# Assertion

An assertion is a predicate that the presented condition must be true at the moment the assertion is encountered by the software. Most common are simple assertions, which are validated at execution time. However, static assertions are checked at compile time.

# Simple Assertion

An assertion is a statement used to assert that a fact must be true when that line of code is reached. Assertions are useful for ensuring that expected conditions are met. When the condition passed to an assertion is true, there is no action. The behavior on false conditions depends on compiler flags. When assertions are enabled, a false input causes an immediate program halt. When they are disabled, no action is taken. It is common practice to enable assertions in internal and debug builds, and disable them in release builds, though assertions are often enabled in release. (Whether termination is better or worse than errors depends on the program.) Assertions should be used only to catch internal programming errors, which usually means being passed bad parameters.

#include <stdio.h>
/* Uncomment to disable `assert()` */
/* #define NDEBUG */
#include <assert.h>

int main(void)
{
    int x = -1;
    assert(x >= 0);

    printf("x = %d\n", x);   
    return 0;
}

Possible output with NDEBUG undefined:

a.out: main.c:9: main: Assertion `x >= 0' failed.

Possible output with NDEBUG defined:

x = -1

It's good practice to define NDEBUG globally, so that you can easily compile your code with all assertions either on or off. An easy way to do this is define NDEBUG as an option to the compiler, or define it in a shared configuration header (e.g. config.h).

# Static Assertion

Static assertions are used to check if a condition is true when the code is compiled. If it isn't, the compiler is required to issue an error message and stop the compiling process.

A static assertion is one that is checked at compile time, not run time. The condition must be a constant expression, and if false will result in a compiler error. The first argument, the condition that is checked, must be a constant expression, and the second a string literal.

Unlike assert, _Static_assert is a keyword. A convenience macro static_assert is defined in <assert.h>.

#include <assert.h>

enum {N = 5};
_Static_assert(N == 5, "N does not equal 5");
static_assert(N > 10, "N is not greater than 10");  /* compiler error */

Prior to C11, there was no direct support for static assertions. However, in C99, static assertions could be emulated with macros that would trigger a compilation failure if the compile time condition was false. Unlike _Static_assert, the second parameter needs to be a proper token name so that a variable name can be created with it. If the assertion fails, the variable name is seen in the compiler error, since that variable was used in a syntactically incorrect array declaration.

#define STATIC_MSG(msg, l) STATIC_MSG2(msg, l)
#define STATIC_MSG2(msg,l) on_line_##l##__##msg
#define STATIC_ASSERT(x, msg) extern char STATIC_MSG(msg, __LINE__) [(x)?1:-1]
 
enum { N = 5 };
STATIC_ASSERT(N == 5, N_must_equal_5);
STATIC_ASSERT(N > 5, N_must_be_greater_than_5); /* compile error */

Before C99, you could not declare variables at arbitrary locations in a block, so you would have to be extremely cautious about using this macro, ensuring that it only appears where a variable declaration would be valid.

# Assert Error Messages

A trick exists that can display an error message along with an assertion. Normally, you would write code like this

void f(void *p)
{
    assert(p != NULL);
    /* more code */
}

If the assertion failed, an error message would resemble

Assertion failed: p != NULL, file main.c, line 5

However, you can use logical AND (&&) to give an error message as well

void f(void *p)
{
    assert(p != NULL && "function f: p cannot be NULL");
    /* more code */
}

Now, if the assertion fails, an error message will read something like this

Assertion failed: p != NULL && "function f: p cannot be NULL", file main.c, line 5

The reason as to why this works is that a string literal always evaluates to non-zero (true). Adding && 1 to a Boolean expression has no effect. Thus, adding && "error message" has no effect either, except that the compiler will display the entire expression that failed.

# Assertion of Unreachable Code

During development, when certain code paths must be prevented from the reach of control flow, you may use assert(0) to indicate that such a condition is erroneous:

switch (color) {
    case COLOR_RED:
    case COLOR_GREEN:
    case COLOR_BLUE:
        break;

    default:
        assert(0);
}

Whenever the argument of the assert() macro evaluates false, the macro will write diagnostic information to the standard error stream and then abort the program. This information includes the file and line number of the assert() statement and can be very helpful in debugging. Asserts can be disabled by defining the macro NDEBUG.

Another way to terminate a program when an error occurs are with the standard library functions exit, quick_exit or abort. exit and quick_exit take an argument that can be passed back to your environment. abort() (and thus assert) can be a really severe termination of your program, and certain cleanups that would otherwise be performed at the end of the execution, may not be performed.

The primary advantage of assert() is that it automatically prints debugging information. Calling abort() has the advantage that it cannot be disabled like an assert, but it may not cause any debugging information to be displayed. In some situations, using both constructs together may be beneficial:

if (color == COLOR_RED || color == COLOR_GREEN) {
   ...
} else if (color == COLOR_BLUE) {
   ...
} else {
   assert(0), abort();
}

When asserts are enabled, the assert() call will print debug information and terminate the program. Execution never reaches the abort() call. When asserts are disabled, the assert() call does nothing and abort() is called. This ensures that the program always terminates for this error condition; enabling and disabling asserts only effects whether or not debug output is printed.

You should never leave such an assert in production code, because the debug information is not helpful for end users and because abort is generally a much too severe termination that inhibit cleanup handlers that are installed for exit or quick_exit to run.

# Precondition and Postcondition

One use case for assertion is precondition and postcondition. This can be very useful to maintain invariant and design by contract. For a example a length is always zero or positive so this function must return a zero or positive value.

#include <stdio.h>
/* Uncomment to disable `assert()` */
/* #define NDEBUG */
#include <assert.h>

int length2 (int *a, int count)
{
    int i, result = 0;

    /* Precondition: */
    /* NULL is an invalid vector */
    assert (a != NULL);
    /* Number of dimensions can not be negative.*/ 
    assert (count >= 0);

    /* Calculation */
    for (i = 0; i < count; ++i) 
    {
        result = result + (a[i] * a[i]);
    }

    /* Postcondition: */
    /* Resulting length can not be negative. */
    assert (result >= 0);
    return result;
}

#define COUNT 3

int main (void)
{
    int a[COUNT] = {1, 2, 3};
    int *b = NULL;
    int r;
    r = length2 (a, COUNT);
    printf ("r = %i\n", r);
    r = length2 (b, COUNT);
    printf ("r = %i\n", r);
    return 0;
}

# Syntax

  • assert(expression)
  • static_assert(expression, message)
  • _Static_assert(expression, message)

# Parameters

Parameter Details
expression expression of scalar type.
message string literal to be included in the diagnostic message.

# Remarks

Both assert and static_assert are macros defined in assert.h.

The definition of assert depends on the macro NDEBUG which is not defined by the standard library. If NDEBUG is defined, assert is a no-op:

Opinion varies about whether NDEBUG should always be used for production compilations.

  • The pro-camp argues that assert calls abort and assertion messages are not helpful for end users, so the result is not helpful to user. If you have fatal conditions to check in production code you should use ordinary if/else conditions and exit or quick_exit to end the program. In contrast to abort, these allow the program to do some cleanup (via functions registered with atexit or at_quick_exit).
  • The con-camp argues that assert calls should never fire in production code, but if they do, the condition that is checked means there is something dramatically wrong and the program will misbehave worse if execution continues. Therefore, it is better to have the assertions active in production code because if they fire, hell has already broken loose.
  • Another option is to use a home-brew system of assertions which always perform the check but handle errors differently between development (where abort is appropriate) and production (where an 'unexpected internal error - please contact Technical Support' may be more appropriate).

static_assert expands to _Static_assert which is a keyword. The condition is checked at compile time, thus condition must be a constant expression. There is no need for this to be handled differently between development and production.