methods and in - Is Java “pass-by-reference” or “pass-by-value”?





15 Answers

I just noticed you referenced my article.

The Java Spec says that everything in Java is pass-by-value. There is no such thing as "pass-by-reference" in Java.

The key to understanding this is that something like

Dog myDog;

is not a Dog; it's actually a pointer to a Dog.

What that means, is when you have

Dog myDog = new Dog("Rover");
foo(myDog);

you're essentially passing the address of the created Dog object to the foo method.

(I say essentially because Java pointers aren't direct addresses, but it's easiest to think of them that way)

Suppose the Dog object resides at memory address 42. This means we pass 42 to the method.

if the Method were defined as

public void foo(Dog someDog) {
    someDog.setName("Max");     // AAA
    someDog = new Dog("Fifi");  // BBB
    someDog.setName("Rowlf");   // CCC
}

let's look at what's happening.

  • the parameter someDog is set to the value 42
  • at line "AAA"
    • someDog is followed to the Dog it points to (the Dog object at address 42)
    • that Dog (the one at address 42) is asked to change his name to Max
  • at line "BBB"
    • a new Dog is created. Let's say he's at address 74
    • we assign the parameter someDog to 74
  • at line "CCC"
    • someDog is followed to the Dog it points to (the Dog object at address 74)
    • that Dog (the one at address 74) is asked to change his name to Rowlf
  • then, we return

Now let's think about what happens outside the method:

Did myDog change?

There's the key.

Keeping in mind that myDog is a pointer, and not an actual Dog, the answer is NO. myDog still has the value 42; it's still pointing to the original Dog (but note that because of line "AAA", its name is now "Max" - still the same Dog; myDog's value has not changed.)

It's perfectly valid to follow an address and change what's at the end of it; that does not change the variable, however.

Java works exactly like C. You can assign a pointer, pass the pointer to a method, follow the pointer in the method and change the data that was pointed to. However, you cannot change where that pointer points.

In C++, Ada, Pascal and other languages that support pass-by-reference, you can actually change the variable that was passed.

If Java had pass-by-reference semantics, the foo method we defined above would have changed where myDog was pointing when it assigned someDog on line BBB.

Think of reference parameters as being aliases for the variable passed in. When that alias is assigned, so is the variable that was passed in.

with simple example

I always thought Java was pass-by-reference.

However, I've seen a couple of blog posts (for example, this blog) that claim that it isn't.

I don't think I understand the distinction they're making.

What is the explanation?




This will give you some insights of how Java really works to the point that in your next discussion about Java passing by reference or passing by value you'll just smile :-)

Step one please erase from your mind that word that starts with 'p' "_ _ _ _ _ _ _", especially if you come from other programming languages. Java and 'p' cannot be written in the same book, forum, or even txt.

Step two remember that when you pass an Object into a method you're passing the Object reference and not the Object itself.

  • Student: Master, does this mean that Java is pass-by-reference?
  • Master: Grasshopper, No.

Now think of what an Object's reference/variable does/is:

  1. A variable holds the bits that tell the JVM how to get to the referenced Object in memory (Heap).
  2. When passing arguments to a method you ARE NOT passing the reference variable, but a copy of the bits in the reference variable. Something like this: 3bad086a. 3bad086a represents a way to get to the passed object.
  3. So you're just passing 3bad086a that it's the value of the reference.
  4. You're passing the value of the reference and not the reference itself (and not the object).
  5. This value is actually COPIED and given to the method.

In the following (please don't try to compile/execute this...):

1. Person person;
2. person = new Person("Tom");
3. changeName(person);
4.
5. //I didn't use Person person below as an argument to be nice
6. static void changeName(Person anotherReferenceToTheSamePersonObject) {
7.     anotherReferenceToTheSamePersonObject.setName("Jerry");
8. }

What happens?

  • The variable person is created in line #1 and it's null at the beginning.
  • A new Person Object is created in line #2, stored in memory, and the variable person is given the reference to the Person object. That is, its address. Let's say 3bad086a.
  • The variable person holding the address of the Object is passed to the function in line #3.
  • In line #4 you can listen to the sound of silence
  • Check the comment on line #5
  • A method local variable -anotherReferenceToTheSamePersonObject- is created and then comes the magic in line #6:
    • The variable/reference person is copied bit-by-bit and passed to anotherReferenceToTheSamePersonObject inside the function.
    • No new instances of Person are created.
    • Both "person" and "anotherReferenceToTheSamePersonObject" hold the same value of 3bad086a.
    • Don't try this but person==anotherReferenceToTheSamePersonObject would be true.
    • Both variables have IDENTICAL COPIES of the reference and they both refer to the same Person Object, the SAME Object on the Heap and NOT A COPY.

A picture is worth a thousand words:

Note that the anotherReferenceToTheSamePersonObject arrows is directed towards the Object and not towards the variable person!

If you didn't get it then just trust me and remember that it's better to say that Java is pass by value. Well, pass by reference value. Oh well, even better is pass-by-copy-of-the-variable-value! ;)

Now feel free to hate me but note that given this there is no difference between passing primitive data types and Objects when talking about method arguments.

You always pass a copy of the bits of the value of the reference!

  • If it's a primitive data type these bits will contain the value of the primitive data type itself.
  • If it's an Object the bits will contain the value of the address that tells the JVM how to get to the Object.

Java is pass-by-value because inside a method you can modify the referenced Object as much as you want but no matter how hard you try you'll never be able to modify the passed variable that will keep referencing (not p _ _ _ _ _ _ _) the same Object no matter what!


The changeName function above will never be able to modify the actual content (the bit values) of the passed reference. In other word changeName cannot make Person person refer to another Object.


Of course you can cut it short and just say that Java is pass-by-value!




Java passes references by value.

So you can't change the reference that gets passed in.




Just to show the contrast, compare the following C++ and Java snippets:

In C++: Note: Bad code - memory leaks! But it demonstrates the point.

void cppMethod(int val, int &ref, Dog obj, Dog &objRef, Dog *objPtr, Dog *&objPtrRef)
{
    val = 7; // Modifies the copy
    ref = 7; // Modifies the original variable
    obj.SetName("obj"); // Modifies the copy of Dog passed
    objRef.SetName("objRef"); // Modifies the original Dog passed
    objPtr->SetName("objPtr"); // Modifies the original Dog pointed to 
                               // by the copy of the pointer passed.
    objPtr = new Dog("newObjPtr");  // Modifies the copy of the pointer, 
                                   // leaving the original object alone.
    objPtrRef->SetName("objRefPtr"); // Modifies the original Dog pointed to 
                                    // by the original pointer passed. 
    objPtrRef = new Dog("newObjPtrRef"); // Modifies the original pointer passed
}

int main()
{
    int a = 0;
    int b = 0;
    Dog d0 = Dog("d0");
    Dog d1 = Dog("d1");
    Dog *d2 = new Dog("d2");
    Dog *d3 = new Dog("d3");
    cppMethod(a, b, d0, d1, d2, d3);
    // a is still set to 0
    // b is now set to 7
    // d0 still have name "d0"
    // d1 now has name "objRef"
    // d2 now has name "objPtr"
    // d3 now has name "newObjPtrRef"
}

In Java,

public static void javaMethod(int val, Dog objPtr)
{
   val = 7; // Modifies the copy
   objPtr.SetName("objPtr") // Modifies the original Dog pointed to 
                            // by the copy of the pointer passed.
   objPtr = new Dog("newObjPtr");  // Modifies the copy of the pointer, 
                                  // leaving the original object alone.
}

public static void main()
{
    int a = 0;
    Dog d0 = new Dog("d0");
    javaMethod(a, d0);
    // a is still set to 0
    // d0 now has name "objPtr"
}

Java only has the two types of passing: by value for built-in types, and by value of the pointer for object types.




Basically, reassigning Object parameters doesn't affect the argument, e.g.,

private void foo(Object bar) {
    bar = null;
}

public static void main(String[] args) {
    String baz = "Hah!";
    foo(baz);
    System.out.println(baz);
}

will print out "Hah!" instead of null. The reason this works is because bar is a copy of the value of baz, which is just a reference to "Hah!". If it were the actual reference itself, then foo would have redefined baz to null.




The crux of the matter is that the word reference in the expression "pass by reference" means something completely different from the usual meaning of the word reference in Java.

Usually in Java reference means a a reference to an object. But the technical terms pass by reference/value from programming language theory is talking about a reference to the memory cell holding the variable, which is something completely different.




A reference is always a value when represented, no matter what language you use.

Getting an outside of the box view, let's look at Assembly or some low level memory management. At the CPU level a reference to anything immediately becomes a value if it gets written to memory or to one of the CPU registers. (That is why pointer is a good definition. It is a value, which has a purpose at the same time).

Data in memory has a Location and at that location there is a value (byte,word, whatever). In Assembly we have a convenient solution to give a Name to certain Location (aka variable), but when compiling the code, the assembler simply replaces Name with the designated location just like your browser replaces domain names with IP addresses.

Down to the core it is technically impossible to pass a reference to anything in any language without representing it (when it immediately becomes a value).

Lets say we have a variable Foo, its Location is at the 47th byte in memory and its Value is 5. We have another variable Ref2Foo which is at 223rd byte in memory, and its value will be 47. This Ref2Foo might be a technical variable, not explicitly created by the program. If you just look at 5 and 47 without any other information, you will see just two Values. If you use them as references then to reach to 5 we have to travel:

(Name)[Location] -> [Value at the Location]
---------------------
(Ref2Foo)[223]  -> 47
(Foo)[47]       -> 5

This is how jump-tables work.

If we want to call a method/function/procedure with Foo's value, there are a few possible way to pass the variable to the method, depending on the language and its several method invocation modes:

  1. 5 gets copied to one of the CPU registers (ie. EAX).
  2. 5 gets PUSHd to the stack.
  3. 47 gets copied to one of the CPU registers
  4. 47 PUSHd to the stack.
  5. 223 gets copied to one of the CPU registers.
  6. 223 gets PUSHd to the stack.

In every cases above a value - a copy of an existing value - has been created, it is now upto the receiving method to handle it. When you write "Foo" inside the method, it is either read out from EAX, or automatically dereferenced, or double dereferenced, the process depends on how the language works and/or what the type of Foo dictates. This is hidden from the developer until she circumvents the dereferencing process. So a reference is a value when represented, because a reference is a value that has to be processed (at language level).

Now we have passed Foo to the method:

  • in case 1. and 2. if you change Foo (Foo = 9) it only affects local scope as you have a copy of the Value. From inside the method we cannot even determine where in memory the original Foo was located.
  • in case 3. and 4. if you use default language constructs and change Foo (Foo = 11), it could change Foo globally (depends on the language, ie. Java or like Pascal's procedure findMin(x, y, z: integer;var m: integer);). However if the language allows you to circumvent the dereference process, you can change 47, say to 49. At that point Foo seems to have been changed if you read it, because you have changed the local pointer to it. And if you were to modify this Foo inside the method (Foo = 12) you will probably FUBAR the execution of the program (aka. segfault) because you will write to a different memory than expected, you can even modify an area that is destined to hold executable program and writing to it will modify running code (Foo is now not at 47). BUT Foo's value of 47 did not change globally, only the one inside the method, because 47 was also a copy to the method.
  • in case 5. and 6. if you modify 223 inside the method it creates the same mayhem as in 3. or 4. (a pointer, pointing to a now bad value, that is again used as a pointer) but this is still a local problem, as 223 was copied. However if you are able to dereference Ref2Foo (that is 223), reach to and modify the pointed value 47, say, to 49, it will affect Foo globally, because in this case the methods got a copy of 223 but the referenced 47 exists only once, and changing that to 49 will lead every Ref2Foo double-dereferencing to a wrong value.

Nitpicking on insignificant details, even languages that do pass-by-reference will pass values to functions, but those functions know that they have to use it for dereferencing purposes. This pass-the-reference-as-value is just hidden from the programmer because it is practically useless and the terminology is only pass-by-reference.

Strict pass-by-value is also useless, it would mean that a 100 Mbyte array should have to be copied every time we call a method with the array as argument, therefore Java cannot be stricly pass-by-value. Every language would pass a reference to this huge array (as a value) and either employs copy-on-write mechanism if that array can be changed locally inside the method or allows the method (as Java does) to modify the array globally (from the caller's view) and a few languages allows to modify the Value of the reference itself.

So in short and in Java's own terminology, Java is pass-by-value where value can be: either a real value or a value that is a representation of a reference.




As far as I know, Java only knows call by value. This means for primitive datatypes you will work with an copy and for objects you will work with an copy of the reference to the objects. However I think there are some pitfalls; for example, this will not work:

public static void swap(StringBuffer s1, StringBuffer s2) {
    StringBuffer temp = s1;
    s1 = s2;
    s2 = temp;
}


public static void main(String[] args) {
    StringBuffer s1 = new StringBuffer("Hello");
    StringBuffer s2 = new StringBuffer("World");
    swap(s1, s2);
    System.out.println(s1);
    System.out.println(s2);
}

This will populate Hello World and not World Hello because in the swap function you use copys which have no impact on the references in the main. But if your objects are not immutable you can change it for example:

public static void appendWorld(StringBuffer s1) {
    s1.append(" World");
}

public static void main(String[] args) {
    StringBuffer s = new StringBuffer("Hello");
    appendWorld(s);
    System.out.println(s);
}

This will populate Hello World on the command line. If you change StringBuffer into String it will produce just Hello because String is immutable. For example:

public static void appendWorld(String s){
    s = s+" World";
}

public static void main(String[] args) {
    String s = new String("Hello");
    appendWorld(s);
    System.out.println(s);
}

However you could make a wrapper for String like this which would make it able to use it with Strings:

class StringWrapper {
    public String value;

    public StringWrapper(String value) {
        this.value = value;
    }
}

public static void appendWorld(StringWrapper s){
    s.value = s.value +" World";
}

public static void main(String[] args) {
    StringWrapper s = new StringWrapper("Hello");
    appendWorld(s);
    System.out.println(s.value);
}

edit: i believe this is also the reason to use StringBuffer when it comes to "adding" two Strings because you can modifie the original object which u can't with immutable objects like String is.




Let me try to explain my understanding with the help of four examples. Java is pass-by-value, and not pass-by-reference

/**

Pass By Value

In Java, all parameters are passed by value, i.e. assigning a method argument is not visible to the caller.

*/

Example 1:

public class PassByValueString {
    public static void main(String[] args) {
        new PassByValueString().caller();
    }

    public void caller() {
        String value = "Nikhil";
        boolean valueflag = false;
        String output = method(value, valueflag);
        /*
         * 'output' is insignificant in this example. we are more interested in
         * 'value' and 'valueflag'
         */
        System.out.println("output : " + output);
        System.out.println("value : " + value);
        System.out.println("valueflag : " + valueflag);

    }

    public String method(String value, boolean valueflag) {
        value = "Anand";
        valueflag = true;
        return "output";
    }
}

Result

output : output
value : Nikhil
valueflag : false

Example 2:

/** * * Pass By Value * */

public class PassByValueNewString {
    public static void main(String[] args) {
        new PassByValueNewString().caller();
    }

    public void caller() {
        String value = new String("Nikhil");
        boolean valueflag = false;
        String output = method(value, valueflag);
        /*
         * 'output' is insignificant in this example. we are more interested in
         * 'value' and 'valueflag'
         */
        System.out.println("output : " + output);
        System.out.println("value : " + value);
        System.out.println("valueflag : " + valueflag);

    }

    public String method(String value, boolean valueflag) {
        value = "Anand";
        valueflag = true;
        return "output";
    }
}

Result

output : output
value : Nikhil
valueflag : false

Example 3:

/** This 'Pass By Value has a feeling of 'Pass By Reference'

Some people say primitive types and 'String' are 'pass by value' and objects are 'pass by reference'.

But from this example, we can understand that it is infact pass by value only, keeping in mind that here we are passing the reference as the value. ie: reference is passed by value. That's why are able to change and still it holds true after the local scope. But we cannot change the actual reference outside the original scope. what that means is demonstrated by next example of PassByValueObjectCase2.

*/

public class PassByValueObjectCase1 {

    private class Student {
        int id;
        String name;
        public Student() {
        }
        public Student(int id, String name) {
            super();
            this.id = id;
            this.name = name;
        }
        public int getId() {
            return id;
        }
        public void setId(int id) {
            this.id = id;
        }
        public String getName() {
            return name;
        }
        public void setName(String name) {
            this.name = name;
        }
        @Override
        public String toString() {
            return "Student [id=" + id + ", name=" + name + "]";
        }
    }

    public static void main(String[] args) {
        new PassByValueObjectCase1().caller();
    }

    public void caller() {
        Student student = new Student(10, "Nikhil");
        String output = method(student);
        /*
         * 'output' is insignificant in this example. we are more interested in
         * 'student'
         */
        System.out.println("output : " + output);
        System.out.println("student : " + student);
    }

    public String method(Student student) {
        student.setName("Anand");
        return "output";
    }
}

Result

output : output
student : Student [id=10, name=Anand]

Example 4:

/**

In addition to what was mentioned in Example3 (PassByValueObjectCase1.java), we cannot change the actual reference outside the original scope."

Note: I am not pasting the code for private class Student. The class definition for Student is same as Example3.

*/

public class PassByValueObjectCase2 {

    public static void main(String[] args) {
        new PassByValueObjectCase2().caller();
    }

    public void caller() {
        // student has the actual reference to a Student object created
        // can we change this actual reference outside the local scope? Let's see
        Student student = new Student(10, "Nikhil");
        String output = method(student);
        /*
         * 'output' is insignificant in this example. we are more interested in
         * 'student'
         */
        System.out.println("output : " + output);
        System.out.println("student : " + student); // Will it print Nikhil or Anand?
    }

    public String method(Student student) {
        student = new Student(20, "Anand");
        return "output";
    }

}

Result

output : output
student : Student [id=10, name=Nikhil]



Java is a call by value.

How it works

  • You always pass a copy of the bits of the value of the reference!

  • If it's a primitive data type these bits contain the value of the primitive data type itself, That's why if we change the value of header inside the method then it does not reflect the changes outside.

  • If it's an object data type like Foo foo=new Foo() then in this case copy of the address of the object passes like file shortcut , suppose we have a text file abc.txt at C:\desktop and suppose we make shortcut of the same file and put this inside C:\desktop\abc-shortcut so when you access the file from C:\desktop\abc.txt and write '' and close the file and again you open the file from shortcut then you write ' is the largest online community for programmers to learn' then total file change will be ' is the largest online community for programmers to learn' which means it doesn't matter from where you open the file , each time we were accessing the same file , here we can assume Foo as a file and suppose foo stored at 123hd7h(original address like C:\desktop\abc.txt ) address and 234jdid(copied address like C:\desktop\abc-shortcut which actually contains the original address of the file inside) .. So for better understanding make shortcut file and feel...




The distinction, or perhaps just the way I remember as I used to be under the same impression as the original poster is this: Java is always pass by value. All objects( in Java, anything except for primitives) in Java are references. These references are passed by value.




Java has only pass by value. A very simple example to validate this.

public void test() {
    MyClass obj = null;
    init(obj);
    //After calling init method, obj still points to null
    //this is because obj is passed as value and not as reference.
}
private void init(MyClass objVar) {
    objVar = new MyClass();
}



I always think of it as "pass by copy". It is a copy of the value be it primitive or reference. If it is a primitive it is a copy of the bits that are the value and if it is an Object it is a copy of the reference.

public class PassByCopy{
    public static void changeName(Dog d){
        d.name = "Fido";
    }
    public static void main(String[] args){
        Dog d = new Dog("Maxx");
        System.out.println("name= "+ d.name);
        changeName(d);
        System.out.println("name= "+ d.name);
    }
}
class Dog{
    public String name;
    public Dog(String s){
        this.name = s;
    }
}

output of java PassByCopy:

name= Maxx
name= Fido

Primitive wrapper classes and Strings are immutable so any example using those types will not work the same as other types/objects.




A few corrections to some posts.

C does NOT support pass by reference. It is ALWAYS pass by value. C++ does support pass by reference, but is not the default and is quite dangerous.

It doesn't matter what the value is in Java: primitive or address(roughly) of object, it is ALWAYS passed by value.

If a Java object "behaves" like it is being passed by reference, that is a property of mutability and has absolutely nothing to do with passing mechanisms.

I am not sure why this is so confusing, perhaps because so many Java "programmers" are not formally trained, and thus do not understand what is really going on in memory?




Java passes parameters by VALUE, and by value ONLY.

To cut long story short:

For those coming from C#: THERE IS NO "out" parameter.

For those coming from PASCAL: THERE IS NO "var" parameter.

It means you can't change the reference from the object itself, but you can always change the object's properties.

A workaround is to use StringBuilder parameter instead String. And you can always use arrays!




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