Planet For Application Life Development Presents
MY IT World

Explore and uptodate your technology skills...

C - Pointers

Pointers are an extremely powerful programming tool. They can make some things much easier, help improve your program's efficiency, and even allow you to handle unlimited amounts of data. For example, using pointers is one way to have a function modify a variable passed to it. It is also possible to use pointers to dynamically allocate memory, which means that you can write programs that can handle nearly unlimited amounts of data on the fly--you don't need to know, when you write the program, how much memory you need. Wow, that's kind of cool. Actually, it's very cool, as we'll see in some of the next tutorials. For now, let's just get a basic handle on what pointers are and how you use them.

Pointers are aptly name: they "point" to locations in memory. Think of a row of safety deposit boxes of various sizes at a local bank. Each safety deposit box will have a number associated with it so that you can quickly look it up. These numbers are like the memory addresses of variables. A pointer in the world of safety deposit box would simply be anything that stored the number of another safety deposit box. Perhaps you have a rich uncle who stored valuables in his safety deposit box, but decided to put the real location in another, smaller, safety deposit box that only stored a card with the number of the large box with the real jewelry. The safety deposit box with the card would be storing the location of another box; it would be equivalent to a pointer. In the computer, pointers are just variables that store memory addresses, usually the addresses of other variables.

The pointer declaration looks like this:

<variable_type> *<name>; 
/* one pointer, one regular int */ int *pointer1, nonpointer1; /* two pointers */ int *pointer1, *pointer2;

Retrieving an Address

In order to have a pointer actually point to another variable it is necessary to have the memory address of that variable also. To get the memory address of a variable (its location in memory), put the & sign in front of the variable name. This makes it give its address. This is called the address-of operator, because it returns the memory address. Conveniently, both ampersand and address-of start with a; that's a useful way to remember that you use & to get the address of a variable.

For example:

#include <stdio.h>

int main()
    int x;            /* A normal integer*/
    int *p;           /* A pointer to an integer ("*p" is an integer, so p
                       must be a pointer to an integer) */

    p = &x;           /* Read it, "assign the address of x to p" */
    scanf( "%d", &x );          /* Put a value in x, we could also use p here */
    printf( "%d\n", *p ); /* Note the use of the * to get the value */