Beginner's Guide
    First Steps
    Input & Output
    Custom Types – Part 1
    Standard Library
    Code Organization
    Custom Types – Part 2
    Generic Programming
    Memory Management
    Software Design Basics


    Capabilities (& Limitations) Capabilities

    non-const References non-const

    int   i = 2;
    int& ri = i;  // reference to i

    ri and i refer to the same object / memory location:

    cout << i  <<'\n';   // 2
    cout << ri <<'\n';   // 2
    i = 5;
    cout << i  <<'\n';   // 5
    cout << ri <<'\n';   // 5
    ri = 88;
    cout << i  <<'\n';   // 88
    cout << ri <<'\n';   // 88
    • references cannot be "null", i.e., they must always refer to an object
    • a reference must always refer to the same memory location
    • reference type must agree with the type of the referenced object
    int  i  = 2;
    int  k  = 3;
    int& ri = i;    // reference to i
    ri = k;         //  COMPILER ERROR: reference can't be redirected
    int& r2;        //  COMPILER ERROR: reference must be initialized
    double& r3 = i; //  COMPILER ERROR: types must agree

    const References const&

    int i = 2;
    int const& cri = i;  // const reference to i
    • cri and i refer to the same object / memory location
    • but const means that value of i cannot be changed through cri
    cout << i   <<'\n';   // 2
    cout << cri <<'\n';   // 2
    i = 5;
    cout << i   <<'\n';   // 5
    cout << cri <<'\n';   // 5
    cri = 88;  //  COMPILER ERROR: const!

    auto References auto&

    reference type is deduced from right hand side of assignment
    int i = 2;           
    double d = 2.023;       
    double x = i + d;       
    auto & ri = i;        // ri:  int &
    auto const& crx = x;  // crx: double const&


    References in Range-Based for Loops In Range-Based for Loops Range for

    std::vector<std::string> v;
    // modify vector elements: for(std::string & s : v) { cin >> s; } // read-only access to vector elements: for(std::string const& s : v) { cout << s; }
    // modify: for(auto & s : v) { cin >> s; } //read-only access: for(auto const& s : v) { cout << s; }

    const Reference Parameters const& Parameters const Parameters

    Read-Only Access ⇒ const&
    • avoids expensive copies
    • clearly communicates read-only intent to users of function

    only needs to read values from vector!

    pass by value ⇒ copy
    int median(vector<int>);
    auto v = get_samples("huge.dat");
    auto m = median(v);  
    // runtime & memory overhead!
    pass by const& ⇒ no copy
    int median(vector<int> const&);
    auto v = get_samples("huge.dat");
    auto m = median(v);  
    // no copy ⇒ no overhead!

    incl_first_last({1,2,4},{6,7,8,9}) → {1,2,4,6,9}

    The implementation works on a local copy 'x' of the first vector and only reads from the second vector via const reference 'y':

    auto incl_first_last(  std::vector<int> x,   std::vector<int> const& y) {
      if(y.empty() return x;
      // append to local copy 'x'
      return x;

    non-const Reference Parameters non-const Ref. Parameters non-const Parameters

    Example: Function that exchanges values of two variables

    void swap(int& i, int& j) {
      int temp = i;  // copy value: i → temp// copy i's value to temp
      i = j;         // copy value: j → i// copy j's value to i
      j = temp;      // copy value: temp → j// copy temp's (i's original value) to j
    int main() {
      int a = 5;
      int b = 3;
      cout << a << '\n'  // 3
           << b;         // 5

    Use std::swap to exchange values of objects (#include <utility>).

    It can be used like the function above, but avoids expensive temporary copies for move-enabled objects like std::vector (it's implementation will be explained in chapter Move Semantics ).

    As useful as non-const references might be in some situations, you should avoid such output parameters in general (see the next panels for more details).

    Function Parameters: copy / const& / &? Parameters: copy / const& / &? copy / const& / &?

    void read_from (int);  // fundamental types
    void read_from (std::vector<int> const&);
    void copy_sink (std::vector<int>);
    void write_to  (std::vector<int> &);
    Read from cheaply copyable object (all fundamental types) ⇒ pass by value
    double sqrt(double x) { … }
    Read from object with larger (> 64bit) memory footprint ⇒ pass by const&
    void print(std::vector<std::string> const& v) {
      for(auto const& s : v) { cout << s << ' '; }
    Copy needed inside function anywaypass by value

    Pass by value instead of copying explictly inside the function. The reasons for this will be explained in more advanced articles.

    auto without_umlauts(std::string s) {
      s.replace('ö', "oe");  // modify local copy
      return s;  // return by value!
    Write to function-external object ⇒ pass by non-const&

    As useful as they might be in some situations, you should avoid such output parameters in general, see here why.

    void swap(int& x, int& y) { … }

    Avoid Output Parameters! Avoid Out Params!

    Functions with non-const ref parameters like
    void foo(int, std::vector<int>&, double);

    can create confusion/ambiguity at the call site:

    foo(i, v, j);
    • Which of the arguments (i, v, j) is changed and which remains unchanged?
    • How and when is the referenced object changed and is it changed at all?
    • Does the reference parameter only act as output (function only writes to it) or also as input (function also reads from it)?

    ⇒ in general hard to debug and to reason about!

    Example: An interface that creates nothing but confusion
    void bad_minimum(int x, int& y) {
      if(x < y) y = x;
    int a = 2;
    int b = 3;
    // Which variable holds the smaller value again?

    Binding Rules Binding

    Rvalues vs. Lvalues R/Lvalues

    Lvalues = expressions of which we can get memory address
    • refer to objects that persist in memory
    • everything that has a name (variables, function parameters, …)

    Rvalues = expressions of which we can't get memory address
    • literals (123, "string literal", …)
    • temporary results of operations
    • temporary objects returned from functions
    int a = 1;      // a and b are both lvalues
    int b = 2;      // 1 and 2 are both rvalues
    a = b;
    b = a;
    a = a * b;      // (a * b) is an rvalue
    int c = a * b;  // OK
    a * b = 3;      //  COMPILER ERROR: cannot assign to rvalue
    std::vector<int> read_samples(int n) { … }
    auto v = read_samples(1000);

    Reference Binding Rules Rules

    & only binds to Lvalues
    const& binds to const Lvalues and Rvalues
    bool is_palindrome(std::string const& s) { … }
    std::string s = "uhu"; 
    cout << is_palindrome(s) <<", "
         << is_palindrome("otto") <<'\n';  // OK, const&
    void swap(int& i, int& j) { … }
    int i = 0; 
    swap(i, 5);  //  COMPILER ERROR: can't bind ref. to literal


    Never Return A Reference To A Function-Local Object! Don't Return Refs To Locals! Ref Returning

    int& increase(int x, int delta) {
        x += delta;
        return x;
    }  //  local x destroyed
    int main() {
      int i = 2;
      int j = increase(i,4);  //  accesses invalid reference!
    Only valid if referenced object outlives the function!
    int& increase(int& x, int delta) {
        x += delta;
        return x;  // x references non-local int
    }  // OK, reference still valid
    int main() {
      int i = 2;
      int j = increase(i,4);  // OK, i and j are 6 now

    Careful With Referencing vector Elements! Careful With vector Elements! Careful With vector!

    References to elements of a std::vector might be invalidated after any operation that changes the number of elements in the vector!
    vector<int> v {0,1,2,3};
    int& i = v[2];
    i = 5; //  UNDEFINED BEHAVIOR: original memory might be gone!
    • Dangling Reference = Reference that refers to a memory location that is no longer valid.

    The internal memory buffer where std::vector stores its elements can be exchanged for a new one during some vector operations, so any reference into the old buffer might be dangling.

    Avoid Lifetime Extension! Avoid Extension!

    References can extend the lifetime of temporaries (rvalues)
    auto const& r = vector<int>{1,2,3,4};

    ⇒ vector exists as long as reference r exists

    What about an object returned from a function?
    std::vector<std::string> foo() { … }

    take it by value (recommended):
    vector<string> v1 = foo();  
    auto v2 = foo();

    ignore it ⇒ gets destroyed right away

    get const reference to it ⇒ lifetime of temporary is extended

    … for as long as the reference lives

    vector<string> const& v3 = foo();  
    auto const& v4 = foo();

    don't take a reference to its members!

    No lifetime extension for members of returned objects (here: the vector's content)!

    string const& s = foo()[0];  // dangling reference!
    cout << s;                   //  UNDEFINED BEHAVIOR
    Don't use lifetime extension through references!
    • easy to create confusion
    • easy to write bugs
    • no real benefit

    Just take returned objects by value. This does not involve expensive copies for most functions and types in modern C++, especially in C++17 and above.