Splitting code into several files

You have probably been noticing that your source code files have grown somewhat large and include a diverse range of features: class definitions, class method implementations, other functions, and a main() function. In future assignments you will define several classes, some of which may have nothing to do with each other. At some point, an organization scheme will be needed to reduce complexity.

C++ offers a very simplistic technique for splitting code into files (sometimes called “modules” or “libraries” in other languages). The idea is simply to write code in several files, then “include” them all into the same file, giving the appearance (to the compiler) that all the code was written in one file.

We have been doing this for some time, using #include <xyz>. Except for one minor change, this is the same technique we’ll use to split our programs into multiple files.

A word of advice: Do not write your code in one file, then try to split it into several files later; students often try this and find it frustrating or impossible. Begin your project by creating several files…

Understanding #include

First, it’s important to see how simple #include really is. When the compiler is reading a file (e.g. myprogram.cpp) and it sees #include <xyz> (which may appear anywhere, though it must be found on a line all by itself), the compiler literally reads the file xyz (wherever that file is on your computer) and pastes its contents exactly where #include <xyz> appeared. So it’s a simple substitution: substitute #include <xyz> with the actual contents of the file xyz.

The form of #include we will be using for our own files is #include "abc.h" where abc.h is a file we created. The format #include <abc.h> (with angle brackets) means the file abc.h will be found in some system directory, known to the compiler. The quoted format means the file will be found somewhere locally, probably in the same directory as our program code myprogram.cpp.

Common practice for splitting code

Since #include does a simple substitution, we could (but won’t) split a large program myprogram.cpp into two smaller files myprogramA.cpp and myprogramB.cpp, with myprogramB.cpp including myprogramA.cpp by placing the statement #include "myprogramA.cpp" at the top of the file myprogramB.cpp. I don’t see anything particularly bad about this approach, but it is virtually unseen in real C++ programming.

Instead, we will include only “header files” into our “source files.” Header files usually have the ending .h and source files usually have the ending .cpp. A header file contains only class and function declarations (a declaration is a statement that a class exists and has certain properties and methods, or that a function exists; neither the class methods nor the functions will be defined; that is, their implementations will not be provided in the header file).

Some included files may include other files, and may attempt to include files already included; we need to prevent repeated-includes because the compiler is not happy when a class or function or variable of the same name is declared twice. Thus, in every header file (named blah.h in this example), we write the following at the top and bottom:

#ifndef BLAH_H
#define BLAH_H



This means “if the name BLAH_H is not already defined, then define it.” If a file is included twice, then BLAH_H will be defined (by the first inclusion) so the entire “if—endif” will be skipped (which is the whole file, because the whole file is between the “if” and “endif”). Of course, BLAH_H can be anything; it could be FOO; we usually write FILE_H for the file named file.h so that we don’t reuse names.


Here is the Shape class and subclasses split into multiple files, plus a main file.


#ifndef SHAPE_H
#define SHAPE_H

class Shape
    double x;
    double y;

    virtual double area() = 0;




#include "shape.h"

class Rectangle : public Shape
    double width;
    double height;

    double area();



#include "rectangle.h"

double Rectangle::area()
    return width * height;


#ifndef ELLIPSE_H
#define ELLIPSE_H

#include "shape.h"

class Ellipse : public Shape
    double major_axis;
    double minor_axis;
    double area();



#include "ellipse.h"
double Ellipse::area()
    return 3.1415926 * major_axis * minor_axis;


#include <iostream>
#include "rectangle.h"
#include "ellipse.h"
using namespace std;

int main()
    Rectangle r;
    r.width = 10;
    r.height = 15;
    r.x = 3;
    r.y = 2;

    cout << r.area() << endl;

    Ellipse e;
    e.major_axis = 3;
    e.minor_axis = 5;
    e.x = 14;
    e.y = 68;

    cout << e.area() << endl;

    return 0;

Compiling a project that has multiple files

The .h files don’t need to be compiled; they will be included by the .cpp files. But the .cpp files do need to be compiled, each separately, and then “linked” together into a grand final program.

How this is done depends on which tools you are using. If you are on the “command line” and using g++, you can do this:

g++ -c rectangle.cpp
g++ -c ellipse.cpp
g++ -c main.cpp
g++ -o myprogram rectangle.o ellipse.o main.o

The first three lines compile each .cpp file separately (producing a corresponding .o file). The fourth line links all the .o files together to create the final program.

Visual Studio


CSE 230 material by Joshua Eckroth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Source code for this website available at GitHub.