Multi-Dimensional Arrays in C Programming: Definition & Example

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  • 0:04 Multi-Dimensional Arrays
  • 1:40 Initializing & Accessing
  • 2:15 3-Dimensional Arrays
  • 3:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Martin Gibbs

Martin has 16 years experience in Human Resources Information Systems and has a PhD in Information Technology Management. He is an adjunct professor of computer science and computer programming.

In C programming, you can create multi-dimensional arrays, which are very useful. This lesson defines the most common types of multi-dimensional arrays and provides working code examples.

Multi-Dimensional Arrays

We have entered a new dimension. Or perhaps several! The only benefit (or drawback) is that we won't be leaving Earth; instead we will be adding complexity and depth to our arrays in C.

A multi-dimensional array is an array that has more than one dimension. It is an array of arrays; an array that has multiple levels. The simplest multi-dimensional array is the 2D array, or two-dimensional array. It's technically an array of arrays, as you will see in the code. A 2D array is also called a matrix, or a table of rows and columns.

Declaring a multi-dimensional array is similar to the one-dimensional arrays. For a 2D array, we need to tell C that we have 2 dimensions.

This example declares a 2D integer array:

int two_d[3][3];

A valid type is required (in this case int), followed by the name of the array, and the size of each dimension. In this case, we created a 2D array that's 3 by 3 (three rows and three columns). As stored in the computer's memory, the array looks like this table. Remember that C starts counting all buckets at 0!

Column 0 Column 1 Column 2
Row 0 two_d[0][0] two_d[0][1] two_d[0][2]
Row 1 two_d[1][0] two_d[1][1] two_d[1][2]
Row 2 two_d[2][0] two_d[2][1] two_d[2][2]

As mentioned before, the 2D array is a matrix. Therefore, it's well-suited for spreadsheet-type data (e.g., period table, list of employees and their attributes, lab test results, etc.).

For example, we could create a 2D array for 50 students to capture scores on four tests:

int gradebook[50][4];

Recall that C starts counting at 0! Therefore, the 4th test for Student 25 can be accessed in this manner:


Keep the concept of a table in mind: In this case, there are 50 rows and 4 columns in the table.

Initializing and Accessing Array Elements

The most readable option to initialize arrays is shown here. This code shows how to pre-fill a 2x3 2D array, that is an array with 2 rows and 3 columns:

int two_d[2][3] = {
 {14, 12, 10},
 {8, 6, 4}

In order to step through a multi-dimensional array, we'll need to use a nested for loop. Think of the example of the matrix: Start across the first row, then work across each column; when done, move to the next row.

First, we create two counting variables (i and j) to step through:

int i,j = 0;

Next, create the for loops to loop through. The counter i represents rows; j represents columns:

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