section 2.12: Precedence and Order of Evaluation

Note that precedence is not the same thing as order of evaluation. Precedence determines how an expression is parsed, and it has an influence on the order in which parts of it are evaluated, but the influence isn't as strong as you'd think. Precedence says that in the expression

	1 + 2 * 3
the multiplication happens before the addition. But if we have several function calls, such as
	f() + g() * h()
we have no idea which function will be called first; the compiler might arrange to call f() first even though its value won't be needed until last. If we were to write an abomination like
	i = 1;
	a[i++] + a[i++] * a[i++]
we would have no way of knowing which order the three increments would happen in, and in fact the compiler wouldn't have any idea either. We could not argue that since multiplication has higher precedence than addition, and since multiplication associates from left to right, the second i++ would have to happen first, then the third, then the first. (Actually, associativity never says anything about which side of a single binary operator gets evaluated first; associativity says which of several adjacent same-precedence operators happens first.)

In general, you should be wary of ever trying to second-guess the relative order in which the various parts of an expression will be evaluated, with two exceptions:

  1. You can obviously assume that precedence will dictate the order in which binary operators are applied. This typically says more than just what order things happens in, but also what the expression actually means. (In other words, the precedence of * over + says more than that the multiplication ``happens first'' in 1 + 2 * 3; it says that the answer is 7, not 9.)
  2. You can assume that the && and || operators are evaluated left-to-right, and that the right-hand side is not evaluated at all if the left-hand side determines the outcome.

To look at one more example, it might seem that the code

	int i = 7;
	printf("%d\n", i++ * i++);
would have to print 56, because no matter which order the increments happen in, 7x8 is 8x7 is 56. But ++ just says that the increment happens later, not that it happens immediately, so this code could print 49 (if it chose to perform the multiplication first, and both increments later). And, it turns out that ambiguous expressions like this are such a bad idea that the ANSI C Standard does not require compilers to do anything reasonable with them at all, such that the above code might end up printing 42, or 8923409342, or 0, or crashing your computer.

Finally, note that parentheses don't dictate overall evaluation order any more than precedence does. Parentheses override precedence and say which operands go with which operators, and they therefore affect the overall meaning of an expression, but they don't say anything about the order of subexpressions or side effects. We could not ``fix'' the evaluation order of any of the expressions we've been discussing by adding parentheses. If we wrote

	f() + (g() * h())
we still wouldn't know whether f(), g(), or h() would be called first. (The parentheses would force the multiplication to happen before the addition, but precedence already would have forced that, anyway.) If we wrote
	(i++) * (i++)
the parentheses wouldn't force the increments to happen before the multiplication or in any well-defined order; this parenthesized version would be just as undefined as i++ * i++ was.

page 53

Deep sentence:

Function calls, nested assignment statements, and increment and decrement operators cause ``side effects''--some variable is changed as a by-product of the evaluation of an expression.
(There's a slight inaccuracy in this sentence: any assignment expression counts as a side effect.)

It's these ``side effects'' that you want to keep in mind when you're making sure that your programs are well-defined and don't suffer any of the undefined behavior we've been discussing. (When we informally said that complex expressions had several things going on ``at once,'' we were actually referring to expressions with multiple side effects.) As a general rule, you should make sure that each expression only has one side effect, or if it has several, that different variables are changed by the several side effects.

page 54

Deep sentence:

The moral is that writing code that depends on order of evaluation is a bad programming practice in any language. Naturally, it is necessary to know what things to avoid, but if you don't know how they are done on various machines, you won't be tempted to take advantage of a particular implementation.

The first edition of K&R said

...if you don't know how they are done on various machines, that innocence may help to protect you.
I actually prefer the first edition wording. Many textbooks encourage you to write small programs to find out how your compiler implements some of these ambiguous expressions, but it's just one step from writing a small program to find out, to writing a real program which makes use of what you've just learned. And you don't want to write programs that work only under one particular compiler, that take advantage of the way that compiler (but perhaps no other) happens to implement the undefined expressions. It's fine to be curious about what goes on ``under the hood,'' and many of you will be curious enough about what's going on with these ``forbidden'' expressions that you'll want to investigate them, but please keep very firmly in mind that, for real programs, the very easiest way of dealing with ambiguous, undefined expressions (which one compiler interprets one way and another interprets another way and a third crashes on) is not to write them in the first place.

Read sequentially: prev next up top

This page by Steve Summit // Copyright 1995, 1996 // mail feedback