Short C++ remainder on passing objects to functions

Suppose you have an Object class. You instantiate three objects locally:

Object o1, o2, o3;

Then you have a function:

void f(Object o1, Object &o2, Object * o3);

This summarises the three ways you can pass an object to a function: by value, by reference and by reference via a pointer (let’s call it for simplicity call by pointer). Say you call the function like this:

f(o1, o2, &o3);

Inside the function, you may access these objects’ fields like this (note o3):

o1.x  += 3;
o2.x  += 3;
o3->x += 3;


These are the take home messages:

  • [Call by value]: o1 is going to be copied inside the function f, then after f returns the copy is going to be destroyed. This means that any changes made by onto o1 are not going to be visible outside fIn addition to being unsuitable to persist changes, the copy overhead can be very deleterius in certain high-performance applications – however, there is no access overhead.
  • [Call by reference]: o2 is NOT going to be copied, so any changes made to o2 inside f are going to remain even after f returns. This is very efficient: no copy and methods/fields have no access overhead.
  • [Call by pointer]: you are actually passing a pointer to o3 to f, so to access the objects’ fields and methods you need to dereferentiate every time (using the -> operator). This makes it averagely efficient: no copy but access overhead.

It’s clear that, even when you don’t actually need to modify an object, call by reference should be your default approach.

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