test test - 3 months ago 24
C Question

Pointer comparisons in C. Are they signed or unsigned?

Hi I'm sure this must be a common question but I can't find the answer when I search for it. My question basically concerns two pointers. I want to compare their addresses and determine if one is bigger than the other. I would expect all addresses to be unsigned during comparison. Is this true, and does it vary between C89, C99 and C++? When I compile with gcc the comparison is unsigned.

If I have two pointers that I'm comparing like this:

char *a = (char *) 0x80000000; //-2147483648 or 2147483648 ?
char *b = (char *) 0x1;

is greater. Is this guaranteed by a standard?

Edit to update on what I am trying to do. I have a situation where I would like to determine that if there's an arithmetic error it will not cause a pointer to go out of bounds. Right now I have the start address of the array and the end address. And if there's an error and the pointer calculation is wrong, and outside of the valid addresses of memory for the array, I would like to make sure no access violation occurs. I believe I can prevent this by comparing the suspect pointer, which has been returned by another function, and determining if it is within the acceptable range of the array. The question of negative and positive addresses has to do with whether I can make the comparisons, as discussed above in my original question.

I appreciate the answers so far. Based on my edit would you say that what I'm doing is undefined behavior in gcc and msvc? This is a program that will run on Microsoft Windows only.

Here's an over simplified example:

char letters[26];
char *do_not_read = &letters[26];
char *suspect = somefunction_i_dont_control(letters,26);
if( (suspect >= letters) && (suspect < do_not_read) )
printf("%c", suspect);

Another edit, after reading AndreyT's answer it appears to be correct. Therefore I will do something like this:

char letters[26];
uintptr_t begin = letters;
uintptr_t toofar = begin + sizeof(letters);
char *suspect = somefunction_i_dont_control(letters,26);
if( ((uintptr_t)suspect >= begin) && ((uintptr_t)suspect < toofar ) )
printf("%c", suspect);

Thanks everyone!


Pointer comparisons cannot be signed or unsigned. Pointers are not integers.

C language (as well as C++) defines pointer comparisons only for pointers that point into the same aggregate (struct or array). The ordering is natural: the pointer that points to an element with smaller index in an array is smaller. The pointer that points to a struct member declared earlier is smaller. That's it.

You can't legally compare arbitrary pointers in C/C++. The result of such comparison is not defined. If you are interested in comparing the numerical values of the addresses stored in the pointers, it is your responsibility to manually convert the pointers to integer values first. In that case, you will have to decide whether to use a signed or unsigned integer type (intptr_t or uintptr_t). Depending on which type you choose, the comparison will be "signed" or "unsigned".