but it does have a set of libraries to help with creating programs. Mathematical operations, locale-specific data (like currency symbols), and various variable types and macros are all defined in libraries.

You can use these libraries by including them into your code. Take this example:

#include <stdio.h>
int main()
{
  printf("Hello, World!");
  return 0;
}

In C, the simple act of outputting to the console requires the inclusion of the stdio.h (standard input/output) header file.

There are 15 standard libraries for programming in C, and following a guide to what they all do will help you with your learning.

4. C Is Unforgiving

C will do precisely what you tell it, and instead of complaining when something doesn’t make sense it will still try to keep working. This can not only break your program but cause problems to your entire system!

While this sounds dramatic, it usually isn’t. You aren’t going to break your computer. You might end up with some weird bugs though. Take this example:

Sample C Code

This piece of code prints questions to the console, before scanning what the user inputs and storing them as integers. The program is designed to add them together and subtract them before printing the answers back to the user.

You might already see that there is a problem here. The output certainly makes no sense!

Sample Output code giving the wrong answer

Since we never actually subtract the values, the subtracted variable has a nonsense value given to it on initialization. Other programming languages might warn you that you never gave the subtracted variable a value. Not C.

This example is easy to debug visually, but some code is thousands of lines long and incredibly complex, and C won’t help you find what is wrong. Instead, C gives you a stupid answer and no way to find out why. Or is there?

5. Debugging Is Your Best Friend

Since C code can contain unwanted behavior, it can cause errors which are difficult to track down, with no apparent reason. To stop yourself from completely losing your mind you should get comfortable with debugging your code.

A debugger like GDB can help with this. Here, GDB is running on the faulty script from above.

Using a command line debugger

Usually, a program runs until it finishes, or it crashes. Debuggers allow you to break down your code line by line. Here, break points are set up at lines 10 and 13 where we suspect the issue could be.

Then, the program is run as normal. The numbers are entered, then the program pauses after line 10. The debugger is asked to print the value of subtracted, which shows as a value of 37. This makes sense, we haven’t told subtracted a value yet, so it has a random value.

Then, the debugger continues. We repeat the process after line 13, and print subtracted only to find out that the value hasn’t changed.

The offending lines of code

It turns out we forgot to do the calculation at all, instead opting to leave a suspiciously empty line of code. Thank you debugging!

GDB is a C coder’s best friend, and the earlier you learn to use it, the happier you will be!

What You C Is What You Get

The C language is a life long learning experience, and there are things we haven’t even touched on in this article like pointers and memory allocation.

While C has got a tough reputation you can learn by doing, so get hands-on and start with your own C programming beginner project How to Learn C Programming With This Beginner Project How to Learn C Programming With This Beginner Project Want to start programming, but not sure about C? Try this C programming beginner's tutorial to check if it is the language for you. Read More .

Image Credit: sjenner13/Depositphotos

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  1. Mike
    April 6, 2019 at 7:54 am

    Dude, I get that you're trying to help, but these "tips" serve the functional equivalent of suggesting that new budding motorists learn how to turn a steering wheel left and right.

    Here are my 5 tips:
    1.) Get an early start on how binary, octal, and hexadecimal numbers work. This will save you a lot of grief when you start looking at things like memory addresses and many other things down the line.

    2.) C is not object oriented, but you've got this nifty little thing called a struct. Blah blah blah, everything is public in a struct. Blah blah blah learn it because you'll use it a lot after you get past the basics.

    3.) Code with no nutts?!... No ya dingus! Not "eunuch-code"! We're talking about "Unicode"! For our international audience, this will be critical because not everyone in the world reads/speaks English. So knowing how to represent and manipulate Unicode strings in your app using C can be a bit of a culture shock for newcomers. Don't wait till later, do it now.

    4.) Chances are if you're new to the C language and you're desperate enough to be looking at this article for advice and "tips", then I would suspect that you probably may not have heard about another spiffy little corner of the web called Stack Overflow. Go there create, make an account, and RESEARCH YOUR QUESTION FIRST before posting a question. Chances are that an experienced programmer has already answered your question in an existing post.

    5.) Your code in the beginning will be absolute garbage. It's gonna be so ugly you can't even pay another family money to adopted it. But don't be discouraged and lose Hope/Faith. Keep pressing forward, learn a few algorithms, learn how to do pointer arithmetic, and you'll come at the other end of this being able to make code that looks considerably less disfigured then at the beginning.

    Xoxo,
    -Mike