Variables and Data Types

The first important concept in programming languages is the idea of variables. Variables are mappings of descriptive names, called identifiers, to locations in the computer’s memory. Once a memory location is given an identifier, we can refer to the value stored in that location using the identifier rather than having to know a numeric address. Most of the time a programmer will not care exactly what memory addresses hold which pieces of information, just that it is there and accessible by a name.

For example, suppose you wanted to write a simple program to calculate the amount of sales tax you will need to pay on a new pair of shoes that costs $19.95. Like every other piece of information the program needs to work with, the price of the shoes will be stored in a variable. Variables generally must be given single word names, so often they are written by smashing words together like PriceOfShoes. Once that name is associated with a location in memory, the value 19.95 must be stored there.


In addition to identifying a location in memory, variables identify the type of information that can be found at that location. Remember that in memory, PriceOfShoes will not be stored as 19.95 but as 0s and 1s that could mean anything. The computer needs to know that those 0s and 1s are to be interpreted as a floating point number and not as an integer or an image. The kind of thing a variable represents is known as its data type. There are only a couple basic kinds of data type that most computer languages use:

To specify what kind of information you are talking about, some programming languages make you specify the type of variables:

real PriceOfShoes
integer DaysInWeek

In other programming languages you do not specify what type of information is, the compiler or interpreter just does its best to figure out what kind of information you are working with. Though this can make programming easier, it can also lead to surprises when the computer guesses the wrong type.


Of course, programs work with more complex types of information all the time. But these complex types are built by combining simpler items. To represent a piece of text in a program (usually called a string) we would combine an array of Characters that represent the letters with an Integer that stored the length of the string. We might represent a calendar date by combining three Integers, one each to store the day, month and year. These complex data types built from a collection of simple variables are generally referred to as structs or objects.

Materials on this page adapted from:
Online Interactive Modules for Teaching Computer Science by Osman Balci et al.