How do functions work in C?

Functions in C are blocks of code that perform specific tasks and can be called from other parts of a program. They allow for code reuse, better organization, and more manageable code. Here's a detailed look at how functions work in C, including their use of the stack, recursion, and other details.

Basic Structure of a Function

A function in C typically has the following structure:

return_type function_name(parameter_list) {
    // body of the function
    // ...
    return value; // if return_type is not void
  • return_type: The data type of the value the function returns. If the function does not return a value, this is specified as void.

  • function_name: The name of the function, which is used to call it.

  • parameter_list: A list of parameters the function accepts, which are used within the function. If the function takes no parameters, this can be left empty or specified with void.

Sample Function:

#include <stdio.h>

// Function declaration
int add(int a, int b);

int main() {
    int sum = add(5, 3);
    printf("Sum is: %d\n", sum);
    return 0;

// Function definition
int add(int a, int b) {
    return a + b;

Use of the Stack

When a function is called in C, the program uses a region of memory known as the stack to store function parameters, local variables, and the return address (where the program should continue after the function returns).

Here's what happens when a function is called:

  1. The return address and possibly some CPU registers are pushed onto the stack.

  2. Function parameters are placed on the stack (or passed through registers, depending on the calling convention).

  3. The function's local variables are allocated on the stack.

  4. The function executes. When it's ready to return, it may place its return value in a designated register or on the stack, depending on the return type and calling convention.

  5. The stack is cleaned up: local variables are removed, and the return address is popped off the stack, so the CPU knows where to continue executing the main program.


Recursion occurs when a function calls itself. Each recursive call gets its own separate space on the stack for parameters and local variables.

Sample Recursive Function (Factorial):

#include <stdio.h>

// Recursive function to calculate factorial
unsigned long long factorial(unsigned int n) {
    if (n == 0) {
        return 1; // Base case
    } else {
        return n * factorial(n - 1); // Recursive case

int main() {
    unsigned int number = 5;
    printf("Factorial of %u is %llu\n", number, factorial(number));
    return 0;

When to Use Functions

Functions are used to:

  • Organize code into logical blocks.

  • Reuse code without rewriting it.

  • Simplify complex problems into smaller, manageable pieces.

  • Implement recursive algorithms.

  • Hide implementation details from the rest of the program (encapsulation).

Best Practices

  • Functions should be designed to perform a single, well-defined task.

  • The function name should clearly indicate what the function does.

  • Parameters should be used to pass data into a function, and the return value should be used to pass data out.

  • Global variables should be avoided when possible, as they can make the code harder to understand and maintain.

Functions are a fundamental part of C programming, and understanding how they work, including their use of the stack and recursion, is crucial for writing effective C code.