C is an imperative language

The C language (or any programming language) can be characterized from many different perspectives. One property of the C language is being an imperative language.

imperative vs declarative

C is an imperative (buyurgan in Turkish) language. As programmers, we explicitly control the state or flow of the program by writing statements [1]. Writing in C is similar to giving orders to a computer. Codes in C++ and Python are also usually written imperatively. The opposite is declarative (bildirimsel in Turkish). When we are programming with declarative languages, we describe what should be done, but not how. With declarative languages, we do not control the flow of the program explicitly.

The following code may be a part of a C program.


if (x > 20) {
  y = 5;
} else

As you can see, we explicitly control the flow of the program by an if statement and give orders by calling functions foo() and bar() and somehow modify the program state by changing the value of y. Depending on the result of the comparison of x by 20, the flow of the program takes a different direction. Each line tells the computer what to do explicitly.

a declarative example

The following SQL code (query) fetches data from Users table which is stored in a database.

SELECT * FROM Users WHERE username='admin' AND pass='admin' ORDER BY id DESC LIMIT 1;

Unlike C, in that case, we describe what we want but not how the database engine should work to satisfy our query. We want a single row from the table Users where both username and password are admin and if multiple users are found, the user with the highest id is returned. Did we implement the sorting algorithm used to sort entries? No! We don’t care about the exact operations and flow executed by the database engine, we only care about the result. But while programming in C, we must give orders and control the flow.

computer architecture and imperative programming

The imperative programming paradigm is the natural way of computer programming. The basics of computer and processor architectures haven’t changed too much since the beginning of the microprocessor era. Almost all processors work by executing orders (instructions) sequentially. Some instructions (branch instructions) change the flow that the processor follows. From that perspective, programming in C is very parallel to programming in assembly language, only at a slightly higher level.

Programs coded in a declarative language run on the same processors. There is no different processor to run SQL code or a procedural language. The difference between these two paradigms comes from the perspective that a programmer sees the computer. Of course, the database engine executing SQL codes runs similar instructions on the processor as a C program. The engine itself could be programmed in an imperative language, like C. In general, if you use a declarative language, computer architecture becomes more abstract to you compared to programming in an imperative language. This doesn’t have to be necessarily a good or a bad thing. As always, it depends on your needs…

functional programming

The functional programming paradigm is a subset of the declarative programming paradigm. There are purely functional languages like Haskell. Nowadays, most modern programming languages like Python or C++ have some tools that allow us to program in a functional programming fashion (like lambda functions).


💡 A programming language does not have to be in either category. Most programming languages are multi-paradigm languages supporting both paradigms more or less.


Notice that a language may support programming in both imperative and declarative fashion. For example, in Python or C++, one can program in both paradigms [2]. But of course, C is an imperative language.

Unlike many modern languages, C does not support the declarative programming paradigm inherently. It is possible to add some declarative programming features to C with 3rd party libraries. However, extending a language with 3rd party libraries doesn’t change its paradigm or category. The key point is that the features should be native to that language.