C++: Addresses, Pointers, References

Memory addresses

Every byte in memory has an integer memory address. Addresses start at zero and go to the maximum amount of memory that the computer has. For example, in a computer that has 256 MB of RAM the bytes would be numbered 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc (up to the power of 2 closest to 256,000,000). Instructions and data are stored in RAM when a program is running, so each instruction or data element is identified by its memory address, or the address of its first byte because many types are longer than one byte. The CPU uses these memory addresses for all operations. One of the great advantages of higher-level language is that all these addressing details are taken care of automatically by the programming language and the programmer doesn't have to worry about them. However, it can be very useful for the programmer to be able to explicitly use memory addresses as data. This data type is called a pointer.


C and C++ have variables that hold memory addresses. These are called pointers. Pointers are an extremely powerful programming feature, long regarded as essential to any full-strength programming language. But the power of pointers also comes at a price, and safe use of pointers turns out to be rather difficult in large programs and the source of many bugs. The most common uses of pointers are:

Pointers are so powerful they are dangerous. They are dangerous because they can access any memory location and a small error in their use can have mysteriously bizarre results, often showing up only later in execution or when the program is run in a different environment. It is estimated that about 50% of the bugs in production ("shrink-wrapped") software are due to pointer misuse. Consequently, some languages do not have pointers, and only have a more restricted use of memory addresses called references.

See Pointers

References - Pointers with restrictions

A much safer and simpler use of memory addresses are references. References are pointers that can't be modified with addition and subtraction. Removing this capability makes references much safer to use than pointers. In addition, they are automatically dereferenced so the programming notation is simpler and less error prone. Newer programming languages, such as Java, have completely eliminated pointers and only use references for greater reliability and security.

The most common use of references is in function parameters. Passing a reference to a value has two advantages.