Reference (C++)

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In the C++ programming language, a reference is a simple reference datatype that is less powerful but safer than the pointer type inherited from C. The name C++ reference may cause confusion, as in computer science a reference is a general concept datatype, with pointers and C++ references being specific reference datatype implementations.


Syntax and terminology

The declaration of the form:

<Type> & <Name>

where <Type> is a type and <Name> is an identifier whose type is reference to <Type>.


  1. int A = 5;
  2. int& rA = A;
  3. extern int& rB;
  4. int& foo ();
  5. void bar (int& rP);
  6. class MyClass { int& m_b; /* ... */ };
  7. int funcX() { return 42 ; }; int (&xFunc)() = funcX;

Here, rA and rB are of type "reference to int", foo() is a function that returns a reference to int, bar() is a function with a reference parameter, which is reference to int, MyClass is a class with a member which is reference to int, funcX() is a function that returns an int, xFunc() is an alias for funcX.

Types which are of kind "reference to <Type>" are sometimes called reference types. Identifiers which are of reference type are called reference variables. To call them variable, however, is in fact a misnomer, as we will see.

Relationship to pointers

C++ references differ from pointers in several essential ways:

  • It is not possible to refer directly to a reference object after it is defined; any occurrence of its name refers directly to the object it references.
  • Once a reference is created, it cannot be later made to reference another object; it cannot be reseated. This is often done with pointers.
  • References cannot be null, whereas pointers can; every reference refers to some object, although it may or may not be valid.
  • References cannot be uninitialized. Because it is impossible to reinitialize a reference, they must be initialized as soon as they are created. In particular, local and global variables must be initialized where they are defined, and references which are data members of class instances must be initialized in the initializer list of the class's constructor. For example:
int& k; // compiler will complain: error: `k' declared as reference but not initialized

There is a simple conversion between pointers and references: the address-of operator (&) will yield a pointer referring to the same object when applied to a reference, and a reference which is initialized from the dereference (*) of a pointer value will refer to the same object as that pointer, where this is possible without invoking undefined behavior. This equivalence is a reflection of the typical implementation, which effectively compiles references into pointers which are implicitly dereferenced at each use.

A consequence of this is that in many implementations, operating on a variable with automatic or static lifetime through a reference, although syntactically similar to accessing it directly, can involve hidden dereference operations that are costly.

Also, because the operations on references are so limited, they are much easier to understand than pointers and are more resistant to errors. While pointers can be made invalid through a variety of mechanisms, ranging from carrying a null value to out-of-bounds arithmetic to illegal casts to producing them from random integers, a reference only becomes invalid in two cases:

  • If it refers to an object with automatic allocation which goes out of scope,
  • If it refers to an object inside a block of dynamic memory which has been freed.

The first is easy to detect automatically if the reference has static scoping, but is still a problem if the reference is a member of a dynamically allocated object; the second is more difficult to assure. These are the only concern with references, and are suitably addressed by a reasonable allocation policy.

Uses of references

  • Other than just a helpful replacement for pointers, one convenient application of references is in function parameter lists, where they allow passing of parameters used for output with no explicit address-taking by the caller. For example:
void square(int x, int& result) {
      result = x * x;

Then, the following call would place 9 in y:

square(3, y);

However, the following call would give a compiler error, since reference parameters not qualified with const can only be bound to addressable values:

square(3, 6);
  • Returning a reference also allows a surprising syntax in which function calls can be assigned to:
int& preinc(int& x) { 
    return x; 
preinc(y) = 5; // same as ++y, y = 5
  • In many implementations, normal parameter-passing mechanisms often imply an expensive copy operation for large parameters. References qualified with const are a useful way of passing large objects between functions that avoids this overhead:
void f_slow(BigObject x) { /* ... */ }  
void f_fast(const BigObject& x) { /* ... */ }
BigObject y;
f_slow(y); // slow, copies y to parameter x
f_fast(y); // fast, gives direct read-only access to y

If f_fast() actually requires its own copy of x that it can modify, it must create a copy explicitly. While the same technique could be applied using pointers, this would involve modifying every call site of the function to add cumbersome address-of (&) operators to the argument, and would be equally difficult to undo, if the object became smaller later on.


References are defined by the ISO C++ standard as follows (excluding the example section):


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