Controlling Side-Effects

As most programming languages do, C allows side-effects in expressions. This leads to subtle issues about conflicting side-effects, when sub-expressions of the same expression read/write the same variable.

Preventing Undefined Behavior

It is a case of undefined behavior in C to have conflicting side-effects, which is defined in C Standard section 6.5 as follows:

"Between two sequence points, an object is modified more than once, or is modified and the prior value is read other than to determine the value to be stored"

If you understood the above sentence, you're probably a member of the C Standard committee. Otherwise, the notion of sequence points is summarized in Annex C of the C90 and C99 standards. MISRA-C repeats these conditions in the Amplification of Rule 13.2, including the read of volatile variables as side-effects similar to writing a variable.

This rule is undecidable, so MISRA-C completes it with two rules that provide simpler restrictions preventing some side-effects in expressions, thus reducing the potential for undefined behavior:

  • MISRA-C Rule 13.3 states that "A full expression containing an increment (++) or decrement (--) operator should have no other potential side effects other than that caused by the increment or decrement operator".
  • MISRA-C Rule 13.4 states that "The result of an assignment operator should not be used".

In practice, conflicting side-effects usually manifest themselves as portability issues, as the result of the evaluation of an expression depends on the order in which a compiler decides to evaluate its sub-expressions. So changing the compiler version or the target platform might lead to a different behavior of the application.

This is precisely to reduce the dependency on evaluation order that MISRA-C Rule 13.1 states that "Initializer lists shall not contain persistent side-effects". This case is theoretically different from the previously mentioned conflicting side-effects, because initializers that compose an initializer list are separated by sequence points, so there is no risk of undefined behavior if two initializers have conflicting side-effects. But given that initializers are executed in an unspecified order, the result of a conflict is potentially as damaging for the application.

Reducing Programmer Confusion

Even in cases where there are no undefined or unspecified behavior, it may be confusing for programmers to have expressions with multiple side-effects, in particular with increment/decrement operators in C that can be applied prior to or after the evaluation, or with assignment operator in C that can easily be confused for the equality operator. Thus MISRA-C forbids the use of increment/decrement (Rule 13.3) or assignment (Rule 13.4) operators in expressions that have other potential side-effects.

In other cases, the presence of expressions with side-effects might be deceiving, if the programmer wrongly thinks that the side-effects are guaranteed to happen. Consider the function decrease_until_one_is_null below, which decreases both arguments until one is null:

#include <stdio.h>

void decrease_until_one_is_null (int *x, int *y) {
   if (x == 0 || y == 0) {
   while (--*x != 0 && --*y != 0) {
      // nothing

int main() {
   int x = 42, y = 42;
   decrease_until_one_is_null (&x, &y);
   printf("x = %d, y = %d\n", x, y);
   return 0;

Starting from the same value 42 for both x and y, we see that only x has reached the value zero after decrease_until_one_is_null returns. The reason is that the side effect on y is performed only conditionally. To avoid such surprises, MISRA-C Rule 13.5 states that "The right hand operand of a logical && or || operator shall not contain persistent side-effects", which forbids the code above.

MISRA-C Rule 13.6 similarly states that "The operand of the sizeof operator shall not contain any expression which has potential side-effects". Indeed, the operand of sizeof is evaluated in very rare occasions, and only according to C99 rules, which makes any side-effect in such an operand a likely mistake.

Control of Side-Effects in SPARK

In SPARK, expressions cannot have side-effects. Only statements can. In particular, there are no increment/decrement operators, and no assignment operator. There is instead an assignment statement using token := to clearly distinguish it from an equality using token = which itself cannot appear as a statement anyway. Here is how X is assigned, incremented and decremented:

X := 1;
X := X + 1;
X := X - 1;

There are two possible side-effects when evaluating an expression:

  • a read of a volatile variable
  • a side-effect occurring inside a function called

Reads of volatile variables in SPARK are restricted to appear immediately at statement level, so its's not allowed to write:

package Volatile_Read is X : Integer with Volatile; procedure P (Y : out Integer); end Volatile_Read;
package body Volatile_Read is procedure P (Y : out Integer) is begin Y := X - X; end P; end Volatile_Read;

Instead, every read of a volatile variable must occur immediately before being assigned to another variable, as follows:

package Volatile_Read is X : Integer with Volatile; procedure P (Y : out Integer); end Volatile_Read;
package body Volatile_Read is procedure P (Y : out Integer) is X1 : Integer := X; X2 : Integer := X; begin Y := X1 - X2; end P; end Volatile_Read;

Note here that the order of capture of the volatile value of X might be significant. For example, X might denote a quantity which only increases, like clock time, so that the above expression X1 - X2 would always be negative or null.

Even more significantly, functions in SPARK cannot have side-effects. Only procedures can. The only effect of SPARK functions is the computation of a result from their inputs, passed both as parameters or as global variables. In particular, SPARK functions cannot have output parameters:

function Bad_Function (X, Y : Integer; Sum, Max : out Integer) return Boolean;

More generally, it is not possible to write functions that have a side-effect in addition to returning their result, as is typical of many idioms in other languages, for example when setting a new value and returning the previous one:

package Bad_Functions is function Set (V : Integer) return Integer; function Get return Integer; end Bad_Functions;
package body Bad_Functions is Value : Integer := 0; function Set (V : Integer) return Integer is Previous : constant Integer := Value; begin Value := V; return Previous; end Set; function Get return Integer is (Value); end Bad_Functions;

GNATprove computes that function Set has a side-effect on global variable Value and issues an error. The correct idiom in SPARK for such a case is to use a procedure with an output parameter to return the desired result:

package Ok_Functions is procedure Set (V : Integer; Prev : out Integer); function Get return Integer; end Ok_Functions;
package body Ok_Functions is Value : Integer := 0; procedure Set (V : Integer; Prev : out Integer) is begin Prev := Value; Value := V; end Set; function Get return Integer is (Value); end Ok_Functions;

With the above restrictions in SPARK, none of the conflicts of side-effects that can occur in C can occur in SPARK, as guaranteed by flow analysis.