Is There a Complex Data Type in C?


Heather Bennett

When it comes to data types, C provides a wide range of options to handle different kinds of data. From simple integer and floating-point types to more complex structures and arrays, there is a data type for almost every need. However, one type that seems to be missing from the list is the complex data type.

What is a Complex Data Type

A complex data type is used to represent complex numbers – numbers that consist of both a real and an imaginary part. In mathematics, complex numbers are denoted as a + bi, where a represents the real part and b represents the imaginary part. The imaginary part is typically denoted by the symbol i, where i^2 = -1.

In other programming languages like Python or MATLAB, complex numbers are supported as built-in data types. However, in C, there is no direct support for complex numbers at the language level.

Working with Complex Numbers in C

Although C lacks a native complex data type, it is still possible to work with complex numbers using the available primitive types and libraries.

Using Structures

One way to represent complex numbers in C is by using structures. You can define a structure that contains two members – one for the real part and one for the imaginary part. Here’s an example:

    struct Complex {
        double real;
        double imaginary;

You can then create variables of this structure type to store complex numbers and perform operations on them.

Using Libraries

An alternative approach is to leverage external libraries that provide support for complex number operations. One such library is GNU Scientific Library (GSL). GSL provides a complex number data type called gsl_complex along with a set of functions for performing arithmetic operations on complex numbers.

To use GSL, you need to include the appropriate header file and link against the library during compilation. Here’s an example of how to work with complex numbers using GSL:


    int main() {
        gsl_complex z1 = gsl_complex_rect(3.0, 4.0); // Create a complex number
        gsl_complex z2 = gsl_complex_polar(2.0, M_PI / 3); // Create a complex number in polar form

        gsl_complex sum = gsl_complex_add(z1, z2); // Perform addition
        gsl_complex product = gsl_complex_mul(z1, z2); // Perform multiplication

        return 0;

This example demonstrates how GSL simplifies working with complex numbers by providing a dedicated data type and functions for common operations.


While C does not have a built-in complex data type like some other programming languages, it is still possible to work with complex numbers using structures or external libraries like GSL. By leveraging these options, you can handle complex calculations and manipulations in your C programs effectively.

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