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Pointers in C Part One: Basics

2010-01-18
A pointer variable "p" initialized with the "address of x" (&x) points to the integer variable "x" with value 3490. In this case "*p" is also equal to 3490.

One of the most difficult things for people to grok is pointers. Especially in C. And since C basically requires you to know how to use pointers if you want to program effectively, you've got to know pointers to know C.

In C, objects (such as the integer int x) are stored in memory, and the location at which they are stored is known as their address. After all, the computer has to be able to differentiate between the memory that holds your bank account balance and the memory that holds the number of days you've been playing WoW, and it does this differentiation by putting the values at different addresses.

Let's get all philosophical for a minute here and ask, "What is an address?" Consider your home address of 123 Main St. (That's just a fake address, and any resemblance to your actual address is a coincidence. If it is your real address, well, I know where you live.)

So I ask you where you live, and you tell me, "123 Main St." Now I know how to get to your house if I need to, but I'm not actually at your house. I merely know where it is. You have not given me your house. You have given me a pointer to your house. You've given me the address of your house. And now I can navigate there when I choose to.

It's a similar situation when you have, say, an int X and you get a pointer to X. You do not have X, but you have been given a pointer to X. You have the address of X. And with the pointer, you can use X when you choose to. If you have a pointer to a thing, you can read and write to the thing.

The main benefit of this is that if you pass a pointer to a function, the function can manipulate the object that the pointer is pointing to.

When you call a function in C, all the arguments to the function are copied to local parameters that are named in the parameter list for the function. Since these parameters are local to the function, modifying them only affects the local copies within the function, and not the original arguments in the caller.

To get around this limitation, you can pass a pointer to a variable as an argument to a function. You're not passing the variable—you're passing a pointer to the variable. The function can then manipulate the variable via the pointer.

That's all there is to the basics of pointers. Seriously!

From here, we have to take on a big chunk of C syntax. Sadly, due to some of the choices that were made in the design of the language, it can be a little bit confusing due to different uses of "*". But it's not so bad, and once you get it, you'll have it.

We need to be able to do two things:

  1. Go from "an object" to "a pointer to that object". When we have an object, we need to be able to get a pointer to that object.
  2. And the opposite of that: go from "a pointer to an object" to "the object" itself. When we have a pointer to an object, we need to be able to get to the object so we can manipulate it.

Let's tackle the first of these first. We'll declare a variable, and then print out a pointer to it. Remember, a pointer is the address of the object, so to get the address of the object, we're going to use the address-of operator, which is an ampersand: &. Then we're going to print it using the printf() format specifier "%p", which prints a pointer in a system-defined manner.

#include <stdio.h>

int main(void)
{
    int x = 10;

    printf("%p\n", &x); // address-of x, aka "a pointer to x"

    return 0;
}

On my machine when I ran the above code, it printed out: "0x7fffd944f17c", which (for me) is the address of x. For you, it will be something else, probably; in fact, it might even change from run to run. The exact number doesn't matter, so don't worry about it. In fact, I command you to not even think about it! The "%p" format specifier is rarely used in real life.

Technically, the "%p" format specifier prints a parameter of type void* (pointer to void), so the line should be modified to cast the result of the address-of:

printf("%p\n", (void*)&x); // address-of x, aka "a pointer to x"

but I left it off in the interest of clarity at this early part of the document. We'll get to pointers-to-types quite soon.

And now the fun begins. We're going to store the address of x in a variable (we'll really want this later when we pass the address to a function.) But the big question is, what type should the variable be? When you have something like "12", okay, that's an int; and "34.9" can be stored in a variable of type float, sure. And if you have "int x", then x is type int. But if you have "a pointer to x", what type is that?

It turns out, it's of type "pointer to an int", or "int-pointer". That's right: there are special types that exist just to point to other types.

So how does one declare such a type? It's easy: you put an asterisk in front of the variable name, after the type:

{
    int x;   // declare an int called "x"
    int *y;  // declare a pointer to an int (or "int-pointer"), called "y"
    ...

In the above example, variable x is uninitialized. It's an int, but it could be anything because it hasn't yet been assigned a value.

Also, variable y is uninitialized. It's an int-pointer, but it could point anywhere because it hasn't yet been assigned a value. (It's like a mailing address label with no address written on it yet!)

So we should assign a value to the things, just for completeness and fun (and so I can continue making a sane example):

{
    int x;   // declare an int called "x"
    int *y;  // declare a pointer to an int (or "int-pointer"), called "y"

    x = 3490;   // assign 3490 to x
    y = &x;     // assign "the address of x" to y

    // at this point "y points to x".
    ...

As you see in the above example, we've used the "address-of" operator (&) to get the address of x, and we've stored that in the pointer-type variable y. y now points to x.

So there we've achieved goal #1 in the list, above: we've gone from an object to a pointer to that object by using the & operator.

Now what about the other way? How, if we have a pointer to the object, can we get to the object so we can manipulate it or read it? We do a little magical operation called dereferencing the pointer. This means, "I'm not talking about the pointer—I'm talking about the thing it's pointing at."

In C, we do this using the indirection operator: *. Yes, it's the asterisk again, except this time we're not using it in a variable declaration, so the context is different. (In a variable declaration, the asterisk means you're declaring a pointer, and in an expression it means you're dereferencing the pointer. Unless you're using it for a multiplication. :-) )

The C99 spec doesn't actually talk about dereferencing except for an off-handed mention in a footnote; it prefers "indirection operator" or "* operator". But all C programmers know what you mean if you say "dereference".

So check this out:

{
    int x;   // declare an int called "x"
    int *y;  // declare a pointer to an int (or "int-pointer"), called "y"
    int z;   // declare another int called "z"

    x = 3490;   // assign 3490 to x
    y = &x;     // assign "the address of x" to y

    // at this point "y points to x".

    // here comes the dereference, which says "z is assigned the value
    // of the thing y is pointing at" (namely 3490 in this case):

    z = *y;

    printf("%d\n", z); // prints "3490"
    ...

So you see there how we assigned a value to z which is the same as the value stored in x. But we didn't do it directly—we did it indirectly through y, which is a pointer to x.

And not only can we read the value of x through the pointer y, but we can also actually assign indirectly into x via the pointer y, as well, like this:

    int x;
    int *y;

    x = 3490;           // x holds 3490
    y = &x;             // y points to x

    printf("%d\n", x);  // prints "3490"
    *y = 3491;          // assign 3491 into "x" via the pointer "y"
    printf("%d\n", x);  // prints "3491"

In that assignment, above, ("*y = 3491") we're saying "the thing y points at should be assigned 3491." And that's why the value of x changed after the assignment.

At this point you should take a deep breath a make sure you have all that stuff absorbed, because I'm about the deliver the punchline.

Let's continue to build this out and we'll make a new function that actually manipulates the value of x from far far away by using a pointer to x.

void make24more(int *a)
{
    *a += 24;
}

int main(void)
{
    int x;   // declare an int called "x"
    int *y;  // declare a pointer to an int (or "int-pointer"), called "y"

    x = 3490;   // assign 3490 to x
    y = &x;     // assign "the address of x" to y

    printf("%d\n", x); // prints "3490"

    make24more(y);     // add 24 to whatever y points at, namely x

    printf("%d\n", x); // prints "3514" (3490+24)

    make24more(&x);    // add 24 to whatever is at the address of x, namely x

    printf("%d\n", x); // prints "3538" (3490+24+24)
    ...

See how that works? When you pass a pointer to a variable (or an address of a variable) to function make24more(), that function dereferences the pointer to the thing, and adds 24 to whatever the pointer points to.

And you'll notice we called make24more() in two different ways. We did it by passing a pointer type y and also by simply passing the address of x, or "&x. Both these ways are perfectly acceptable.

The library function scanf() uses this to great effect all the time:

int x;
scanf("%d", &x);

It has to do it this way, because it wants to change the value of x, and the only way it can do it is via a pointer to x.

So what we have here when we call make24more(), is that a local copy of the pointer is made, and in this case uses the local name a from inside the make24more() function. But the function in this case doesn't really even care that the parameter is a copy of the pointer, because it's not manipulating the pointer; it's manipulating what the pointer is pointing at using the * operator. The pointer to x stored in variable y points to x. And the copy of the pointer to x stored in parameter a also points to x. Dereferencing either one will get you to x. It doesn't matter if you have my home address, or a copy of my home address; both of them get you to my house.

This is actually quite powerful. If you have a pointer to a thing, you can pass that pointer around to all kinds of different functions, and they can all manipulate the thing the pointer points to. In effect, those functions are saying, "I don't have the thing, but I know where it is because I have a pointer to it. And I can change its value by dereferencing the pointer."

And because it doesn't really fit anywhere else, I'm going to mention right here that C uses the symbolic name "NULL" for pointers that don't point to anything:

int *p;  // p is uninitialized at this point

p = NULL;  // now p points to nothing, explicitly

This is used to mark the end of a list of pointers, or sometimes an error condition. For instance, if malloc() fails to allocate memory for some reason, it returns NULL to let you know:

char *p;

p = malloc(1024); // allocate 1K
if (p == NULL) {
	printf("Memory allocation failed!\n");
} else {
    // go ahead and use the pointer:
	strcpy(p, "Goats detected!");
}

Pointers in C can point to variables, elements in arrays, nodes in lists or trees, explicit memory addresses, and even functions. But save yourself a lot of pain: make sure you have the basics down before you head down those paths!

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Historic Comments

 Xerion 2010-01-18 03:58:31

Long ago, when I was first learning C, I had to read, and re-read the chapter on pointers. It is the least understood, most powerful, and most dangerous concept in computer programming. These the reasons that many modern languages do not have, or discourage use of pointers.

I truly started to understand the potential behind pointers when I read about a structure used in Amigados called a "linked list". If there's a part 2 on pointers, I bet we'll be seeing linked lists.

Even today, I still have difficulty completely understanding concepts such as const correct pointers (which, IMO, just make code more unreadable and only exist to make things more difficult).

 stan423321 2010-04-13 18:42:04

Seeing I have some experts here: in C++, can I assign a pointer to void f(int a = 0) to void(*p)(void)?

 chaitanya 2010-05-24 04:23:53

Thanks for this wonderful article.Please write more abt C.

 Per Persson 2011-01-13 17:18:32

Once upon a time, back in the early or middle 80's, I was learning Pascal and ran into pointers, but couldn't get it.

Around the same years, I was also learning Z80 assembly and there were instructions like "LD A, (HL)", meaning "load A with the content of the memory cell, the address of which is in the register HL". This I could get. But I didn't realise that this was in fact pointers.

It wasn't until the end of the 80's, when I was learning C and ran into pointers again, that it hit me:
Pointers are just addresses to memory cells.

After that, I could handle pointers with quite an ease.

 beej 2011-01-13 17:31:37

@Per Persson Yet another great reason to learn assembly early on! :-)

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