MIN and MAX in C

The Question :

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Where are MIN and MAX defined in C, if at all?

What is the best way to implement these, as generically and type safely as possible? (Compiler extensions/builtins for mainstream compilers preferred.)

The Question Comments :

The Answer 1

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Where are MIN and MAX defined in C, if at all?

They aren’t.

What is the best way to implement these, as generically and type safe as possible (compiler extensions/builtins for mainstream compilers preferred).

As functions. I wouldn’t use macros like #define MIN(X, Y) (((X) < (Y)) ? (X) : (Y)), especially if you plan to deploy your code. Either write your own, use something like standard fmax or fmin, or fix the macro using GCC’s typeof (you get typesafety bonus too) in a GCC statement expression:

 #define max(a,b) \
   ({ __typeof__ (a) _a = (a); \
       __typeof__ (b) _b = (b); \
     _a > _b ? _a : _b; })

Everyone says “oh I know about double evaluation, it’s no problem” and a few months down the road, you’ll be debugging the silliest problems for hours on end.

Note the use of __typeof__ instead of typeof:

If you are writing a header file that must work when included in ISO C programs, write __typeof__ instead of typeof.

The Answer 2

96 people think this answer is useful

It’s also provided in the GNU libc (Linux) and FreeBSD versions of sys/param.h, and has the definition provided by dreamlax.

On Debian:

$ uname -sr
Linux 2.6.11

$ cat /etc/debian_version

$ egrep 'MIN\(|MAX\(' /usr/include/sys/param.h
#define MIN(a,b) (((a)<(b))?(a):(b))
#define MAX(a,b) (((a)>(b))?(a):(b))

$ head -n 2 /usr/include/sys/param.h | grep GNU
This file is part of the GNU C Library.

On FreeBSD:

$ uname -sr

$ egrep 'MIN\(|MAX\(' /usr/include/sys/param.h
#define MIN(a,b) (((a)<(b))?(a):(b))
#define MAX(a,b) (((a)>(b))?(a):(b))

The source repositories are here:

The Answer 3

81 people think this answer is useful

There’s a std::min and std::max in C++, but AFAIK, there’s no equivalent in the C standard library. You can define them yourself with macros like

#define MAX(x, y) (((x) > (y)) ? (x) : (y))
#define MIN(x, y) (((x) < (y)) ? (x) : (y))

But this causes problems if you write something like MAX(++a, ++b).

The Answer 4

25 people think this answer is useful

Avoid non-standard compiler extensions and implement it as a completely type-safe macro in pure standard C (ISO 9899:2011).


#define GENERIC_MAX(x, y) ((x) > (y) ? (x) : (y))

#define ENSURE_int(i)   _Generic((i), int:   (i))
#define ENSURE_float(f) _Generic((f), float: (f))

#define MAX(type, x, y) \
  (type)GENERIC_MAX(ENSURE_##type(x), ENSURE_##type(y))


MAX(int, 2, 3)


The macro MAX creates another macro based on the type parameter. This control macro, if implemented for the given type, is used to check that both parameters are of the correct type. If the type is not supported, there will be a compiler error.

If either x or y is not of the correct type, there will be a compiler error in the ENSURE_ macros. More such macros can be added if more types are supported. I’ve assumed that only arithmetic types (integers, floats, pointers etc) will be used and not structs or arrays etc.

If all types are correct, the GENERIC_MAX macro will be called. Extra parenthesis are needed around each macro parameter, as the usual standard precaution when writing C macros.

Then there’s the usual problems with implicit type promotions in C. The ?:operator balances the 2nd and 3rd operand against each other. For example, the result of GENERIC_MAX(my_char1, my_char2) would be an int. To prevent the macro from doing such potentially dangerous type promotions, a final type cast to the intended type was used.


We want both parameters to the macro to be of the same type. If one of them is of a different type, the macro is no longer type safe, because an operator like ?: will yield implicit type promotions. And because it does, we also always need to cast the final result back to the intended type as explained above.

A macro with just one parameter could have been written in a much simpler way. But with 2 or more parameters, there is a need to include an extra type parameter. Because something like this is unfortunately impossible:

// this won't work
#define MAX(x, y)                                  \
  _Generic((x),                                    \
           int: GENERIC_MAX(x, ENSURE_int(y))      \
           float: GENERIC_MAX(x, ENSURE_float(y))  \

The problem is that if the above macro is called as MAX(1, 2) with two int, it will still try to macro-expand all possible scenarios of the _Generic association list. So the ENSURE_float macro will get expanded too, even though it isn’t relevant for int. And since that macro intentionally only contains the float type, the code won’t compile.

To solve this, I created the macro name during the pre-processor phase instead, with the ## operator, so that no macro gets accidentally expanded.


#include <stdio.h>

#define GENERIC_MAX(x, y) ((x) > (y) ? (x) : (y))

#define ENSURE_int(i)   _Generic((i), int:   (i))
#define ENSURE_float(f) _Generic((f), float: (f))

#define MAX(type, x, y) \
  (type)GENERIC_MAX(ENSURE_##type(x), ENSURE_##type(y))

int main (void)
  int    ia = 1,    ib = 2;
  float  fa = 3.0f, fb = 4.0f;
  double da = 5.0,  db = 6.0;

  printf("%d\n", MAX(int,   ia, ib)); // ok
  printf("%f\n", MAX(float, fa, fb)); // ok

//printf("%d\n", MAX(int,   ia, fa));  compiler error, one of the types is wrong
//printf("%f\n", MAX(float, fa, ib));  compiler error, one of the types is wrong
//printf("%f\n", MAX(double, fa, fb)); compiler error, the specified type is wrong
//printf("%f\n", MAX(float, da, db));  compiler error, one of the types is wrong

//printf("%d\n", MAX(unsigned int, ia, ib)); // wont get away with this either
//printf("%d\n", MAX(int32_t, ia, ib)); // wont get away with this either
  return 0;

The Answer 5

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This is a late answer, due to a fairly recent development. Since the OP accepted the answer that relies on a non-portable GCC (and clang) extension typeof – or __typeof__ for ‘clean’ ISO C – there’s a better solution available as of gcc-4.9.

#define max(x,y) ( \
    { __auto_type __x = (x); __auto_type __y = (y); \
      __x > __y ? __x : __y; })

The obvious benefit of this extension is that each macro argument is only expanded once, unlike the __typeof__ solution.

__auto_type is a limited form of C++11’s auto. It cannot (or should not?) be used in C++ code, though there’s no good reason not to use the superior type inference capabilities of auto when using C++11.

That said, I assume there are no issues using this syntax when the macro is included in an extern "C" { ... } scope; e.g., from a C header. AFAIK, this extension has not found its way info clang

The Answer 6

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I don’t think that they are standardised macros. There are standardised functions for floating point already, fmax and fmin (and fmaxf for floats, and fmaxl for long doubles).

You can implement them as macros as long as you are aware of the issues of side-effects/double-evaluation.

#define MAX(a,b) ((a) > (b) ? a : b)
#define MIN(a,b) ((a) < (b) ? a : b)

In most cases, you can leave it to the compiler to determine what you’re trying to do and optimise it as best it can. While this causes problems when used like MAX(i++, j++), I doubt there is ever much need in checking the maximum of incremented values in one go. Increment first, then check.

The Answer 7

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@David Titarenco nailed it here, but let me at least clean it up a bit to make it look nice, and show both min() and max() together to make copying and pasting from here easier. 🙂

Update 25 Apr. 2020: I’ve also added a Section 3 to show how this would be done with C++ templates too, as a valuable comparison for those learning both C and C++, or transitioning from one to the other. I’ve done my best to be thorough and factual and correct to make this answer a canonical reference I can come back to again and again, and I hope you find it as useful as I do.

1. The old C macro way:

This technique is commonly used, well-respected by those who know how to use it properly, the “de facto” way of doing things, and fine to use if used properly, but buggy (think: double-evaluation side effect) if you ever pass expressions including variable assignment in to compare:

#define MAX(a,b) ((a) > (b) ? (a) : (b))
#define MIN(a,b) ((a) < (b) ? (a) : (b))

2. The new and improved gcc “statement expression” way:

This technique avoids the above “double-evaluation” side effects and bugs, and is therefore considered the superior, safer, and “more modern” GCC C way to do this. Expect it to work with both the gcc and clang compilers, since clang is, by design, gcc-compatible (see the clang note at the bottom of this answer).

BUT: DO watch out for “variable shadowing” effects still, as statement expressions are apparently inlined and therefore do NOT have their own local variable scope!

#define max(a,b)             \
({                           \
    __typeof__ (a) _a = (a); \
    __typeof__ (b) _b = (b); \
    _a > _b ? _a : _b;       \

#define min(a,b)             \
({                           \
    __typeof__ (a) _a = (a); \
    __typeof__ (b) _b = (b); \
    _a < _b ? _a : _b;       \

Note that in gcc statement expressions, the last expression in the code block is what is “returned” from the expression, as though it was returned from a function. GCC’s documentation says it this way:

The last thing in the compound statement should be an expression followed by a semicolon; the value of this subexpression serves as the value of the entire construct. (If you use some other kind of statement last within the braces, the construct has type void, and thus effectively no value.)

3. The C++ template way:

C++ Note: if using C++, templates are probably recommended for this type of construct instead, but I personally dislike templates and would probably use one of the above constructs in C++ anyway, as I frequently use and prefer C styles in embedded C++ as well.

This section added 25 Apr. 2020:

I’ve been doing a ton of C++ the past few months, and the pressure to prefer templates over macros, where able, in the C++ community is quite strong. As a result, I’ve been getting better at using templates, and want to put in the C++ template versions here for completeness and to make this a more canonical and thorough answer.

Here’s what basic function template versions of max() and min() might look like in C++:

template <typename T>
T max(T a, T b)
    return a > b ? a : b;

template <typename T>
T min(T a, T b)
    return a < b ? a : b;

Do additional reading about C++ templates here: Wikipedia: Template (C++).

However, both max() and min() are already part of the C++ standard library, in the <algorithm> header (#include <algorithm>). In the C++ standard library they are defined slightly differently than I have them above. The default prototypes for std::max<>() and std::min<>(), for instance, in C++14, looking at their prototypes in the cplusplus.com links just above, are:

template <class T> 
constexpr const T&amp; max(const T&amp; a, const T&amp; b);

template <class T> 
constexpr const T&amp; min(const T&amp; a, const T&amp; b);

Note that the keyword typename is an alias to class (so their usage is identical whether you say <typename T> or <class T>), since it was later acknowledged after the invention of C++ templates, that the template type might be a regular type (int, float, etc.) instead of only a class type.

Here you can see that both of the input types, as well as the return type, are const T&, which means “constant reference to type T“. This means the input parameters and return value are passed by reference instead of passed by value. This is like passing by pointers, and is more efficient for large types, such as class objects. The constexpr part of the function modifies the function itself and indicates that the function must be capable of being evaluated at compile-time (at least if provided constexpr input parameters), but if it cannot be evaluated at compile-time, then it defaults back to a run-time evaluation, like any other normal function.

The compile-time aspect of a constexpr C++ function makes it kind-of C-macro-like, in that if compile-time evaluation is possible for a constexpr function, it will be done at compile-time, same as a MIN() or MAX() macro substitution could possibly be fully evaluated at compile-time in C or C++ too. For additional references for this C++ template info, see below.


  1. https://gcc.gnu.org/onlinedocs/gcc/Typeof.html#Typeof
  2. https://gcc.gnu.org/onlinedocs/gcc/Statement-Exprs.html#Statement-Exprs
  3. MIN and MAX in C
  4. Additional C++ template references added Apr. 2020:
    1. *****Wikipedia: Template (C++) <– GREAT additional info about C++ templates!
    2. (My own question & answer): Why is `constexpr` part of the C++14 template prototype for `std::max()`?
    3. Difference between `constexpr` and `const`

Clang note from Wikipedia:

[Clang] is designed to act as a drop-in replacement for the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC), supporting most of its compilation flags and unofficial language extensions.

The Answer 8

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I wrote this version that works for MSVC, GCC, C, and C++.

#if defined(__cplusplus) &amp;&amp; !defined(__GNUC__)
#   include <algorithm>
#   define MIN std::min
#   define MAX std::max
//#   define TMIN(T, a, b) std::min<T>(a, b)
//#   define TMAX(T, a, b) std::max<T>(a, b)
#       define _CHOOSE2(binoper, lexpr, lvar, rexpr, rvar) \
                ({ \
                        decltype(lexpr) lvar = (lexpr); \
                        decltype(rexpr) rvar = (rexpr); \
                        lvar binoper rvar ? lvar : rvar; \
#       define _CHOOSE_VAR2(prefix, unique) prefix##unique
#       define _CHOOSE_VAR(prefix, unique) _CHOOSE_VAR2(prefix, unique)
#       define _CHOOSE(binoper, lexpr, rexpr) \
                _CHOOSE2( \
                        binoper, \
                        lexpr, _CHOOSE_VAR(_left, __COUNTER__), \
                        rexpr, _CHOOSE_VAR(_right, __COUNTER__) \
#       define MIN(a, b) _CHOOSE(<, a, b)
#       define MAX(a, b) _CHOOSE(>, a, b)

The Answer 9

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If you need min/max in order to avoid an expensive branch, you shouldn’t use the ternary operator, as it will compile down to a jump. The link below describes a useful method for implementing a min/max function without branching.


The Answer 10

5 people think this answer is useful

It’s worth pointing out I think that if you define min and max with the ternary operation such as

#define MIN(a,b) (((a)<(b))?(a):(b))
#define MAX(a,b) (((a)>(b))?(a):(b))

then to get the same result for the special case of fmin(-0.0,0.0) and fmax(-0.0,0.0) you need to swap the arguments

fmax(a,b) = MAX(a,b)
fmin(a,b) = MIN(b,a)

The Answer 11

4 people think this answer is useful

Looks like Windef.h (a la #include <windows.h>) has max and min (lower case) macros, that also suffer from the “double evaluation” difficulty, but they’re there for those that don’t want to re-roll their own 🙂

The Answer 12

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I know the guy said “C”… But if you have the chance, use a C++ template:

template<class T> T min(T a, T b) { return a < b ? a : b; }

Type safe, and no problems with the ++ mentioned in other comments.

The Answer 13

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The maximum of two integers a and b is (int)(0.5((a+b)+abs(a-b))). This may also work with (double) and fabs(a-b) for doubles (similar for floats)

The Answer 14

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The simplest way is to define it as a global function in a .h file, and call it whenever you want, if your program is modular with lots of files. If not, double MIN(a,b){return (a<b?a:b)} is the simplest way.

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