What is the C programming language?

C is a programming language that’s been essential since the 1970s. It forms the foundation of modern operating systems, making it an integral part of programmers’ daily lives.

Primary uses for C

It’s no wonder that the influential programming language C is used in a number of areas and is one of the most common languages in existence. Since its development in the 1970s, it’s been winning over programmers from various areas, thanks to its remarkable speed. It’s also a popular choice for people who want to learn programming.

It’s no surprise that the primary use for C is in system programming, given how close it is to the hardware. The goal of C is to offer as exact an abstraction as possible from the native assembler code. The portability of the language as well as the fact that it can interact directly with hardware makes it an excellent choice for programming drivers or even entire operating systems.

Compilers, the libraries of other programming languages, and entire higher-level programming languages are based on C and benefit from the speed and small file size of C programs.

Pros and cons of C

The programming language C is a popular for a reason. One of its major advantages is the fast execution speed of programs compiled in C. The fact that C code is highly portable and can be used in a variety of operating systems is another good reason for using it. Another benefit of C is that it contains constructs used in other programming languages, meaning that if you’re competent in C you should be able to switch over to other languages pretty easily.

But if you’re a beginner, programming with C can have its drawbacks. Its closeness to the hardware means that errors you make in code can lead to a mess in your system. And the learning curve for C is relatively high, in part since it’s not object oriented.

Syntax of C

The syntax of a programming language is the set of rules you have to follow in order to write executable source code. Just like every other programming language, C has some syntactic idiosyncrasies that programmers should be aware of.

  • Semicolons: Every statement ends with a semicolon in C, regardless of whether you’re calling a function or declaring a variable.
  • Curly brackets: Sets of statements are marked with an opening and closing curly bracket in C. This means that indentation isn’t necessary, unlike in other programming languages, though it does aid significantly in making your code more readable.
  • Integrating libraries: If you want to integrate a library in order to used pre-defined functions, you can use an include statement:
#include <stdlib.h></stdlib.h>
  • The main function: The main function serves as the start and end of a program. Every C program needs to contain a main function.
#include <stdio.h></stdio.h>
// This is where the main function begins. It contains the string “Hello world!”.
int main(void) {
	printf(“Hello world!“);
  • Commenting: Use two slashes for single-line comments. For multi-line comments, use the notation “/* Comment */“.

Which programming languages are based on C?

C forms the foundation of a number of other programming languages, most of which are used for system and software development. C++ and C# are based directly on C. Unlike C, those two imperative languages are object oriented, meaning that they provide a different range of features than C. The object-oriented language Java is also based on C and has very similar syntax.

Some programming languages used for web development are also based on C. One popular example is the script language PHP, which forms the foundation for many web apps like WordPress. JavasScript, the language used for programming interactive websites, is also based on C.

Differences between C, C#, and C++

The similar names of the programming languages C, C++, and C# can lead to confusion. The differences between the languages, however, are clear. The three languages follow distinct programming paradigms: While C is used for imperative programming, C# and C++ are object-oriented languages.

What is the difference between C++ and C# then? This is where it gets a bit more difficult. C is a subset of C++, meaning that every program written in C can also be written in C++. C++ contains a number of extensions, like object orientation, that C doesn’t have.

C# (which is sometimes called C++++ is also object oriented but is easier to learn than C++. This is because managing memory is simpler with C#. Additionally, C# was originally designed with Windows rather than Linux in mind and is based on the .NET-Framework, meaning that users need to have .NET runtime installed. C# is suitable for all kinds of programs but is mostly used for programming games. It’s less well suited to programming close to the hardware.

The first steps in learning C

If you’ve decided to learn C, you’ll need a compiler for turning your code into executable programs. On Linux, you’ll find a preinstalled compiler and on Windows you can easily download one. One popular solution for Windows is MinGW, which enables you to use the Linux C compiler GCC on both operating systems.

If you’re looking to write large, complex programs, you might want to look into an integrated development environment (IDE) for C programming. An IDE isn’t necessary, but it will help you with syntax highlighting and an integrated debugger. Which IDE you decide on is a question of taste. CLion is available for all operating systems and offers a number of useful features. Visual Studio for Windows and Xcode for MacOS also support C.


Want to learn C++? Take a look at our tutorial!

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