code Brew a command parser with C pointers and arrays.

UPDATE 11:30pm 26 October.

Posted a clearer command line definition. The old version is still accessible if you prefer it instead.

Reminder: You must use a CS 240 computing environment for coding assignments.



[Preparation: If you did not do the later Predictions sections or a few of the Practice Pointer Programming examples on the pointers lab, complete those before starting this assignment.]

The main task of this assignment is to implement a shell command parser as a small library in C. The shell is the program that reads and interprets the commands you type at a command line terminal. Later in the semester, you will build a full shell. For now, we focus on the first step: splitting a command line into its meaningful parts.

The parser takes a command line, a single string, and converts it to a command array, an array of strings representing the command and its space-separated arguments. The string split function available in many programming languages’ standard libraries would accomplish most of the task, but you will essentially implement split at a low level. We prohibit the use of string manipulation functions from the C standard library to force you to confront how strings are implemented and manipulated in memory.

The goals of this assignment are:

  • to become familiar with the byte-addressable memory model, C pointers, arrays, and the link between pointer arithmetic and array indexing;
  • to practice principled techniques for reasoning about program execution, using assertions and structured debugging.

Please skim this document before starting work. Pay special attention to orange boxes like this one.

Plan, build incrementally, test, and commit.

Programming with C pointers is like brewing a potion. Both tend to flare up in your face unless you brew them just right.

For each stage in the suggested workflow:

  1. Plan carefully before typing any code.
  2. Implement one step at a time (with useful assertions).
  3. Test each step extensively before implementing the next.
  4. Commit each tested step before implementing more.

This careful process will save time by catching bugs early and saving working versions you can recover if things start going wrong later.

Starter Code

Get a copy of the starter code by forking the repository on Bitbucket and cloning your newly created Bitbucket repository. This will be the standard procedure for all code assignments, just like we did for Bit Transfiguration. (Need help?)

  1. Fork wellesleycs240 / cs240-pointers once per team to create your own repository on Bitbucket, keeping the “cs240-pointers” name
  2. Add bpw and your partner as Admins on the repository.
  3. Clone your Bitbucket repository to your local computer account:
    hg clone ssh://

Your working copy should contain several files covering this week’s lab material and this assignment:

  • Makefile: recipes to compile the various parts
  • command.c: a file where you will implement a parser for simple shell commands
  • command.h: a C header file describing the functions you will implement in command.c
  • command_test.c: tests for your command parser

To compile the command-parsing code with the test harness, run make command_test. Run the compiled executable with ./command_test.

Do true pair programming.

We strongly recommend working in pairs on this assignment. Assuming you work with a partner, do your programming together, sitting in front of one screen. Take turns driving. If both partners will use a copy of the code, please read the Mercurial Team Workflow before trying that.

Command Structure

You will write a handful of functions to convert command lines (strings) to command arrays (arrays of one-word strings) and work with command arrays. This section describes command lines and command arrays. The next section describes the specific functions you will write.

Command Lines

UPDATE 11:30pm 26 October.

This newer command line definition was accidentally left unpublished when this assignment was posted. We think it is clearer than the old definition, which is still accessible if you prefer it instead.

A command line is a null-terminated string containing zero or more space-separated words, with an optional single background status indicator character, '&', after the final word.

  • Word characters include all printable characters except space (' ') and ampersand ('&').
  • Spaces separate words.
  • Ampersand ('&') is a special status indicator character, not a word character.
    • In a valid command, ampersand ('&') may appear at most once after the final word, followed only by zero or more spaces to the end of the string. Any other placement of ampersand is invalid.1
    • A valid command containing no ampersand is a foreground command.
    • A valid command containing an ampersand is a background command.

Command Line Examples:

Here are two typical command lines:

  • The command line "ls -l cs240-pointers" indicates a foreground command containing the words "ls", "-l", and "cs240-pointers".
  • The command line "emacs cs240-pointers/command.c &" indicates a background command containing the words "emacs" and "cs240-pointers/command.c".

The definition above allows any spacing. The following lines are all valid command lines indicating the foreground command containing the words "ls", "-l", and "cs240-pointers":

"ls -l cs240-pointers"
"ls       -l cs240-pointers  "
"       ls   -l    cs240-pointers   "

The definition above requires that, if present, ampersand ('&') must be the last non-space character of the command line. It may appear adjacent to or separate from the last word. Regardless of placement, ampersand ('&') is not a word character and is never part of any command word. For example, these valid command lines both indicate the background command containing the single word "emacs":

"emacs &"
"   emacs&   "

The following are examples of invalid command lines, with ampersand misused:

"  & uh oh"
"uh & oh"
"uh& &oh"
"uh oh & &"

Command Arrays

The parser converts a command line into a command array, an array of strings representing the words of the command line, in order, terminated by a NULL element. Recall that a string in C is not a special type; it is just an array of chars terminated by a null character ('\0'). A command array is thus an array of pointers to arrays of chars and has the type char**. All arrays in this structure must be null-terminated, using the right notion of nullness for each array.

'\0' is not NULL. 'a' is not "a".

'\0' is the null character. As a character (char), it is one byte in size.
NULL is the null address. As an address (pointer value), it is one machine word in size.
Do not mix them up!

Literal character (char) values in C are given in single quotes: 'a'.
Literal string values are given in double quotes: "a".
Do not mix them up!

Comparing 'a' == "a" will yield false. 'a' is the one-byte ASCII encoding of the letter a, a value of type char. "a" is the address of the start of the one-character null-terminated string "a" in memory, a one-word value of type char*.

Here is an example command array for the command line string "ls -l cs240pointers":

Command Array:             Null-Terminated Strings
Index   Contents           (stored elsewhere in memory)
    0 |  ptr  *----------> "ls"
    1 |  ptr  *----------> "-l"
    2 |  ptr  *----------> "cs240-pointers"
    3 |   NULL   |

Here is the same array drawn another way and showing how the array is arranged in memory, with each element’s offset from the base address of the array. Addresses grow left to right, and are assumed to be 64 bits (8 bytes), so indices are related to offsets by a factor of 8.

Index:        0       1       2       3 
Offset:   +0      +8      +16     +24     +32
Contents: |   *   |   *   |   *   | NULL  |
              |       |       |
              V       V       V
              "ls"    "-l"    "cs240-pointers"

Although we draw “strings” in the above pictures, this is an abstraction. Each string is actually represented by a '\0'-terminated array of 1-byte characters in memory. Since each element is one byte, the addresses of adjacent characters differ by 1 and the offset is identical to the index.

Index:      0     1     2
Offset:  +0    +1    +2    +3
         | 'l' | 's' |'\0' |

Note: Practice reading memory diagrams every which way. Pay attention to what direction addresses grow. We are intentionally using different conventions in different drawings to help you get used to thinking on your feet…


You must write four functions (plus any necessary helper functions) supporting command parsing in command.c according to the headers in command.h. If you write helper functions, be sure to read about how C function declarations work. We give a plan for implementation and testing below.

  • char** command_parse(char* line, int* foreground)

    Parse a command-line string line and:

  • void command_print(char** command)

    Print a command array in the form of a command line, with the command words separated by spaces. Do not include quotes. Do not include a newline ('\n') at the end. You will want to learn how to use printf.

  • void command_show(char** command)

    Print the structure of a command array to aid in debugging and data inspection.

    The output should make it clear exactly what strings the command array holds, but the format is left to you. For example, given the command line

      "ls -l cs240-pointers   "

    the output of a command_show implementation using helpful formatting will distinguish a correct command array where all spaces are stripped away:

      command array:
          - "ls"
          - "-l"
          - "cs240-pointers"

    from an incorrect command array that contains some trailing spaces in words:

      command array:
          - "ls "
          - "-l "
          - "cs240-pointers   "

    Calling command_print, which does not delineate the bounds of words explicitly, may not make this so clear:

      ls  -l  cs240-pointers
  • void command_free(char** command)

    Free all parts of a command array structure previously created by command_parse and not previously freed.

Memory Rules

Follow these memory allocation rules in your code:

  • Clients of the command library own and manage the memory representing command line strings.
    • Command library functions must never free nor mutate command line strings.
    • Clients may free or mutate command lines at any time outside a call to command library functions.
  • The command_parse function must allocate command array structures dynamically with malloc and return them to the client. Once returned, these structures are own by the client.
    • Clients will not mutate command array structures.
    • Clients may call command_free to free a command array at most once, at any time outside a command library function.
  • The command library functions must not allocate any memory that they do not return as part of a command array structure.
  • Assuming that the client code eventually calls command_free on every command array returned by command_parse, all memory allocated by the command library functions should be freed.

Coding Style Rules

Follow this general C style guide as a baseline, along with the following specific rules:

  • Do not use array notation in this assignment. Use idiomatic pointer style instead. See below.
  • Document in comments how your code implements the specifications provided, connecting your C implementation to the specification.
    • Our sample solution for command_parse is under 70 clean lines of code and 20–30 lines of comments.
  • Document pre- and post-conditions and use assertions to check assumptions where reasonable.
  • Use well-scoped helper functions where reasonable.
    • Clean solutions are possible with and without helper functions.
    • If using helper functions, match them to well-defined sub-problems with clear arguments and results.
    • Be sure to order function headers properly.
  • Prefer simple efficient code over complicated code.
    • Our sample solution for command_parse is under 70 clean lines of code and 20–30 lines of comments.
  • Ensure your code is free of compiler warnings (and, obviously, errors).
  • Ensure your code is free of run-time errors, including memory errors and leaks as detected by valgrind.

Idiomatic Pointer Style

For full credit, your submitted code must use only pointers and pointer arithmetic, with no array notation. Choosing pointer arithmetic over array indexing is not necessarily the best choice for clear code in all cases – here we require you to use pointers to learn how arrays and array operations are represented under the hood.

A simple way to think with arrays but write with pointers is to use *(a + i) wherever you think a[i]. However, this simple transformation rarely matches an idiomatic pointer style.

An idiomatic loop over an array with array indexing typically uses an integer index variable incremented on each iteration. Keep the scope of the index variable (or “loop variable”) as small as possible for the task.

// pre:  a is the address of a null-terminated string.
// post: replaces all characters in a by 'Z'
for (int i = 0; a[i] != '\0'; i++) {
    a[i] = 'Z';

An idiomatic loop over an array with pointer arithmetic typically uses a cursor pointer that is incremented to point to the next element on each iteration. Keep the scope of the cursor pointer variable as small as possible for the task.

// pre:  a is the address of a null-terminated string.
// post: replaces all characters in a by 'Z'
for (char* p = a; *p != '\0'; p++) {
    *p = 'Z';

Your final code should contain zero array[index] operations.

Submission and Grading

Before submitting, disable any printing in command.c functions other than command_print and command_show.

Submit your work by committing and pushing your latest work to your Bitbucket repository.

Your grade is derived as follows:

We compute the correctness and efficiency components of your grade using a private suite of test inputs. You should develop your own large suite of test inputs to help check that your code meets the specification. We will not grade your tests themselves, but preparing and using them will help you ensure your code is fully correct and efficient.


Follow the workflow below, much of which also corresponds closely to the functionality of command_parse as described in command.c.

  1. Finish the Predictions and Practice Programming sections of the pointers lab, before starting to build your command parser.

  2. Add several more hard-coded command array test cases to command_test.c.

  3. Implement command_show and command_print first. They are only a few lines of code each. Test them on the constant, statically allocated command arrays in command_test.c.

  4. Add several more hard-coded valid and invalid command lines to command_test.c to test many aspects of the specification.

  5. Implement command_parse in stages, testing each stage on several inputs and committing a working version before continuing.

    1. Count the number of words in line and detect use of &, returning NULL for invalid commands and marking the foreground/background status for valid commands.

    2. Allocate the top-level command array.

    3. Copy each word in line into a newly allocated string and save it in the command array.

    Follow the memory allocation and coding style rules.

  6. Implement and test command_free.

Compile and Run

To compile the command-parsing code with the test harness, run make command_test (or just make). Run the compiled executable with ./command_test.

Test and Debug

Test and debug wisely.

Programming with pointers in C is error-prone, even for experts. Haphazard print-based testing is an inefficient (and often ineffective) use of your time. Wield the tools in this section to catch errors sooner and faster.

Assert the truth.

Assertions are “executable documentation” or “executable specifications”: they document rules about how code should be used or how data should be structured, but they also make it easier to detect violations of these rules (a.k.a. bugs!). Use the assert(...) tool in C by including assert.h and asserting expected properties. For example, the provided code already includes code that asserts that the arguments to command_ functions are not NULL. Thus if a NULL argument is ever passed to these functions, an error message will be printed and execution will halt immediately. Detecting errors early like this (vs. crashing or corrupting data later wherever the code depends on this assumption) saves a lot of time. Add assertions to make the “rules” of your code clear wherever you make assumptions.

Write extensive tests.

Develop your own large suite of test inputs to help check that your code meets the specification. We will not grade your tests themselves, but preparing and using them will help you ensure your code is fully correct and efficient. We have provided a test harness in command_test.c where you can easily add new tests.

  • Add more command line strings to the COMMAND_LINES array in command_test.c and updating NUM_COMMAND_LINES to match.
  • For early testing of command_print and command_show before implementing command_parse, add command arrays to COMMAND_ARRAYS.

Use Valgrind.

Valgrind is an extended memory error checker. It helps catch pointer errors, misuse of malloc and free, and more. Run valgrind on your compiled program like this: valgrind ./command_test. Valgrind will run your program and watch it execute to detect errors at run time. See the tools page for additional reference links.

Use GDB.

Use GDB to help debug your programs. (Review previous lab activities for tips.) When debugging programs with pointers, pay special attention to the pointer values your program generates. Inspect them like other variables or use the address-of (&) and dereference (*) operators at the gdb prompt to help explore program state. See the tools page for additional reference links.

Does GDB tell you that it cannot display something due to compiler optimizations? If so, turn off compiler optimizations by adding -O0 (that’s “space dash Capital-Oh zero”) at the end of the CFLAGS = ... line in your Makefile. This will take effect the next time you use make to compile your code. The CFLAGS variable here determines what flags are passed to the compiler. -O0 enables level zero of optimization (i.e., none).

Emacs Tips

  • Compile from within Emacs by typing M-x compile, editing the make command that appears in the mini-buffer (just make should work), and hit enter. The compiler output will appear in an Emacs buffer where you can click on errors to jump to the source line involved. Note: the mini-buffers where you type in commands have history accessible with up and down arrows.
  • Run GDB from with Emacs with M-x gdb, starting from a C buffer.
    • Click left margin to set/delete breakpoints.
    • Use buttons at top to run, continue, step, next, navigate up and down the stack, etc.

C Function Declarations

In C, a function is allowed to be used only after (i.e., later in the file than) its declaration. This differs from Java, which allows you to refer to later methods. When declaring helper functions, you can do one of a few things to deal with this:

  1. Just declare your helper function before the functions that use it.
  2. Write a function header earlier in the file and the actual definition later in the file. The function header just describes the name and type of the function, much like an interface method in Java. For example:

     // A function header declares that such a function exists,
     // and will be implemented elsewhere.
     int helper(int x, int y);
     // Parameter names are optional in headers.
     int helper2(char*);
     void needsHelp() {
         // OK, because header precedes this point in file.
         helper(7, 8);
     int helper(int x, int y) {
         return x + y;
     int helper2(char* str) {
         return 7;
  3. If the functions would likely get used elsewhere, then put the header in a header file, a file ending in .h that contains only function headers (for related functions) and data type declarations. For example, if you added another general function (not just a helper function) for manipulating commands (not required in this assignment), it would be best to place a function header for it with the other function headers in command.h so that users of your command library can call it.

    Header files are included (essentially programmatically copy-pasted) by the #include directive you often see at the tops of C source files. Then these functions can be used and their implementations will later be found elsewhere if compiled correctly.

  1. This assignment restricts placement of ampersand further than most shells, for simplicity.