C++: Simple Structs Usage

Similar to arrays, structs allow you to hold a group of data. structs allow you to group together related members that would be awkwardly expressed as multiple arrays (e.g., the x- and y-coordinates of a pixel or the name, address, and telephone number of a person) into one convenient unit.

Not only do structs group data, they're also easy to define and use.

Declaring a Struct

The example below shows the semantics of declaring a struct. Just replace whatever is inside of the <...> with the appropriate text.

struct <tag>
    <data-type> <member-name>;
    // more declarations...
};  // notice the semicolon

For example

  • <tag>: is the name of the struct, so Student
  • <data-type>: is the data type of the member (variable), so int
  • <member-name>: is the name of the member (variable), so id

Put it all together (plus some additional members) and we have

struct Student
    int id;             // Student's ID number
    std::string name;   // Student's name
    float gpa;          // Student's GPA
    int gradeLevel;     // Students current grade level (e.g., 11)

Notice how I left the tag (Student) capitalized? I like to do that so when I'm reading my code I can easily spot the declaration of a struct. This Student struct is basically a new data type and we can use it as such.

Defining a Struct Variable

It's no different defining a variable of type Student than it is of int or double. For example,

Student student;

We just declared a variable named student with the type of Student. Simple!

Initialization Lists

You can also use an initialization list to when defining a struct.

Student student = {5678, "A. Student", 4.0, 12};

You don't have to provide an initializer for each member of the struct, but you can't skip any either. That means that if you skip initializing one member then you must leave all of the members that follow it uninitialized as well.

Student stu1 = {6789, "Billy"}; // works
Student stu2 = {6789, 4.0, 12}; // does not work, skipped "name"

Using a Struct

We use the dot (.) operator to set and access the members of a struct like below

Student johnny;
johnny.id = 1234;
johnny.name = "Johnny B. Goode";
johnny.gpa = 1.1;
johnny.gradeLevel = 7;

// Student johnny = {1234, "Johnny B. Goode", 1.1, 7} // also works

std::cout << "ID:\t\t" << johnny.id << "\n"
          << "Name:\t\t" << johnny.name << "\n"
          << "GPA:\t\t" << johnny.gpa << "\n"
          << "Grade Level:\t" << johnny.gradeLevel << "\n";

After we compile and run this, the output will be

ID:             1234
Name:           Johnny B. Goode
GPA:            1.1
Grade Level:    7

This may seem like a lot of work, but its usefulness becomes immediately clear when we have multiple students.

Array of Structs

Instead of having to declare multiple arrays (or vectors) or variables we can declare an array (or vector) of type Student and use a loop to set or access the members of each element of the array (or vector). For example

// const int NUMBER_OF_STUDENTS = <pick a number>;
Student students[NUMBER_OF_STUDENTS];

// Set the member for each element of the array
for (int i = 0; i < NUMBER_OF_STUDENTS; i++)
    std::cout << "Enter student ID: ";
    std::cin >> students[i].id;

    std::cout << "Enter student name: ";
    std::getline(std::cin, students[i].name);

    std::cout << "Enter student GPA: ";
    std::cin >> students[i].gpa;

    std::cout << "Enter student grade level: ";
    std::cin >> students[i].gradeLevel;

    std::cout << std::endl;

// Print out the member for each element of the array
for (int i = 0; i < NUMBER_OF_STUDENTS; i++)
    std::cout << "Student #" << (i + 1) << "\n"
              << "ID:\t\t" << students[i].id << "\n"
              << "Name:\t\t" << students[i].name << "\n"
              << "GPA:\t\t" << students[i].gpa << "\n"
              << "Grade Level:\t" << students[i].gradeLevel << "\n";

    std::cout << std::endl;

Pointer to Structs

You define a pointer to a struct in the exact same way that you'd define a pointer to any other data type

Student* student;

Using a pointer to a struct is a little bit more involved. If you need to use a pointer to a struct then you have a couple of options with one of them being much easier and the preferred way.


I'm going to start with the awkward notation first. To dereference a pointer you use the star (*) operator just like any other pointer. However, if you want to access the member of a pointer to a struct you'd think that the * operator would be all that's necessary

std::cout << *student.name;

The above should print out the string that's at name, right? Wrong! You're actually trying to dereference student.name not student. The . operator has a higher precedence than * so you need to use parentheses to give the * higher precedence.

std::cout << (*student).name;

Now we'll print out the name. This is very awkward and can actually be confusing too. This is why the arrow notation is better.

Arrow Notation

Instead of using the clumsy dereferencing notation we're going to prefer using the arrow operator (->). As you'll see, it's very similar to the dot notation

std::cout << student->name;

This is much easier on the eyes.

Array Members

Structs can have an array as a member, but you have to take care of how you define them. Member arrays must have their lengths defined in the definition of the struct unless it's the last member of the struct [1]. For example,

// Will compile, flexible length member array declared
// as last member
struct Testing1
    int number;
    int numbers[];

// Won't compile, member array length not declared
struct Testing2
    int numbers[];
    int number;

// Will compile, member array length declared
struct Testing3
    int numbers[5];
    int number;

To use an array member, you use it just like any other array

Testing3 testing;
for (int i = 0; i < 5; i++)
    testing.numbers[i] = i;

Nested Structs

You can also have nested structs (one within another). This is done in the same manner that you'd define any other member. For example, we can create a new struct that holds a US address

struct Address
    std::string street;
    std::string city;
    int zipcode;
    std::string state;

and now we can update our Student struct to include the Address struct

struct Student
    int id;
    std::string name;
    float gpa;
    int gradeLevel;
    Address address

To access member struct, we use the dot notation twice

Student student;
student.address.street = "123 Fake St.";
student.address.city = "Springfield";
student.address.zipcode = 97475;
student.address.state = "OR";

Or, if we're using a pointer to a struct we use the arrow and dot operators together

Student* student;
student->address.street = "123 Fake St.";
student->address.city = "Springfield";
student->address.zipcode = 97475;
student->address.state = "OR";


We've learned what a struct is, what it's used for, and different ways of using structs. Now, go on and make use of this knowledge to create some great programs!


  1. Starting out with C++: From Control Structure Through Objects, 8th Edition
  2. Structures in C++ - Tutorial - Cprogramming.com