C Programming/stdarg.h

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stdarg.h is a header that allows functions to accept an indefinite number of arguments.[1] It provides facilities for stepping through a list of function arguments of unknown number and type.

The contents of stdarg.h are typically used in variadic functions, though they may be used in other functions (for example, vprintf) called by variadic functions.

Declaring variadic functions[edit]

Variadic functions are functions which may take a variable number of arguments and are declared with an ellipsis (...) in place of the last parameter. An example of such a function is printf. A typical declaration is

int check(int a, double b, ...);

Variadic functions must have at least one named parameter, so, for instance,

char *wrong(...);

is not allowed in C. (In C++, such a declaration is permitted, but not very useful.) In C, a comma must precede the ellipsis; in C++, it is optional.

Defining variadic functions[edit]

The same syntax is used in a definition:

long func(char, double, int, ...);

long func(char a, double b, int c, ...)
    /* ... */

An ellipsis may also appear in old-style function definitions:

long func();

long func(a, b, c, ...)
    char a;
    double b;
    /* ... */

stdarg.h types[edit]

Name Description Compatibility
va_list type for iterating arguments C89

stdarg.h macros[edit]

Name Description compatibility
va_start Start iterating arguments with a va_list C89
va_arg Retrieve an argument C89
va_end Free a va_list C89
va_copy Copy contents of one va_list to another C99

Accessing the arguments[edit]

To access the unnamed arguments, one must declare a variable of type va_list in the variadic function. The macro va_start is then called with two arguments: the first is the variable declared of the type va_list, the second is the name of the last named parameter of the function. After this, each invocation of the va_arg macro yields the next argument. The first argument to va_arg is the va_list and the second is the type of the next argument passed to the function. Finally, the va_end macro must be called on the va_list before the function returns. (It is not required to read in all the arguments.)

C99 provides an additional macro, va_copy, which can duplicate the state of a va_list. The macro invocation va_copy(va2, va1) copies va1 into va2.

There is no mechanism defined for determining the number or types of the unnamed arguments passed to the function. The function is simply required to know or determine this somehow, the means of which vary. Common conventions include:

  • Use of a printf or scanf-like format string with embedded specifiers that indicate argument types.
  • A sentinel value at the end of the variadic arguments.
  • A count argument indicating the number of variadic arguments.

Type safety[edit]

Some C implementations provide C extensions that allow the compiler to check for the proper use of format strings and sentinels. Barring these extensions, the compiler usually cannot check whether the unnamed arguments passed are of the type the function expects, or convert them to the required type. Therefore, care should be taken to ensure correctness in this regard, since undefined behavior results if the types do not match.

For example, if calling va_arg(ap, short *) then a null pointer for that parameter must be passed in the call as (short *)0; using NULL is incorrect as pointers to different data types can be different sizes. (short *)NULL could be used instead, but gains nothing and probably leads the unwary reader into thinking the cast isn't required.

Another consideration is the default argument promotions applied to the unnamed arguments. A float will automatically be promoted to a double. Likewise, arguments of types narrower than an int will be promoted to int or unsigned int. The function receiving the unnamed arguments must expect the promoted type.

GCC has an extension that checks the passed arguments:

format(archetype, string-index, first-to-check)
The format attribute specifies that a function takes printf, scanf, strftime or strfmon style arguments which should be type-checked against a format string. For example, the declaration:
extern int
my_printf (void *my_object, const char *my_format, ...)
      __attribute__ ((format (printf, 2, 3)));
causes the compiler to check the arguments in calls to my_printf for consistency with the printf style format string argument my_format.


#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdarg.h>

/* print all non-negative args one at a time;
   all args are assumed to be of int type */
void printargs(int arg1, ...)
  va_list ap;
  int i;

  va_start(ap, arg1); 
  for (i = arg1; i >= 0; i = va_arg(ap, int))
    printf("%d ", i);

int main(void)
   printargs(5, 2, 14, 84, 97, 15, 24, 48, -1);
   printargs(84, 51, -1);
   printargs(1, -1);
   return 0;

This program yields the output:

5 2 14 84 97 15 24 48
84 51


To call other var args functions from within your function (such as sprintf) you need to use the var arg version of the function (vsprintf in this example):

void MyPrintf(const char* format, ...)
  va_list args;
  char buffer[BUFSIZ];

  vsprintf (buffer, format, args );


POSIX defines the legacy header varargs.h, which dates from before the standardization of C and provides functionality similar to stdarg.h. This header is not part of ISO C. The file, as defined in the second version of the Single UNIX Specification, simply contains all of the functionality of C89 stdarg.h, with the exceptions that: it cannot be used in standard C new-style definitions; you may choose not to have a given argument (standard C requires at least one argument); and the way it works is different—in standard C, one would write:

#include <stdarg.h>

int summate(int n, ...)
    va_list ap;
    int i = 0;

    va_start(ap, n);
    for (; n; n--)
        i += va_arg(ap, int);
    return i;

or with old-style function definitions:

#include <stdarg.h>

int summate(n, ...)
    int n;
    /* ... */

and call with

summate(1, 2);
summate(4, 9, 2, 3, 2);

With varargs.h, the function would be:

#include <varargs.h>

summate(n, va_alist)
    va_dcl /* no semicolon here! */
    va_list ap;
    int i = 0;

    for (; n; n--)
        i += va_arg(ap, int);
    return i;

and is called the same way.

varargs.h requires old-style function definitions because of the way the implementation works.[2]


  1. "IEEE Std 1003.1 stdarg.h". http://www.opengroup.org/onlinepubs/009695399/basedefs/stdarg.h.html. Retrieved 2009-07-04. 
  2. "Single UNIX Specification varargs.h". http://www.opengroup.org/onlinepubs/007908799/xsh/varargs.h.html. Retrieved 2007-08-01.