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6.17 Arrays of Length Zero

Declaring zero-length arrays is allowed in GNU C as an extension. A zero-length array can be useful as the last element of a structure that is really a header for a variable-length object:

struct line {
  int length;
  char contents[0];

struct line *thisline = (struct line *)
  malloc (sizeof (struct line) + this_length);
thisline->length = this_length;

Although the size of a zero-length array is zero, an array member of this kind may increase the size of the enclosing type as a result of tail padding. The offset of a zero-length array member from the beginning of the enclosing structure is the same as the offset of an array with one or more elements of the same type. The alignment of a zero-length array is the same as the alignment of its elements.

Declaring zero-length arrays in other contexts, including as interior members of structure objects or as non-member objects, is discouraged. Accessing elements of zero-length arrays declared in such contexts is undefined and may be diagnosed.

In the absence of the zero-length array extension, in ISO C90 the contents array in the example above would typically be declared to have a single element. Unlike a zero-length array which only contributes to the size of the enclosing structure for the purposes of alignment, a one-element array always occupies at least as much space as a single object of the type. Although using one-element arrays this way is discouraged, GCC handles accesses to trailing one-element array members analogously to zero-length arrays.

The preferred mechanism to declare variable-length types like struct line above is the ISO C99 flexible array member, with slightly different syntax and semantics:

Non-empty initialization of zero-length arrays is treated like any case where there are more initializer elements than the array holds, in that a suitable warning about “excess elements in array” is given, and the excess elements (all of them, in this case) are ignored.

GCC allows static initialization of flexible array members. This is equivalent to defining a new structure containing the original structure followed by an array of sufficient size to contain the data. E.g. in the following, f1 is constructed as if it were declared like f2.

struct f1 {
  int x; int y[];
} f1 = { 1, { 2, 3, 4 } };

struct f2 {
  struct f1 f1; int data[3];
} f2 = { { 1 }, { 2, 3, 4 } };

The convenience of this extension is that f1 has the desired type, eliminating the need to consistently refer to f2.f1.

This has symmetry with normal static arrays, in that an array of unknown size is also written with [].

Of course, this extension only makes sense if the extra data comes at the end of a top-level object, as otherwise we would be overwriting data at subsequent offsets. To avoid undue complication and confusion with initialization of deeply nested arrays, we simply disallow any non-empty initialization except when the structure is the top-level object. For example:

struct foo { int x; int y[]; };
struct bar { struct foo z; };

struct foo a = { 1, { 2, 3, 4 } };        // Valid.
struct bar b = { { 1, { 2, 3, 4 } } };    // Invalid.
struct bar c = { { 1, { } } };            // Valid.
struct foo d[1] = { { 1, { 2, 3, 4 } } };  // Invalid.

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