7.9 — For statements

By far, the most utilized loop statement in C++ is the for statement. The for statement (also called a for loop) is preferred when we have an obvious loop variable because it lets us easily and concisely define, initialize, test, and change the value of loop variables.

As of C++11, there are two different kinds of for loops. We’ll cover the classic for statement in this lesson, and the newer range-based for statement in a future lesson (6.3a -- For each loops) once we’ve covered some other prerequisite topics, such as arrays and iterators.

The for statement looks pretty simple in abstract:

for (init-statement; condition; end-expression)

The easiest way to initially understand how a for statement works is to convert it into an equivalent while statement:

{ // note the block here
    init-statement; // used to define variables used in the loop
    while (condition)
        end-expression; // used to modify the loop variable prior to reassessment of the condition
} // variables defined inside the loop go out of scope here

Evaluation of for statements

A for statement is evaluated in 3 parts:

First, the init-statement is executed. This only happens once when the loop is initiated. The init-statement is typically used for variable definition and initialization. These variables have “loop scope”, which really just a form of block scope where these variables exist from the point of definition through the end of the loop statement. In our while-loop equivalent, you can see that the init-statement is inside a block that contains the loop, so the variables defined in the init-statement go out of scope when the block containing the loop ends.

Second, for each loop iteration, the condition is evaluated. If this evaluates to true, the statement is executed. If this evaluates to false, the loop terminates and execution continues with the next statement beyond the loop.

Finally, after the statement is executed, the end-expression is evaluated. Typically, this expression is used to increment or decrement the loop variables defined in the init-statement. After the end-expression has been evaluated, execution returns to the second step (and the condition is evaluated again).

Let’s take a look at a sample for loop and discuss how it works:

First, we declare a loop variable named count, and initialize it with the value 1.

Second, count <= 10 is evaluated, and since count is 1, this evaluates to true. Consequently, the statement executes, which prints 1 and a space.

Finally, ++count is evaluated, which increments count to 2. Then the loop goes back to the second step.

Now, count <= 10 is evaluated again. Since count has value 2, this evaluates true, so the loop iterates again. The statement prints 2 and a space, and count is incremented to 3. The loop continues to iterate until eventually count is incremented to 11, at which point count <= 10 evaluates to false, and the loop exits.

Consequently, this program prints the result:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

For the sake of example, let's convert the above for loop into an equivalent while loop:

That doesn't look so bad, does it? Note that the outer braces are necessary here, because count goes out of scope when the loop ends.

For loops can be hard for new programmers to read -- however, experienced programmers love them because they are a very compact way to do loops with a counter, with all of the necessary information about the loop variables, loop conditions, and loop count modifiers are all presented up front. This helps reduce errors.

More for loop examples

Here's an example of a function that uses a for loop to calculate integer exponents:

This function returns the value base^exponent (base to the exponent power).

This is a straightforward incrementing for loop, with count looping from 0 up to (but excluding) exponent.

If exponent is 0, the for loop will execute 0 times, and the function will return 1.
If exponent is 1, the for loop will execute 1 time, and the function will return 1 * base.
If exponent is 2, the for loop will execute 2 times, and the function will return 1 * base * base.

Although most for loops increment the loop variable by 1, we can decrement it as well:

This prints the result:

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

Alternately, we can change the value of our loop variable by more than 1 with each iteration:

This prints the result:

9 7 5 3 1

Off-by-one errors

One of the biggest problems that new programmers have with for loops (and other loops that utilize counters) are off-by-one errors. Off-by-one errors occur when the loop iterates one too many or one too few times to produce the desired result.

Here's an example:

This program is supposed to print 1 2 3 4 5, but it only prints 1 2 3 4 because we used the wrong relational operator.

Although the most common cause for these errors is using the wrong relational operator, they can sometimes occur by using pre-increment or pre-decrement instead of post-increment or post-decrement, or vice-versa.

Omitted expressions

It is possible to write for loops that omit any or all of the statements or expressions. For example, in the following example, we'll omit the init-statement and end-expression, leaving only the condition:

This for loop produces the result:

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Rather than having the for loop do the initialization and incrementing, we've done it manually. We have done so purely for academic purposes in this example, but there are cases where not declaring a loop variable (because you already have one) or not incrementing it in the end-expression (because you're incrementing it some other way) are desired.

Although you do not see it very often, it is worth noting that the following example produces an infinite loop:

The above example is equivalent to:

This might be a little unexpected, as you'd probably expect an omitted condition-expression to be treated as false. However, the C++ standard explicitly (and inconsistently) defines that an omitted condition-expression in a for loop should be treated as true.

We recommend avoiding this form of the for loop altogether and using while(true) instead.

For loops with multiple counters

Although for loops typically iterate over only one variable, sometimes for loops need to work with multiple variables. To assist with this, the programmer can define multiple variables in the init-statement, and can make use of the comma operator to change the value of multiple variables in the end-expression:

This loop defines and initializes two new variables: x and y. It iterates x over the range 0 to 9, and after each iteration x is incremented and y is decremented.

This program produces the result:

0 9
1 8
2 7
3 6
4 5
5 4
6 3
7 2
8 1
9 0

This is about the only place in C++ where defining multiple variables in the same statement, and use of the comma operator is considered an acceptable practice.

Best practice

Defining multiple variables (in the init-statement) and using the comma operator (in the end-expression) is acceptable inside a for statement.

Nested for loops

Like other types of loops, for loops can be nested inside other loops. In the following example, we're nesting a for loop inside another for loop:

For each iteration of the outer loop, the inner loop runs in its entirety. Consequently, the output is:


Here's some more detail on what's happening here. The outer loop runs first, and char c is initialized to 'a'. Then c <= 'e' is evaluated, which is true, so the loop body executes. Since c is set to 'a', this first prints a. Next the inner loop executes entirely (which prints 0, 1, and 2). Then a newline is printed. Now the outer loop body is finished, so the outer loop returns to the top, c is incremented to 'b', and the loop condition is re-evaluated. Since the loop condition is still true the next iteration of the outer loop begins. This prints b012\n. And so on.


For statements are the most commonly used loop in the C++ language. Even though its syntax is typically a bit confusing to new programmers, you will see for loops so often that you will understand them in no time at all!

For statements excel when you have a counter variable. If you do not have a counter, a while statement is probably a better choice.

Best practice

Prefer for loops over while loops when there is an obvious loop variable.
Prefer while loops over for loops when there is no obvious loop variable.

Quiz time

Question #1

Write a for loop that prints every even number from 0 to 20.

Show Solution

Question #2

Write a function named sumTo() that takes an integer parameter named value, and returns the sum of all the numbers from 1 to value.

For example, sumTo(5) should return 15, which is 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5.

Hint: Use a non-loop variable to accumulate the sum as you iterate from 1 to the input value, much like the pow() example above uses the total variable to accumulate the return value each iteration.

Show Solution

Question #3

What's wrong with the following for loop?

Show Solution

7.10 -- Break and continue
7.8 -- Do while statements

71 comments to 7.9 — For statements

  • Mr D

    Ok, sorry, after re-reading the tutorial, you explained it, the first time the "for" statement runs in just evaulates to the initialized value(s), only the second time does it look beyond that.

  • Mr D

    Hi Alex,

    Sorry to be bugging you like every evening, but....
    ..... i can't get my head around quiz two.

    The "for" statement ends with "++count".
    So why doesn't it output "2" first time around? So, 2+3+4+5=14.
    Sorry for being a dumbass!

    • Alex

      Don't be so hard on yourself.

      The last statement of the for loop only executes AFTER the for loop executes.

      So the first time the for loop runs, count = 1. count <= value is true, so the loop executes. Total += count, so total = 1. Then ++count executes, and count is incremented to 2. Then we start again. cout <= value is true, so the loop executes again. Total += count, so total = 1. Then ++count executes, and count is incremented to 3. Repeat until ++count makes count equal to 6, at which point count <= value is false and the loop terminates. At that point, total has added 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 = 15.

  • Aryan

    Hey Alex!
    What would happen if I nested for loops?
        Like :

    It prints the result : 112233

    So I thought to find out from where to where the evaluation sequence starts and ends, and the results (i think) were stunning, it starts from the inside loop, if the j loop is false it goes straight to "cout<<i;" part! Then it goes straight to i loop (the outside loop) and back to j loop. Its all pretty fascinating.  So I am trying to make nested loop program that would print :
                 A           B
             A        B         C

    And also I tried adding this to the upper program : for (int j = i; j<=++i; ++j) and it printed : infinity! My laptop went ballistic and there was a rise of 4% CPU usage!

    • Alex

      I think you were misled by a faulty experiment: the "cout << i" statement should be inside the outer for loop:

      You'll see that the outside loop executes first. For each iteration of the outside loop, the inside loop executes in its entirety.

  • Aryan

    Hey Alex!
    I have never really thanked you for what you are doing here, but great job man! You are doing great here

    Just a small confusion (Still don't know how to use an apple debugger!), in the exponent example you wrote :

        I just want to know when was count identifier ever used outside loop, I mean how did the "total *= base" statement knew that if count is n times the base has to multiply itself by n times?

    Eg : if count = 0, so 0 < exponent(true), but where does count goes after that?

    • Alex

      For statements execute until the conditional is false. In this case, the conditional is "count < exponent". Count starts at 0, and increments by one each iteration of the loop, until it reaches the value of exponent (at which point the conditional is false and the loop exits). This means the loop will execute the same number of times as the value of variable exponent. Each time it executes, it will run the total *= base line of code. Thus, we execute the "total *= base" line of code a number of time equal to the value in variable exponent. Make sense?

  • lalit

    you missed out foreach loop.

    can you Include that as well in the tutorial.

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