Skip to main content Link Menu Expand (external link) Document Search Copy Copied

C standard library manual pages

This is a guide to understanding manual pages and common C standard library conventions.

man man

The man command can be run by typing man something on the command line. If you type man man you’ll get the manual page about the man command. It gives guidance to how man pages are organized, and it is worth reading the Description section of man man in full. A few useful commands to remember:

CommandWhy to use it

man 3 functionname

Section 3 has library functions; adding 3 can help if the same name is also a command-line tool

man -f functionname

This finds pages that discuss functionname displaying the page name, section, and a short synopsis of each.

man -k some_text

This treats some_text as a regular expression and searches for it within man pages, displaying the page name, section, and a short synopsis of each.

Within man, you can use several keyboard shortcuts to help navigate the page. h displays the full key help, and q quits the man page viewer. A few of the most used commands include:

The arrow keys, page-up and page-down, home and end move through the page
If you type /, you enter search mode. You can then type a regular expression to look for. Enter locks in the regular expression as the current search pattern and finds the first one on or below the current screen. n then goes to the next match, repeated until the end of the file is reached. N searches above the current screen instead.

Manual pages use various formatting to help provide contextual cues; a few to know include:

ConceptDisplayed as
Another manual page

printf(3): the page name in bold, the manual section in parentheses

Function names

printf(): the name in bold, with empty parentheses to mean “a function”

Adjustable variable names

stream: underlined

Anatomy of a library function manual page

Each manual page has several headers:

the set of manual page names that are all shared by this page. Often several related functions are documented together
The relevant C header file #includes, and the function prototypes defined in them that are described on this page.
A description of how this function or set of functions operate, including anything they assume about their arguments, any rules that apply to their return values, etc.

The description is often long enough to have multiple subsections with their own headers. In these cases it is often not feasible to put them in the single correct order, so you may need to jump about a bit to find what you are looking for.

Return Value
Some functions describe their return value in their Description, but many have a special section for it.

See also Reporting errors below for some common trends in return values.

Conforming To
Various standards bodies help ensure that computers can inter-operate. You can probably ignore this section until you gain several years more experience with C.
If present, this often points out common mistakes or limitations of the functions. Always read it.
If present, this points out limitations of the functions that can lead to them harming your program if misused. Always read it.
Often the first place to look when reading a new manual page. They vary in detail, but can be a great place to learn the scope of what the function can (and cannot) do.
See Also
If the function you looked up isn’t exactly what you want, other functions to consider may be listed here.

Common function conventions

While there is no rule that the following need to be observed, many functions in the C standard library use the following conventions.

Results in parameters

If a function should return more than a single primitive value, many functions will instead return an error-checking integer (see Reporting errors) and use a pointer-type argument to provide the “returned” value. Some will mix and match, both returning and using a pointer parameter to provide information.

Example: Consider the function char *strsep(char **stringp, const char *delim). It returns a char *, which is a single token of a string after it is split on delim. But the input string, instead of being a normal char * is a char ** so that the function can modify the argument to point to the string following the split.

Inside this function, there is something like the following:

*stringp += length_of_first_token;

Because this modifies not the local variable stringp but rather the pointer it points to, the calling function can see that pointed-to pointer change.

Reporting errors

Many functions return an error-checking result of some kind. Often this involves returning an int where some numbers mean “success!” and others “failure”.

When a function has a single “failure” return type, it often also “sets errno” to some specific error code. The global variable errno is defined in #include <errno.h>, along with #defined names for various kinds of errors. If you want to know that something went wrong with these functions, you have to

  1. Check if the returned value was an error value
  2. If so, check errno to find out what the error was

A few functions instead directly return either 0 or an error number declared in <errno.h> directly. A few others set errno with no special return value, requiring errno to be checked manually.

Example: The strtol function converts a char * to the integer its (as a string) contains. It returns the result of the conversion, unless the value would underflow or overflow. If an underflow occurs, strtol returns LONG_MIN; if an overflow occurs, strtol returns LONG_MAX. In both cases, errno is set to ERANGE. Additionally, if the input was not a valid value, it sets EINVAL, with no officially defined return value.

Thus, a correct use would be

errno = 0; // clear the error number
long ans = strtol(argv[1]);
long error = errno;
errno = 0; // clean up after ourselves
if (error != 0) {
    puts("There was some kind of conversion error");
    if (error == EINVAL)
        printf("...because \"%s\" is not a valid integer\n", argv[1]);
    else if (error == ERANGE)
        printf("...because \"%s\" is too big to represent\n", argv[1]);
        printf("...because of an unexpected error " 
               "(number %d) processing \"%s\"\n", error, argv[1]);
} else { 
    // ...

Avoiding malloc

It is very uncommon for library functions to use malloc unless allocating memory is central to their primary purpose (as e.g. for malloc or strdup). Instead, functions that would need to return a variable-length array of data (such as a string) will generally require that a pointer to memory to write it to is passed in as an argument.

Example: The read function reads bytes from a file or file-like object. Thus it requires three parameters:

  1. The file to read from
  2. A pointer to a buffer to place the read contents into
  3. The maximum number of bytes it is allowed to place there

It communicates how much of the buffer it filled as a return value.

Putting these pieces together, we get read’s signature: ssize_t read(int fildes, void *buf, size_t nbyte);.

Copyright © 2023 John Hott, portions Luther Tychonievich.
Released under the CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Creative Commons License