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Thinking in C++
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Introduction to C++ references

Pointers work roughly the same in C and in C++, but C++ adds an additional way to pass an address into a function. This is pass-by-reference and it exists in several other programming languages so it was not a C++ invention.

Your initial perception of references may be that they are unnecessary, that you could write all your programs without references. In general, this is true, with the exception of a few important places that you’ll learn about later in the book. You’ll also learn more about references later, but the basic idea is the same as the demonstration of pointer use above: you can pass the address of an argument using a reference. The difference between references and pointers is that calling a function that takes references is cleaner, syntactically, than calling a function that takes pointers (and it is exactly this syntactic difference that makes references essential in certain situations). If PassAddress.cpp is modified to use references, you can see the difference in the function call in main( ):

//: C03:PassReference.cpp
#include <iostream>
using namespace std;

void f(int& r) {
  cout << "r = " << r << endl;
  cout << "&r = " << &r << endl;
  r = 5;
  cout << "r = " << r << endl;

int main() {
  int x = 47;
  cout << "x = " << x << endl;
  cout << "&x = " << &x << endl;
  f(x); // Looks like pass-by-value, 
        // is actually pass by reference
  cout << "x = " << x << endl;
} ///:~

In f( )’s argument list, instead of saying int* to pass a pointer, you say int& to pass a reference. Inside f( ), if you just say ‘r’ (which would produce the address if r were a pointer) you get the value in the variable that r references. If you assign to r, you actually assign to the variable that r references. In fact, the only way to get the address that’s held inside r is with the ‘&’ operator.

In main( ), you can see the key effect of references in the syntax of the call to f( ), which is just f(x). Even though this looks like an ordinary pass-by-value, the effect of the reference is that it actually takes the address and passes it in, rather than making a copy of the value. The output is:

x = 47
&x = 0065FE00
r = 47
&r = 0065FE00
r = 5
x = 5

So you can see that pass-by-reference allows a function to modify the outside object, just like passing a pointer does (you can also observe that the reference obscures the fact that an address is being passed; this will be examined later in the book). Thus, for this simple introduction you can assume that references are just a syntactically different way (sometimes referred to as “syntactic sugar”) to accomplish the same thing that pointers do: allow functions to change outside objects.

Thinking in C++
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   Reproduced courtesy of Bruce Eckel, MindView, Inc. Design by Interspire