Pointers

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In this tutorial, we will discuss pointers. So what are Pointers?

Simply defined, a Pointer is a variable that is used to store the memory address of another variable.

pointers

It can be used like this:

var x *T

Where T is the type such as int, string, float, and so on.

Let's try a simple example and see it in action.

package main

import "fmt"

func main() {
	var p *int

	fmt.Println(p)
}
$ go run main.go
nil

Hmm, this prints nil, but what is nil?

So nil is a predeclared identifier in Go that represents zero value for pointers, interfaces, channels, maps, and slices.

This is just like what we learned in the variables and datatypes section, where we saw that uninitialized int has a zero value of 0, a bool has false, and so on.

Okay, now let's assign a value to the pointer.

package main

import "fmt"

func main() {
	a := 10

	var p *int = &a

	fmt.Println("address:", p)
}

We use the & ampersand operator to refer to a variable's memory address.

$ go run main.go
0xc0000b8000

This must be the value of the memory address of the variable a.

Dereferencing

We can also use the * asterisk operator to value stored in the variable that the pointer points to. This is called dereferencing.

For example, we can access the value of the variable a through the pointer p using that * asterisk operator.

package main

import "fmt"

func main() {
	a := 10

	var p *int = &a

	fmt.Println("address:", p)
	fmt.Println("value:", *p)
}
$ go run main.go
address: 0xc000018030
value: 10

We can not only access it but change it as well through the pointer.

package main

import "fmt"

func main() {
	a := 10

	var p *int = &a

	fmt.Println("before", a)
	fmt.Println("address:", p)

	*p = 20
	fmt.Println("after:", a)
}
$ go run main.go
before 10
address: 0xc000192000
after: 20

I think this is pretty neat!

Pointers as function args

Pointers can also be used as arguments for a function when we need to pass some data by reference.

Here's an example:

myFunction(&a)
...

func myFunction(ptr *int) {}

New function

There's also another way to initialize a pointer. We can use the new function which takes a type as an argument, allocates enough memory to accommodate a value of that type, and returns a pointer to it.

Here's an example:

package main

import "fmt"

func main() {
	p := new(int)
	*p = 100

	fmt.Println("value", *p)
	fmt.Println("address", p)
}
$ go run main.go
value 100
address 0xc000018030

Pointer to a Pointer

Here's an interesting idea...can we create a pointer to a pointer. And the answer is yes! Yes, we can.

package main

import "fmt"

func main() {
	p := new(int)
	*p = 100

	p1 := &p

	fmt.Println("P value", *p, " address", p)
	fmt.Println("P1 value", *p1, " address", p)

	fmt.Println("Dereferenced value", **p1)
}
$ go run main.go
P value 100  address 0xc0000be000
P1 value 0xc0000be000  address 0xc0000be000
Dereferenced value 100

Notice how the value of p1 matches the address of p.

Also, it is important to know that pointers in Go do not support pointer arithmetic like in C or C++.

	p1 := p * 2 // Compiler Error: invalid operation

However, we can compare two pointers of the same type for equality using a == operator.

p := &a
p1 := &a

fmt.Println(p == p1)

But Why?

This brings us to the million-dollar question, why do we need pointers?

Well, there's no definite answer for that, and pointers are just another useful feature that helps us mutate our data efficiently without copying a large amount of data.

And can be applied to tons of use cases.

Lastly, I will add that if you are coming from a language with no notion of pointers, don't panic and try to form a mental model of how pointers work.

© 2022 Karan Pratap Singh