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Is Passing a Pointer 'by reference'?

2 min read

Pointers and by-reference

There is a bit of disagreement as to what is meant by pass-by-reference. Does C have pass-by-reference? Some say yes, some say no. Is passing a pointer to a function pass-by-reference? Some say yes, some say no.

The distinction revolves around the semantics of what pass-by-reference means. There are really two different definitions depending on who you ask.

pass-by-value is more straightforward. Whatever argument you are passing is copied into the called function. Modifications to the argument within the function are not seen by the caller.

Here's a scenario: You have a very large data structure or object. You want to call a function that modifies the object in a way that when the function returns the caller sees the modifications. You have two options:

  1. pass-by-value, so the whole object is copied, and have the function return the modified object.
  • non-functionals would say 'yuck, not efficient'.
  1. pass by reference, so the function gets a 'reference', whatever that is, to the object, makes the mods and just returns
  • the functional folks say 'yuck, side effect'.

Reference Types

Some folks contend that unless your language has explicit reference types, like C++ &name, or defaults to pass by reference (FORTRAN), then your language does not support pass by reference. You don't see pointers because the compiler hides the mechanism. The argument in the function has the same memory address as the caller does. (that's the key detail for this definition)

This definition is the pedantic one. It relies on the technicalities of what actual happens. This is probably a more modern interpretation (even though FORTRAN). It matters a lot if you are designing a language or implementing a compiler that implements it.

Pointer Types

A broader definition is when a pointer to the object is passed.

The function accesses the object via the pointer and upon returning the caller sees any modifications. Technically, the pointer is passed by value. It is copied into the function argument and resides in a different memory location than the one used by the caller. Both pointers refer to the same object. On most languages that do this there will be a special syntax for creating and dereferencing a pointer.

This definition is the looser one. It relies on the concept of what is happening and less on the technical details. For general programming it doesn't matter much. If you are using C, you use pointers and get mostly the same effect as you would in C++. (well except for const reference) Older interpretations might call this pass by reference.


If you google for pass-by-reference, you will see both definitions, and it is probably best to understand both sides of the argument. Especially the technical detail that in 'real' pass-by-reference the caller and callee have the same address of the argument. Whereas in 'simulated' pass-by-reference with pointers they have different addresses for the argument (but same address of the underlying block).