Home > Articles > Programming > C/C++

  • Print
  • + Share This
This chapter is from the book


Loops cause a section of your program to be repeated a certain number of times. The repetition continues while a condition is true. When the condition becomes false, the loop ends and control passes to the statements following the loop.

There are three kinds of loops in C++: the for loop, the while loop, and the do loop.

The for Loop

The for loop is (for many people, anyway) the easiest C++ loop to understand. All its loop-control elements are gathered in one place, while in the other loop constructions they are scattered about the program, which can make it harder to unravel how these loops work.

The for loop executes a section of code a fixed number of times. It's usually (although not always) used when you know, before entering the loop, how many times you want to execute the code.

Here's an example, fordemo, that displays the squares of the numbers from 0 to 14:

// fordemo.cpp
// demonstrates simple FOR loop
#include <iostream>
using namespace std;

int main()
 int j;   //define a loop variable

 for(j=0; j<15; j++) //loop from 0 to 14,
 cout << j * j << " "; //displaying the square of j
 cout << endl;
 return 0;

Here's the output:

0 1 4 9 16 25 36 49 64 81 100 121 144 169 196

How does this work? The for statement controls the loop. It consists of the keyword for, followed by parentheses that contain three expressions separated by semicolons:

for(j=0; j<15; j++)

These three expressions are the initialization expression, the test expression, and the increment expression, as shown in Figure 3.1.

Figure 3.1 Syntax of the for loop.

These three expressions usually (but not always) involve the same variable, which we call the loop variable. In the fordemo example the loop variable is j. It's defined before the statements within the loop body start to execute.

The body of the loop is the code to be executed each time through the loop. Repeating this code is the raison d'être for the loop. In this example the loop body consists of a single statement:

cout << j * j << " ";

This statement prints out the square of j, followed by two spaces. The square is found by multiplying j by itself. As the loop executes, j goes through the sequence 0, 1, 2, 3, and so on up to 14; so the squares of these numbers are displayed—0, 1, 4, 9, up to 196.

Note that the for statement is not followed by a semicolon. That's because the for statement and the loop body are together considered to be a program statement. This is an important detail. If you put a semicolon after the for statement, the compiler will think there is no loop body, and the program will do things you probably don't expect.

Let's see how the three expressions in the for statement control the loop.

The Initialization Expression

The initialization expression is executed only once, when the loop first starts. It gives the loop variable an initial value. In the fordemo example it sets j to 0.

The Test Expression

The test expression usually involves a relational operator. It is evaluated each time through the loop, just before the body of the loop is executed. It determines whether the loop will be executed again. If the test expression is true, the loop is executed one more time. If it's false, the loop ends, and control passes to the statements following the loop. In the fordemo example the statement

cout << endl;

is executed following the completion of the loop.

The Increment Expression

The increment expression changes the value of the loop variable, often by incrementing it. It is always executed at the end of the loop, after the loop body has been executed. Here the increment operator ++ adds 1 to j each time through the loop. Figure 3.2 shows a flowchart of a for loop's operation.

How Many Times?

The loop in the fordemo example executes exactly 15 times. The first time, j is 0. This is ensured in the initialization expression. The last time through the loop, j is 14. This is determined by the test expression j<15. When j becomes 15, the loop terminates; the loop body is not executed when j has this value. The arrangement shown is commonly used to do something a fixed number of times: start at 0, use a test expression with the less-than operator and a value equal to the desired number of iterations, and increment the loop variable after each iteration.

Figure 3.2 Operation of the for loop.

Here's another for loop example:

for(count=0; count<100; count++)
 // loop body

How many times will the loop body be repeated here? Exactly 100 times, with count going from 0 to 99.

Multiple Statements in the Loop Body

Of course you may want to execute more than one statement in the loop body. Multiple statements are delimited by braces, just as functions are. Note that there is no semicolon following the final brace of the loop body, although there are semicolons following the individual statements in the loop body.

The next example, cubelist, uses three statements in the loop body. It prints out the cubes of the numbers from 1 to 10, using a two-column format.

// cubelist.cpp
// lists cubes from 1 to 10
#include <iostream>
#include <iomanip>   //for setw
using namespace std;

int main()
 int numb;    //define loop variable

 for(numb=1; numb<=10; numb++) //loop from 1 to 10
 cout << setw(4) << numb;  //display 1st column
 int cube = numb*numb*numb; //calculate cube
 cout << setw(6) << cube << endl; //display 2nd column
 return 0;

Here's the output from the program:

 1 1
 2 8
 3 27
 4 64
 5 125
 6 216
 7 343
 8 512
 9 729
 10 1000

We've made another change in the program to show there's nothing immutable about the format used in the last example. The loop variable is initialized to 1, not to 0, and it ends at 10, not at 9, by virtue of <=, the less-than-or-equal-to operator. The effect is that the loop body is executed 10 times, with the loop variable running from 1 to 10 (not from 0 to 9).

We should note that you can also put braces around the single statement loop body shown previously. They're not necessary, but many programmers feel it improves clarity to use them whether the loop body consists of a single statement or not.

Blocks and Variable Visibility

The loop body, which consists of braces delimiting several statements, is called a block of code. One important aspect of a block is that a variable defined inside the block is not visible outside it. Visible means that program statements can access or "see" the variable. (We'll discuss visibility further in Chapter 5, "Functions.") In cubelist we define the variable cube inside the block, in the statement

int cube = numb*numb*numb;

You can't access this variable outside the block; it's only visible within the braces. Thus if you placed the statement

cube = 10;

after the loop body, the compiler would signal an error because the variable cube would be undefined outside the loop.

One advantage of restricting the visibility of variables is that the same variable name can be used within different blocks in the same program. (Defining variables inside a block, as we did in cubelist, is common in C++ but is not popular in C.)

Indentation and Loop Style

Good programming style dictates that the loop body be indented—that is, shifted right, relative to the loop statement (and to the rest of the program). In the fordemo example one line is indented, and in cubelist the entire block, including the braces, is indented. This indentation is an important visual aid to the programmer: It makes it easy to see where the loop body begins and ends. The compiler doesn't care whether you indent or not (at least there's no way to tell if it cares).

There is a common variation on the style we use for loops in this book. We show the braces aligned vertically, but some programmers prefer to place the opening brace just after the loop statement, like this:

for(numb=1; numb<=10; numb++) {
 cout << setw(4) << numb; 
 int cube = numb*numb*numb; 
 cout << setw(6) << cube << endl;

This saves a line in the listing but makes it more difficult to read, since the opening brace is harder to see and harder to match with the corresponding closing brace. Another style is to indent the body but not the braces:

for(numb=1; numb<=10; numb++)
 cout << setw(4) << numb; 
 int cube = numb*numb*numb; 
 cout << setw(6) << cube << endl;

This is a common approach, but at least for some people it makes it harder for the eye to connect the braces to the loop body. However, you can get used to almost anything. Whatever style you choose, use it consistently.

Debugging Animation

You can use the debugging features built into your compiler to create a dramatic animated display of loop operation. The key feature is single-stepping. Your compiler makes this easy. Start by opening a project for the program to be debugged, and a window containing the source file. The exact instructions necessary to launch the debugger vary with different compilers, so consult Appendix C, "Microsoft Visual C++," or Appendix D, "Borland C++Builder," as appropriate. By pressing a certain function key you can cause one line of your program to be executed at a time. This will show you the sequence of statements executed as the program proceeds. In a loop you'll see the statements within the loop executed; then control will jump back to the start of the loop and the cycle will be repeated.

You can also use the debugger to watch what happens to the values of different variables as you single-step through the program. This is a powerful tool when you're debugging your program. You can experiment with this technique with the cubelist program by putting the numb and cube variables in a Watch window in your debugger and seeing how they change as the program proceeds. Again, consult the appropriate appendix for instructions on how to use Watch windows.

Single-stepping and the Watch window are powerful debugging tools. If your program doesn't behave as you think it should, you can use these features to monitor the values of key variables as you step through the program. Usually the source of the problem will become clear.

for Loop Variations

The increment expression doesn't need to increment the loop variable; it can perform any operation it likes. In the next example it decrements the loop variable. This program, factor, asks the user to type in a number, and then calculates the factorial of this number. (The factorial is calculated by multiplying the original number by all the positive integers smaller than itself. Thus the factorial of 5 is 5*4*3*2*1, or 120.)

// factor.cpp
// calculates factorials, demonstrates FOR loop
#include <iostream>
using namespace std;

int main()
 unsigned int numb; 
 unsigned long fact=1;  //long for larger numbers

 cout << "Enter a number: ";
 cin >> numb;   //get number

 for(int j=numb; j>0; j--)  //multiply 1 by
 fact *= j;   //numb, numb-1, ..., 2, 1
 cout << "Factorial is " << fact << endl;
 return 0;

In this example the initialization expression sets j to the value entered by the user. The test expression causes the loop to execute as long as j is greater than 0. The increment expression decrements j after each iteration.

We've used type unsigned long for the factorial, since the factorials of even small numbers are very large. On 32-bit systems such as Windows int is the same as long, but long gives added capacity on 16-bit systems. The following output shows how large factorials can be, even for small input numbers:

Enter a number: 10
Factorial is 3628800

The largest number you can use for input is 12. You won't get an error message for larger inputs, but the results will be wrong, as the capacity of type long will be exceeded.

Variables Defined in for Statements

There's another wrinkle in this program: The loop variable j is defined inside the for statement:

for(int j=numb; j>0; j--)

This is a common construction in C++, and in most cases it's the best approach to loop variables. It defines the variable as closely as possible to its point of use in the listing. Variables defined in the loop statement this way are visible in the loop body only. (The Microsoft compiler makes them visible from the point of definition onward to the end of the file, but this is not Standard C++.)

Multiple Initialization and Test Expressions

You can put more than one expression in the initialization part of the for statement, separating the different expressions by commas. You can also have more than one increment expression. You can have only one test expression. Here's an example:

for( j=0, alpha=100; j<50; j++, beta-- )
 // body of loop

This example has a normal loop variable j, but it also initializes another variable, alpha, and decrements a third, beta. The variables alpha and beta don't need to have anything to do with each other, or with j. Multiple initialization expressions and multiple increment expressions are separated by commas.

Actually, you can leave out some or all of the expressions if you want to. The expression


is the same as a while loop with a test expression of true. We'll look at while loops next.

We'll avoid using such multiple or missing expressions. While these approaches can make the listing more concise, they also tend to decrease its readability. It's always possible to use standalone statements or a different form of loop to achieve the same effect.

The while Loop

The for loop does something a fixed number of times. What happens if you don't know how many times you want to do something before you start the loop? In this case a different kind of loop may be used: the while loop.

The next example, endon0, asks the user to enter a series of numbers. When the number entered is 0, the loop terminates. Notice that there's no way for the program to know in advance how many numbers will be typed before the 0 appears; that's up to the user.

// endon0.cpp
// demonstrates WHILE loop
#include <iostream>
using namespace std;

int main()
 int n = 99; // make sure n isn't initialized to 0

 while( n != 0 ) // loop until n is 0
 cin >> n; // read a number into n
 cout << endl;
 return 0;

Here's some sample output. The user enters numbers, and the loop continues until 0 is entered, at which point the loop and the program terminate.


The while loop looks like a simplified version of the for loop. It contains a test expression but no initialization or increment expressions. Figure 3.3 shows the syntax of the while loop.

Figure 3.3 Syntax of the while loop.

As long as the test expression is true, the loop continues to be executed. In endon0, the text expression

n != 0

(n not equal to 0) is true until the user enters 0.

Figure 3.4 shows the operation of a while loop. The simplicity of the while loop is a bit illusory. Although there is no initialization expression, the loop variable (n in endon0) must be initialized before the loop begins. The loop body must also contain some statement that changes the value of the loop variable; otherwise the loop would never end. In endon0 it's cin>>n;.

Multiple Statements in a while Loop

The next example, while4, uses multiple statements in a while loop. It's a variation of the cubelist program shown earlier with a for loop, but it calculates the fourth power, instead of the cube, of a series of integers. Let's assume that in this program it's important to put the results in a column four digits wide. To ensure that the results fit this column width, we must stop the loop before the results become larger than 9999. Without prior calculation we don't know what number will generate a result of this size, so we let the program figure it out. The test expression in the while statement terminates the program before the powers become too large.

Figure 3.4 Operation of the while loop.

// while4.cpp
// prints numbers raised to fourth power
#include <iostream>
#include <iomanip>  //for setw
using namespace std;

int main()
 int pow=1;   //power initially 1
 int numb=1;   //numb goes from 1 to ???

 while( pow<10000 )  //loop while power <= 4 digits
 cout << setw(2) << numb;  //display number
 cout << setw(5) << pow << endl; //display fourth power
 ++numb;    //get ready for next power
 pow = numb*numb*numb*numb; //calculate fourth power
 cout << endl;
 return 0;

To find the fourth power of numb, we simply multiply it by itself four times. Each time through the loop we increment numb. But we don't use numb in the test expression in while; instead, the resulting value of pow determines when to terminate the loop. Here's the output:

 1 1
 2 16
 3 81
 4 256
 5 625
 6 1296
 7 2401
 8 4096
 9 6561

The next number would be 10,000—too wide for our four-digit column; but by this time the loop has terminated.

Precedence: Arithmetic and Relational Operators

The next program touches on the question of operator precedence. It generates the famous sequence of numbers called the Fibonacci series. Here are the first few terms of the series:

1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34 55

Each term is found by adding the two previous ones: 1+1 is 2, 1+2 is 3, 2+3 is 5, 3+5 is 8, and so on. The Fibonacci series has applications in amazingly diverse fields, from sorting methods in computer science to the number of spirals in sunflowers.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Fibonacci series is its relation to the golden ratio. The golden ratio is supposed to be the ideal proportion in architecture and art, and was used in the design of ancient Greek temples. As the Fibonacci series is carried out further and further, the ratio of the last two terms approaches closer and closer to the golden ratio. Here's the listing for fibo.cpp:

// fibo.cpp
// demonstrates WHILE loops using fibonacci series
#include <iostream>
using namespace std;

int main()
 {    //largest unsigned long
 const unsigned long limit = 4294967295;
 unsigned long next=0; //next-to-last term
 unsigned long last=1; //last term

 while( next < limit / 2 ) //don't let results get too big
 cout << last << " "; //display last term
 long sum = next + last; //add last two terms
 next = last;  //variables move forward
 last = sum;  // in the series
 cout << endl;
 return 0;

Here's the output:

1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34 55 89 144 233 377 610 987 
1597 2584 4181 6765 10946 17711 28657 46368 75025 121393 
196418 317811 514229 832040 1346269 2178309 3524578 
5702887 9227465 14930352 24157817 39088169 63245986 
102334155 165580141 267914296 433494437 701408733 1134903170 
1836311903 2971215073 

For you temple builders, the ratio of the last two terms gives an approximation of the golden ratio as 0.618033988—close enough for government work.

The fibo program uses type unsigned long, the type that holds the largest positive integers. The test expression in the while statement terminates the loop before the numbers exceed the limit of this type. We define this limit as a const type, since it doesn't change. We must stop when next becomes larger than half the limit; otherwise, sum would exceed the limit.

The test expression uses two operators:

(next < limit / 2)

Our intention is to compare next with the result of limit/2. That is, we want the division to be performed before the comparison. We could put parentheses around the division, to ensure that it's performed first.

(next < (limit/2) )

But we don't need the parentheses. Why not? Because arithmetic operators have a higher precedence than relational operators. This guarantees that limit/2 will be evaluated before the comparison is made, even without the parentheses. We'll summarize the precedence situation later in this chapter, when we look at logical operators.

The do Loop

In a while loop, the test expression is evaluated at the beginning of the loop. If the test expression is false when the loop is entered, the loop body won't be executed at all. In some situations this is what you want. But sometimes you want to guarantee that the loop body is executed at least once, no matter what the initial state of the test expression. When this is the case you should use the do loop, which places the test expression at the end of the loop.

Our example, divdo, invites the user to enter two numbers: a dividend (the top number in a division) and a divisor (the bottom number). It then calculates the quotient (the answer) and the remainder, using the / and % operators, and prints out the result.

// divdo.cpp
// demonstrates DO loop
#include <iostream>
using namespace std;

int main()
 long dividend, divisor;
 char ch;

 do     //start of do loop
 {     //do some processing
 cout << "Enter dividend: "; cin >> dividend;
 cout << "Enter divisor: "; cin >> divisor;
 cout << "Quotient is " << dividend / divisor;
 cout << ", remainder is " << dividend % divisor;

 cout << "\nDo another? (y/n): "; //do it again?
 cin >> ch;
 while( ch != 'n' );   //loop condition
 return 0;

Most of this program resides within the do loop. First, the keyword do marks the beginning of the loop. Then, as with the other loops, braces delimit the body of the loop. Finally, a while statement provides the test expression and terminates the loop. This while statement looks much like the one in a while loop, except for its position at the end of the loop and the fact that it ends with a semicolon (which is easy to forget!). The syntax of the do loop is shown in Figure 3.5.

Figure 3.5 Syntax of the do loop.

Following each computation, divdo asks if the user wants to do another. If so, the user enters a 'y' character, and the test expression

ch != 'n'

remains true. If the user enters 'n', the test expression becomes false and the loop terminates. Figure 3.6 charts the operation of the do loop. Here's an example of divdo's output:

Enter dividend: 11
Enter divisor: 3
Quotient is 3, remainder is 2
Do another? (y/n): y
Enter dividend: 222
Enter divisor: 17
Quotient is 13, remainder is 1
Do another? (y/n): n

Figure 3.6 Operation of the do loop.

When to Use Which Loop

We've made some general statements about how loops are used. The for loop is appropriate when you know in advance how many times the loop will be executed. The while and do loops are used when you don't know in advance when the loop will terminate (the while loop when you may not want to execute the loop body even once, and the do loop when you're sure you want to execute the loop body at least once).

These criteria are somewhat arbitrary. Which loop type to use is more a matter of style than of hard-and-fast rules. You can actually make any of the loop types work in almost any situation. You should choose the type that makes your program the clearest and easiest to follow.

  • + Share This
  • 🔖 Save To Your Account