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1.6 — Uninitialized variables and undefined behavior

Uninitialized variables

Unlike some programming languages, C/C++ does not initialize most variables to a given value (such as zero) automatically. Thus when a variable is assigned a memory location by the compiler, the default value of that variable is whatever (garbage) value happens to already be in that memory location! A variable that has not been given a known value (usually through initialization or assignment) is called an uninitialized variable.

As an aside...

This lack of initialization is a performance optimization. Imagine you needed 10,000 variables. If these variables were initialized by default, all 10,000 would need to be initialized to the default value upon creation. This might result in slow program startup. If you did not need these variables immediately, you could always initialize them as you need them, spreading the initialization cost out over the running time of your program.

Using the values of uninitialized variables can lead to unexpected results. Consider the following short program:

In this case, the computer will assign some unused memory to x. It will then send the value residing in that memory location to std::cout, which will print the value (interpreted as an integer). But what value will it print? The answer is “who knows!”, and the answer may (or may not) change every time you run the program. When the author ran this program in Visual Studio, std::cout printed the value 7177728 one time, and 5277592 the next. Feel free to compile and run the program yourself (your computer won’t explode).

As an aside...

Some compilers, such as Visual Studio, will initialize the contents of memory to some preset value when you’re using a debug build configuration. This will not happen when using a release build configuration. Therefore, if you want to run the above program yourself, make sure you’re using a release build configuration (see lesson 0.9 -- Configuring your compiler: Build configurations for a reminder on how to do that). For example, if you run the above program in a Visual Studio debug configuration, it will consistently print -858993460, because that’s the value (interpreted as an integer) that Visual Studio initializes memory with in debug configurations.

Most modern compilers will attempt to detect if a variable is being used without being given a value. If they are able to detect this, they will generally issue a compile-time error. For example, compiling the above program on Visual Studio produced the following warning:

c:\VCprojects\test\test.cpp(11) : warning C4700: uninitialized local variable 'x' used

If your compiler won’t let you compile and run the above program for this reason, here is a possible solution to get around this issue:

Using uninitialized variables is one of the most common mistakes that novice programmers make, and unfortunately, it can also be one of the most challenging to debug (because the program may run fine anyway if the uninitialized value happened to get assigned to a spot of memory that had a reasonable value in it, like 0).

This is the primary reason for the “always initialize your variables” best practice.

Undefined behavior

Using the value from an uninitialized variable is our first example of undefined behavior. Undefined behavior is the result of executing code whose behavior is not well defined by the C++ language. In this case, the C++ language doesn’t have any rules determining what happens if you use value of a variable that has not been given a known value. Consequently, if you actually do this, undefined behavior will result.

Code implementing undefined behavior may exhibit any of the following symptoms:

  • Your program produces different results every time it is run.
  • Your program consistently produces the same incorrect result.
  • Your program behaves inconsistently (sometimes produces the correct result, sometimes not).
  • Your program seems like its working but produces incorrect results later in the program.
  • Your program crashes, either immediately or later.
  • Your program works on some compilers but not others.
  • Your program works until you change some other seemingly unrelated code.

Or, your code may actually produce the correct behavior anyway. The nature of undefined behavior is that you never quite know what you’re going to get, whether you’ll get it every time, and whether that behavior will change when you make other changes.

C++ contains many cases that can result in undefined behavior if you’re not careful. We’ll point these out in future lessons whenever we encounter them. Take note of where these cases are and make sure you avoid them.

Rule

Take care to avoid all situations that result in undefined behavior, such as using uninitialized variables.

Author's note

One of the most common types of comment we get from readers says, “You said I couldn’t do X, but I did it anyway and my program works! Why?”.

There are two common answers. The most common answer is that your program is actually exhibiting undefined behavior, but that undefined behavior just happens to be producing the result you wanted anyway… for now. Tomorrow (or on another compiler or machine) it might not.

Alternatively, sometimes compiler authors take liberties with the language requirements when those requirements may be more restrictive than needed. For example, the standard may say, “you must do X before Y”, but a compiler author may feel that’s unnecessary, and make Y work even if you don’t do X first. This shouldn’t affect the operation of correctly written programs, but may cause incorrectly written programs to work anyway. So an alternate answer to the above question is that your compiler may simply be not following the standard! It happens. You can avoid much of this by making sure you’ve turned compiler extensions off, as described in lesson 0.10 -- Configuring your compiler: Compiler extensions.

Quiz time

Question #1

What is an uninitialized variable? Why should you avoid using them?

Show Solution

Question #2

What is undefined behavior, and what can happen if you do something that exhibits undefined behavior?

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1.7 -- Keywords and naming identifiers
Index
1.5 -- Introduction to iostream: cout, cin, and endl

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