C Language Operators

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An operator in a programming language is a symbol that tells the compiler or interpreter to perform a specific mathematical, relational or logical operation and produce a final result.

C has many powerful operators. Many C operators are binary operators, which means they have two operands. For example, in a / b, / is a binary operator that accepts two operands (a, b). There are some unary operators which take one operand (for example: ~, ++), and only one ternary operator ? :.


  • expr1 operator
  • operator expr2
  • expr1 operator expr2
  • expr1 ? expr2 : expr3


Operators have an arity, a precedence and an associativity.

  • Arity indicates the number of operands. In C, three different operator arities exist:

    • Unary (1 operand)
    • Binary (2 operands)
    • Ternary (3 operands)
  • Precedence indicates which operators "bind" first to their operands. That is, which operator has priority to operate on its operands. For instance, the C language obeys the convention that multiplication and division have precedence over addition and subtraction:

    a * b + c

    Gives the same result as

    (a * b) + c

    If this is not what was wanted, precedence can be forced using parentheses, because they have the highest precedence of all operators.

    a * (b + c)

    This new expression will produce a result that differs from the previous two expressions.

    The C language has many precedence levels; A table is given below of all operators, in descending order of precedence.

    Precedence Table

    () [] -> .left to right
    ! ~ ++ -- + - * (dereference) (type) sizeofright to left
    * (multiplication) / %left to right
    + -left to right
    << >>left to right
    < <= > >=left to right
    == !=left to right
    &left to right
    ^left to right
    |left to right
    &&left to right
    ||left to right
    ?:right to left
    = += -= *= /= %= &= ^= |= <<= >>=right to left
    ,left to right
  • Associativity indicates how equal-precedence operators binds by default, and there are two kinds: Left-to-Right and Right-to-Left. An example of Left-to-Right binding is the subtraction operator (-). The expression

    a - b - c - d

    has three identical-precedence subtractions, but gives the same result as

    ((a - b) - c) - d

    because the left-most - binds first to its two operands.

    An example of Right-to-Left associativity are the dereference * and post-increment ++ operators. Both have equal precedence, so if they are used in an expression such as

    * ptr ++

    , this is equivalent to

    * (ptr ++)

    because the rightmost, unary operator (++) binds first to its single operand.

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