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What is the difference between ++x and x++ in the context of .NET

costinmanda profile image Costin Manda Originally published at on ・3 min read

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Altered C++ logo You can consider this an interview question, although to be fair if someone did ask me this for an interview I would say they are assholes. What is the difference between the pre-increment operator and the post-increment operator in C#?

They look the same in C and C# and Javascript and Java and all the languages that share the curly bracket syntax with C, but in fact they are slightly different. Slight enough to make someone an asshole for asking the question as if it were relevant, but important enough for you to read about it. One of the most common interpretations of the syntax is that x++ is incrementing the value after the operation, while ++x is incrementing it before the operation. That is wrong.

In fact, for C++ the return values are different between pre and post operators. I am not a C++ dev, so I give you this reference link: "Pre operators increment or decrement the value of the object and return a reference to the result. Post operators create a copy of the object, increment or decrement the value of the object and return the copy from before the increment or decrement." So one returns an object, the other returns a reference to an object. It is also possible that the assignment be done after the value was produced in C or C++. In C# the assignment must be done before any value is returned.

In C#, to paraphrase Eric Lippert, "Both pre and post operators determine the value of the variable, what value will be assigned back to storage and assign the new value to storage. The postfix operator produces the original value, and the prefix operator produces the assigned value." So it's (kindda) like this piece of code:

int Increment(ref int x, bool post) {
  var originalX = x;
  var newX = x+1;
  x = newX;
  return post ? originalX : newX;
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So why the hell does it matter? I mean, it's a rather meaningless difference between the programming languages and the before/after mnemonic is making the code pretty clear, doesn't it? OK. Let's try some code and let me see how fast you come up with the answer. Remember, this is supposed to be simple, so if you are thinking too much about it, it doesn't matter you get the correct answer. Ready?

  1. Any difference between x++ and ++x if the resulting value is not used?
  2. var a=1; var b=++a; What's the value of b?
  3. var a=1; var b=a++; var c=++a; What's the value of c?
  4. var i = 0; for (i=0; i<5; ++i) Console.Write(i+" "); Console.WriteLine(i); What is printed at the console?
  5. var i = 0; for (i=0; i<5; i++) Console.Write(i+" "); Console.WriteLine(i); What is printed at the console?
  6. var a=1; a=a++; What's the value of a?

And all of this was about the increment operator as normally used for integer values. There is a big part about operator overloading in there, but I believe less relevant in the context of differences between pre and post increment/decrement operators.

There is one important part to discuss, though, and that is best code practices. When to use post and when to use pre. And they are really easy: separate statements from expressions! Statements execute code with side effects, they should return nothing. Expressions return values without side effects. If you never use the value of an increment or decrement and instead use it as a statement with side-effects, there is no difference between ++a and a++. In fact one doesn't need the preincrement/predecrement operators at all! In this context, the answers for the questions above is 1. No 2,3,6: You are using it wrong! 4,5: the same thing, since without getting the value we have scenario 1.

Just for reference, though, here are the answers:

  1. No
  2. 2
  3. 3 (b is 1)
  4. 0 1 2 3 4 5
  5. 0 1 2 3 4 5
  6. 1

Hope that makes you think.

Discussion (1)

shimmer profile image
Brian Berns • Edited

It’s problems like this that make me grateful for immutable values and languages that encourage them.

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