C++ Returning reference to local variable

C++ Returning reference to local variable

C++ Returning reference to local variable

This code snippet:

int& func1()
{
    int i;
    i = 1;
    return i;
}

will not work because youre returning an alias (a reference) to an object with a lifetime limited to the scope of the function call. That means once func1() returns, int i dies, making the reference returned from the function worthless because it now refers to an object that doesnt exist.

int main()
{
    int& p = func1();
    /* p is garbage */
}

The second version does work because the variable is allocated on the free store, which is not bound to the lifetime of the function call. However, you are responsible for deleteing the allocated int.

int* func2()
{
    int* p;
    p = new int;
    *p = 1;
    return p;
}

int main()
{
    int* p = func2();
    /* pointee still exists */
    delete p; // get rid of it
}

Typically you would wrap the pointer in some RAII class and/or a factory function so you dont have to delete it yourself.

In either case, you can just return the value itself (although I realize the example you provided was probably contrived):

int func3()
{
    return 1;
}

int main()
{
    int v = func3();
    // do whatever you want with the returned value
}

Note that its perfectly fine to return big objects the same way func3() returns primitive values because just about every compiler nowadays implements some form of return value optimization:

class big_object 
{ 
public:
    big_object(/* constructor arguments */);
    ~big_object();
    big_object(const big_object& rhs);
    big_object& operator=(const big_object& rhs);
    /* public methods */
private:
    /* data members */
};

big_object func4()
{
    return big_object(/* constructor arguments */);
}

int main()
{
     // no copy is actually made, if your compiler supports RVO
    big_object o = func4();    
}

Interestingly, binding a temporary to a const reference is perfectly legal C++.

int main()
{
    // This works! The returned temporary will last as long as the reference exists
    const big_object& o = func4();    
    // This does *not* work! Its not legal C++ because reference is not const.
    // big_object& o = func4();  
}

A local variable is memory on the stack, that memory is not automatically invalidated when you go out of scope. From a Function deeper nested (higher on the stack in memory), its perfectly safe to access this memory.

Once the Function returns and ends though, things get dangerous.
Usually the memory is not deleted or overwritten when you return, meaning the memory at that adresss is still containing your data – the pointer seems valid.

Until another function builds up the stack and overwrites it.
This is why this can work for a while – and then suddenly cease to function after one particularly deeply nested set of functions, or a function with really huge sized or many local objects, reaches that stack-memory again.

It even can happen that you reach the same program part again, and overwrite your old local function variable with the new function variable. All this is very dangerous and should be heavily discouraged.
Do not use pointers to local objects!

C++ Returning reference to local variable

A good thing to remember are these simple rules, and they apply to both parameters and return types…

  • Value – makes a copy of the item in question.
  • Pointer – refers to the address of the item in question.
  • Reference – is literally the item in question.

There is a time and place for each, so make sure you get to know them. Local variables, as youve shown here, are just that, limited to the time they are locally alive in the function scope. In your example having a return type of int* and returning &i would have been equally incorrect. You would be better off in that case doing this…

void func1(int& oValue)
{
    oValue = 1;
}

Doing so would directly change the value of your passed in parameter. Whereas this code…

void func1(int oValue)
{
    oValue = 1;
}

would not. It would just change the value of oValue local to the function call. The reason for this is because youd actually be changing just a local copy of oValue, and not oValue itself.

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