Notes on Pass by Reference, Pass by Value

Some notes (excerpts from other people) on the differences between pass by reference and pass by value, and how this affects objects get passed in C++ and Java. This is a question that confused me for a long time with lots of bad answers on stack overflow out there.

The best answer I have seen so far

There are some differences in calling conventions in C++ and Java. In C++ there are technically speaking only two conventions: pass-by-value and pass-by-reference, with some literature including a third pass-by-pointer convention (that is actually pass-by-value of a pointer type). On top of that, you can add const-ness to the type of the argument, enhancing the semantics.

Pass by reference

Passing by reference means that the function will conceptually receive your object instance and not a copy of it. The reference is conceptually an alias to the object that was used in the calling context, and cannot be null. All operations performed inside the function apply to the object outside the function. This convention is not available in Java or C.

Pass by value (and pass-by-pointer)

The compiler will generate a copy of the object in the calling context and use that copy inside the function. All operations performed inside the function are done to the copy, not the external element. This is the convention for primitive types in Java.

An special version of it is passing a pointer (address-of the object) into a function. The function receives the pointer, and any and all operations applied to the pointer itself are applied to the copy (pointer), on the other hand, operations applied to the dereferenced pointer will apply to the object instance at that memory location, so the function can have side effects. The effect of using pass-by-value of a pointer to the object will allow the internal function to modify external values, as with pass-by-reference and will also allow for optional values (pass a null pointer).

This is the convention used in C when a function needs to modify an external variable, and the convention used in Java with reference types: the reference is copied, but the referred object is the same: changes to the reference/pointer are not visible outside the function, but changes to the pointed memory are.

Adding const to the equation

In C++ you can assign constant-ness to objects when defining variables, pointers and references at different levels. You can declare a variable to be constant, you can declare a reference to a constant instance, and you can define all pointers to constant objects, constant pointers to mutable objects and constant pointers to constant elements. Conversely in Java you can only define one level of constant-ness (final keyword): that of the variable (instance for primitive types, reference for reference types), but you cannot define a reference to an immutable element (unless the class itself is immutable).

This is extensively used in C++ calling conventions. When the objects are small you can pass the object by value. The compiler will generate a copy, but that copy is not an expensive operation. For any other type, if the function will not change the object, you can pass a reference to a constant instance (usually called constant reference) of the type. This will not copy the object, but pass it into the function. But at the same time the compiler will guarantee that the object is not changed inside the function.

Rules of thumb

This are some basic rules to follow:

  • Prefer pass-by-value for primitive types
  • Prefer pass-by-reference with references to constant for other types
  • If the function needs to modify the argument use pass-by-reference
  • If the argument is optional, use pass-by-pointer (to constant if the optional value should not be modified)

There are other small deviations from these rules, the first of which is handling ownership of an object. When an object is dynamically allocated with new, it must be deallocated with delete (or the [] versions thereof). The object or function that is responsible for the destruction of the object is considered the owner of the resource. When a dynamically allocated object is created in a piece of code, but the ownership is transfered to a different element it is usually done with pass-by-pointer semantics, or if possible with smart pointers.

Side note

It is important to insist in the importance of the difference between C++ and Java references. In C++ references are conceptually the instance of the object, not an accessor to it. The simplest example is implementing a swap function:

// C++
class Type; // defined somewhere before, with the appropriate operations
void swap( Type & a, Type & b ) {
   Type tmp = a;
   a = b;
   b = tmp;
int main() {
   Type a, b;
   Type old_a = a, old_b = b;
   swap( a, b );
   assert( a == old_b );
   assert( b == old_a ); 

The swap function above changes both its arguments through the use of references. The closest code in Java:

public class C {
   // ...
   public static void swap( C a, C b ) {
      C tmp = a;
      a = b;
      b = tmp;
   public static void main( String args[] ) {
      C a = new C();
      C b = new C();
      C old_a = a;
      C old_b = b;
      swap( a, b ); 
      // a and b remain unchanged a==old_a, and b==old_b

The Java version of the code will modify the copies of the references internally, but will not modify the actual objects externally. Java references are C pointers without pointer arithmetic that get passed by value into functions.

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