Pointers and Arrays

What are pointers?

Pointers are variables that hold the memory address of another variable. Please see my previous post on memory, if you need a refresher on how memory works. When you use a pointer, you are able to access the variable that it points to, and you are also able to change the pointer so it points to another variable. This process of accessing variables through pointers is called indirect addressing.

Note** Pointers are not available to be used in every programming language. Some languages like Java abstract out the usage of pointers but they are actually used under the hood. C++ is a powerful programming language that supports pointers and all of the examples in this post will be done in C++.

How are they useful?

So why do we need a pointer instead of just directly using a variable? Sometimes we need to do operations on a memory address; For example, if we have a group of variables next to each other in memory, it is easier to send to a function one pointer to the beginning address of the group than sending the whole list of variables.


Image 1 below shows an example of some integers, characters, and pointers in memory. I have shown the values of the data in hexadecimal notation and I have also provided a conversion into the matching data type. So for the integer A, the hex value is 0042 and when it is converted to base 10 it becomes 66. For the character D, the hex value is 0048 and converting it to ASCII notation gives us the letter H.

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 2.30.18 AM

Image 1 : Example of integers, characters, and pointers in 16 bit memory

Now we will look at the integer pointer E which is located at memory address 0x9020. The value that E contains is the address of integer C.

Okay, so we see how this looks in memory, but how is it done in code?

In C++ this can be done with the following code.

//declare the variable c and assign a value to it
int c = 88;
//print the address of integer c
cout << "The address of integer c is : " << &c << "\n";
//declare the integer pointer e and assign the address of c to it
int * e = &c;
//print the value that is held by integer pointer e
cout << "The value held by integer pointer e is : " << e << "\n";
//print the value that the pointer is pointing to
cout << "The value pointed to by integer pointer e is : " << *e << "\n";
    • On line 2 in the code snippet above, we declare the integer c and assign the value 88 to it.


    • On line 4, you will notice that I have printed out the memory address of the integer c that was declared by using the ampersand sign (&). In C++, this is called the address-of operator and it is used to return the address of any variable that follows it.


    • On line 6, to the left of the equal sign we declare the integer pointer e. Pointers are declared in C++ by using an asterisk following the type declaration – TYPE * NAME.

      For example :
      char * character;
      int * number;
      float * decimal;character, number, and decimal are all pointers which take the same amount of space in memory but they point to different data types. The data types to which they point may not take up the same space in memory. Although they are pointers, character, number, and decimal are not considered the same type. A character pointer (char *) is not the same as an integer pointer (int *).


    • On line 6, to the right of the equal sign, we are assigning the address of the integer c to the integer pointer e.


  • On line 10, we get the value that the pointer e is pointing to. This is called dereferencing a pointer and it is done by using an asterisk in front of the pointer name (*pointer_name). Do not confuse this with a pointer declaration like what is shown on line 6 – they may have the same symbol but the usage is very different. The dereference operator first looks up the type of pointer that is being dereferenced. Then it jumps to the memory location that the pointer is pointing to and finally converts the data at that location based on the pointer type. So if the data was being pointed at by an integer pointer, then the dereference operator would convert that data to an integer.

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