OpenGL Command Syntax

As you might have observed from the simple program in the previous section, OpenGL commands use the prefix gl and initial capital letters for each word making up the command name (recall glClearColor(), for example). Similarly, OpenGL defined constants begin with GL_, use all capital letters, and use underscores to separate words (like GL_COLOR_BUFFER_BIT).

You might also have noticed some seemingly extraneous letters appended to some command names (for example, the 3f in glColor3f() and glVertex3f()). It's true that the Color part of the command name glColor3f() is enough to define the command as one that sets the current color. However, more than one such command has been defined so that you can use different types of arguments. In particular, the 3 part of the suffix indicates that three arguments are given; another version of the Color command takes four arguments. The f part of the suffix indicates that the arguments are floating-point numbers. Having different formats allows OpenGL to accept the user's data in his or her own data format.

Some OpenGL commands accept as many as 8 different data types for their arguments. The letters used as suffixes to specify these data types for ISO C implementations of OpenGL are shown in Table 1-1, along with the corresponding OpenGL type definitions. The particular implementation of OpenGL that you're using might not follow this scheme exactly; an implementation in C++ or Ada, for example, wouldn't need to.

Table 1-1 : Command Suffixes and Argument Data Types


Data Type

Typical Corresponding C-Language Type

OpenGL Type Definition


8-bit integer

signed char



16-bit integer




32-bit integer

int or long

GLint, GLsizei


32-bit floating-point


GLfloat, GLclampf


64-bit floating-point


GLdouble, GLclampd


8-bit unsigned integer

unsigned char

GLubyte, GLboolean


16-bit unsigned integer

unsigned short



32-bit unsigned integer

unsigned int or unsigned long

GLuint, GLenum, GLbitfield

Thus, the two commands

glVertex2i(1, 3);
glVertex2f(1.0, 3.0);

are equivalent, except that the first specifies the vertex's coordinates as 32-bit integers, and the second specifies them as single-precision floating-point numbers.

Note: Implementations of OpenGL have leeway in selecting which C data type to use to represent OpenGL data types. If you resolutely use the OpenGL defined data types throughout your application, you will avoid mismatched types when porting your code between different implementations.

Some OpenGL commands can take a final letter v, which indicates that the command takes a pointer to a vector (or array) of values rather than a series of individual arguments. Many commands have both vector and nonvector versions, but some commands accept only individual arguments and others require that at least some of the arguments be specified as a vector. The following lines show how you might use a vector and a nonvector version of the command that sets the current color:

glColor3f(1.0, 0.0, 0.0);
GLfloat color_array[] = {1.0, 0.0, 0.0};

Finally, OpenGL defines the typedef GLvoid. This is most often used for OpenGL commands that accept pointers to arrays of values.

In the rest of this guide (except in actual code examples), OpenGL commands are referred to by their base names only, and an asterisk is included to indicate that there may be more to the command name. For example, glColor*() stands for all variations of the command you use to set the current color. If we want to make a specific point about one version of a particular command, we include the suffix necessary to define that version. For example, glVertex*v() refers to all the vector versions of the command you use to specify vertices.