Programming Tutorials

Pointers and Function Arguments in C

By: Norman Chap in C Tutorials on 2007-09-22  

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)  /* WRONG */
       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 getint that performs free-format input conversion by breaking a stream of characters into integer values, one integer per call. getint 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 getint 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 getint:

   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 getint. Otherwise there is no way for getint to communicate the converted integer back to the caller.

Our version of getint 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 <ctype.h>

   int getch(void);
   void ungetch(int);

   /* getint:  get next integer from input into *pn */
   int getint(int *pn)
       int c, sign;

       while (isspace(c = getch()))   /* skip white space */
       if (!isdigit(c) && c != EOF && c != '+' && c != '-') {
           ungetch(c);  /* it is not a number */
           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)
       return c;
Throughout getint, *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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