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A Modest Proposal: For Generalizing the Field Access in C Programming Language, and for Making It Beneficial to the Public.

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A Modest Proposal: For Generalizing the Field Access in C Programming Language, and for Making It Beneficial to the Public.


Nikita Danilov <danilov@gmail.com> v0.1, September 2007


A proposal is made to modify C language to make accessing struct and union fields (s.f and p->f) more flexible. To that end, instead of considering .f and ->f as families of unary postfix operators applicable to the values of struct and union types and pointers, respectively, fields are treated as values or special member designator types introduced for this purpose, while . and -> become binary operators. Typing rules for the field types and examples of their usage are proposed.

References in square brackets are to the ISO/IEC C standard.


One of the important advantages of C language is the (relative) simplicity and cleanness of its memory model: data structures eventually boil down to the “objects” [3.15], addressable by pointers and contiguous in address space. This is most evident in the case of array subscription [], that is defined through the pointer arithmetic:

[] International Standard ISO/IEC 9899

 [#2] A postfix expression followed by an expression in square
 brackets [] is a subscripted designation of an element of an
 array object.  The definition of the subscript operator [] is
 that E1[E2] is identical to (*((E1)+(E2))).  Because of the
 conversion rules that apply to the binary + operator, if E1 is
 an array object (equivalently, a pointer to the initial element
 of an array object) and E2 is an integer, E1[E2] designates the
 E2-th element of E1 (counting from zero).

Not only array subscription thus defined makes arrays and pointers mostly equivalent, but it also inherits all the good properties of addition (commutativity, associativity), and automatically defines the meaning of multidimensional arrays.

Another fundamental operation, structure and union member de-reference [] is not, however, similarly reduced to the pointer manipulations. Instead, the “Types” [6.2.5] section defines types of a sequential (structure) and overlapping (union) sets of member objects, and operations are later described abstractly as accessing member objects:

[] International Standard ISO/IEC 9899
 [#3] A postfix expression followed by the . operator and  an
 identifier  designates  a  member  of  a  structure or union
 object.  The value is that of the named member,  and  is  an
 lvalue  if  the first expression is an lvalue.

The inflexibility of this definition is clear when compared with what one can do with the arrays: C permits nothing similar to foo(a0,a1)[bar(b0.b1)] for structure and union member access. Standard offsetof() macro [7.17] converts member designator to an integer constant, equal to the member byte offset within the structure of union, but no support at the syntax level exists.

We propose to introduce a family of scalar types representing member designators and to define . and -> operations in terms of values of these types, in fact, in the way very similar to how array subscription is defined.

The perceived advantages of this are:

  • array and structure operations become similar;
  • structure and union operations are reduced to (already defined) pointer manipulations, improving orthogonality of the language;
  • more generic structure-like data types are introduced for free, see below.

Note that in some sense this is not a new development. Vintage C code fragments sport usage like

 iupdat(p, tm)
  int *p;
  int *tm;
         register *ip1, *ip2, *rp;
        int *bp, i;

        rp = p;
        if((rp->i_flag&(IUPD|IACC)) != 0) {

indicating that member designators (i_flag in this case, look at the interesting declaration of rp) weren't originally tied to a specific structure or union type. They were, in fact, existing by themselves in a special global namespace—a property that led to the custom of prefixing field names with a unique prefix.

Informal proposal

A new derived type constructor -> is introduced. A declarator

       TYPE0 -> TYPE1

specifies a type of a member designator for a member object with a type TYPE1 in a type TYPE0.

A declarator

       TYPE0 -> TYPE1 :N:M

where N and M are integer constants, specifies a type of a member designator for a bit-field of a member object starting at Nth bit and containing M bits.

Values of any member designator type can be cast to int and back without loss of information, passed to and returned from the functions, etc. A declaration of the form

               TYPE0 FIELD0;
               TYPE1 FIELD1;

implicitly defines constants of the corresponding member designator types for all members of STRUCT-OR-UNION IDENTIFIER type. Defined constants have values designating their eponymous structure of union members. For example,

 struct F {
               int              F_x;
               float            F_y[10];
               void          *(*F_f)(int, struct F *);
               unsigned char    F_b:1;

implicitly defines

       const struct F -> int                        F_x;
       const struct F -> float[10]                  F_y;
       const struct F -> void *(*)(int, struct F *) F_f;
       const struct F -> unsigned char :X:1         F_b; /* for some X */

For any non bit-field member FIELD it holds that


Following operations are defined on values of member designator types:

  • given an expression E0 of type “pointer to T0”, and an expression E1 of type T0 -> T1, E0->E1 is equivalent to

               *(T1 *)(((char *)E0) + E1)

    where E1 is implicitly converted to an integer type;

  • given an expression E0 of type A -> B and an expression E1 of type B -> C, expression E0.E1 has type A -> C, and corresponds to the member of B, viewed as a member of A;

  • given an expression E of type A -> B, a unary expression -E has type B -> A, and designates an instance of A in which an instance of B designated by E is embedded;

  • a compound assignment E0 ->= E1 is defined as an abbreviation for E0 = E0->E1, with E0 evaluated only once.


Example: Basic usage
struct F {
       int F_x;

struct G {
       int      G_y;
       struct F G_f;

void foo() {
       struct G  g;
       struct F *nested;

       printf("designators: %i %i %i\n", F_x, G_y, G_f);
       g.G_y = 1;     /* defined as *(g + G_y) = 1; */
       g.G_f.F_x = 2; /* defined as *(g + G_f.F_x) = 2; */
       nested = &g.G_f;
       /* nested->(-G_f) is g */
       assert(nested->(-G_f).G_y == 1);
       /* or... */
       assert(nested->(-G_f.G_y) == 1);
Example: Searching for an item in a linked list

struct list_link {
       struct list_link *ll_next;

struct list_item {
       struct list_link li_next;
       int               li_value;

struct list_link *search(struct list_link *s, int key) {
       for (; s && s->-li_next.li_value != key; s ->= li_next) {
       return s;

Note that foo->-bar subsumes container_of() macro (as used in the Linux kernel).

C is traditionally used as a language for the system programming—a domain where one has often to deal with formatted data on the storage or network. As a typical example let's imagine a system that keeps formatted meta-data, e.g., a list of directory entries for a file system or index entries for a data-base in a block device block. Different devices have different block sizes, which means that in general case format of a device block cannot be described by a C structure type. With member designator types, however, something similar to the following can be done:

/* variable sized device block */
typedef char * block_contents_t;

struct block_format {
       /* magic number at the beginning of the block */
       block_contents_t -> uint32_t bf_start_magic;
       /* array of keys in the index block, growing to the right */
       block_contents_t -> key_t[]  bf_keys;
       /* array of values, corresponding to the keys, growing to the left */
       block_contents_t -> val_t[]  bf_values;
       /* magic number at the end of the block */
       block_contents_t -> uint32_t bf_end_magic;

struct system_descriptor {
      struct block_format sd_format;

void init(struct system_descriptor *desc, int block_size) {
      switch (block_size) {
             case 512:
                    desc->sd_format.bf_keys      = ...;
                    desc->sd_format.bf_values    = ...;
                    desc->sd_format.bf_end_magic = ...;
             case 1024:

int block_search(struct system_descriptor *desc, block_contents_t block,
                key_t *key) {
       int i;

       assert(block->(desc->bf_start_magic) == START_MAGIC);
       assert(block->(desc->sd_format.bf_end_magic) == END_MAGIC);

       for (i = 0; i < NUM_KEYS; ++i) {
               if (key_cmp(&(block->(desc->sd_format.bf_keys))[i], key) {

Clearly, quite generic yet type-safe data structures can be built this way.


Backward compatibility is broken because field names must be unique within a compilation unit now (as they have constants declared for them). This is “safe” violation of compatibility in that it doesn't change the semantics of an existing code silently.

Meaning of E0.E1 for a non-lvalue E0 is awkward to define.

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