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5.5 — While statements

The while statement is the simplest of the four loops that C++ provides, and it has a definition very similar to that of an if statement:

while (expression)
    statement;

A while statement is declared using the while keyword. When a while statement is executed, the expression is evaluated. If the expression evaluates to true (non-zero), the statement executes.

However, unlike an if statement, once the statement has finished executing, control returns to the top of the while statement and the process is repeated.

Let’s take a look at a simple while loop. The following program prints all the numbers from 0 to 9:

This outputs:

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 done!

Let’s take a closer look at what this program is doing. First, count is initialized to 0. 0 < 10 evaluates to true, so the statement block executes. The first statement prints 0, and the second increments count to 1. Control then returns back to the top of the while statement. 1 < 10 evaluates to true, so the code block is executed again. The code block will repeatedly execute until count is 10, at which point 10 < 10 will evaluate to false, and the loop will exit.

It is possible that a while statement executes 0 times. Consider the following program:

The condition 15 < 10 immediately evaluates to false, so the while statement is skipped. The only thing this program prints is done!.

Infinite loops

On the other hand, if the expression always evaluates to true, the while loop will execute forever. This is called an infinite loop. Here is an example of an infinite loop:

Because count is never incremented in this program, count < 10 will always be true. Consequently, the loop will never terminate, and the program will print "0 0 0 0 0 ..." forever.

We can declare an intentional infinite loop like this:

The only way to exit an infinite loop is through a return statement, a break statement, an exit statement, a goto statement, an exception being thrown, or the user killing the program.

Programs that run until the user decides to stop them sometimes intentionally use an infinite loop along with a return, break, or exit statement to terminate the loop. It is common to see this kind of loop in web server applications that run continuously and service web requests.

Loop variables

Often, we want a loop to execute a certain number of times. To do this, it is common to use a loop variable, often called a counter. A loop variable is an integer variable that is declared for the sole purpose of counting how many times a loop has executed. In the examples above, the variable count is a loop variable.

Loop variables are often given simple names, such as i, j, or k. However, naming variables i, j, or k has one major problem. If you want to know where in your program a loop variable is used, and you use the search function on i, j, or k, the search function will return half your program! Many words have an i, j, or k in them. Consequently, a better idea is to use iii, jjj, or kkk as your loop variable names. Because these names are more unique, this makes searching for loop variables much easier, and helps them stand out as loop variables. An even better idea is to use "real" variable names, such as count, or a name that gives more detail about what you're counting.

It is best practice to use signed integers for loop variables. Using unsigned integers can lead to unexpected issues. Consider the following code:

Take a look at the above example and see if you can spot the error. It's not very obvious.

It turns out, this program is an infinite loop. It starts out by printing "10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 blastoff!" as desired, but then goes off the rails, and starts counting down from 4294967295. Why? Because the loop condition count >= 0 will never be false! When count is 0, 0 >= 0 is true. Then --count is executed, and count overflows back to 4294967295. And since 4294967295 is >= 0, the program continues. Because count is unsigned, it can never be negative, and because it can never be negative, the loop won't terminate.

Rule: Always use signed integers for your loop variables.

Iteration

Each time a loop executes, it is called an iteration.

Because the loop body is typically a block, and because that block is entered and exited with each iteration, any variables declared inside the loop body are created and then destroyed with each iteration. In the following example, variable x will be created and destroyed 5 times:

For fundamental variables, this is fine. For non-fundamental variables (such as structs and classes) this may cause performance issues. Consequently, you may want to consider defining non-fundamental variables before the loop. This is another one of the cases where you might declare a variable well before its first actual use.

Note that variable count is declared outside the loop. This is necessary because we need the value to persist across iterations (not be destroyed with each iteration).

Often, we want to do something every n iterations, such as print a newline. This can easily be done by using the modulus operator on our counter:

This program produces the result:

01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30
31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40
41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50

Nested loops

It is also possible to nest loops inside of other loops. In the following example, the inner loop and outer loops each have their own counters. However, note that the loop expression for the inner loop makes use of the outer loop's counter as well!

This program prints:

1
1 2
1 2 3
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4 5

Quiz

1) In the above program, why is variable inner declared inside the while block instead of immediately following the declaration of outer?

Show Solution [1]

2) Write a program that prints out the letters a through z along with their ASCII codes. Hint: to print characters as integers, you have to use a static_cast.

Show Solution [1]

3) Invert the nested loops example so it prints the following:

5 4 3 2 1
4 3 2 1
3 2 1
2 1
1

Show Solution [1]

4) Now make the numbers print like this:

        1
      2 1
    3 2 1
  4 3 2 1
5 4 3 2 1

hint: Figure out how to make it print like this first:

X X X X 1
X X X 2 1
X X 3 2 1
X 4 3 2 1
5 4 3 2 1

Show Solution [1]

5.6 -- Do while statements [2]
Index [3]
5.4 -- Goto statements [4]