This section is a quick summary of string concepts for beginning C programmers. It describes how strings are represented in C and some common pitfalls. If you are already familiar with this material, you can skip this section.
A string is a null-terminated array of bytes of type
including the terminating null byte. String-valued
variables are usually declared to be pointers of type
Such variables do not include space for the text of a string; that has
to be stored somewhere else—in an array variable, a string constant,
or dynamically allocated memory (see Memory Allocation). It’s up to
you to store the address of the chosen memory space into the pointer
variable. Alternatively you can store a null pointer in the
pointer variable. The null pointer does not point anywhere, so
attempting to reference the string it points to gets an error.
A multibyte character is a sequence of one or more bytes that
represents a single character using the locale’s encoding scheme; a
null byte always represents the null character. A multibyte
string is a string that consists entirely of multibyte
characters. In contrast, a wide string is a null-terminated
wchar_t objects. A wide-string variable is usually
declared to be a pointer of type
wchar_t *, by analogy with
string variables and
char *. See Extended Char Intro.
By convention, the null byte,
marks the end of a string and the null wide character,
L'\0', marks the end of a wide string. For example, in
testing to see whether the
char * variable p points to a
null byte marking the end of a string, you can write
*p == '\0'.
A null byte is quite different conceptually from a null pointer,
although both are represented by the integer constant
A string literal appears in C program source as a multibyte
string between double-quote characters (‘"’). If the
initial double-quote character is immediately preceded by a capital
‘L’ (ell) character (as in
L"foo"), it is a wide string
literal. String literals can also contribute to string
"a" "b" is the same as
For wide strings one can use either
L"a" L"b" or
L"a" "b". Modification of string literals is
not allowed by the GNU C compiler, because literals are placed in
Arrays that are declared
const cannot be modified
either. It’s generally good style to declare non-modifiable string
pointers to be of type
const char *, since this often allows the
C compiler to detect accidental modifications as well as providing some
amount of documentation about what your program intends to do with the
The amount of memory allocated for a byte array may extend past the null byte that marks the end of the string that the array contains. In this document, the term allocated size is always used to refer to the total amount of memory allocated for an array, while the term length refers to the number of bytes up to (but not including) the terminating null byte. Wide strings are similar, except their sizes and lengths count wide characters, not bytes.
A notorious source of program bugs is trying to put more bytes into a string than fit in its allocated size. When writing code that extends strings or moves bytes into a pre-allocated array, you should be very careful to keep track of the length of the text and make explicit checks for overflowing the array. Many of the library functions do not do this for you! Remember also that you need to allocate an extra byte to hold the null byte that marks the end of the string.
Originally strings were sequences of bytes where each byte represented a single character. This is still true today if the strings are encoded using a single-byte character encoding. Things are different if the strings are encoded using a multibyte encoding (for more information on encodings see Extended Char Intro). There is no difference in the programming interface for these two kind of strings; the programmer has to be aware of this and interpret the byte sequences accordingly.
But since there is no separate interface taking care of these
differences the byte-based string functions are sometimes hard to use.
Since the count parameters of these functions specify bytes a call to
memcpy could cut a multibyte character in the middle and put an
incomplete (and therefore unusable) byte sequence in the target buffer.
To avoid these problems later versions of the ISO C standard introduce a second set of functions which are operating on wide characters (see Extended Char Intro). These functions don’t have the problems the single-byte versions have since every wide character is a legal, interpretable value. This does not mean that cutting wide strings at arbitrary points is without problems. It normally is for alphabet-based languages (except for non-normalized text) but languages based on syllables still have the problem that more than one wide character is necessary to complete a logical unit. This is a higher level problem which the C library functions are not designed to solve. But it is at least good that no invalid byte sequences can be created. Also, the higher level functions can also much more easily operate on wide characters than on multibyte characters so that a common strategy is to use wide characters internally whenever text is more than simply copied.
The remaining of this chapter will discuss the functions for handling wide strings in parallel with the discussion of strings since there is almost always an exact equivalent available.