Pointers

A pointer is a variable that contains the address of a variable. Pointers are much used in C, partly because they are sometimes the only way to express a computation, and partly because they usually lead to more compact and efficient code than can be obtained in other ways.

 

Pointers and arrays are closely related; this chapter also explores this relationship and shows how to exploit it.
Pointers have been lumped with the goto statement as a marvelous way to create impossible to understand programs. This is certainly true when they are used carelessly, and it is easy to create pointers that point somewhere unexpected. With discipline, however, pointers can alsobe used to achieve clarity and simplicity. This is the aspect that we will try to illustrate.

 

The main change in ANSI C is to make explicit the rules about how pointers can be manipulated, in effect mandating what good programmers already practice and good compilers already enforce. In addition, the type void * (pointer to void) replaces char * as the proper type for a generic pointer.

 

Pointers and Addresses
Let us begin with a simplified picture of how memory is organized. A typical machine has an array of consecutively numbered or addressed memory cells that may be manipulated individually or in contiguous groups. One common situation is that any byte can be a char, a pair of one-byte cells can be treated as a short integer, and four adjacent bytes form a long.

 

A pointer is a group of cells (often two or four) that can hold an address. So if c is a char and p is a pointer that points to it, we could represent the situation this way:

 

pointers

 

The unary operator &gives the address of an object, so the statement p = &c; assigns the address of c to the variable p, and p is said to “point to” c. The &operator only applies to objects  in memory: variables and array elements. It cannot be applied to expressions, constants, or register variables.

 

The unary operator * is the indirection or dereferencing operator; when applied to a pointer, it accesses the object the pointer points to. Suppose that x and y are integers and ipis a pointer to int.

 

This artificial sequence shows how to declare a pointer and how to use &and *:

 

int x = 1, y = 2, z[10];
 int *ip;
 ip = &x;
 y = *ip;
 *ip = 0;
 ip = &z[0];

 

The declaration of x, y, and z are what we’ve seen all along. The declaration of the pointer ip. int *ip; is intended as a mnemonic; it says that the expression *ipis an int. The syntax of the declaration for a variable mimics the syntax of expressions in which the variable might appear. This reasoning applies to function declarations as well.

 

For example,
double *dp, atof(char *);

 

says that in an expression *dp and at of(s) have values of double, and that the argument of at of is a pointer to char.

 

You should also note the implication that a pointer is constrained to point to a particular kind of object: every pointer points to a specific data type.

 

If ip points to the integer x, then *ip can occur in any context where x could, so

 

*ip = *ip + 10;

 

increments *ip by 10.

 

The unary operators * and &bind more tightly than arithmetic operators, so the assignment

y = *ip + 1

 

takes whatever ip points at, adds 1, and assigns the result to y, while
*ip += 1

 

increments what ip points to, as do
++*ip and (*ip)++

 

The parentheses are necessary in this last example; without them, the expression would increment
ip instead of what it points to, because unary operators like * and ++ associate right to left. Finally, since pointers are variables, they can be used without dereferencing. For example, if iq is another pointer to int, iq = ip copies the contents of ip into iq, thus making iq point to whatever ip pointed to.

 

Pointers and Function Arguments
Pointers and Function Arguments Since C passes arguments to functions by value, there is no direct way for the called function to alter a variable in the calling function. For instance, a sorting routine might exchange two out of order arguments with a function called swap. It is not enough to write swap(a, b); where the swap function is defined as

 

void swap(int x, int y)
 {
 int temp;
 temp = x;
 x = y;
 y = temp;
 }

 

 

Because of call by value, swap can’t affect the arguments a and b in the routine that called it. The function above swaps copies of a and b. The way to obtain the desired effect is for the calling program to pass pointers to the values to be changed: swap(&a, &b);
Since the operator & produces the address of a variable, &a is a pointer to a. In swap itself, the parameters are declared as pointers, and the operands are accessed indirectly through them.

 

void swap(int *px, int *py) /* interchange *px and *py */
 {
 int temp;
 temp = *px;
 *px = *py;
 *py = temp;
 }

 

Pointer arguments enable a function to access and change objects in the function that called it. As an example, consider a function get int that performs free-format input conversion by breaking a stream of characters into integer values, one integer per call. get int has to return the value it found and also signal end of file when there is no more input. These values have to be passed back by separate paths, for no matter what value is used for EOF, that could also be the value of an input integer.

 

One solution is to have get int return the end of file status as its function value, while using a pointer argument to store the converted integer back in the calling function. This is the scheme used by scanf as well The following loop fills an array with integers by calls to get int:

 

int n, array[SIZE], getint(int *);
for (n = 0; n < SIZE &&getint(&array[n]) != EOF; n++)
;

 

Each call sets array[n] to the next integer found in the input and increments n. Notice that it is essential to pass the address of array[n] to get int. Otherwise there is no way for get int to communicate the converted integer back to the caller. Our version of get int returns EOF for end of file, zero if the next input is not a number, and a positive value if the input contains a valid number.

 

#include 
int getch(void);
 void ungetch(int);
 int getint(int *pn)
{
 int c, sign;
 while (isspace(c = getch()));
if (!isdigit(c) && c != EOF && c != '+' && c != '-')
 {
 ungetch(c); return 0;
}
sign = (c == '-') ? -1 : 1;
 if (c == '+' || c == '-')
 c = getch();
 for (*pn = 0; isdigit(c), c = getch())
 *pn = 10 * *pn + (c - '0');
 *pn *= sign;
 if (c != EOF)
ungetch(c);
return c;
 }

Throughout get int, *pn is used as an ordinary int variable. We have also used getch and  ungetch so the one extra character that must be read can be pushed back onto the input

 

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