I've written a function to parse configuration files. It doesn't handle file opening, but instead takes an array with the file contents and tries to find fields based on an array containing the fields' names. If found, it puts the content into its respective place.

The only rules it has so far are:

  • each field is delimited by a newline '\n'
  • case doesn't matter for the field's name
  • after a field's name has been found, leading spaces and tabs are irrelevant and discarded
  • lines containing unrecognized fields are ignored
  • the character separating the field's name and its respective content must be specified in the field's name

Example file:


Here's an example call:

char *configuration = load_file(file_name);
char *field1;
char *field2;
char *field3;
char *field4;
char *field5;

static const char *fields[] = {
        "FIELD 1:",
        "FIELD 2:",
        "FIELD 3:",
        "FIELD 4:",
        "FIELD 5:",
    char **destinations[] = {

    //Parse and load fields
    parse(destinations, fields, configuration);

And the function:

//strings allocated must be freed by the caller
static void parse(char ***destinations, const char **fields, const char *source)
    char buffer[BUFFER_SIZE];
    int i, j, buffer_position;

    while(*source != '\0')
        for(i = 0; fields[i] != 0; ++i)
            //check if first character match, case insensitive
            if(*fields[i] == *source || inverse_case(*fields[i]) == *source)
                //check if subsequent characters match
                for(j = 0; fields[i][j] != '\0'; ++j)
                    if(fields[i][j] != source[j] && inverse_case(fields[i][j]) != source[j]) break;

                //it's not the right field, look for another
                if(fields[i][j] != '\0') continue;

                //found, update pointer position
                source += j;

                //skip leading spaces and tabs
                while(*source == ' ' || *source == '\t') ++source;

                //collect content
                for(buffer_position = 0; *source != '\n' && buffer_position < BUFFER_SIZE - 1; ++buffer_position, ++source)
                    buffer[buffer_position] = *source;
                buffer[buffer_position] = '\0';

                //if it's an empty line, nothing to copy
                if(buffer_position > 0)
                    //allocate memory for destination and copy
                    if((*destinations[i] = malloc(buffer_position + 1)) != 0)
                        COPY(*destinations[i], buffer);

                    //if there's an error on malloc(), we just skip the field and notify the user
                        printf("Error: malloc(%d)\n", buffer_position + 1);

                //since we found a field that matches, no need to keep looking
                //break the for loop, skip the while and process next line
                goto next_iteration;
        //no matches for the current line just skip it entirely
        while(*++source && *source != '\n');


My questions:

  • Would it be considered better if the line delimiter was defined by the caller?
  • By adding the options to not ignore spaces and tabs, and set case sensitivity on/off, would the parameter list be considered too big?
  • \$\begingroup\$ IT would be a better idea to use an existing file format (such as json) and use that. It would be better to read from the stream and match dynamically rather than have to read the whole file into memory. SAX verses DOM model. \$\endgroup\$ – Martin York Oct 21 '13 at 10:16

I'll only address C programming issues in this answer, not the algorithm itself.

Program design and programming practice

  • As a rule of thumb, there is never a reason to use more than two levels of indirection in C programming. More levels than that always originates from flawed program design. In your case, you are allocating an array of pointers to char. So it should be char* destinations[].

  • Because of the above reason, the function should be changed to

    static void parse (char **destinations, const char **fields, const char *source)

    or if you would prefer:

    static void parse (char**       destinations, 
                       const char** fields, 
                       const char*  source)
  • It is bad practice to allocate memory in a different module than the one doing the allocation. If parse() does memory allocation, then a function located in the same module should handle the cleanup, not the caller. I would advise to create a function called parse_cleanup() or similar, which does this.

  • The function parse is performing a parsing algorithm. The function shouldn't concern itself with anything else but that. Dynamic memory allocation is completely unrelated to the task "parsing". Consider splitting the code in two sub-functions: one which handles the algorithm and one for the memory allocation.

  • Your loop control is made needlessly complex. You control the iteration from no less than 5 places: outer while loop, first for loop, continue statement, goto statement. This is spaghetti code and needs to be rewritten from scratch.

    • You don't need nested loops at all. Throughout the iteration, you will have to constantly check for \0, as any string can end anywhere. You can merge the while and for into a single while. That will also mean that you can remove the goto.

    • Instead of having one big super loop that does a lot of things, consider writing a simple loop that calls upon various functions. Try to avoid break if possible, and always avoid continue and goto, as the latter two are completely superfluous language features that many programmers consider hard to read.

  • Consider to add some error handling to the function. Parsers in particular usually have many things that can go wrong. Then it is nice for the caller to have detailed error information.

  • Investigate if you can't use the standard functions isblank(), isspace() and toupper() from ctype.h, rather than your own custom ones.

Coding style (these remarks are more subjective and not everyone will agree)

  • Always write statements on a line of their own and always use braces. This makes the code easier to read and prevent bugs during code maintenance. For example:

    while(*source == ' ' || *source == '\t')
  • The above is especially important in the case of while(*++source && *source != '\n');, because there you can't tell whether the programmer intentionally wrote an empty loop, or if they accidentally wrote a ; at the end of the line, which is a very common, classic bug. It is far better to write:

    {} // this means: "yes, I did intend this loop to be empty"
  • Never use the ++ operator in the same expression as other operators, it can easily lead to undefined behavior bugs such as the classic i = i + i++; bug. But it is also harder to read. Mixing ++ with other operators is pointless anyhow, since it doesn't affect performance or the final machine code in any way. One example of how to rewrite it:

    } while (*source != '\0' && *source != '\n');

    (And of course the check for \0 should be explicit like in this example - that is good practice and you do it everywhere else in your code.)

  • Avoid assignment inside conditions. Just as with the ++ operator, it can lead to bugs, and there is never a reason to have assignment inside conditions, it is another 100% superfluous feature of the language.

    Most compilers will warn against assignment inside conditions, so it is annoying to have it there. You should not disable such warnings, because they will find the bug x=y where you intended to have x==y.

    Furthermore, in the case of if((*destinations[i] = malloc(buffer_position + 1)) != 0), did you actually intend to set the contents to NULL if allocation fails? It may or may not be better to leave the pointer alone in that case. Your function call documentation must mention which applies.

  • It is good practice to compare against NULL rather than 0 when dealing with pointers, to show the reader that you did intend to compare a pointer and not an integer value.

  • If you heed my advice to never use ++ together with other operators, then the need for either prefix ++ or postfix ++ is gone: they turn completely equivalent. Ask yourself if you are using prefix ++ for a particular reason. Because people who do think they have a reason, tend to either name something based on superstition or something about how compilers were designed in the 80s.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the comprehensive answer. The pointer is set to NULL on purpose when malloc() fails. It's not meant to be a general parser, I guess the function name should be changed. I have a function load_settings() that uses this one to fill a structure and another function close_settings() that cleans up. I'm checking if the structure is correctly filled on load_settings() and notifying the caller from there. Do you mind posting what you consider to be the correct solution for this task so I can understand better your points? \$\endgroup\$ – 2013Asker Oct 22 '13 at 5:08

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