Defect Report #117
Submission Date: 03 Dec 93
Source: Ron Guilmette
ANSI/ISO C Defect Report #rfg24:
Subject: Abstract semantics, sequence points, and expression evaluation.
Does the following code involve usage which renders the
code itself not strictly conforming?
int example ()
int x1 = 2, x2 = 1, x_temp;
return (x_temp = x1, x_temp) + (x_temp = x2, x_temp);
The semantic descriptions in this International Standard describe
the behavior of an abstract machine in which issues of optimization
Between the previous and next sequence point an object shall
have its stored value modified at most once by the evaluation of an
Although it is quite clear that the above quoted ``modified at
most once'' rule was intended to render certain programs ``not
strictly conforming,'' there is an unfortunate amount of ambiguity
built into the current wording of that rule.
Quite simply, while the ``modified at most once'' rule is obviously
telling us what a ``strictly conforming program'' must not do
between two particular points in time, it is altogether less
than clear what events and/or actions (exactly) are associated with
these two points in time. Additionally, it is also less than clear
(from reading the remainder of the C Standard) what actions and/or
events are allowed (or required) to take place between some pair of
sequence points in cases where both members of the pair are part of
some large single expression whose evaluation order is not completely
dictated by the C Standard.
Note that despite the assertion given in subclause 220.127.116.11 (and quoted
above) the C Standard does not fully specify the behavior of
the ``abstract machine,'' especially when it comes to the issue
of the ordering of sub-expression evaluation used by the ``abstract
This fact makes it inherently impossible to precisely determine even
just the relative timings of various events (including the
``occurrence'' of or the ``execution'' of or the ``evaluation''
of sequence points) which may (or must) occur sometime during the
evaluation of a larger containing expression (except in a few cases
involving || or && or ?: or , operators).
To put it more plainly, if some pair of sequence points will be ``reached''
(or ``evaluated'' or ``executed'') during the evaluation
of any pair of subexpressions which are themselves operands for some
binary operator (other than the operators || or && or
?: or ,) then the C Standard's description of the ``abstract
machine'' semantics are inadequate to enable us to know either
which order these two sequence points will occur in, or even
which other aspects of the evaluation of the overall expression may
(or must) occur ``between'' the two sequence points.
Thus, it seems that it may also be inherently impossible to know
whether or not the prohibition against multiple modifications of a
given variable ``between'' two consecutive sequence points is
(or may be) violated in such contexts.
Here is a simple example of an expression which illustrates these
(x = i, x) + (x = j, x)
In this expression there are two ``comma'' sequence points;
however, nothing in the C Standard gives any indication as to which
of these two may be (or must be) ``evaluated'' or ``reached''
first. (Indeed, it would seem that on a parallel machine of some sort,
both points could perhaps be reached simultaneously.) It is
fairly clear however that each of the references to the stored values
of x must not be evaluated until their respective preceeding
``comma sequence points'' have been ``reached'' or ``evaluated.''
Thus, a partial (but very incomplete) ordering is imposed upon the
sequence of events which must occur during the evaluation of this
For the sake of this example, let us call the leftmost comma in the
above expression ``lcomma'' and call the rightmost comma ``rcomma.''
Given this terminology, it would appear that the C Standard permits
the following sequence of events during evaluation of the above expression:
Note that in this (very realistic) example, the stored value of x
is never modified more than once between any pair of sequence
points. Given that the ordering described above is both a perfectly
plausible and also a perfectly permissible ordering
for the evaluation of the expression in question, and given that this
particular permissible ordering of events does not violate the ``modified
at most once'' rule (quoted earlier) it therefore appears that
the expression in question may in fact be interpreted as being ``strictly
conforming,'' and that such expressions may appear within ``strictly
x= (leftmost assignment to x)
lcomma <==== sequence point
eval(x) (leftmost reference to stored value of x)
x= (rightmost assignment to x)
rcomma <==== sequence point
eval(x) (rightmost reference to stored value of x)
I would like the Committee to either confirm or reject this view,
and to provide some commentary explaining that confirmation or rejection.
The C Standard does not forbid an implementation from interleaving
the subexpressions in the given example as specified above. Similarly,
there is no requirement that an implementation use this particular
interleaving. It is irrelevant that one particular interleaving
yields code that properly delimits multiple modifications of the
same object with sequence points. Any program that depends on this
particular interleaving is depending on unspecified behavior, and is
therefore not strictly conforming.
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