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Setting Out to C++

This chapter gives you an overview of the essential structure of a C++ program and previews some topics—notably functions and classes—covered in much greater detail in later chapters.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

In this chapter you’ll learn about the following:

  • Creating a C++ program
  • The general format for a C++ program
  • The #include directive
  • The main() function
  • Using the cout object for output
  • Placing comments in a C++ program
  • How and when to use endl
  • Declaring and using variables
  • Using the cin object for input
  • Defining and using simple functions

When you construct a simple home, you begin with the foundation and the framework. If you don’t have a solid structure from the beginning, you’ll have trouble later filling in the details, such as windows, door frames, observatory domes, and parquet ballrooms. Similarly, when you learn a computer language, you should begin by learning the basic structure for a program. Only then can you move on to the details, such as loops and objects. This chapter gives you an overview of the essential structure of a C++ program and previews some topics—notably functions and classes—covered in much greater detail in later chapters. (The idea is to introduce at least some of the basic concepts gradually en route to the great awakenings that come later.)

C++ Initiation

Let’s begin with a simple C++ program that displays a message. Listing 2.1 uses the C++ cout (pronounced “see-out”) facility to produce character output. The source code includes several comments to the reader; these lines begin with //, and the compiler ignores them. C++ is case sensitive; that is, it discriminates between uppercase characters and lowercase characters. This means you must be careful to use the same case as in the examples. For example, this program uses cout, and if you substitute Cout or COUT, the compiler rejects your offering and accuses you of using unknown identifiers. (The compiler is also spelling sensitive, so don’t try kout or coot, either.) The cpp filename extension is a common way to indicate a C++ program; you might need to use a different extension, as described in Chapter 1, “Getting Started with C++.”

Listing 2.1 myfirst.cpp

// myfirst.cpp -- displays a message

#include <iostream>                           // a PREPROCESSOR directive
int main()                                    // function header
{                                             // start of function body
    using namespace std;                      // make definitions visible
    cout << "Come up and C++ me some time.";  // message
    cout << endl;                             // start a new line
    cout << "You won't regret it!" << endl;   // more output
    return 0;                                 // terminate main()
}                                             // end of function body

After you use your editor of choice to copy this program (or else use the source code files available online from this book’s web page—check the registration link on the back cover for more information), you can use your C++ compiler to create the executable code, as Chapter 1 outlines. Here is the output from running the compiled program in Listing 2.1:

Come up and C++ me some time.
You won't regret it!

You construct C++ programs from building blocks called functions. Typically, you organize a program into major tasks and then design separate functions to handle those tasks. The example shown in Listing 2.1 is simple enough to consist of a single function named main(). The myfirst.cpp example has the following elements:

  • Comments, indicated by the // prefix
  • A preprocessor #include directive
  • A function header: int main()
  • A using namespace directive
  • A function body, delimited by { and }
  • Statements that uses the C++ cout facility to display a message
  • A return statement to terminate the main() function

Let’s look at these various elements in greater detail. The main() function is a good place to start because some of the features that precede main(), such as the preprocessor directive, are simpler to understand after you see what main() does.

Features of the main() Function

Stripped of the trimmings, the sample program shown in Listing 2.1 has the following fundamental structure:

int main()
    return 0;

These lines state that there is a function called main(), and they describe how the function behaves. Together they constitute a function definition. This definition has two parts: the first line, int main(), which is called the function header, and the portion enclosed in braces ({ and }), which is the function body. (A quick search on the Web reveals braces also go by other names, including “curly brackets,” “flower brackets,” “fancy brackets,” and “chicken lips.” However, the ISO Standard uses the term “braces.”) Figure 2.1 shows the main() function. The function header is a capsule summary of the function’s interface with the rest of the program, and the function body represents instructions to the computer about what the function should do. In C++ each complete instruction is called a statement. You must terminate each statement with a semicolon, so don’t omit the semicolons when you type the examples.

Figure 2.1

Figure 2.1 The main() function.

The final statement in main(), called a return statement, terminates the function. You’ll learn more about the return statement as you read through this chapter.

The Function Header as an Interface

Right now the main point to remember is that C++ syntax requires you to begin the definition of the main() function with this header: int main(). This chapter discusses the function header syntax in more detail later, in the section “Functions,” but for those who can’t put their curiosity on hold, here’s a preview.

In general, a C++ function is activated, or called, by another function, and the function header describes the interface between a function and the function that calls it. The part preceding the function name is called the function return type; it describes information flow from a function back to the function that calls it. The part within the parentheses following the function name is called the argument list or parameter list; it describes information flow from the calling function to the called function. This general description is a bit confusing when you apply it to main() because you normally don’t call main() from other parts of your program. Typically, however, main() is called by startup code that the compiler adds to your program to mediate between the program and the operating system (Unix, Windows 7, Linux, or whatever). In effect, the function header describes the interface between main() and the operating system.

Consider the interface description for main(), beginning with the int part. A C++ function called by another function can return a value to the activating (calling) function. That value is called a return value. In this case, main() can return an integer value, as indicated by the keyword int. Next, note the empty parentheses. In general, a C++ function can pass information to another function when it calls that function. The portion of the function header enclosed in parentheses describes that information. In this case, the empty parentheses mean that the main() function takes no information, or in the usual terminology, main() takes no arguments. (To say that main() takes no arguments doesn’t mean that main() is an unreasonable, authoritarian function. Instead, argument is the term computer buffs use to refer to information passed from one function to another.)

In short, the following function header states that the main() function returns an integer value to the function that calls it and that main() takes no information from the function that calls it:

int main()

Many existing programs use the classic C function header instead:

main()     // original C style

Under classic C, omitting the return type is the same as saying that the function is type int. However, C++ has phased out that usage.

You can also use this variant:

int main(void)     // very explicit style

Using the keyword void in the parentheses is an explicit way of saying that the function takes no arguments. Under C++ (but not C), leaving the parentheses empty is the same as using void in the parentheses. (In C, leaving the parentheses empty means you are remaining silent about whether there are arguments.)

Some programmers use this header and omit the return statement:

void main()

This is logically consistent because a void return type means the function doesn’t return a value. However, although this variant works on some systems, it’s not part of the C++ Standard. Thus, on other systems it fails. So you should avoid this form and use the C++ Standard form; it doesn’t require that much more effort to do it right.

Finally, the ISO C++ Standard makes a concession to those who complain about the tiresome necessity of having to place a return statement at the end of main(). If the compiler reaches the end of main() without encountering a return statement, the effect will be the same as if you ended main() with this statement:

return 0;

This implicit return is provided only for main() and not for any other function.

Why main() by Any Other Name Is Not the Same

There’s an extremely compelling reason to name the function in the myfirst.cpp program main(): You must do so. Ordinarily, a C++ program requires a function called main(). (And not, by the way, Main() or MAIN() or mane(). Remember, case and spelling count.) Because the myfirst.cpp program has only one function, that function must bear the responsibility of being main(). When you run a C++ program, execution always begins at the beginning of the main() function. Therefore, if you don’t have main(), you don’t have a complete program, and the compiler points out that you haven’t defined a main() function.

There are exceptions. For example, in Windows programming you can write a dynamic link library (DLL) module. This is code that other Windows programs can use. Because a DLL module is not a standalone program, it doesn’t need a main(). Programs for specialized environments, such as for a controller chip in a robot, might not need a main(). Some programming environments provide a skeleton program calling some nonstandard function, such as _tmain(); in that case there is a hidden main() that calls _tmain(). But your ordinary standalone program does need a main(); this books discusses that sort of program.

C++ Comments

The double slash (//) introduces a C++ comment. A comment is a remark from the programmer to the reader that usually identifies a section of a program or explains some aspect of the code. The compiler ignores comments. After all, it knows C++ at least as well as you do, and, in any case, it’s incapable of understanding comments. As far as the compiler is concerned, Listing 2.1 looks as if it were written without comments, like this:

#include <iostream>
int main()
    using namespace std;
    cout << "Come up and C++ me some time.";
    cout << endl;
    cout << "You won't regret it!" << endl;
    return 0;

C++ comments run from the // to the end of the line. A comment can be on its own line, or it can be on the same line as code. Incidentally, note the first line in Listing 2.1:

// myfirst.cpp -- displays a message

In this book all programs begin with a comment that gives the filename for the source code and a brief program summary. As mentioned in Chapter 1, the filename extension for source code depends on your C++ system. Other systems might use myfirst.C or myfirst.cxx for names.

The C++ Preprocessor and the iostream File

Here’s the short version of what you need to know. If your program is to use the usual C++ input or output facilities, you provide these two lines:

#include <iostream> 
using namespace std;

There are some alternatives to using the second line, but let’s keep things simple for now. (If your compiler doesn’t like these lines, it’s not C++98 compatible, and it will have many other problems with the examples in this book.) That’s all you really must know to make your programs work, but now let’s take a more in-depth look.

C++, like C, uses a preprocessor. This is a program that processes a source file before the main compilation takes place. (Some C++ implementations, as you might recall from Chapter 1, use a translator program to convert a C++ program to C. Although the translator is also a form of preprocessor, we’re not discussing that preprocessor; instead, we’re discussing the one that handles directives whose names begin with #.) You don’t have to do anything special to invoke this preprocessor. It automatically operates when you compile the program.

Listing 2.1 uses the #include directive:

#include <iostream>    // a PREPROCESSOR directive

This directive causes the preprocessor to add the contents of the iostream file to your program. This is a typical preprocessor action: adding or replacing text in the source code before it’s compiled.

This raises the question of why you should add the contents of the iostream file to the program. The answer concerns communication between the program and the outside world. The io in iostream refers to input, which is information brought into the program, and to output, which is information sent out from the program. C++’s input/output scheme involves several definitions found in the iostream file. Your first program needs these definitions to use the cout facility to display a message. The #include directive causes the contents of the iostream file to be sent along with the contents of your file to the compiler. In essence, the contents of the iostream file replace the #include <iostream> line in the program. Your original file is not altered, but a composite file formed from your file and iostream goes on to the next stage of compilation.

Header Filenames

Files such as iostream are called include files (because they are included in other files) or header files (because they are included at the beginning of a file). C++ compilers come with many header files, each supporting a particular family of facilities. The C tradition has been to use the h extension with header files as a simple way to identify the type of file by its name. For example, the C math.h header file supports various C math functions. Initially, C++ did the same. For instance, the header file supporting input and output was named iostream.h. But C++ usage has changed. Now the h extension is reserved for the old C header files (which C++ programs can still use), whereas C++ header files have no extension. There are also C header files that have been converted to C++ header files. These files have been renamed by dropping the h extension (making it a C++-style name) and prefixing the filename with a c (indicating that it comes from C). For example, the C++ version of math.h is the cmath header file. Sometimes the C and C++ versions of C header files are identical, whereas in other cases the new version might have a few changes. For purely C++ header files such as iostream, dropping the h is more than a cosmetic change, for the h-free header files also incorporate namespaces, the next topic in this chapter. Table 2.1 summarizes the naming conventions for header files.

Table 2.1 Header File Naming Conventions

Kind of Header




C++ old style

Ends in .h


Usable by C++ programs

C old style

Ends in .h


Usable by C and C++ programs

C++ new style

No extension


Usable by C++ programs, uses namespace std

Converted C

c prefix, no extension


Usable by C++ programs, might use non-C features, such as namespace std

In view of the C tradition of using different filename extensions to indicate different file types, it appears reasonable to have some special extension, such as .hpp or .hxx, to indicate C++ header files. The ANSI/ISO committee felt so, too. The problem was agreeing on which extension to use, so eventually they agreed on nothing.


If you use iostream instead of iostream.h, you should use the following namespace directive to make the definitions in iostream available to your program:

using namespace std;

This is called a using directive. The simplest thing to do is to accept this for now and worry about it later (for example, in Chapter 9, “Memory Models and Namespaces”). But so you won’t be left completely in the dark, here’s an overview of what’s happening.

Namespace support is a C++ feature designed to simplify the writing of large programs and of programs that combine pre-existing code from several vendors and to help organize programs. One potential problem is that you might use two prepackaged products that both have, say, a function called wanda(). If you then use the wanda() function, the compiler won’t know which version you mean. The namespace facility lets a vendor package its wares in a unit called a namespace so that you can use the name of a namespace to indicate which vendor’s product you want. So Microflop Industries could place its definitions in a namespace called Microflop. Then Microflop::wanda() would become the full name for its wanda() function. Similarly, Piscine::wanda() could denote Piscine Corporation’s version of wanda(). Thus, your program could now use the namespaces to discriminate between various versions:

Microflop::wanda("go dancing?");       // use Microflop namespace version
Piscine::wanda("a fish named Desire"); // use Piscine namespace version

In this spirit, the classes, functions, and variables that are a standard component of C++ compilers are now placed in a namespace called std. This takes place in the h-free header files. This means, for example, that the cout variable used for output and defined in iostream is really called std::cout and that endl is really std::endl. Thus, you can omit the using directive and, instead, code in the following style:

std::cout << "Come up and C++ me some time.";
std::cout << std::endl;

However, many users don’t feel like converting pre-namespace code, which uses iostream.h and cout, to namespace code, which uses iostream and std::cout, unless they can do so without a lot of hassle. This is where the using directive comes in. The following line means you can use names defined in the std namespace without using the std:: prefix:

using namespace std;

This using directive makes all the names in the std namespace available. Modern practice regards this as a bit lazy and potentially a problem in large projects. The preferred approaches are to use the std:: qualifier or to use something called a using declaration to make just particular names available:

using std::cout;   // make cout available
using std::endl;   // make endl available
using std::cin;    // make cin available

If you use these directives instead of the following, you can use cin and cout without attaching std:: to them:

using namespace std;  // lazy approach, all names available

But if you need to use other names from iostream, you have to add them to the using list individually. This book initially uses the lazy approach for a couple reasons. First, for simple programs, it’s not really a big issue which namespace management technique you use. Second, I’d rather emphasize the more basic aspects about learning C++. Later, the book uses the other namespace techniques.

C++ Output with cout

Now let’s look at how to display a message. The myfirst.cpp program uses the following C++ statement:

cout << "Come up and C++ me some time.";

The part enclosed within the double quotation marks is the message to print. In C++, any series of characters enclosed in double quotation marks is called a character string, presumably because it consists of several characters strung together into a larger unit. The << notation indicates that the statement is sending the string to cout; the symbols point the way the information flows. And what is cout? It’s a predefined object that knows how to display a variety of things, including strings, numbers, and individual characters.(An object, as you might remember from Chapter 1, is a particular instance of a class, and a class defines how data is stored and used.)

Well, using objects so soon is a bit awkward because you won’t learn about objects for several more chapters. Actually, this reveals one of the strengths of objects. You don’t have to know the innards of an object in order to use it. All you must know is its interface—that is, how to use it. The cout object has a simple interface. If string represents a string, you can do the following to display it:

cout << string;

This is all you must know to display a string, but now take a look at how the C++ conceptual view represents the process. In this view, the output is a stream—that is, a series of characters flowing from the program. The cout object, whose properties are defined in the iostream file, represents that stream. The object properties for cout include an insertion operator (<<) that inserts the information on its right into the stream. Consider the following statement (note the terminating semicolon):

cout << "Come up and C++ me some time.";

It inserts the string “Come up and C++ me some time.” into the output stream. Thus, rather than say that your program displays a message, you can say that it inserts a string into the output stream. Somehow, that sounds more impressive (see Figure 2.2).

Figure 2.2

Figure 2.2 Using cout to display a string.

The Manipulator endl

Now let’s examine an odd-looking notation that appears in the second output statement in Listing 2.1:

cout << endl;

endl is a special C++ notation that represents the important concept of beginning a new line. Inserting endl into the output stream causes the screen cursor to move to the beginning of the next line. Special notations like endl that have particular meanings to cout are dubbed manipulators. Like cout, endl is defined in the iostream header file and is part of the std namespace.

Note that the cout facility does not move automatically to the next line when it prints a string, so the first cout statement in Listing 2.1 leaves the cursor positioned just after the period at the end of the output string. The output for each cout statement begins where the last output ended, so omitting endl would result in this output for Listing 2.1:

Come up and C++ me some time.
You won't regret it!

Note that the Y immediately follows the period. Let’s look at another example. Suppose you try this code:

cout << "The Good, the";
cout << "Bad, ";
cout << "and the Ukulele";
cout << endl;

It produces the following output:

The Good, theBad, and the Ukulele

Again, note that the beginning of one string comes immediately after the end of the preceding string. If you want a space where two strings join, you must include it in one of the strings. (Remember that to try out these output examples, you have to place them in a complete program, with a main() function header and opening and closing braces.)

The Newline Character

C++ has another, more ancient, way to indicate a new line in output—the C notation \n:

cout << "What's next?\n";    // \n means start a new line

The \n combination is considered to be a single character called the newline character.

If you are displaying a string, you need less typing to include the newline as part of the string than to tag an endl onto the end:

cout << "Pluto is a dwarf planet.\n";         // show text, go to next line
cout << "Pluto is a dwarf planet." << endl;   // show text, go to next line

On the other hand, if you want to generate a newline by itself, both approaches take the same amount of typing, but most people find the keystrokes for endl to be more comfortable:

cout << "\n";   // start a new line
cout << endl;   // start a new line

Typically, this book uses an embedded newline character (\n) when displaying quoted strings and the endl manipulator otherwise. One difference is that endl guarantees the output will be flushed (in, this case, immediately displayed onscreen) before the program moves on. You don’t get that guarantee with "\n", which means that it is possible on some systems in some circumstances a prompt might not be displayed until after you enter the information being prompted for.

The newline character is one example of special keystroke combinations termed “escape sequences”; they are further discussed in Chapter 3, “Dealing with Data.”

C++ Source Code Formatting

Some languages, such as FORTRAN, are line-oriented, with one statement to a line. For these languages, the carriage return (generated by pressing the Enter key or the Return key) serves to separate statements. In C++, however, the semicolon marks the end of each statement. This leaves C++ free to treat the carriage return in the same way as a space or a tab. That is, in C++ you normally can use a space where you would use a carriage return and vice versa. This means you can spread a single statement over several lines or place several statements on one line. For example, you could reformat myfirst.cpp as follows:

#include <iostream>
() {   using
         std; cout
"Come up and C++ me some time."
;    cout <<
endl; cout <<
"You won't regret it!" <<
endl;return 0; }

This is visually ugly but valid code. You do have to observe some rules. In particular, in C and C++ you can’t put a space, tab, or carriage return in the middle of an element such as a name, nor can you place a carriage return in the middle of a string. Here are examples of what you can’t do:

int ma  in()     // INVALID -- space in name
turn 0; // INVALID -- carriage return in word
cout << "Behold the Beans
 of Beauty!"; // INVALID -- carriage return in string

(However, the raw string, added by C++11 and discussed briefly in Chapter 4, does allow including a carriage return in a string.)

Tokens and White Space in Source Code

The indivisible elements in a line of code are called tokens (see Figure 2.3). Generally, you must separate one token from the next with a space, tab, or carriage return, which collectively are termed white space. Some single characters, such as parentheses and commas, are tokens that need not be set off by white space. Here are some examples that illustrate when white space can be used and when it can be omitted:

Figure 2.3

Figure 2.3 Tokens and white space.

return0;           // INVALID, must be return 0;
return(0);         // VALID, white space omitted
return (0);        // VALID, white space used
intmain();         // INVALID, white space omitted
int main()         // VALID, white space omitted in ()
int main ( )       // ALSO VALID, white space used in ( )

C++ Source Code Style

Although C++ gives you much formatting freedom, your programs will be easier to read if you follow a sensible style. Having valid but ugly code should leave you unsatisfied. Most programmers use styles similar to that of Listing 2.1, which observes these rules:

  • One statement per line
  • An opening brace and a closing brace for a function, each of which is on its own line
  • Statements in a function indented from the braces
  • No whitespace around the parentheses associated with a function name

The first three rules have the simple intent of keeping the code clean and readable. The fourth helps to differentiate functions from some built-in C++ structures, such as loops, that also use parentheses. This book alerts you to other guidelines as they come up.

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We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020