Into, but not out of, the void

June 10, 2008

Dan_Saks-June 10, 2008

The early dialect of C described by Kernighan and Ritchie (Kernighan, Brian W. and Ritchie, Dennis M., The C Programming Language. Prentice Hall, 1978.) (often called "Classic C") didn't include the keyword void, and therefore had no type void *. Lacking void *, Classic C programs tended to use char * as the type for a "generic" data pointer--a pointer that can point to any data object. Unfortunately, this increased the need to use cast expressions.

For example, Classic C didn't include the now standard memory management functions malloc and free. On page 175 of their book, Kernighan and Ritchie implemented their own allocation function, alloc, which they defined as:

char *alloc(bytes)
unsigned bytes;

This function definition is in the old, non-prototyped style of Classic C. In Standard C, the equivalent declaration would be:

char *alloc(unsigned bytes);

This alloc function returns the address of the allocated storage as a pointer of type char *. However, they designed alloc to allocate storage for any type of object, not just char or array of char. When allocating storage for something other than a char (or array thereof), the program must convert the char * result into a pointer to the intended type of the allocated object--a conversion that requires a cast. Kernighan and Ritchie used casts to convert the result of calling alloc to something other than char *, in functions such as:

struct tnode *talloc()
   return ((struct tnode *)alloc(sizeof(struct tnode)));

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