Lazy evaluation is one of those features that has been adopted by many programming languages. The idea is that expressions are only evaluated when their value is needed. It turns out that the result of some expressions is not needed at all even though the program’s execute path appears to suggest so, thus lazy evaluation can reduce a program’s run-time. A classic example of this feature in action is the following simple expression in C:

A && B

The idea is that expression A is evaluated first. Then, expression B is only evaluated if the result of A is 1 (or true) because otherwise the whole expression evaluates to 0 (or false) anyways. In fact, this is written in the semantic description of the logical AND operator in C standard:1

If the first operand compares equal to 0, the second operand is not evaluated.

Interestingly, the compiler does not always take advantage of lazy evaluation to optimize the code as you might expect. For example, consider the following C code:

if (y < 32 && x > (CONSTANT << y))
    return (CONSTANT >> y);
    return CONSTANT;

I compiled that with LLVM for the XCore and got the following. If you are curious, you can use these files to try it out!

  ; Evaluate y < 32
  ldc r2, 32
  lsu r3, r1, r2

  ; Load CONSTANT into a register
  ldw r2, cp[.LCPI0_0]

  ; Evaluate x > (CONSTANT << y)
  shl r11, r2, r1
  lsu r0, r11, r0

  ; Use the expression results
  bt r0, .LBB0_1

So… what happened there? Basically, the compiler evaluated both expressions before making a decision. However, it would have probably been more efficient to evaluate the logical AND lazily.

A consequence of this is that the compiler did not respect the C standard. In fact, other violations of the standard often happen, such as when performing pointer arithmetic. But the compiler gets away with it because there is no obvious observable mistake in the code from the user’s point of view. Of course, the situation would have been very different if the instructions to evaluate x > (CONSTANT << y) had side effects when errors occur. For example, an architecture could raise an exception when bitwise-shifting left by a value greater than the word size e.g. 1 << 64 in a 32-bit machine. For this reason, LLVM backend has a hasSideEffects flag to prevent the compiler from reordering the code in ways that could lead to undesirable, observable behavior.


Compilers do not always evaluate code lazily. More importantly, compilers do not necessarily respect the programming language’s standard – at least not in observable ways. So watch out for situations where this could be a problem, and if you ever write a compiler, make sure you prevent reorderings of the code that lead to observable incorrect behavior.


  1. See Section 6.5.13 in the standard.