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1.5 — A first look at operators

Revisiting expressions

In lesson 1.1 -- Structure of a program [1], we had defined an expression as “A mathematical entity that evaluates to a value”. However, the term mathematical entity is somewhat vague. More precisely, an expression is a combination of literals, variables, functions, and operators that evaluates to a value.


A literal is a fixed value that has been inserted (hardcoded) directly into the source code, such as 5, or 3.14159. Literals always evaluate to themselves. Here’s an example that uses literals:

Literals, variables, and function calls that return values are all known as operands. Operands supply the data that the expression works with. We just introduced literals, which evaluate to themselves. Variables evaluate to the values they hold. Functions evaluate to produce a value of the function’s return type (unless the return type is void).


The last piece of the expressions puzzle is operators. Operators tell the expression how to combine one or more operands to produce a new result. For example, in the expression “3 + 4”, the + is the plus operator. The + operator tells how to combine the operands 3 and 4 to produce a new value (7).

You are likely already quite familiar with standard arithmetic operators from common usage in math, including addition (+), subtraction (-), multiplication (*), and division (/). Assignment (=) is an operator as well. Some operators use more than one symbol, such as the equality operator (==), which allows us to compare two values to see if they are equal.

Note: One of the most common mistakes that new programmers make is to confuse the assignment operator (=) with the equality operator (==). Assignment (=) is used to assign a value to a variable. Equality (==) is used to test whether two operands are equal in value. We’ll cover the equality operator in more detail later.

Operators come in three types:

Unary operators act on one operand. An example of a unary operator is the - operator. In the expression -5, the - operator is only being applied to one operand (5) to produce a new value (-5).

Binary operators act on two operands (known as left and right). An example of a binary operator is the + operator. In the expression 3 + 4, the + operator is working with a left operand (3) and a right operand (4) to produce a new value (7).

Ternary operators act on three operands. There is only one of these in C++, which we’ll cover later.

Also note that some operators have more than one meaning. For example, the - operator has two contexts. It can be used in unary form to invert a number’s sign (eg. to convert 5 to -5, or vice versa), or it can be used in binary form to do arithmetic subtraction (eg. 4 - 3).


This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of operators. We will take an in-depth look at operators in more detail in a future section.

1.6 -- Whitespace and basic formatting [2]
Index [3]
1.4d -- A first look at local scope [4]