It is very important when writing computer programs that one is able to save data in temporary locations, move data in and out of these locations and change the data over time. How we do this in C++ is with variables.

Consider the mathematical formula c = (a2+b2)0.5 (Pythagoras’ formula). This formula can find the length of the hypotenuse of any right triangle. If we were to write a program that implemented this formula, then we would have a program that can find the length of the hypotenuse of any right triangle. This is clearly useful (though perhaps not as its own program).

The reason the letters a, b, and c are used in the formula is because they stand in for whatever values some particular right triangle has. Our program would ask for these values (specifically, the values for a and b) from the user (or read them from a file, or whatever). Our program must also save these values in variables.

However, unlike mathematics, C++ variables are typed. This means that every variable in C++ is a variable of a certain type. We have the following types available to us:

Variables in C++ are typed for two reasons: (1) programs can be executed more efficiently if the type is known beforehand and need not be determined based on what kinds of values the user provides (technically, this advantage is only gained because C++ is statically typed, which means the types of variables never change while the program is executing); (2) the C++ compiler is able to ensure that you are using variables the right way by checking if you are using values of the right type. For example, trying to save a string inside an integer type of variable results in an error.

Overflow and underflow

Computers are finite machines, so they cannot store arbitrarily large values or arbitrarily small values (i.e. teeny-tiny fractions). Most programs do not need extremely large or small values, so very rarely is the fact that computers are finite an issue. However, C++ types also have their limits, and some of these limits need to be considered when writing certain kinds of programs.

For any general category of types such as integers, decimal numbers, etc. C++ has multiple specific types that you can choose from to use in your programs. For example, int is not the only C++ type that stores integer values. There is also char, short, long, long long, and possibly more depending on the compiler. As well, double is not the only type that can store decimal values. There is also float and long double. A quick comparison of these types will help you decide which is appropriate for each variable in your program.

Integer types

Decimal (“floating point”) types

Note about precision in floating point types–The floating point types do not represent values precisely. It is not a good idea to do this:

double x;
cin >> x;
if(x == 2.6) // NOT GOOD
    // blah...

The value 2.6 cannot be represented precisely, so even if the user inputs 2.6, it may not be stored as 2.6. Thus we cannot test if the value is “exactly” 2.6. We must check, instead, if the value is “close” to 2.6, using the following approach:

double x;
cin >> x;
if(x < 2.60001 && x > 2.59999) // YES, GOOD
    // blah...

For more gory details, see this article or the Wikipedia article.

String type

A “string” is literally a collection of characters (char). C++ allows us to type strings without resorting to creating lots of char variables. So the string "hello" is literally the collection of char thingies 'h' 'e' 'l' 'l' 'o' (there is actually another special char at the end that tells the computer the string is finished). The double-quotes " tell C++ we are using a string; single quotes ' tell C++ we are referring to a char (which is only one thing, one symbol).

Before C++, in the C language, strings, as we use them in C++, were not available. C++-style strings are much more convenient because you can easily make them larger or smaller, ask how long they are, etc.

To use strings, you have to #include <string> Here is an example using a string:

#include <iostream>
#include <string>  // necessary to use strings
using namespace std;

int main()
    string myname = "Percival";

    cout << myname << endl;

    return 0;

Character type

There is a single “character” type, the char. The char is the smallest type; it only holds one byte (8 bits) of information, which is the smallest unit of storage in any modern computer. This gives the char type 256 possible values. We can think of each of these values as integers (either -127 to 128 or 0 to 255), and a lot of programmers use char variables to keep track of small-valued integers.

However, our use of char will be mostly to keep track of symbols like letters and numbers. When a user types a single symbol, and your code is supposed to capture that symbol and check if it equals something or another, then you want to use a char. Here is an example:

char c;
cout << "Enter a symbol: ";
cin >> c;

if(c == 'x')
    cout << "You typed x!" << endl;
if(c == '!')
    cout << "You typed a bang!" << endl;
// etc...

Notice that when we check if a char variable equals some particular symbol, we put the symbol in single quotes, like so: 'x' or '!'.

The compiler actually translates something like 'x' to the integer 120. Why is x integer 120? The ASCII table defines the mapping. (See: asciitable.com)

If you knew which ASCII symbol you wanted (e.g., if you knew x was 120), then you could set a char variable equal to an integer, and it would be the same as setting the variable equal to the corresponding symbol.

// these are equivalent assignments
char c = 'x';
char d = 120;

“Strings” are literally a collection of char values (“strung” together).

Commonly-used types

Although you may know your program has variables that would work just fine as type short (for example), it’s not always the best idea to use short. The type short is relatively uncommon. (Think about metric units: although you could use centiliters, it’s normal to switch to milliliters at that point.) The common types (and what you are encouraged to use) are:

Even with these large ranges of values, sometimes your variables may suffer overflow or underflow. Overflow occurs when you try to store a value that is too large for the type. Underflow occurs when you try to store a value that is too small for the type. Underflow only makes sense with decimal types: if you try to store a very small number, say 0.0 followed by 5000 0’s followed by a 1, not even a long double can store that value. Overflow and underflow should be rare for the programs we are interested in, however.

The laws we have to examine are the laws of one of the most important of the mental facilities. The mathematics we have to construct are the mathematics of the human intellect. – George Boole

Variable naming

Here are the rules for naming variables:

Declaring variables

You can declare multiple variables in one line (separated by commas), if they are all of the same type:

double a, b, c, d, e, f, g;
int x, y, z;

You can also give them values:

double a = 1.1, b = 2.2, c = 3.3;
int x = 1, y = 2, z = 3;

Declare and define constant values like this (using all caps for the variable names):

const double PI = 3.14159;
const int MULTIPLIER = 5;

Because these variables have the modifier const, you are not allowed to change their values (the compiler will display an error if you try).

Variable scope

The “scope” of a variable is the locations in your program where the variable “exists” and is accessible. Basically, the rule is: a variable is accessible below its creation and inside any deeper “blocks” (blocks are defined by { and }), but not outside the block in which it is defined. A variable can be “shadowed” or overridden if a new variable of the same name is created in a deeper block. A variable of the same name cannot be created inside the same block as the earlier variable.

Here is an example:

    cout << "hello" << endl;  // x does not exist
    int x;                    // now x exists
    x = 5;
    cout << x << endl;
        x = 12;               // x still exists here
        cout << x << endl;
            double x = 5.2;   // new x variable, original "shadowed"
            cout << x << endl;
        cout << x << endl;    // original is back
    cout << x << endl;        // still original
cout << "goodbye" << endl;    // no more x
CSCI 221 material by Joshua Eckroth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Source code for this website available at GitHub.