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22.7.2 Variable-Length Parameter Lists

A function that takes a variable number of arguments is called a variadic function. In C, a variadic function must specify at least one fixed argument with an explicitly declared data type. Additional arguments can follow, and can vary in both quantity and data type.

In the function header, declare the fixed parameters in the normal way, then write a comma and an ellipsis: ‘, ...’. Here is an example of a variadic function header:

int add_multiple_values (int number, ...)

The function body can refer to fixed arguments by their parameter names, but the additional arguments have no names. Accessing them in the function body uses certain standard macros. They are defined in the library header file stdarg.h, so the code must #include that file.

In the body, write

va_list ap;
va_start (ap, last_fixed_parameter);

This declares the variable ap (you can use any name for it) and then sets it up to point before the first additional argument.

Then, to fetch the next consecutive additional argument, write this:

va_arg (ap, type)

After fetching all the additional arguments (or as many as need to be used), write this:

va_end (ap);

Here’s an example of a variadic function definition that adds any number of int arguments. The first (fixed) argument says how many more arguments follow.

#include <stdarg.h> /* Defines va macros. */

add_multiple_values (int argcount, ...)
  int counter, total = 0;

  /* Declare a variable of type va_list. */
  va_list argptr;

  /* Initialize that variable.. */
  va_start (argptr, argcount);

  for (counter = 0; counter < argcount; counter++)
      /* Get the next additional argument. */
      total += va_arg (argptr, int);

  /* End use of the argptr variable. */
  va_end (argptr);

  return total;

With GNU C, va_end is superfluous, but some other compilers might make va_start allocate memory so that calling va_end is necessary to avoid a memory leak. Before doing va_start again with the same variable, do va_end first.

Because of this possible memory allocation, it is risky (in principle) to copy one va_list variable to another with assignment. Instead, use va_copy, which copies the substance but allocates separate memory in the variable you copy to. The call looks like va_copy (to, from), where both to and from should be variables of type va_list. In principle, do va_end on each of these variables before its scope ends.

Since the additional arguments’ types are not specified in the function’s definition, the default argument promotions (see Argument Promotions) apply to them in function calls. The function definition must take account of this; thus, if an argument was passed as short, the function should get it as int. If an argument was passed as float, the function should get it as double.

C has no mechanism to tell the variadic function how many arguments were passed to it, so its calling convention must give it a way to determine this. That’s why add_multiple_values takes a fixed argument that says how many more arguments follow. Thus, you can call the function like this:

sum = add_multiple_values (3, 12, 34, 190);
/* Value is 12+34+190. */

In GNU C, there is no actual need to use the va_end function. In fact, it does nothing. It’s used for compatibility with other compilers, when that matters.

It is a mistake to access variables declared as va_list except in the specific ways described here. Just what that type consists of is an implementation detail, which could vary from one platform to another.

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