The Conditional Operators in C

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The conditional operators ? and : are sometimes called ternary operators since they take three arguments. In fact, they form a kind of foreshortened if-then-else. Their general form is,

expression 1 ? expression 2 : expression 3

What this expression says is: “if expression 1 is true (that is, if its value is non-zero), then the value returned will be expression 2,otherwise the value returned will be expression 3”. Let us understand this with the help of a few examples:


int x, y ;

scanf ( “%d”, &x ) ;

y = ( x > 5 ? 3 : 4 ) ;

This statement will store 3 in y if x is greater than 5, otherwise it will store 4 in y.

The equivalent if statement will be,

if ( x > 5 )

y = 3 ;


y = 4 ;



char a ;

int y ;

scanf ( “%c”, &a ) ;

y = ( a >= 65 && a <= 90 ? 1 : 0 ) ;

Here 1 would be assigned to y if a >=65 && a <=90 evaluates to true, otherwise 0 would be assigned.

Point to be Noted:

  • It’s not necessary that the conditional operators should be used only in arithmetic statements. This is illustrated in the following examples:


int i ;
scanf ( “%d”, &i ) ;
( i == 1 ? printf ( “Amit” ) : printf ( “All and sundry” ) ) ;


char a = ‘z’ ;
printf ( “%c” , ( a >= ‘a’ ? a : ‘!’ ) ) ;

  • The conditional operators can be nested as shown below.

int big, a, b, c ;

big = ( a > b ? ( a > c ? 3: 4 ) : ( b > c ? 6: 8 ) ) ;

  • Check out the following conditional expression:

a > b ? g = a : g = b ;

This will give you an error ‘Lvalue Required’. The error can be overcome by enclosing the statement in the : part within a pair of parenthesis. This is shown below:

a > b ? g = a : ( g = b ) ;

In absence of parentheses the compiler believes that b is being assigned to the result of the expression to the left of second =. Hence it reports an error.

The limitation of the conditional operators is that after the ? or after the : only one C statement can occur. In practice rarely is this the requirement. Therefore, in serious C programming conditional operators aren’t as frequently used as the if-else.


  • There are three ways for taking decisions in a program. First way is to use the if-else statement, second way is to use the conditional operators and third way is to use the switch
  • The default scope of the if statement is only the next statement. So, to execute more than one statement they must be written in a pair of braces.
  • An if block need not always be associated with an else block.However, an else block is always associated with an if statement.
  • If the outcome of an if-else ladder is only one of two answers then the ladder should be replaced either with an else-if clause or by logical operators.
  • && and || are binary operators, whereas, ! is a unary operator.
  • In C every test expression is evaluated in terms of zero and non-zero values. A zero value is considered to be false and a non-zero value is considered to be true.
  • Assignment statements used with conditional operators must be enclosed within a pair of parenthesis.


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