root root - 10 months ago 45
C Question

Is an array name a pointer in C?

Is an array's name a pointer in C?
If not, what is the difference between an array's name and a pointer variable?

Answer Source

An array is an array and a pointer is a pointer, but in most cases array names are converted to pointers. A term often used is that they decay to pointers.

Here is an array:

int a[7];

a contains space for seven integers, and you can put a value in one of them with an assignment, like this:

a[3] = 9;

Here is a pointer:

int *p;

p doesn't contain any spaces for integers, but it can point to a space for an integer. We can, for example, set it to point to one of the places in the array a, such as the first one:

p = &a[0];

What can be confusing is that you can also write this:

p = a;

This does not copy the contents of the array a into the pointer p (whatever that would mean). Instead, the array name a is converted to a pointer to its first element. So that assignment does the same as the previous one.

Now you can use p in a similar way to an array:

p[3] = 17;

The reason that this works is that the array dereferencing operator in C, "[ ]", is defined in terms of pointers. x[y] means: start with the pointer x, step y elements forward after what the pointer points to, and then take whatever is there. Using pointer arithmetic syntax, x[y] can also be written as *(x+y).

For this to work with a normal array, such as our a, the name a in a[3] must first be converted to a pointer (to the first element in a). Then we step 3 elements forward, and take whatever is there. In other words: take the element at position 3 in the array. (Which is the fourth element in the array, since the first one is numbered 0.)

So, in summary, array names in a C program are (in most cases) converted to pointers. One exception is when we use the sizeof operator on an array. If a was converted to a pointer in this context, sizeof(a) would give the size of a pointer and not of the actual array, which would be rather useless, so in that case a means the array itself.