[This article was originally posted on August 23, 1996, and again with annotations on January 14, 1997 and March 20, 1998. I have edited the text further for this web page.]

[A few of the points I make in this article are becoming dated. It is becoming less and less kosher to assume that a function declared without an explicit return type will be implicitly declared as returning int; or to fail to return a value from a non-void function. In fact, the new revision of the ANSI/ISO C Standard ("C99") actively disallows the first of these, and at least partially the second.]

Newsgroups: comp.lang.c
From: scs@eskimo.com (Steve Summit)
Subject: Re: int main() ???? wrong?
Message-ID: <DwLyC9.5w5@eskimo.com>
References: <321b9857.75314178@news2.microserve.net> <321cc6d4.152763064@news2.microserve.net>
Date: Fri, 23 Aug 1996 20:31:21 GMT

In article <321b9857.75314178@news2.microserve.net>, sidlip@lip.microserve.com writes:
> I see alot of reference to int main () being incorrect syntax..
> Ive gotten into the habit of doing it and would like to know what
> errors could pop up in my code from not voiding main.

I assume you mean, "what errors could pop up from not declaring main correctly." Speaking generally, the same sorts of errors could pop up as occur any time a global variable or function is misdeclared.

Turning for a moment from main() and void to ints and doubles, let's consider the (incorrect) code

	#include <stdio.h>
	extern int sqrt();
	printf("%d\n", sqrt(144.));
	return 0;

This code is clearly trying to compute and print the square root of 144, but it almost as clearly will not work. It declares that the library function sqrt() returns an int, and it tries to print sqrt's return value using %d which expects an int. Yet, in actuality, sqrt() of course returns a double. The fact that sqrt() returns a double, while the caller acts as if it returns an int, will almost certainly prevent the program from working.

Why won't it work, exactly? It depends on the details of the particular machine's function call and return mechanisms. We haven't said which machine we're using, and we shouldn't have to know the details of these mechanisms (they're the compiler's worry, and to worry about them for us is one of the reasons we're using a higher-level language like C in the first place), so we can speak only in general terms. Perhaps the machine has one general-purpose register which is designated as the location where functions return values of integer types, and one floating-point register which is designated as the location where functions return values of floating-point types. If so, sqrt() will write its return value to the floating-point return register, and the calling code will read a garbage int value from the general-purpose return register. Or, perhaps integer and floating-point returns use the same locations. sqrt() will write a floating-point value to the location, but the calling code will incorrectly interpret it as an integer value. You'd then get approximately the same result as you'd get from executing

	double d = 12.;
	int *ip = (int *)&d;
	printf("%d\n", *ip);

In both cases, the bit pattern of the floating-point number is interpreted as if it were an integer. Since the bit-level representations of integer and floating-point data are invariably different, confusing and inaccurate answers result. (Note that in neither case -- the incorrect declaration of sqrt(), nor the int/double pointer game -- does the compiler emit any code to do double-to-int conversion. Any such conversions have been effectively circumvented by the peculiarities of these two code fragments. In the case of calling sqrt(), you'd get a proper double-to-int conversion only if sqrt() were properly declared as returning double, and the return value were assigned or cast to an int.) Finally, suppose that values are returned on the stack, but that sizeof(double) is greater than sizeof(int) (as is usually the case). sqrt() will push a double-sized result on the stack, but the caller will pop an int-sized one. Not only will the caller print a garbage answer (interpreting those bits it did pop as if they represented an int), but the shards of the double remaining on the stack could screw later uses of the stack up enough that the program could crash.

In the preceding example, the calling code was incorrect, because it misdeclared the return value of the sqrt() function. We're not allowed to choose what we want the return value of sqrt() to be, because neither the defined return type of sqrt() (as fixed by the Standard and long practice) nor the actual return type of sqrt() (as implemented in the library provided with our compiler) are under our control. Issuing an external declaration for sqrt() declaring that it returns an int does not make it return an int. (Nor does the misdeclaration instruct the compiler to convert sqrt's return value from double to int; if the declaration is wrong, how could the compiler even know that the type to be converted from was double?) Abraham Lincoln used to ask, "If we call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?" His answer was "Four -- calling it a leg doesn't make it one."

When we write an implementation of main() with a return type of void, the situation is similar, but the roles are reversed. Now, it is the caller that is fixed and beyond our control, and that caller is assuming that main() returns an int. You may imagine that somewhere (it's actually in the compiler vendor's source for the C run-time library) there is some code which looks something like this:

	extern int main(int, char *[]);
	int argc;
	char *argv[MAXARGS];
	int status;
	status = main(argc, argv);

If the caller declares main() as returning int, and you define main() as returning void, the declarations are mismatched, just as the declarations of sqrt() were in the previous example. In theory, the resulting program can fail in just the same sorts of ways. But, to reiterate, here we can't fix the problem by fixing the caller (because the caller is, er, fixed). Instead, we have to fix main's declaration, which is under our control, to match the caller's expectation.

Even if the program with the misdeclared main() "works" (that is, compiles without error, and runs without crashing), it does result in a garbage (random) exit status being returned to the calling environment. You or your command invocation environment may not be noticing that particular glitch right now, but it is a glitch, and it may bite you later.

At one time, I had not gotten into the habit of making sure that main() called exit() or returned an explicit value. (I wasn't declaring main() as void, but I was getting the same sorts of random exit status values.) Whenever I wrote a little program (usually a special-purpose preprocessor) to automate some step in the building of a large program, and stuck the program into one of the productions in a Makefile, make would randomly abort the build, saying that there had been an error, whenever the random status returned by the little program was nonzero (i.e. not EXIT_SUCCESS). Eventually, fixing enough of those drove home to me the importance of always exiting with an appropriate, explicit status, even in seemingly trivial programs.

Another place you'll notice the effect of a random exit status is if you run a program with one in the background using a job-control shell under Unix; when it finishes, you'll get a message like "Done(1)" or "Exit 1" which, if you've gotten used to the presence of the number indicating the presence of an error, will mislead you into thinking that the command failed.

Yet other ways to see the results of particular exit statuses (that is, to depend on their being deterministic) are when using errorlevel in DOS batch files, or when using DCL in VMS.

> several books use int main() as examples and others use void main(void)


> main returns an int i assume?

Yes. More precisely, main is supposed to return an int; what it actually returns is what you declare it to return (and what your return statement(s), if any, say it returns). But if you implement main as returning something other than what its caller expects it to return, you run the risk of its not working correctly.

In article <321cc6d4.152763064@news2.microserve.net>, sidlip@lip.microserve.com goes on:
> Im curious why do i see void main(void) so much?

I honestly don't know.

The first few times I ever saw void main(), it was clear that the programmer was trying to avoid warnings. The program

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

does not return a value from main(), but it doesn't matter, because control flow never falls off the end of main(), because exit() never returns. But the compiler usually doesn't know that exit() doesn't return, and may warn that "control reaches end of int-valued function without returning a value." In the program

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

the compiler is likely to issue the same warning, and here it's perfectly appropriate, but the programmer may not care, if the program isn't ever to be executed in an environment where the exit status matters. In either case, declaring main() as void effectively shuts off that particular warning message, but at the cost of making the program incorrect. (Indeed, some compilers will issue other warnings when main() is misdeclared.)

It's because of this particular argument that the question currently known as 11.12 in the FAQ list is worded the way it is, but this line of reasoning is not sufficient to explain void main()'s unaccountable popularity today. It's become some kind of a meme plague: the "popular" textbooks all use it, so hordes of unsuspecting C programmers learn it, and some of them go on to teach classes or write more books which then spread the virus. In fact, my initial supposition (outlined above) of why people might write void main() is now not only insufficient, it's almost completely forgotten! Today, when people who use void main() are asked why they do, none of them ever mention shutting off warnings about main() not returning a value. They all mumble something like "but everyone else uses it" or "but it works on my compiler" or (particularly in the case of misguided teachers and textbook authors) "that way we don't have to introduce the full complexity of return types right at first." (This last justification is particularly specious, as we'll see.)

> what exactly is it saying? and why does it work ?

It tends to work (even though it doesn't have to and is not guaranteed to) for a combination of three reasons:

(As an aside, these three reasons conspire to require nonstandard "pascal" keywords in compilers for environments where code written in C must call libraries written in Pascal, or vice versa. I gather that many Pascal compilers do use different calling conventions for procedures and functions. If C compilers didn't have to coddle broken code by making void-valued and int-valued functions compatible, they could arrange that void-valued functions were completely compatible with Pascal procedures. Instead, a C program that calls a Pascal procedure must typically declare it as

	extern pascal void f();

or some such. Similar arguments apply to "fortran" and "basic" keywords, and to fixed versus variable-length argument lists.)

> also if type int is implied and () is implied as an empty delaration (in ANSI)
> why not main() (although ive never seen it)...

"Plain" main() is in fact pretty common. When I taught introductory C programming, I used to leave the return type off of main() in examples, because was a distraction to have to explain what a function's return type is at all at first, particularly in a function like main() where it isn't obvious who the caller is or what would happen to the return value. (Alas, a certain amount of handwaving is still required if the main() function includes an explicit return statement, as it must to keep all compilers quiet.)

We can see, then, that an instructor or textbook author who doesn't want to "introduce the full complexity of return types right at first" could and should demonstrate main() without an explicit return type, and that using void instead is doubly counterproductive.

The situation is completely different, by the way, with respect to a function's declared parameters. The declaration

	extern main();

is an old-style declaration saying that main is a function taking unspecified (but fixed) arguments. The definition


, on the other hand, is an old-style definition saying that main takes zero arguments. Since the caller (as we saw earlier) is going to be passing two arguments to main(), how can we get away with this misdeclaration?

The answer is that main's parameter list is a very definite wart in Standard C. Anywhere else, if a function is called with a number of arguments not matching its definition (and if the function does not accept a variable-length argument list), the behavior is undefined. In this one case, however, main() is allowed to be defined as accepting either zero arguments or two, of type int and char **. The reason for the wart is of course to support old code, but a wart it is, and it may require some compilers to treat a function named main specially.

> is return; implied return 0; ?

No. A return statement without an expression returns no defined value, and is valid only in void-valued functions or in functions where the caller doesn't use the return value.

Steve Summit

[ Addendum: Despite the length of this article, it only barely gets around to explaining how, precisely, declaring main() as void could fail. Besides the problems of a garbage exit status being received by the calling environment, a more serious failure could occur if the compiler used different calling conventions for void- and int-valued functions. If so, then for main() to push no return value on the stack, and for the caller to pop an int value that main() hadn't pushed, could conceivably "screw later uses of the stack up enough that the program could crash."]