Re: Function arguments: References vs pointers

Abhishek Padmanabh <>
Sat, 30 Jun 2007 18:54:36 CST
On Jun 17, 2:43 am, Rune Allnor <> wrote:

Except for the source code being easier to read by the human
when using references, are there more differences between the
two forms?

Pointers can point to raw memory and not just valid or invalid or NULL
objects. In object construction, there is are two steps of memory
allocation and then construction via the constructor call.
You cannot pass the memory being referred/pointed to as a reference
when the second phase is yet to complete. For example, with boost

    // load data required for construction and invoke constructor in
    template<class Archive, class T>
    inline void load_construct_data(
        Archive & ar, T * t, const unsigned int file_version
        // default just uses the default constructor to initialize
        // previously allocated memory.

Above, passing the second object by reference would not make sense.
Because the object is not constructed. For such lazy construction
scenarios a pointer parameter types looks more clearer. I would not
want to associate a reference to a not-fully-constructed object.

In addition to that, pointers support arithematic on them, references
don't. So, if there is such a need in a function, passing a reference
makes it much less clearer. A pointer is more
intuitive and natural. A reference would mean a single object (atleast
I haven't seen anyone working with a reference to the first element of
an array - containers aside - but still we work with iterators or
random access there which is closer to pointer semantics). To me, it
would look really poor choice to have a reference passed as a start
element for an array. I have never seen such code. In this context -
why don't STL algorithms take references? They could have had got back
to pointers? They take iterators (and pointers) and it is not that all
of them tend to modify the objects always.

Whole of memory management constructs in C and C++ revolve around
pointers. new returns a pointer, malloc returns a pointer, free and
delete work on pointers. So, preserve the naturality of expressions/
statements, a pointer is a better choice. Similarly, references can be
the right choice in many cases based on the same ground.

For a piece of C++ code that has to deal with C, or for that matter
with any other language interoperability, pointers have no
alternative. Why make an unnecessary transformation from pointer to
reference and then back to pointer in such scenarios?

There are certain restrictions sometimes, for example exception
handling disallowed in the code. In those scenario' of nothrow(),
there are operations that throw with references (for example,
dynamic_cast<> as compared to pointers. What would be more natural
choice - a pointer argument or a reference? Well, that could be argued
upon depending on how the object was being declared and used prior to
it but if this happens inside a function (for the interface writer), I
would expect it to take a pointer than a reference. When you return
the result of the cast, you would not want to dereference it and pass
it back. All this pointer to reference transformation makes it look a
lot less cleaner. Not to mention the case of a NULL return if the cast

Now, I wonder why boost::lexical_cast doesn't take a pointer. For

    template<typename Target, typename Source>
    Target lexical_cast(const Source &arg)
        typedef typename detail::array_to_pointer_decay<Source>::type

        detail::lexical_stream<Target, NewSource> interpreter;
        Target result;

        if(!(interpreter << arg && interpreter >> result))
        return result;

This template would generate multiple instantiations for a char array
of different sizes. That is plain code bloat. Boost writers prevent
the lexical_stream<> from bloating by that decay trick but the
lexical_cast template itself isn't saved. It needs compiler
optimizations to prevent that (with VS2005 and gcc 4.1 that I know
of). That would have had been avoided had it accepted the Source
argument as a pointer in which case, all arrays passed would have had
automatically decayed to pointer. No hacks would have had been

On the point of if a pointer/reference signalling modification - what
if pointers are themselves passed by reference? How clearer would the
code be from the calling point (for the caller)? :-)

What I feel is the natural semantics should be respected. Be it a
reference or a pointer, it does not matter as long as the code does
what it needs to do. References provide ease to accessing
members and you don't always need the '->' operator which can be a
typing pain sometimes. :) I am with the FAQ as stated above - "Use
references where you can, pointers where you have to." A little
juggling between them is not really a concern. Or is it?

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