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2.4. Arithmetic in C

Most C programs perform calculations using the C arithmetic operators (Fig. 2.6). The asterisk (*) indicates multiplication and the percent sign (%) denotes the remainder operator, which is introduced below. In algebra, to multiply a times b, we simply place these single-letter variable names side by side, as in ab. In C, however, if we were to do this, ab would be interpreted as a single, two-letter name (or identifier). Therefore, multiplication must be explicitly denoted by using the * operator, as in a * b. The arithmetic operators are all binary operators. For example, the expression 3 + 7 contains the binary operator + and the operands 3 and 7.

Fig. 2.6. Arithmetic operators.

C operation

Arithmetic operator

Algebraic expression

C expression



f + 7

f + 7



p - c




b * m



x / y or or x ÷ y

x / y



r mod s

r % s

Integer Division and the Remainder Operator

Integer division yields an integer result. For example, the expression 7 / 4 evaluates to 1 and the expression 17 / 5 evaluates to 3. C provides the remainder operator, %, which yields the remainder after integer division. The remainder operator is an integer operator that can be used only with integer operands. The expression x % y yields the remainder after x is divided by y. Thus, 7 % 4 yields 3 and 17 % 5 yields 2. We’ll discuss many interesting applications of the remainder operator.

Arithmetic Expressions in Straight-Line Form

Arithmetic expressions in C must be written in straight-line form to facilitate entering programs into the computer. Thus, expressions such as “a divided by b” must be written as a/b so that all operators and operands appear in a straight line. The algebraic notation

is generally not acceptable to compilers, although some special-purpose software packages do support more natural notation for complex mathematical expressions.

Parentheses for Grouping Subexpressions

Parentheses are used in C expressions in the same manner as in algebraic expressions. For example, to multiply a times the quantity b + c we write a * ( b + c ).

Rules of Operator Precedence

C applies the operators in arithmetic expressions in a precise sequence determined by the following rules of operator precedence, which are generally the same as those in algebra:

  1. Operators in expressions contained within pairs of parentheses are evaluated first. Parentheses are said to be at the “highest level of precedence.” In cases of nested, or embedded, parentheses, such as
        ( ( a + b ) + c )                               

    the operators in the innermost pair of parentheses are applied first.

  2. Multiplication, division and remainder operations are applied next. If an expression contains several multiplication, division and remainder operations, evaluation proceeds from left to right. Multiplication, division and remainder are said to be on the same level of precedence.
  3. Addition and subtraction operations are evaluated next. If an expression contains several addition and subtraction operations, evaluation proceeds from left to right. Addition and subtraction also have the same level of precedence, which is lower than the precedence of the multiplication, division and remainder operations.
  4. The assignment operator (=) is evaluated last.

The rules of operator precedence specify the order C uses to evaluate expressions.1 When we say evaluation proceeds from left to right, we’re referring to the associativity of the operators. We’ll see that some operators associate from right to left. Figure 2.7 summarizes these rules of operator precedence for the operators we’ve seen so far.

Fig. 2.7. Precedence of arithmetic operators.



Order of evaluation (precedence)

( )


Evaluated first. If the parentheses are nested, the expression in the innermost pair is evaluated first. If there are several pairs of parentheses “on the same level” (i.e., not nested), they’re evaluated left to right.


MultiplicationDivision Remainder

Evaluated second. If there are several, they’re evaluated left to right.



Evaluated third. If there are several, they’re evaluated left to right.



Evaluated last.

Sample Algebraic and C Expressions

Now let’s consider several expressions in light of the rules of operator precedence. Each example lists an algebraic expression and its C equivalent. The following expression calculates the arithmetic mean (average) of five terms.

The parentheses are required to group the additions because division has higher precedence than addition. The entire quantity ( a + b + c + d + e ) should be divided by 5. If the parentheses are erroneously omitted, we obtain a + b + c + d + e / 5, which evaluates incorrectly as

The following expression is the equation of a straight line:

No parentheses are required. The multiplication is evaluated first because multiplication has a higher precedence than addition.

The following expression contains remainder (%), multiplication, division, addition, subtraction and assignment operations:

The circled numbers indicate the order in which C evaluates the operators. The multiplication, remainder and division are evaluated first in left-to-right order (i.e., they associate from left to right) because they have higher precedence than addition and subtraction. The addition and subtraction are evaluated next. They’re also evaluated left to right. Finally, the result is assigned to the variable z.

Not all expressions with several pairs of parentheses contain nested parentheses. For example, the following expression does not contain nested parentheses—instead, the parentheses are said to be “on the same level.”

a * ( b + c ) + c * ( d + e )                             

Evaluation of a Second-Degree Polynomial

To develop a better understanding of the rules of operator precedence, let’s see how C evaluates a second-degree polynomial.

The circled numbers under the statement indicate the order in which C performs the operations. There’s no arithmetic operator for exponentiation in C, so we’ve represented x2 as x * x. The C Standard Library includes the pow (“power”) function to perform exponentiation. Because of some subtle issues related to the data types required by pow, we defer a detailed explanation of pow until Chapter 4.

Suppose variables a, b, c and x in the preceding second-degree polynomial are initialized as follows: a = 2, b = 3, c = 7 and x = 5. Figure 2.8 illustrates the order in which the operators are applied.

As in algebra, it’s acceptable to place unnecessary parentheses in an expression to make the expression clearer. These are called redundant parentheses. For example, the preceding statement could be parenthesized as follows:

 y = ( a * x * x ) + ( b * x ) + c;                        
Fig. 2.8

Fig. 2.8. Order in which a second-degree polynomial is evaluated.

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