Pointers: Pass By Address, Pointers and Arrays

Pass By Address

Pointers and Arrays:

With a regular array declaration, you get a pointer for free. The name of the array acts as a pointer to the first element of the array.
 int list[10];   // the variable list is a pointer 
                 // to the first integer in the array 
 int * p;        // p is a pointer.  It has the same type as list. 
 p = list;       // legal assignment.  Both pointers to ints. 

In the above code, the address stored in list has been assigned to p.  Now both pointers point to the first element of the array.  Now, we could actually use p as the name of the array!

 list[3] = 10; 
 p[4] = 5; 
 cout << list[6]; 
 cout << p[6]; 

Pointer Arithmetic

Another useful feature of pointers is pointer arithmetic.  In the above array example, we referred to an array item with p[6].  We could also say *(p+6).  When you add to a pointer, you do not add the literal number.  You add that number of units, where a unit is the type being pointed to.  For instance, p + 6 in the above example means to move the pointer forward 6 integer addresses.  Then we can dereference it to get the data  *(p + 6).

What pointer arithmetic operations are allowed?

  • A pointer can be incremented (++) or decremented (--)
  • An integer may be added to a pointer (+ or +=)
  • An integer may be subtracted from a pointer (- or -=)
  • One pointer may be subtracted from another

  • Most often, pointer arithmetic is used in conjunction with arrays.

    Example:  Suppose ptr is a pointer to an integer, and ptr stores the address 1000.  Then the expression (ptr + 5) does not give 1005 (1000+5).  Instead, the pointer is moved 5 integers (ptr + (5 * size-of-an-int)).  So, if we have 4-byte integers, (ptr+5) is 1020 (1000 + 5*4).

    This code example illustrates pointers and arrays: parray.cpp

    Pass By Address with arrays:

    The fact that an array's name is a pointer allows easy passing of arrays in and out of functions.  When we pass the array in by its name, we are passing the address of the first array element.   So, the expected parameter is a pointer.  Example:
    // This function receives two integer pointers, which can be names of integer arrays. 
       int Example1(int * p, int * q); 

    When an array is passed into a function (by its name), any changes made to the array elements do affect the original array, since only the array address is copied (not the array elements themselves).

     void Swap(int * list, int a, int b) 
       int temp = list[a]; 
       list[a] = list[b]; 
       list[b] = temp; 

    This Swap function allows an array to be passed in by its name only.  The pointer is copied but not the entire array.  So, when we swap the array elements, the changes are done on the original array.  Here is an example of the call from outside the function:

     int numList[5] = {2, 4, 6, 8, 10}; 
     Swap(numList, 1, 4);        // swaps items 1 and 4 

    Note that the Swap function prototype could also be written like this:

     void Swap(int list[], int a, int b);
    The array notation in the prototype does not change anything. An array passed into a function is always passed by address, since the array's name IS a variable that stores its address (i.e. a pointer).

    Pass-by-address can be done in returns as well -- we can return the address of an array.

     int * ChooseList(int * list1, int * list2) 
       if (list1[0] < list2[0]) 
         return list1; 
         return list2;    // returns a copy of the address of the array 

    And an example usage of this function:

     int numbers[5] = {1,2,3,4,5}; 
     int numList[3] = {3,5,7}; 
     int * p; 
     p = ChooseList(numbers, numList); 

    Using const with pass-by-address

    Note: The pointer can be made constant, too. Here are the different combinations:

    1. Non-constant pointer to non-constant data
        int * ptr;
    2. Non-constant pointer to constant data
        const int * ptr;
    3. Constant pointer to non-constant data
        int x = 5;
        int * const ptr = &x;   // must be initialized here 
      An array name is this type of pointer - a constant pointer (to non-constant data).
    4. Constant pointer to constant data
        int x = 5;
        const int * const ptr = & x;

    const pointers and C-style strings