Consider the prototypes of C's dynamic allocation functions

malloc - void* malloc(size_t size);

calloc -  void* calloc(size_t n,size);

realloc - void* realloc(void* ptr,size_t newsize);

Now a statement like following

int* p=(int*)malloc(sizeof(int));

I know that casting to (int*) isn't needed in C since a void pointer can be assigned to a pointer variable of any object type, but why these functions by default not return fully typed pointer?. Wouln't it be nice if it returns int* instead of void pointer in this case? What is the reason void* is choosen as return type of these functions?

One other question: I've read here that in older C compilers the type of pointer returned by these functions was char* not void*. Is it true?

  • possible duplicate of Why does void in C mean not void?
    – gnat
    Jul 22, 2015 at 18:50
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    This is because these methods are allocating memory without any specific type. If malloc returned int* and you allocate only 1 byte, you would never be able to dereference it safely without casting.
    – Matthew
    Jul 22, 2015 at 18:52
  • in C, it is a bad idea to have any casting at all when assigning the returned pointer from malloc (and family of functions) Jul 22, 2015 at 20:13
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    Questions are related but I am not convinced this is a duplicate. Having written the accepted answer on the dupe target, it would add insight to this question but I do not believe it would answer it.
    – user22815
    Jul 23, 2015 at 10:37

2 Answers 2


Because it can't.

How would it return a fully typed pointer? C doesn't have templates/generics, and it doesn't allow function overloading; let alone overloading by return type only. So there's no mechanism to have a malloc that knew what type you wanted.

I've read here that in older C compilers the type of pointer returned by these functions was char* not void*. Is it true?

In C, there is no byte. char is guaranteed to be a byte long, so char* is canonical "a pointer to some byte buffer", which is exactly what memory allocation functions want to return.

  • 1
    conceptually, the returned value from malloc is a char pointer. However, that creates problems when needing to assign that pointer to some other type, such as a struct pointer. 'void', a relatively new keyword, eliminates the need for casting (and makes casting error prone, especially when performing maintenance on the code) Jul 22, 2015 at 20:17
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    @user3629249: No, conceptually it's a pointer to a new uninitialized memory-block, and you haven't decided what it should contain. Jul 22, 2015 at 22:31
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    It might be worthwhile to add that malloc returned char* in the time before void* were invented. Once void* existed, the signature of malloc was quickly adjusted to follow suit. Jul 26, 2015 at 8:57
  • @BartvanIngenSchenau: It's too bad that C reused the "void" term from functions rather than adding an "untyped memory chunk" type which would allow the free casting of void*, but could also be read and written like "char*". That would allow code to exploit platforms whose minimal addressable unit is smaller than 8 bits and avoid the need to cast untyped memory pointers to char* before using them.
    – supercat
    Jan 29, 2016 at 23:16

Of course malloc() could return a fully typed pointer. The problem is, of what type? If it returned an int*, it would make you happy, but it would not make me happy, because I want a char* instead. Clearly, we could not both have it our way. So, void* is a good baseline which does not take anyone's side.

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