Pointers in C++

Pointers in C++

Pointers in C++

The pointer is a variable which holds the memory address of another variable. If one variable contains the address of another variable, the first variable is said to point to the second.

For a type T , T * is the type ‘”pointer to T.” That is, a variable of type T * can hold the address of an object of type T.

The C+ + Programming Language Third Edition by Bjarne Stroustrup

Declaring a Pointer

If a variable is holding the address of another variable then we can declare it as

var_type *varName;

Here var_type is the valid C++ Language data type and varName is the name of the pointer variable. The type of a variable defines that which variable type a pointer can hold.

There are two types of pointer operators; * and &. the & is a unary operator that returns the memory address of its operand. e.g.

vvarName = &newVar;

The * operator is the compliment of the & operator. It returns the value of the variable located at the address that follows. e.g.

varName = *newVar;

The unary operator & gives the address of an object … The unary operator * is the indirection or dereferencing operator; when applied to a pointer, it accesses the object the pointer points to.

The C Programming Language by Brian W. Kernighan and Dennis M. Ritchie

Pointer Example

Examine the program named POINTERS.CPP for a simple example of the use of pointers.

// pointers.cpp
#include <iostream.h>

 int *pt_int;
 float *pt_float;
 int cat = 7, dog = 27;
 float x = 1.2345, y = 32.14;
 void *general;

 pt_int = &cat;
 *pt_int += dog;
 cout << "Cat now has the value of " << *pt_int << "\n";
 general = pt_int;

 pt_float = &x;
 y += 5 * (*pt_float);
 cout << "y now has the value of " << y << "\n";
 general = pt_float;

 const char *name1 = "John"; // Value cannot be changed
 char *const name2 = "John"; // Pointer cannot be changed

Output of the C Program

Cat now has the value of 34
y now has the value of 38.3125

This is a pointer review and if you are comfortable with the use of pointers, you can skip this example program completely. A pointer in either ANSI-C or C++ is declared with an asterisk preceding the variable name. The pointer is then a pointer to a variable of that one specific type and should not be used with variables of other types. Thus pt_int is a pointer to an integer type variable and should not be used with any other type. Of course, an experienced C programmer knows that it is simple to coerce the pointer to be used with some other type by using a cast, but he must assume the responsibility for its correct usage.

If you are not completely comfortable with this trivial program using pointers, you should review the use of pointers in any good C programming book before proceeding on because we will assume that you have a thorough knowledge of pointers throughout the remainder of this tutorial. It is not possible to write a C program of any significant size or complexity without the use of pointers.

Constant Pointers and Pointers to Constants

The definition of C++ allows a pointer to a constant to be defined such that the value to which the pointer points cannot be changed but the pointer itself can be moved to another variable or constant. The method of defining a pointer to a constant is illustrated in line 22. In addition to a pointer to a constant, you can also declare a constant pointer, one that cannot be changed. Line 23 illustrates this. Note that neither of these pointers are used in illustrative code.

Either of these constructs can be used to provide additional compile time checking and improve the quality of your code. If you know a pointer will never be moved due to its nature, you should define it as a constant pointer. If you know that a value will not be changed, it can be defined as a constant and the compiler will tell you if you ever inadvertently attempt to change it.

A Pointer to void

The pointer to void is actually a part of the ANSI-C standard but is relatively new so it is commented upon here. A pointer to void can be assigned the value of any other pointer type. You will notice that the pointer to void named general is assigned an address of an int type in line 15 and the address of a float type in line 20 with no cast and no complaints from the compiler. This is a relatively new concept in C and C++. It allows a programmer to define a pointer that can be used to point to many different kinds of things to transfer information around within a program. A good example is the malloc() function which returns a pointer to void. This pointer can be assigned to point to any entity, thus transferring the returned pointer to the correct type.

A pointer to void is aligned in memory in such a way that it can be used with any of the simple predefined types available in C++, or in ANSI-C for that matter. They will also align with any compound types the user can define since compound types are composed of the simpler types.

Be sure to compile and execute this program.

Dynamic Allocation and Deallocation

Examine the program named NEWDEL.CPP for our first example of the new and delete operators.

// newdel.cpp
#include <iostream.h>

struct date {
    int month;
    int day;
    int year;

main() {
    int index, * point1, * point2;

    point1 = & index;
    * point1 = 77;
    point2 = new int;
    * point2 = 173;
    cout << "The values are " << index << " " <<
        point1 << " " << * point2 << "\n";
    point1 = new int;
    point2 = point1;
    * point1 = 999;
    cout << "The values are " << index << " " <<
        point1 << " " << * point2 << "\n";
    delete point1;

    float * float_point1, * float_point2 = new float;

    float_point1 = new float;
    * float_point2 = 3.14159;
    * float_point1 = 2.4 * ( * float_point2);
    delete float_point2;
    delete float_point1;

    date * date_point;

    date_point = new date;
    date_point - > month = 10;
    date_point - > day = 18;
    date_point - > year = 1938;
    cout << date_point - > month << "/" << date_point - > day << "/" <<
        date_point - > year << "\n";
    delete date_point;

    char * c_point;

    c_point = new char[37];
    delete c_point;
    c_point = new char[sizeof(date) + 133];
    delete c_point;

Output of the C Program

The values are 77 77 173
The values are 77 999 999

The new and delete operators do dynamic allocation and deallocation in much the same manner that malloc() and free() do in your old favorite C implementation.

During the design of C++, it was felt that since dynamic allocation and deallocation are such a heavily used part of the C programming language and would also be heavily used in C++, it should be a part of the language, rather than a library add-on. The new and delete operators are actually a part of the C++ language and are operators, much like the addition operator or the assignment operator. They are therefore very efficient, and are very easy to use as we will see in this example program.

Lines 14 and 15 illustrate the use of pointers in the tradition of C and line 16 illustrates the use of the new operator. This operator requires one modifier which must be a type as illustrated here. The pointer named point2 is now pointing at the dynamically allocated integer variable which exists on the heap, and can be used in the same way that any dynamically allocated variable is used in ANSI-C. Line 18 illustrates displaying the value on the monitor which was assigned in line 17.

Line 20 allocates another new variable and line 21 causes point2 to refer to the same dynamically allocated variable as point1 is pointing to. In this case, the reference to the variable that point2 was previously pointing to has been lost and it can never be used or deallocated. It is lost on the heap until we return to the operating system when it will be reclaimed for further use, so this is obviously not good practice. Note that point1 is deallocated with the delete operator in line 25, and point2 can not actually be deleted. Since the pointer point1 itself is not changed, it is actually still pointing to the original data on the heap. This data could probably be referred to again using point1, but it would be terrible programming practice since you have no guarantee what the system will do with the pointer or the data. The data storage is returned to the free list to be allocated in a subsequent call, and will soon be reused in any practical program.

Since the delete operator is defined to do nothing if it is passed a NULL value, it is legal to ask the system to delete the data pointed to by a pointer with the value of NULL, but nothing will actually happen. It is actually wasted code. The delete operator can only be used to delete data allocated by a new operator. If the delete is used with any other kind of data, the operation is undefined and anything can happen. According to the ANSI standard, even a system crash is a legal result of this illegal operation, and can be defined as such by the compiler writer.

In line 27, we declare some floating point variables. You will remember that in C++ the variables do not have to be declared at the beginning of a block. A declaration is an executable statement and can therefore appear anywhere in a list of executable statements. One of the float variables is allocated within the declaration to illustrate that this can be done. Some of the same operations are performed on these float type variables as were done on the int types earlier.

Some examples of the use of a structure are given in lines 35 through 41 and should be self explanatory.

Finally, since the new operator requires a type to determine the size of the dynamically allocated block, you may wonder how you can allocate a block of arbitrary size. This is possible by using the construct illustrated in line 47 where a block of 37 char sized entities, which will be 37 bytes, is allocated. A block of 133 bytes greater than the size of the date structure is allocated in line 49. It is therefore clear that the new operator can be used with all of the flexibility of the malloc() function which you are familiar with.

The standard functions which you have been using in C for dynamic memory management, malloc(), calloc(), and free(), are also available for use in C++ and can be used in the same manner they were used in C. The new and delete operators should not be intermixed with the older function calls since the results may be unpredictable. If you are updating code with the older function calls, continue to use them for any additions to the code. If you are designing and coding a new program you should use the newer constructs because they are a built in part of the language rather than an add on and are therefore more efficient.

Be sure to compile and execute this program.

Pointers to Functions

Examine the program named FUNCPNT.CPP for an example of using a pointer to a function.

// funcpnt.cpp
#include <stdio.h>

void print_stuff(float data_to_ignore);
void print_message(float list_this_data);
void print_float(float data_to_print);
void (*function_pointer)(float);

float pi = 3.14159;
float two_pi = 2.0 * pi;

function_pointer = print_stuff;
function_pointer = print_message;
function_pointer = print_float;

void print_stuff(float data_to_ignore)
printf("This is the print stuff function.\n");

void print_message(float list_this_data)
printf("The data to be listed is %f\n", list_this_data);

void print_float(float data_to_print)
printf("The data to be printed is %f\n", data_to_print);

Output of the C++ Program

 This is the print stuff function.
 This is the print stuff function.
 The data to be listed is 6.283180
 The data to be listed is 13.000000
 The data to be printed is 3.141590
 The data to be printed is 3.141590

It must be pointed out that there is nothing new here, the pointer to a function is available in ANSI-C as well as in C++ and works in the manner described here for both languages. It is not regularly used by most C programmers, so it is defined here as a refresher. If you are comfortable with the use of pointers to functions, you can skip this discussion entirely.

There is nothing unusual about this program except for the pointer to a function declared in line 7. This declares a pointer to a function which returns nothing (void) and requires a single formal parameter, a float type variable. You will notice that all three of the functions declared in lines 4 through 6 fit this profile and are therefore candidates to be called with this pointer. If you have not used prototyping in C, these lines will look strange to you. Don’t worry about them at this point since we will study prototyping in the next chapter of this tutorial.

Observe that in line 14 we call the function print_stuff() with the parameter pi and in line 15 we assign the function pointer named function_pointer the value of print_stuff() and use the function pointer to call the same function again in line 16. Lines 14 and 16 are therefore identical in what is accomplished because of the pointer assignment in line 15. In lines 17 through 22, a few more

illustrations of the use of the function pointer are given. You will be left to study these on your own.

Since we assigned the name of a function to a function pointer, and did not get an assignment error, the name of a function must be a pointer to that function. This is exactly the case. A function name is a pointer to that function, but it is a pointer constant and cannot be changed. This is exactly the case we found when we studied arrays in ANSI-C at some point in our C programming background. An array name is a pointer constant to the first element of the array.

Since the name of the function is a constant pointer to that function, we can assign the name of the function to a function pointer and use the function pointer to call the function. The only caveat is that the return value and the number and types of parameters must be identical. Most C and C++ compilers will not, and in fact, can not warn you of type mismatches between the parameter lists when the assignments are made. This is because the assignments are done at run time when no type information is available to the system, rather than at compile time when all type information is available.

The use and operation of pointers must be thoroughly understood when we get to the material on dynamic binding and polymorphism later in this tutorial. It will be discussed in detail at that time.

M. Saqib: Saqib is Master-level Senior Software Engineer with over 14 years of experience in designing and developing large-scale software and web applications. He has more than eight years experience of leading software development teams. Saqib provides consultancy to develop software systems and web services for Fortune 500 companies. He has hands-on experience in C/C++ Java, JavaScript, PHP and .NET Technologies. Saqib owns and write contents on mycplus.com since 2004.
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