the C data model

For beginners in C the different terms that C applies to data items are often confusing. There are variables, literals, integer constants, compound literals, expressions, lvalues, rvalues… In this post I will try to put a bit of systematic into this and at the end move towards a simplified model.

First of all any sort of data in C usually has a type and a value. For example the literal 0 has the type signed int, 0u is unsigned int and 0.0 is double. But other kind of data may have different properties, e.g variables may be modifiable and may be scoped, some data has an address in memory and some doesn’t, etc.

In summary data items in C can have the following properties.

  • has a type or not
  • has a name or not
  • has an indeterminate value or not
  • has a representation
  • is a trap or not
  • has a lifetime
  • has an address or not
  • is mutable or not
  • is persistent or not

Additionally to the properties of data items an identifier that refers to such data usually as has scope of validity.

In the following I will review these different properties and then I will give an overview table of different specifications with respect to these properties.


All data that we usually declare or define in C is typed. As mentioned above literals such as 0 or 0.0 have a type that is inferred from their syntax, variables are declared with a primitive type (such as double or _Bool) or with a composite type (struct, union or array).

A notable exception from that rule are objects that we allocate through malloc or similar functions. At the start, such an object has an indeterminate value (that is random contents) and no type. It only receives a type when first interpret through a pointer of some base type other than void.

void * p = malloc(sizeof(double)); // *p is illegal, the object has neither type nor determined value
double * d = p;                    // *d is of type double, but might have an invalid value
*d = 35.7;                         // *d now holds the double value 35.7

The type that an object has is not necessarily unique, C allows to interpret the same object differently according to the access to the object that is chosen. The following union type allows to interpret the object that sits behind the identifier x either as a double or as an uint64_t:

union {
  double a;
  uint64_t i;
} x = { .a = 13.5 };

Initially, the object is interpreted as double and initialized with the value 13.0. Whenever we’d use x.a in our program we’d see the actual contents of x interpreted as a double. But if we use x.i we see the same bit pattern but then interpreted as an uint64_t, that is a 64 bit wide unsigned integer type. I have chosen uint64_t for the example, because that type has the special property that all bit patterns have a valid interpretation. E.g on my machine the above definition gives me the hexadecimal value 0x402B000000000000U for x.i.


The identifiers that refer to variables that we declare in a C program are the typical example for a name. But there are other names that can occur in a program and that in fine can refer to a data item:

  • Variables declare an object by associating a name and a type.
  • Enumeration constants associate a name and an integer value. (C wouldn’t speak of an object here.)
  • Designators refer to a subobject in a composite type as we have seen for the .a member in the x union variable above.
  • Preprocessor macros refer to textual substitutions that are replaced early during compilation. They may (or may not) refer to an object or value. A typically example is errno the error status code of the C library that evaluates to some thread specific black magic.

Values and representations

These to are not the same thing, but are easily confounded. A value is an abstract entity that is used in a program. Variables, objects, literals, enumeration constants all usually have values that determine the state of the so-called abstract machine. That is at a given moment a program execution of a C program is determined by the program itself and the values that are associated to all of its declared or allocated objects, literals etc.

This association is a semantic interpretation, that is it gives a sense (don’t take this too philosophical, though) to a data representation inside an object. As we have seen in the above example for x the same representation of the object to which x refers is different according to the view-point that we chose to interpret it:

  • the bit pattern stored in the object would be 0100 0000 0010 1011 0000 ...
  • the value when look at through x.a is 13.5
  • the value when looked at through x.i is 4623789442425946112

So both values have the same representation. The value comes to a representation by interpreting it through a specific type.

The same value can also have different representations. The abstract value -1 can typically be encoded as

  • 1111 1111 for a signed char
  • 1111 1111 1111 1111 for a 16 bit integer
  • 1011 1111 111 0000 ... for a double.

Indeterminate values and traps

As we already have seen with the malloc example above not all objects in C hold a determined value. Any object that is not initialized can hold any value that the platform sees fit, in C jargon this is usually just an unspecific value. In many cases for memory backed objects this will just be any random value that had been previously stored in the same location. This does not necessary lead to undefined behavior (UB), but only means that your program may go down branches that you never expected.

Memory backed objects can have indeterminate values when they come to live and aren’t properly initialized. There are two types of objects that behave such: objects obtained through malloc (etc) and automatic variables that are declared in function scope. In particular, auto variables are a common pitfall. Especially having an uninitialized pointer point to a random address in the process memory is generally a very bad idea. There is only one way to avoid these problems, always initialize variables, and be it just with the default initializer like that:

double * d = 0;
totoType toto = { 0 };

Things are getting worse if the bit pattern that is stored in an object doesn’t have a valid interpretation within the type through which the object is looked at. Such representations are called trap representations. Accessing a variable that is in such a state is undefined behavior, if your program does that all bets are off. Anything can happen. If your lucky just your program crashes, or just your computer, or the program publishes your credit card number in a newsgroup (don’t worry nobody reads that anymore) or on a social networking site.

Trap representations are rare on modern architectures. I don’t know of any of the modern processors that has such a trap for integer types. The classical example is the integer value with sign bit set and all other bits unset. In two’s complement this may either be the minimum value of the type or a trap. By the standard there is only one integer type that is guaranteed not to have a trap representation: unsigned char. That is with a construct like

union overl {
  double a;
  unsigned char bytes[sizeof(double)];

we will always be able to inspect the individual bytes of any data type.


The lifetime of a data item can be:

  • The whole time of the program execution. In this category are variables in file scope (“globals”), static variables, simple literals, string literals, some compound literals and enumeration constants.
  • Bound to the execution of a specific block or statement of the program. These are all block local variables, function parameters, for loop variables and most compound literals.
  • Bound to the execution of a specific thread of execution. These are objects declared with the _Thread_local storage specifier.
  • From an explicit allocation (usually through malloc) to an explicit deallocation (usually with free) or up to the program termination.

Compound literals are temporary objects that are not bound to an identifier, but through a somewhat crude syntax, namely something like (unsigned){ 1u }, a cast followed by an initializer. As a general rule they have the lifetime of the execution of the block in which they are defined, but there is one extra: if the compound literal is also const qualified, it can either be realized as a local variable with the lifetime of the current block, or as globally accessible object that has a lifetime of the entire program execution. E.g in

if ((&(double const){ 1.0 } == &(double const){ 1.0 })) {
  // do this
} else {
  // do that

the two compound literals may or may not have the same address.


A data item may or may not have an address. There are much more sorts of items that don’t have an address associated with them

  • simple literals such as 0, 0.0 or 'a'
  • enumeration constants
  • return values of functions
  • values of casts or other operators
  • variables declared with the register storage class

For these applying the address of operator & is an error (“constraint violation”) that must be detected by the compiler.

The later case of register variables has the property of still being modifiable (in general). Also our variable x from above could have been declared as register. So also the fact of having several values (interpretations) of the same representation, has nothing to do with the property (or not) that an object has an address and is “stored” somewhere.

Data items that have an address are

  • all other variables, declared without, or with auto, static or _Thread_local storage class.
  • string literals
  • compound literals
  • objects allocated with malloc

Modifying data items

Some data items may be modified, others not. In is a constraint violation to attempt to modify

  • simple literals
  • enumeration constants
  • a variable that is qualified with const

It is undefined behavior to modify

  • an object whose original declaration had a const qualification, even if the type of the access is not const qualified. This holds for objects declared as variables or compound literals.
  • string literals

Freely modified may be objects

  • an object whose original declaration didn’t have a const qualification. This holds for objects declared as variables or compound literals.
  • objects allocated dynamically through malloc and Co.

Persistence of values

Generally, the flow of execution of a program follows the path that is specified: statements are executed in sequence, branches (if or switch) are taken according to the value of the controlling expressions, functions are called and returned from, etc. There are three notable exceptions from that rule:

  • A signal handler can kick into the execution of the program at any time. Examples for such signal handlers are IO handlers. IO might be delivered asynchronously to the process and the process is notified of that. A signal handle kicks in, handles the request and then passes control back to the point where execution was interrupted. This feature has not much to do with multi-tasking or multi-threading OS, such things can happen even in a so-called freestanding environments, that is environments with minimal OS support.
  • Flow control at a given point can be terminated by a call to longjmp and resumed at another point where previously a call to setjmp had been placed.
  • In an execution that supports threads, the execution of a thread can be halted to pass execution to another thread.

Since such events can affect the data that a process uses, returning from such a disruptive event may have some of the used data items modified without notice. In addition to the above there is are other sources of unexpected changes of the value of objects:

  • Objects that represent e.g an IO device such as a terminal or sensor can change without notice.
  • An objects that is accessed through different “names” (identifiers, pointers) can have its value changed through one of the names, without the compiler being able to anticipate the change through the other name. That phenomenon is called aliasing.

These sort of events are considered to be exceptional modifications of the control flow and data of a program. Without stating anything explicitly all data is assumed to be robust with respect to these events, data is usually assumed to be persistent. Without stating anything special the compiler can always assume that the value of an object is the last value that had been stored into it.

There is one exception to that rule (therefore the usually above) data that is accessed through a pointer can be aliased through a pointer of the same base type:

bool bogus(unsigned * a, unsigned * b) {
  if (*a == *b) *a += 2;
  if (*a == *b) *a += 3;
  return *a < *b;

Here the compiler can't determine if a and b point to the same data location or not. E.g at the second comparison, if a had been modified b might have changed, too. So the compiler must reload b‘s value from memory.

If we know that both parameters always point to different addresses, this reloading would be superfluous and thus present a loss of efficiency. C has the restrict keyword to give the compiler the promise that we will always call the function with pointers to different objects:

bool bogus(unsigned *restrict a, unsigned *restrict b) {
  if (*a == *b) *a += 2;
  if (*a == *b) *a += 3;
  return *a < *b;

This function now has a different semantic. The second comparison can never be true and thus the whole branch can be optimized out.

For the other exceptional modifications of objects, the compiler will per default simply assume that they cannot occur. If we think/plan/suspect that such an out-of-order modification may happen we have to declare the type through which we access the object with a volatile qualifier. That is when we have data that is accessed

  • in a signal handler
  • in the exception branch after a setjmp
  • between different threads (without being _Atomic or protected by other means such as a mutex)

we have to declare it with volatile, such that each modification of the object is properly recorded through a store operation and such that each access to the value is properly done through a load operation.


The following table gives an overview of the different properties for different C constructs. There 4 main classes according to the properties of being addressable or not and of being mutable or not. You may observe that these classes are not related to the type of a construct, nor to the application of qualifiers, nor to the scope of validity. Also observe that I have not talked about lvalues or rvalues. Finally this terminology is not really important to understand what is happening.

typed named indeterminate may trap lifetime addressable mutable persistent
0 or 'a' yes no no no run no no yes
enum { AA }; yes yes no no run no no yes
(double)A yes no no depends on A expression no no yes
register double const d = 0.0; yes yes no no scope entry/exit no no yes
register double d = 0.0; yes yes no no scope entry/exit no yes yes
register double d; yes yes yes yes (UB) scope entry/exit no yes yes
register double volatile d = 0.0; yes yes no no scope entry/exit no yes no
auto double const d = 0.0; yes yes no no scope entry/exit yes no yes
(double const){ 0.0 } yes no no no run or scope entry/exit yes no yes
static double const d = 0.0; yes yes no no run yes no yes
"ABC" yes no no no run yes no yes
(double){ 0.0 } yes no no no scope entry/exit yes yes yes
auto double d = 0.0; yes yes no no scope entry/exit yes yes yes
auto double d; yes yes yes yes scope entry/exit yes yes yes
auto double volatile d = 0.0; yes yes no no scope entry/exit yes yes no
void * p = malloc(42); no no yes later (de)allocation yes yes yes
static double d; yes yes no no run yes yes yes
static double volatile d; yes yes no no run yes yes no

2 thoughts on “the C data model”

  1. This seems incorrect: “The classical example is the integer value with all bits set. In two’s complement this may either be the minimum value of the type or a trap.” Perhaps you mean the representation with the sign bit set and other bits cleared.

    Also, you say “Trap representations are rare on modern architectures.” This is true for integers, but I think it’s false for pointer types.

    1. Thanks for the notice about the error, corrected, now.

      For trap representations, I don’t have examples of not so exotic architectures that don’t have a flat memory/pointer model. Basically all values on such architectures can be valid pointers. They can have restrictions concerning the alignment, but such restrictions are not the same as if that would be a trap representation.

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