Accessing an array out of bounds gives no error, why?

Welcome to every C/C++ programmer’s bestest friend: Undefined Behavior.

There is a lot that is not specified by the language standard, for a variety of reasons. This is one of them.

In general, whenever you encounter undefined behavior, anything might happen. The application may crash, it may freeze, it may eject your CD-ROM drive or make demons come out of your nose. It may format your harddrive or email all your porn to your grandmother.

It may even, if you are really unlucky, appear to work correctly.

The language simply says what should happen if you access the elements within the bounds of an array. It is left undefined what happens if you go out of bounds. It might seem to work today, on your compiler, but it is not legal C or C++, and there is no guarantee that it’ll still work the next time you run the program. Or that it hasn’t overwritten essential data even now, and you just haven’t encountered the problems, that it is going to cause — yet.

As for why there is no bounds checking, there are a couple aspects to the answer:

  • An array is a leftover from C. C arrays are about as primitive as you can get. Just a sequence of elements with contiguous addresses. There is no bounds checking because it is simply exposing raw memory. Implementing a robust bounds-checking mechanism would have been almost impossible in C.
  • In C++, bounds-checking is possible on class types. But an array is still the plain old C-compatible one. It is not a class. Further, C++ is also built on another rule which makes bounds-checking non-ideal. The C++ guiding principle is “you don’t pay for what you don’t use”. If your code is correct, you don’t need bounds-checking, and you shouldn’t be forced to pay for the overhead of runtime bounds-checking.
  • So C++ offers the std::vector class template, which allows both. operator[] is designed to be efficient. The language standard does not require that it performs bounds checking (although it does not forbid it either). A vector also has the at() member function which is guaranteed to perform bounds-checking. So in C++, you get the best of both worlds if you use a vector. You get array-like performance without bounds-checking, and you get the ability to use bounds-checked access when you want it.

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