Friday, Jan 19th

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Explain Unions

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A union is a variable type that can contain many different variables (like a structure), but only actually holds one of them at a time (not like a structure). This can save memory if you have a group of data where only one of the types is used at a time. The size of a union is equal to the size of it's largest data member. The C compiler allocates just enough space for the largest member. This is because only one member can be used at a time, so the size of the largest, is the most you will need. Here is an example:


	union person

	{

	   int age;

	   char name[100];

	}person1;

	

 The union above could be used to either store the age or it could be used to hold the name of the person. There are cases when you would want one or the other, but not both (This is a bad example, but you get the point). To access the fields of a union, use the dot operator(.) just as you would for a structure. When a value is assigned to one member, the other member(s) get whipped out since they share the same memory. Using the example above, the precise time can be accessed like this:

	person1.age;

	

 In larger programs it may be difficult to keep track of which field is the currently used field. This is usually handled by using another variable to keep track of that. For example, you might use an integer called field. When field equals one, the age is used. If field is two, then name is used. The C compiler does no more than work out what the biggest member in a union can be and allocates enough storage (appropriately aligned if neccessary). In particular, no checking is done to make sure that the right sort of use is made of the members. That is your task, and you'll soon find out if you get it wrong. The members of a union all start at the same address?there is guaranteed to be no padding in front of any of them.

ANSI Standard C allows an initializer for the first member of a union. There is no standard way of initializing any other member (nor, under a pre-ANSI compiler, is there generally any way of initializing a union at all).

It is because of unions that structures cannot be compared for equality. The possibility that a structure might contain a union makes it hard to compare such structures; the compiler can't tell what the union currently contains and so wouldn't know how to compare the structures. This sounds a bit hard to swallow and isn't 100% true, most structures don't contain unions, but there is also a philosophical issue at stake about just what is meant by "equality" when applied to structures. Anyhow, the union business gives the Standard a good excuse to avoid the issue by not supporting structure comparison.
argaiv1077

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