Published on

Problems of C, and how Zig addresses them

  • avatar
    Aryan Ebrahimpour
  •   16 min read

C is a low-level systems programming language with almost no abstraction over memory (so the memory management is all yours) and with minimal abstractions over assembly (yet expressive enough to support some general concepts like having a type system). It is also a very portable programming language, so when written correctly, it can run on your kitchen toaster even if it has some obscure architecture.

The characteristics of C make it a highly suitable language for its intended purposes. However, this does not imply that its design decisions are flawless by today's standards. In this blog post, we will discuss certain issues that have led to multiple attempts at creating alternative languages aimed at replacing C.

The Zig programming language has garnered considerable attention as a new systems programming language, positioning itself as the better C. But how does Zig achieve this? In this blog post, our aim is to examine some of the issues associated with C and explore how Zig intends to address them.

Table of Differences

Comptime over Textual Replacement Preprocessing

Replacing the text in the source code using preprocessors is not exclusive to C. It existed way before the creation of C and can be traced back to earlier examples such as the SAP assembler for IBM 704 computers. Below is an example of an AMD64 assembly snippet that defines a pushr macro and substitutes it with either push or pushf based on its argument:

%macro pushr 1
%ifidn %1, rflags
push %1

%define regname rcx

pushr rax
pushr rflags
pushr regname

C being a minimal abstraction over assembly adopted the same method to support macros, which can easily turn into a foot gun. As a small example:

#define SQUARE(x) x * x

int result = SQUARE(2 + 3)

One might expect this code to set the value of the result to square of (2 + 3) = (2 + 3)^2 = 25. However, due to the textual replacement nature of the SQUARE macro function, the expansion results in 2 + 3 * 2 + 3, which evaluates to 11, not 25.

To make this work correctly, it is crucial to ensure that all our macros are properly parenthesized:

#define SQUARE(x) ((x)*(x))

C will not tolerate such errors, nor will be kind enough to notify you about them. An error can show itself much later, on another input, in a completely irrelevant part of the program.

Zig, on the other hand, employs a much more intuitive approach for such tasks by introducing comptime parameters and functions. This enables us to execute functions during compile-time rather than runtime. Here's the same C SQUARE macro in Zig:

fn square(x: anytype) @TypeOf(x) {
    return x * x;

const result = comptime square(2 + 3); // result = 25, at compile-time

Another advantage of the Zig compiler is its ability to perform type checking on inputs, even if it is anytype. When calling the square function in Zig, if a type is used that does not support the * operator, it would result in a compile-time type error:

const result = comptime square("hello"); // compile time error: type mismatch

Comptime allows execution of any arbitrary code in compile time:

const std = @import("std");

fn fibonacci(index: u32) u32 {
    if (index < 2) return index;
    return fibonacci(index - 1) + fibonacci(index - 2);

pub fn main() void {
  const foo = comptime fibonacci(7);
  std.debug.print("{}", .{ foo });

This Zig program defines a fibonacci function and then calls the function at compile-time to set the value of foo. No fibonacci is called at runtime.

Zig's comptime evaluations can also cover some of the small C quirks: For instance, in a platform where the minimum signed value is -2^15=-32768 and the maximum value is (2^15)-1=32767, it is impossible to write the minimum value of the type signed as a literal constant in C.

signed x = -32768; // not possible in C

That is because in C -32768 is actually -1 * 32768 and 32768 is not in the boundaries of the signed type. In Zig, however, -1 * 32768 is a compile time evaluation.

const x: i16 = -1 * 32768; // Valid in Zig

Memory Management, and Zig Allocators

As I've previously mentioned, C has almost no abstraction over memory. This has pros and cons:

  • Pro: One has full control over memory and can do whatever one wants with it
  • Con: One has full control over memory and can do whatever one wants with it

With great power comes great responsibility. Mismanaging memory in a language like C with manual memory-management can have great security consequences. At best it can result in a denial of service, and at worst it can let an attacker to execute any arbitrary code. Many languages tried to reduce that responsibility by either imposing coding restrictions, or by erasing the entire question using a Garbage Collector. However, Zig adopts a different approach.

Zig offers several advantages simultaneously:

  • Manual Memory Management: You do you. Control over memory is in your hands. No coding restrictions as you see in Rust.
  • No hidden allocation: Nothing allocates on the heap, without you knowing it and letting it happen. Zig utilizes the Allocator type to achieve this. Any function that allocates on heap receives an Allocator as parameter. Anything that doesn't do so won't allocate on heap, guaranteed.
  • Safety tools to avoid memory leaks e.g. std.heap.GeneralPurposeAllocator

Zig doesn't limit you on the way you code as Rust does, helps your remain safe and avoid leaks, but still let you go full rogue as you can do in C. I personally think it might be a convenient middle ground.

const std = @import("std");

test "detect leak" {
    var list = std.ArrayList(u21).init(std.testing.allocator);
    // defer list.deinit(); <- this line is missing
    try list.append('☔');

    try std.testing.expect(list.items.len == 1);

The above Zig code utilized the built-in std.testing.allocator to initialize an ArrayList and lets you allocate and free, and test if you're leaking memory:

Note: Some paths are shortened with triple dots for more readability
$ zig test testing_detect_leak.zig
1/1 test.detect leak... OK
[gpa] (err): memory address 0x7f23a1c3c000 leaked:
.../lib/zig/std/array_list.zig:403:67: 0x21ef54 in ensureTotalCapacityPrecise (test)
                const new_memory = try self.allocator.alignedAlloc(T, alignment, new_capacity);
.../lib/zig/std/array_list.zig:379:51: 0x2158de in ensureTotalCapacity (test)
            return self.ensureTotalCapacityPrecise(better_capacity);
.../lib/zig/std/array_list.zig:426:41: 0x2130d7 in addOne (test)
            try self.ensureTotalCapacity(self.items.len + 1);
.../lib/zig/std/array_list.zig:207:49: 0x20ef2d in append (test)
            const new_item_ptr = try self.addOne();
.../testing_detect_leak.zig:6:20: 0x20ee52 in test.detect leak (test)
    try list.append('☔');
.../lib/zig/test_runner.zig:175:28: 0x21c758 in mainTerminal (test)
        } else test_fn.func();
.../lib/zig/test_runner.zig:35:28: 0x213967 in main (test)
        return mainTerminal();
.../lib/zig/std/start.zig:598:22: 0x20f4e5 in posixCallMainAndExit (test)

All 1 tests passed.
1 errors were logged.
1 tests leaked memory.
error: the following test command failed with exit code 1:

Billion dollar mistake vs Zig Optionals

This C code crashes abruptly, leaving you no clue other than a SIGSEGV about what the hell is going on:

struct MyStruct {
    int myField;

int main() {
    struct MyStruct* myStructPtr = NULL;
    int value;

    value = myStructPtr->myField;  // Accessing field of uninitialized struct

    printf("Value: %d\n", value);

    return 0;

On the other hand, Zig does not have any null references. It has Optional types instead denoted by a question mark at the beginning. You can assign null only to optional types, and you can only reference them when you have checked if they are not null using orelse keyword or simply via an if expression. You'll end up facing a compile error otherwise.

const Person = struct {
    age: u8

const maybe_p: Person = null; // compile error: expected type 'Person', found '@Type(.Null)'

const maybe_p: ?Person = null; // OK

std.debug.print("{}", { maybe_p.age }); // compile error: type '?Person' does not support field access

std.debug.print("{}", { (maybe_p orelse Person{ .age = 25 }).age }); // OK

if (maybe_p) |p| {
    std.debug.print("{}", { p.age }); // OK

Pointer arithmetics vs Zig Slices

In C, an address is represented as a numeric value, which allows developers to perform arithmetic operations on pointers. This feature enables C developers to access and modify arbitrary memory locations by manipulating addresses.

Pointer arithmetic is commonly used for tasks such as manipulating or accessing specific parts of an array or navigating through dynamically allocated memory blocks efficiently, without the need for copying. However, due to the unforgiving nature of C, pointer arithmetic can easily lead to issues such as segmentation faults or undefined behavior, making debugging a true pain in the arms.

Most of such issues can be fixed using Slices. Slices provide a safer and more intuitive way to manipulate and access arrays or sections of memory:

var arr = [_]u32{ 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 }; // 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
const slice1 = arr[1..5];             //    2, 3, 4, 5
const slice2 = slice1[1..3];          //       3, 4

Explicit memory alignment

Each type has an alignment number which defines the memory addresses that are considered legal for that type. Alignment is measured in bytes, and it ensures that the starting address of a variable is evenly divisible by the alignment value. For example:

  • The u8 type has the natural alignment of 1, meaning it can reside in any memory address.
  • The u16 type has the natural alignment of 2, meaning it can only reside in locations of memory with addresses that are evenly divisible by 2, such as 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, etc...
  • The u32 type has the natural alignment of 4, meaning it can only reside in locations of memory with addresses that are evenly divisible by 4, such as 0, 4, 8, 12, 16, etc...

The CPU enforces these alignment requirements. If a variable's type is not properly aligned, it can lead to program crashes such as segmentation faults or result in illegal instruction errors.

Now we are going to intentionally create a misaligned pointer to an unsigned int in the code below. This code will crash on runtime on most CPUs:

int main() {
    unsigned int* ptr;
    char* misaligned_ptr;

    char buffer[10];

    // Intentionally misalign the pointer so it won't be evenly divisible by 4
    misaligned_ptr = buffer + 3;

    ptr = (unsigned int*)misaligned_ptr;
    unsigned int value = *ptr;

    printf("Value: %u\n", value);

    return 0;

Working with low-level languages can brings its own challanges like managing the alignment of the memory. Making a mistake can cause a crash, and C won't help with that. How about Zig?

Let's write a similar code in Zig:

pub fn main() void {
    var buffer = [_]u8{ 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 };

    // Intentionally misalign the pointer so it won't be evenly divisible by 4
    var misaligned_ptr = &buffer[3];

    var ptr: *u32 = @ptrCast(*u32, misaligned_ptr);
    const value: u32 = ptr.*;

    std.debug.print("Value: {}\n", .{value});

If you compile the code above, Zig will complain and prevent compiling as there is an alignment issue:

.\main.zig:61:21: error: cast increases pointer alignment
    var ptr: *u32 = @ptrCast(*u32, misaligned_ptr);
.\main.zig:61:36: note: '*u8' has alignment 1
    var ptr: *u32 = @ptrCast(*u32, misaligned_ptr);
.\main.zig:61:30: note: '*u32' has alignment 4
    var ptr: *u32 = @ptrCast(*u32, misaligned_ptr);

Even if you try to fool zig with an explicit @alignCast, Zig will add a pointer alignment safety check to the generated code on safe build modes to make sure the pointer is aligned as promised. So if the alignment is wrong on runtime, it will panic with a message and a trace for you to have a clue where the problem is coming from. Something that C doesn't do for you:

pub fn main() void {
    var buffer = [_]u8{ 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 };

    // Intentionally misalign the pointer so it won't be evenly divisible by 4
    var misaligned_ptr = &buffer[3];

    var ptr: *u32 = @ptrCast(*u32, @alignCast(4, misaligned_ptr));
    const value: u32 = ptr.*;

    std.debug.print("Value: {}\n", .{value});
// Compiles OK

And on runtime you'll receive:

main.zig:61:50: 0x7ff6f16933bd in ain (main.obj)
    var ptr: *u32 = @ptrCast(*u32, @alignCast(4, misaligned_ptr));
...\zig\lib\std\start.zig:571:22: 0x7ff6f169248e in td.start.callMain (main.obj)
...\zig\lib\std\start.zig:349:65: 0x7ff6f1691d87 in td.start.WinStartup (main.obj);

Cool stuff!

Arrays as values

The semantics of C defines arrays to be always passed as references:

void f(int arr[100]) { ... } // passed by ref
void f(int arr[]) { ... }    // passed by ref

The solution in C is to create a wrapper struct and pass the struct instead:

struct ArrayWrapper
    int arr[SIZE];

void modify(struct ArrayWrapper temp) { // passed by value using a wrapper struct
    // ...

In Zig it just works:

fn foo(arr: [100]i32) void { // pass array by value

fn foo(arr: *[100]i32) void { // pass array by reference

Error handling

Many C APIs have the concept of error codes where the return value of a function represents either the success status or an integer indicating the specific error that occurred.

Zig uses the same method to handle errors, but improves upon this concept by capturing it in a more useful and expressive manner within the type system.

An error set in Zig is like an enum. However, each error name across the entire compilation gets assigned an unsigned integer greater than 0.

An error set type and a normal type can be combined with the ! operator to form an error union type (example: FileOpenError!u16). Values of these types may be an error value, or a value of the normal type.

const FileOpenError = error{

const maybe_error: FileOpenError!u16 = 10;
const no_error = maybe_error catch 0;

Zig does have try and catch keywords but they are unrelated to try and catch in other languages as Zig does not have exceptions.

try x is a shortcut for x catch |err| return err, and is commonly used in places where handling an error isn’t appropriate.

Overall, Zig's error handling mechanism is similar to C, but has the type system's support.

Everything is an expression

Coming from higher level languages to C, you might have missed features like this:

const firstName = "Tom";
const lastName = undefined;

const displayName = (() => {
    if(firstName && lastName)
        return `${firstName} ${lastName}`;
        return firstName;
        return lastName;
    return "(no name)";

The beauty of Zig is that you can behave Zig blocks as if they are expressions.

const result = if (x) a else b;

Or for a more complex example:

const firstName: ?*const [3:0]u8 = "Tom";
const lastName: ?*const [3:0]u8 = null;
var buf: [16]u8 = undefined;
const displayName = blk: {
    if (firstName != null and lastName != null) {
        const string = std.fmt.bufPrint(&buf, "{s} {s}", .{ firstName, lastName }) catch unreachable;
        break :blk string;
    if (firstName != null) break :blk firstName;
    if (lastName != null) break :blk lastName;
    break :blk "(no name)";

Every block can have a label like :blk and break from that block with break blk: to return a value.

C has a more complex syntax to deal with

Look at this C type:

char * const (*(* const bar)[5])(int)

This declares bar as a constant pointer to the array 5 of the pointer to the function (int) returning a constant pointer to char. Whatever that means.

There are even tools like which helps you read C types and humanizes them for you. I am pretty sure it might not be that challenging for practical C developers out there to deal with such types. Some people are blessed with such abilities to be able to read the language of gods. But for a simple man like me who rather keep things stupid simple, Zig types are easier to read and maintain.


In this blog post, we have discussed some of the issues with C that have led people to seek or create alternatives for this relic of the past.

Zig, in summary, tackles these problems by:

  • Zig Comptimes
  • Zig Allocators
  • Zig Optionals
  • Zig Slices
  • Zig Explicit Alignment
  • Zig Arrays
  • Zig error types
  • Zig expressions


Thanks to my friend Thomas for technically reviewing this blog post.


These are some of the references used to write this article:

  • Gustedt, J. (2019). Modern C. Manning.
  • Zhirkov, I. (2017). Low-Level Programming: C, Assembly, and Program Execution on Intel x86-64 Architecture. Apress.
  • Zig Language Reference. [Online].
  • Zig Learn. [Online].