Data type

Data type

In computer programming, a data type is a classification identifying one of various types of data, such as floating-point, integer, or Boolean, that determines the possible values for that type; the operations that can be done on values of that type; the meaning of the data; and the way values of that type can be stored.[1][2] Data types are used within type systems, which offer various ways of defining, implementing and using them. Different type systems ensure varying degrees of type safety. Formally, a type can be defined as "..any property of a programme we can determine without executing the program".[3]



Almost all programming languages explicitly include the notion of data type, though different languages may use different terminology. Common data types may include:

For example, in the Java programming language, the "int" type represents the set of 32-bit integers ranging in value from -2,147,483,648 to 2,147,483,647, as well as the operations that can be performed on integers, such as addition, subtraction, and multiplication. Colors, on the other hand, are represented by three bytes denoting the amounts each of red, green, and blue, and one string representing that color's name; allowable operations include addition and subtraction, but not multiplication.

Most programming languages also allow the programmer to define additional data types, usually by combining multiple elements of other types and defining the valid operations of the new data type. For example, a programmer might create a new data type named "complex number" that would include real and imaginary parts. A data type also represents a constraint placed upon the interpretation of data in a type system, describing representation, interpretation and structure of values or objects stored in computer memory. The type system uses data type information to check correctness of computer programs that access or manipulate the data.

Classes of data types

Machine data types

All data in computers based on digital electronics is represented as bits (alternatives 0 and 1) on the lowest level. The smallest addressable unit of data is usually a group of bits called a byte (usually an octet, which is 8 bits). The unit processed by machine code instructions is called a word (as of 2011, typically 32 or 64 bits). Most instructions interpret the word as a binary number, such that a 32-bit word can represent unsigned integer values from 0 to 232 − 1 or signed integer values from − 231 to 231 − 1. Because of two's complement, the machine language and machine doesn't need to distinguish between these unsigned and signed data types for the most part.

There is a specific set of arithmetic instructions that use a different interpretation of the bits in word as a floating-point number.

Machine data types need to be exposed or made available in systems or low-level programming languages, allowing fine-grained control over hardware. The C programming language, for instance, supplies integer types of various widths, such as short and long. If a corresponding native type does not exist on the target platform, the compiler will break them down into code using types that do exist. For instance, if a 32-bit integer is requested on a 16 bit platform, the compiler will tacitly treat it as an array of two 16 bit integers.

Several languages allow binary and hexadecimal literals, for convenient manipulation of machine data.

In higher level programming, machine data types are often hidden or abstracted as am implementation detail that would render code less portable if exposed. For instance, a generic numeric type might be supplied instead of integers of some specific bit-width.

The boolean type

The Boolean type represents the values: true and false. Although only two values are possible, they are rarely implemented as as single binary digit for efficiency reasons. Many programming language do not have an explicit boolean type, instead interpreting (for instance) 0 as false and other values as true.

Numeric types

Such as:-

  • The integer data types, or "whole numbers". May be subtyped according to their ability to contain negative values (eg. unsigned in C and C++). May also have a small number of predefined subtypes (such as short and long in C/C++); or allow users to freely define subranges such as 1..12 (eg. PASCAL/ADA).
  • Floating point data types, sometimes misleadingly called reals, contain fractional values. They usually have predefined limits on both their maximum values and their precision.
  • Fixed point data types are convenient for representing monetary values. They are often implemented internally as integers, leading to predefined limits.
  • Bignum or arbitrary precision numeric types lack predefined limits. They are not primitive types, and are used sparingly used for efficiency reasons.

String and text types

Such as

  • Alphanumeric character. A letter of the alphabet, digit, blank space, punctuation mark, etc.
  • Alphanumeric strings, a sequence of characters. They are typically used to represent words and text.

Character and string types can store sequences of characters from a character set such as ASCII. Since most character sets include the digits, it is possible to have a numeric string, such as "1234". However, many languages would still treat these as belonging to a different type to the numeric value 1234.

Character and string types can have different subtypes according to the required character "width". The original 7-bit wide ASCII was found to be limited, and superseded by 8 and 16-bit sets, which can encode a wide variety of non-latin alphabets (Hebrew, Chinese) and other symbols. Strings may be either stretch-to-fit or of fixed size, even in the same programming language. They may also be subtyped by their maximum size.

Note: strings are not primitive in all languages, for instance C: they may be composed from arrays of characters.


The enumerated type. This has values which are different from each other, and which can be compared an assigned, but which do not necessarily have any particular concrete representation in the computer's memory; compilers and interpreters can represent them arbitrarily. For example, the four suits in a deck of playing cards may be four enumerators named CLUB, DIAMOND, HEART, SPADE, belonging to an enumerated type named suit. If a variable V is declared having suit as its data type, one can assign any of those four values to it. Some implementations allow programmers to assign integer values to the enumeration values, or even treat them as type-equivalent to integers.

Derived types

Types can be based on, or derived from, the basic types explained above.

In some language, such as C, functions have a type derived from the type of their return value.

Pointers and references

The main non-composite, derived type is the pointer, a data type whose value refers directly to (or "points to") another value stored elsewhere in the computer memory using its address. It is a primitive kind of reference. (In everyday terms, a page number in a book could be considered a piece of data that refers to another one). Pointers are often stored in a format similar to an integer; however, attempting to dereference or "look up" a pointer whose value was never a valid memory address would cause a programme to crash. To ameliorate this potential problem, pointers are considered a separate type to the type of data they point to, even if the underlying representation is the same.

Composite types

Composite types are derived from more than one primitive type. This can be done in a number of ways. The ways they are combined are called data structures. Composing a primitive type into a compound type generally results in a new type, eg. array-of-integer is a different type to integer.

  • An array stores a number of elements of the same type in a specific order. They are accessed using an integer to specify which element is required (although the elements may be of almost any type). Arrays may be fixed-length or expandable.
  • Record (also called tuple or struct) Records are among the simplest data structures. A record is a value that contains other values, typically in fixed number and sequence and typically indexed by names. The elements of records are usually called fields or members.
  • Union. A union type definition will specify which of a number of permitted primitive types may be stored in its instances, eg "float or long integer". Contrast with a record, which could be defined to contain a float and an integer; whereas, in a union, there is only one value at a time.
  • A tagged union (also called a variant, variant record, discriminated union, or disjoint union) contains an additional field indicating its current type, for enhanced type safety.
  • A set is an abstract data structure that can store certain values, without any particular order, and no repeated values. Values themselves are not retrieved from sets, rather one tests a value for membership to obtain a boolean "in" or "not in".
  • An object contains a number of data fields, like a record, and also a number of programme code fragments for accessing or modifying them. Data structures not containing code, like those above, are called plain old data structure.

Many others are possible, but they tend to be further variations and compounds of the above.

Abstract types

Any type that does not specify an implementation is an Abstract data type. For instance, a stack (which is an abstract type) can be implemented as an array (a contiguous block of memory containing multiple values), or as a linked list (a set of non-contiguous memory blocks linked by pointers).

Abstract types can be handled by code that does not know or "care" what underlying types are contained in them. Programming that is agnostic about concrete data types is called generic programming. Arrays and records can also contain underlying types, but are considered concrete because they specify how their contents or elements are laid out in memory.

Examples include:-

  • A smart pointer is the abstract counterpart to a pointer. Both are kinds of reference
  • A hash or dictionary or map or Map/Associative array/Dictionary is a more flexible variation on a record, in which name-value pairs can be added and deleted freely.
  • A queue is a first-in first-out list. Variations are Deque and Priority queue.
  • A set can store certain values, without any particular order, and with no repeated values.
  • A stack is a first-in, last-out list.
  • A tree is a hierarchical structure.
  • A graph.

Utility types

For convenience, high-level languages may supply ready-made "real world" data types, for instance times, dates and monetary values, even where the language allows them to be built from primitive types.

Type systems

A type system associates types with each computed value. By examining the flow of these values, a type system attempts to prove that no type errors can occur. The type system in question determines what constitutes a type error, but a type system generally seeks to guarantee that operations expecting a certain kind of value are not used with values for which that operation does not make sense.

A compiler may use the static type of a value to optimize the storage it needs and the choice of algorithms for operations on the value. In many C compilers the float data type, for example, is represented in 32 bits, in accord with the IEEE specification for single-precision floating point numbers. They will thus use floating-point-specific microprocessor operations on those values (floating-point addition, multiplication, etc.).

The depth of type constraints and the manner of their evaluation affect the typing of the language. A programming language may further associate an operation with varying concrete algorithms on each type in the case of type polymorphism. Type theory is the study of type systems, although the concrete type systems of programming languages originate from practical issues of computer architecture, compiler implementation, and language design.

Type systems may be variously static or dynamic, strong or weak typing, and so forth.

See also



  1. ^ <
  2. ^ Shaffer, C.A. Data Structures and Algorthms, 1.2
  3. ^ Programming Languages: Application and Interpretation, Shriram Krishnamurthi, Brown University

Further reading

  • Luca Cardelli, Peter Wegner. On Understanding Types, Data Abstraction, and Polymorphism, [1] from Computing Surveys, (December, 1985)
  • Various Data Types in C

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