How does a computer program work?

How does a computer program work?

A program's behavior depends on the type of language used to write the program. Nonetheless, almost all programming languages are based upon the same principle. This article will explain how a computer program works.

What is a computer program?

Computer programs consist of a set of commands that the computer must execute. The computer executes the commands as it reads the file (from top to bottom) until it reaches a command (often referred to as a branch command) which tells the computer to go to a specific location in the program. In a way it resembles a treasure hunt where the computer must follow the clues and execute commands until it reaches the end of the program and is stopped. 

What are variables?

Variables are used in most languages, where a name is associated with content. For example, we can call a variable "dummy" and assign it the value 8.

What are data types?

Some languages allow you to associate any data type to a variable (either a whole number or a character), such a language is called a non-typed language. As can be seen in the chapter data representation, the type of data sets the number of bytes that the data is coded in, i.e. the amount of memory that this data takes up as well as the format in which it is represented.

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For this reason evolved languages (C, Java) are typed languages,meaning that a variable is not only associated with a name but also a data type, which should be specified when declaring the variable, i.e. when the variable name is written for the first time you must specify in the compiler the type of data this variable will contain (the method of declaring the variable depends on the language used).

What is syntax?

Programming languages require strict syntax, you cannot simply write things as you wish. Thus, some languages are case sensitive, meaning that a name written in lower case is not considered to be the equivalent of the same name written in upper case. So the variable "Dummy" is different to the variable "dummy".

Variable names usually require a maximum length (depending on the language) and a certain character set, where the following characters are generally used:


So a space (" ") is therefore considered a different type of character, called a special character. It is therefore not very common for a language to allow the use of special characters in variable names!

What are reserved words?

In most languages there are a handful of words that may not be used as variable names, these are called reserved words. These are specified in the chapter corresponding to the specific language.

What are constants?

A constant is data type whose value cannot be modified. These are generally defined at the beginning of the program. The value of the constant may be of any type permitted by the programming language.

Additional comments

It is useful when writing a program to be able to add lines of text that the compiler does not treat as code. These lines of text are usually preceded (or enclosed) by special commands which tell the compiler to ignore them.

Comments are used to clarify how the program is written by explaining parts of the code. Comments are useful if another person is trying to understand how the program works by reading the source file, or even, if the person who wrote the program is reading the source file again some years after having originally written the code. 

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