The curious case of cltq

November 8, 2016

While debugging a problem in some C code recently, I ran across an assembly instruction causing problems for a function return value. The culprit: cltq. I’d never seen this instruction before, and it was the cause a serious problem for a function returning a pointer I had just written.

The code

The code I was writing was spread across two functions. Here is a simplified version of it:


#include <stdio.h>

void* ReturnsAPointer()
  void* value = (void*)0x000000BADBADF00D;
  printf("In ReturnsAPointer the pointer is %p\n", value);
  return value;


#include <stdio.h>

int main(int argc, char* argv[])
  void* value = ReturnsAPointer();
  printf("In main the pointer is %p\n", value);
  return 0;

I compiled the files like this:

$ gcc main.c other.c -o wat

Then when I ran the executable, this happened:

$ ./wat
In ReturnsAPointer the pointer is 0xbadbadf00d
In main the pointer is 0xffffffffdbadf00d

Why is the pointer returned to main incorrect? Notice that it is not totally wrong, just mostly wrong (which is still wrong enough when it comes to pointers). These are the two values in binary:

      <-- 32 bits are different ^ 32 bits are the same -->

The high 32-bits of the pointer (I was compiling this on a 64-bit processor) are all 1’s after being returned from the function. This calls for a look at the assembly code!

The assembly code

Let’s generate the assembly code here to see what is really happening:

$ gcc -S main.c other.c

Here is the relevant part of the main function, where it calls ReturnsAPointer:

movl    $0, %eax
call    ReturnsAPointer
movq    %rax, -8(%rbp)

Everything looks good until that odd cltq instruction appears. What is it doing there? Stack Overflow to the rescue! I never forward declared the ReturnsAPointer method, so GCC assumed the return value was int. Therefore, the 64-bit pointer return value was treated as a 32-bit int that needs to be extended to 64 bits, so cltq is the correct instruction. It widens a 32-bit value to 64 bits, filling in the upper 32 bits with the value in the highest bit of the lower 32 bits.

Intel assembly has a number of similar instructions that might be used instead of cltq in cases like this. The are cbw, cwde, and cdqe. The solution to any of these cases is to forward declare the ReturnsAPointer function, so the compiler can know the proper type of its return value.

The rest of the story

I wasn’t totally honest above. It turns out that this behavior is not nearly as surprising as I first thought it was. Here is the complete output of the compile step I showed earlier:

$ gcc main.c other.c -o wat
main.c: In function ‘main’:
main.c:5:17: warning: initialization makes pointer from integer without a cast
[enabled by default]
   void* value = ReturnsAPointer();

GCC is clearly indicating the exact problem via a warning. Unfortunately, the code I was using causes lots of warnings when it is compiled, so I missed this one and cost myself some debugging time. The moral of this story is: compile without warnings if at all possible.

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