This article was updated on July 25 2022. It has been modified to include the most recent and relevant information and sources, and has been reviewed by our editorial team for clarity.
The C programming language was originally developed for and implemented on the UNIX operating system by Dennis Ritchie. The C language, which is quite simple, is not tied to any particular hardware or system. This makes it easier for a user to write programs that will run without many (or any) changes on practically all machines.
The C language is often called a middle-level computer language as it combines the elements of high-level languages with the functionalism of assembly language. C programming allows the manipulation of bits, bytes, and addresses—giving the programmer more control over exactly how the program will behave and more direct access to the mechanics of the underlying hardware.
C was created, influenced, and field-tested by working programmers. As such, C gives programmers what programmers want.
C++ is an enhanced version of C. C++ includes all aspects of C and adds support for object-oriented programming (OOP). C++ also contains many improvements and features that make it a “better C,” independent of OOP.
The C++ language is extensible: We can define new types in such a way that they act like the predefined types, which are part of the standard language.
If you just use C++ as a better C, you will not be using all of its power. Like any quality tool, C++ must be used the way it was designed to exploit its richness. Some of the new features include encapsulation, inline function calls, overloading operators, inheritance, and polymorphism.
Reasons to Learn C and C++ Programming
C and C++ are still two of the most popular programming languages. The syntax and concepts of C, in particular, have stood the test of time. They have been incorporated into other popular programming languages, including the most modern ones, such as Go.
Even if you intend to focus on building web applications or fancy web front-end components, learning C will help you understand how software and hardware interact.
C and C++ are everywhere.
C, in particular, powers a lot more technology than we give it credit for.
On the other hand, some of your favorite software—possibly even the browser you are using now—is built on C++. Knowing C is a good base, but in many cases, software development will require you to learn C++ and its paradigms.
If you want to develop software that needs to make the most out of a computer’s performance and capabilities—high-end desktop games, sophisticated productivity tools, or complex computationally intensive programs, for instance—or if you just want programming languages that let you interact with a computer’s hardware directly, C and C++ are the languages for you.
So, why would you not want to learn C++ or C? Twenty-five years ago, you might have had to invest in a proprietary compiler to get started.
Today, you can learn C++ free.
How to Get Started With C and C++ Programming
To get started with C or C++, you will want a compiler—although nowadays you can also learn C online by experimenting with “hello world” C projects in-browser.
Compilers are programs that can be run through command-line interfaces (CLIs). They read the entire program and convert it into object code, which is a translation of the program source code into a form that the computer can execute directly.
To make life easier, you can go for full-fledged IDEs that can make your experience with C or C++ even more pleasant.
There are a lot of good compilers available on Windows.
On Windows, Visual Studio provides a C++ compiler.
The compiler can also build C programs.
Visual Studio comes with its own powerful, feature-rich IDE, making it a sensible choice for anyone getting started with C or C++, or someone primarily targeting the Windows platform.
Clang, too, is now a formidable choice on Windows—it’s used to build Google Chrome.
Other cross-platform IDEs, such as Eclipse CDT, JetBrains CLion, and NetBeans, provide fully functional C and C++ development environments. Lately, however, these are being overshadowed by Visual Studio Code, which is also available for Linux and Mac environments.
If you are on Linux, you probably have GCC installed as a part of your distribution. If not, installing it is a matter of a single command:
# Ubuntu sudo apt-get install build-essential # Fedora sudo yum install gcc gcc-c++ # Arch Linux sudo pacman -S base-devel
The Codeblocks IDE and Eclipse CDT work as well on Linux as they do on Windows.
On a Mac, you can use Clang or GCC—both are available for free. While GCC has support for a wider range of C and C++ standards, Clang will work fine in most cases.
Clang should already be installed.
You can install GCC using Homebrew:
brew install gcc
You can use Xcode, a great IDE that is a part of the Mac OS developer tools.
The Best Tutorials for Learning C and C++
Tutorials are a great way to get started with a new programming language, even if you are not very familiar with programming itself. The best C++ and C tutorials will teach you the most important concepts.
This comprehensive C programming online course is great for beginners. It starts with the basics of C and programming in general, and covers advanced topics, such as dynamic memory allocation and file management.
If you are already familiar with C and want to dip your toes in C++, this two-part course is perfect for you. This course highlights the differences between the languages and shows you how to make the most out of C++.
If you want to start with the basics of C++ and learn it from ground up, Pluralsight has just the tutorial for you. It was created for those who want to be more efficient with C++.
This C programming online course is beginner-friendly and perfect for anyone who wants to get started with C on any of the three popular platforms (Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X).
This course is for anyone who has basic computer knowledge but wants to get into the realm of programming. Arguably, it’s the best way to learn C++ as your first language. Also, if you find game development interesting, this is a good first course to take.
Once you are content with your basic C++ programming skills and ready to move on to the real deal, you’ll want an advanced tutorial like this one. It covers polymorphism, templates, exception handling, streams, containers, algorithms, stacks, and much more.
Sometimes all you need is a rich list of questions and answers that you can consult to address your problems.
This web-based tutorial is intended for advanced C programmers (or Perl or Java programmers—any language considered to have a “C-like grammar”) who want to transition to C++. It continues where C ends—such as at pointers, memory allocation, and compound types—which makes it a very good C++ programming guide.
As you write more elaborate programs while you learn C++ programming, you may soon run into maintainability issues. Style guides from veteran C++ programmers will come in handy. This style guide is maintained by Google.
Can I Learn C and C++ by Reading Books?
Books are a great way to learn about programming languages in great detail. With a lot of explanations about how intricate functionalities of a programming language work, knowledge from a good book on C or C++ can give you the upper hand while using these languages for your projects.
While this book does include a small introduction to C, it’s better suited as a second book if you are just getting started. This book provides tips, techniques, examples, and practical advice that will allow advanced developers to maximize their capabilities.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part describes C in the strictest sense of the term, the second describes the standard library, and the third describes the process of compiling and testing programs with the tools in the popular GNU software collection.
C in a Nutshell is the perfect companion to The C Programming Language by Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie (aka K&R).
This is the second edition of the original Kernighan and Ritchie text.
It’s commonly referred to as the New Testament, as it includes the modifications incorporated by the ANSI standard while retaining the nature of the first edition.
The book assumes that the reader has some basic programming knowledge. So if you’re just starting to program and C is your first language, this might not be the ideal book for you. However, you might find these condensed notes worthwhile.
This is one of the best ways to get an introduction to C programming and a must-have—especially if you’re starting a collection of programming books.
Bjarne Stroustrup is the designer of C++ and has written many great books on the language.
This book is divided into three parts. The first part provides a tutorial introduction to C++ programming, the second presents a distillation of design and software development issues that arise when using C++, and the third is a complete reference.
With the popularity of C++, several independent distributors of the language have emerged but the book presents “pure C++”; that is, it does not use implementation-dependent extensions.
One of the best ways to learn a programming language is by writing small programs relevant to the item you study. There are exercises at the end of each chapter to apply your newly acquired knowledge.
Building large software with C++ takes design and discipline. If you are serious about C++, this book is a must-read.
It’s an expert’s guide for the design of effective classes, functions, templates, and inheritance hierarchies. The book also discusses how C++ differs from other languages and how to do things “the C++ way.”
If you’re already experienced with C++ but want to test drive its more recent standards, read this book. You will be surprised how much C++ has evolved. The book details how to make the most effective use of the newer capabilities in C++. (Even though the C++ standard is now C++17, C++14 is still cutting-edge in many project contexts.)
Effective STL: 50 Specific Ways to Improve Your Use of the Standard Template Library by Scott Meyers
One of the most amazing aspects of C++ is its Standard Template Library (STL). It’s one of the most powerful features and it can be quite complex. This book provides 50 awesome tips and more than 100 algorithms that explore different areas of the STL, making the library more approachable for developers just getting started with C++.
C++ Primer is a great book and will make learning C++ fun. While it is one of the best C++ books available, it assumes a lot of familiarity with programming concepts and a proficiency in C.
The latest edition is excellent for programmers who want to get the most out of new and advanced features.
This book contains answers to ~500 questions on programming, design, analysis, and testing. It’s not for beginners—it’s for programmers who have figured out the syntax of the language and want to implement them.
If you have questions like “What is a class invariant?”, “How should I use exceptions?”, and “What happens when a destructor is executed?”, this is the book for you.
Further Reading on the Toptal Engineering Blog:
Understanding the basics
C programming is using the language known as C to write source code, which is then compiled into programs. C is older than C++ and still a very popular language for software development in various contexts.
Everyone's learning style is different, but some amount of "learning by doing" is probably wise. Nowadays, you can get started by trying out simple C programs within your web browser. There are also numerous video courses, free tutorials, books, and communities to help you determine how you learn best.
There are many differences (and similarities too). C is the older of the two languages. Java compiles to "bytecode" meant to be read by a virtual machine on any platform, rather than to native machine code like C (yet both are portable to some degree). Java is object-oriented and garbage-collected. C is lower-level than Java.
If you ask 10 programmers, you'll get at least 10 answers. It depends on your background and your goals. However, C/C++ have been around a very long time and continue to be among the top languages in use. "Best" claims notwithstanding, it's definitely worthwhile to learn C or C++.
The biggest difference is that C++ supports object-oriented programming.
Bjarne Stroustrup of Bell Labs started developing C++ in 1979, but it wasn't until 1998 that it was formally standardized by ISO. ISO continues to release standards, the latest of which is C++20. The next planned standard is C++23.
The C language is still widely used for operating systems, web browsers, office software, video games, and hardware drivers, among applications. Since it compiles to native machine code, it's often used in cases where performance is critical.