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27.1 Integer Representations

Modern computers store integer values as binary (base-2) numbers that occupy a single unit of storage, typically either as an 8-bit char, a 16-bit short int, a 32-bit int, or possibly, a 64-bit long long int. Whether a long int is a 32-bit or a 64-bit value is system dependent.11

The macro CHAR_BIT, defined in limits.h, gives the number of bits in type char. On any real operating system, the value is 8.

The fixed sizes of numeric types necessarily limits their range of values, and the particular encoding of integers decides what that range is.

For unsigned integers, the entire space is used to represent a nonnegative value. Signed integers are stored using two’s-complement representation: a signed integer with n bits has a range from -2(n - 1) to -1 to 0 to 1 to +2(n - 1) - 1, inclusive. The leftmost, or high-order, bit is called the sign bit.

In two’s-complement representation, there is only one value that means zero, and the most negative number lacks a positive counterpart. As a result, negating that number causes overflow; in practice, its result is that number back again. We will revisit that peculiarity shortly.

For example, a two’s-complement signed 8-bit integer can represent all decimal numbers from -128 to +127. Negating -128 ought to give +128, but that value won’t fit in 8 bits, so the operation yields -128.

Decades ago, there were computers that used other representations for signed integers, but they are long gone and not worth any effort to support. The GNU C language does not support them.

When an arithmetic operation produces a value that is too big to represent, the operation is said to overflow. In C, integer overflow does not interrupt the control flow or signal an error. What it does depends on signedness.

For unsigned arithmetic, the result of an operation that overflows is the n low-order bits of the correct value. If the correct value is representable in n bits, that is always the result; thus we often say that “integer arithmetic is exact,” omitting the crucial qualifying phrase “as long as the exact result is representable.”

In principle, a C program should be written so that overflow never occurs for signed integers, but in GNU C you can specify various ways of handling such overflow (see Integer Overflow).

Integer representations are best understood by looking at a table for a tiny integer size; here are the possible values for an integer with three bits:

UnsignedSignedBits2s Complement
00000000 (0)
11001111 (-1)
22010110 (-2)
33011101 (-3)
4-4100100 (-4)
5-3101011 (3)
6-2110010 (2)
7-1111001 (1)

The parenthesized decimal numbers in the last column represent the signed meanings of the two’s-complement of the line’s value. Recall that, in two’s-complement encoding, the high-order bit is 0 when the number is nonnegative.

We can now understand the peculiar behavior of negation of the most negative two’s-complement integer: start with 0b100, invert the bits to get 0b011, and add 1: we get 0b100, the value we started with.

We can also see overflow behavior in two’s-complement:

3 + 1 = 0b011 + 0b001 = 0b100 = (-4)
3 + 2 = 0b011 + 0b010 = 0b101 = (-3)
3 + 3 = 0b011 + 0b011 = 0b110 = (-2)

A sum of two nonnegative signed values that overflows has a 1 in the sign bit, so the exact positive result is truncated to a negative value.



In theory, any of these types could have some other size, bit it’s not worth even a minute to cater to that possibility. It never happens on GNU/Linux.

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