Do you really understand #include?

The #include directive is used in C programming to include the contents of a header file into the source code during the compilation process. This is a fundamental mechanism for organizing code into modular components and reusing code across multiple source files. Let's take a detailed look at the #include directive with a larger example:

Suppose we have three files:

  1. main.c: The main source file where the program starts.

     // main.c
     #include <stdio.h>
     #include "math_operations.h" // Include our custom header file
     int main() {
         int a = 10, b = 5;
         printf("Sum: %d\n", add(a, b));
         printf("Difference: %d\n", subtract(a, b));
         return 0;
  2. math_operations.h: A custom header file that declares functions for mathematical operations.

     // math_operations.h
     #ifndef MATH_OPERATIONS_H
     #define MATH_OPERATIONS_H
     int add(int a, int b);
     int subtract(int a, int b);
     #endif // MATH_OPERATIONS_H
  3. math_operations.c: The implementation of the functions declared in math_operations.h.

     // math_operations.c
     #include "math_operations.h"
     int add(int a, int b) {
         return a + b;
     int subtract(int a, int b) {
         return a - b;

Now, let's break down how the #include directive works in this example:

  • main.c:

    • The #include <stdio.h> includes the standard input/output library, which provides functions like printf.

    • The #include "math_operations.h" includes the custom header file math_operations.h. This allows the main.c file to use the functions declared in math_operations.h without needing to know their implementations.

  • math_operations.h:

    • The #ifndef, #define, and #endif lines are used for header guards. They prevent the header file from being included multiple times in the same compilation unit, which helps avoid redefinition errors.

    • The file declares two functions add and subtract without providing their implementations. This is the interface that other files can use.

  • math_operations.c:

    • The #include "math_operations.h" line includes the same header file that was included in main.c. This ensures that the function declarations in math_operations.h match the actual implementations in this file.

    • The file provides the implementations for the add and subtract functions.

When you compile the program, you typically compile all source files together. For example:

gcc main.c math_operations.c -o my_program

This compilation command tells the compiler to compile both main.c and math_operations.c together, linking them into the executable my_program. The #include directives facilitate the organization of code into separate files and enable code reuse, making the program more modular and maintainable.