Lost at C: Footguns (not enabling flags)

What do the following C programs have in common?

// program_1.c

int main(void) {
  return main();

// program_2.c

int main(void) {
  return 0.1 + 0.2 == 0.3;

// program_3.c

#include <stdlib.h>

int main(void) {
  int *ptr = malloc(-1);
  *ptr = 123;

  int i = *ptr;

  return i;

The answer? All of these programs either hang, have bugs, or crash. Why? Because of simple mistakes, mistakes that can be caught by your compiler if you just turn on a couple of flags.

When I say flag I am referring to the command line flags you add when compiling your code from the command line, ie: gcc file.c -flag -another-flag and do on.


Use -Winfinite-recursion (included in -Wall). It checks for infinite recursion, thus warning us about our troublesome program.


The expression 0.1 + 0.2 == 0.3 will always be false due to floating point arithmetic [1]. Turning on -Wfloat-equal will let you know whenever you are trying to make an "unsafe" comparison with a floating point number [2].


malloc takes a size_t, which is unsigned, but we are passing in a negative integer, which is signed. In this case, the C compiler will convert the small negative number into a massive positive one [3]. On most systems, when allocating a large amount of data, NULL will be returned. If you don't check for NULL, you will get a segfault if you try to read or write to that address. To fix this, you can turn on -Wconversion, which will check for integer sign conversions [4]. This will require you to explicitly cast the resulting value to the correct type before passing it to malloc.

Flags You Should Always Enable

As we have seen, there are a lot of bugs which can be avoided simply by enabling a few flags. With that in mind, here are a list of flags you should always enable:

These first 3 flags will enable a bunch of other flags, which makes it easy to find a bunch of bugs very quickly. -Wformat=2 will enable strong bound checking for format strings (printf, scanf, etc).

Flags You Should Try To Enable

These flags should be added, since they will greatly improve your code quality, but might bring a bunch more errors to light:

-Werror will turn all warnings into errors, meaning that you will need to fix them before the build succeeds. This is a great option to turn on once you have fixed all the errors, but a pain if you have a bunch of errors to fix first. -Wshadow will warn about variables which are shadowed (declared in a child scope, but with the same name as a variable in a parent scope). -Wswitch-default will tell you if you have an unhandled case in a switch statement, meaning you need to add a default case (just to he explicit). -Wunused warns about dead code, specifically functions which are never called.

Flags That Would Make This Blog Too Long If I Added Them

There are a plethora of flags which you can enable, but that would be a lot of ground to cover. If you want to see all of the compiler flags (that GCC supports), click here.

GCC and Clang have very similar flags, but not all of them are the same: Some flags that work in Clang might not work in GCC, and vice versa. Sometimes one compiler will support a flag option (ie, -Wformat-overflow=2), but the another might not support the 2 option.

For an list of compiler options I use in one of my C projects, click here.

I just covered some of the basic flags, but I didn't even cover some of the more advanced flags, like sanitizers (run time segfault checker, null pointer checker, and address checker (use after free, stack overflow, etc)) and more! Maybe next time...


That's all! Using C with out flags is like driving without a seat belt. Compiler warnings and flags are meant to keep you from doing things you (probably) don't want to do.

[1]: See https://0.30000000000000004.com/.

[2]: Greater then or less then comparisons are fine, since they cover a wide range of values. It is just the equal-to comparisons which are the issue, since these compare to exactly 1 value, which may or may not be the same as what you imagine it might be.

[3]: (size_t)-1 == 18446744073709551615 bytes == 16 exabytes. You probably don't have that much ram.

[4]: Always check the output of *alloc functions. Even if you have plenty of memory, you can quickly run out if you have a bug.