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Pass by reference

In C++ and C#, developers have freedom to modify variables by directly having access to memory location.

In C++,

#include <stdio.h>

void swapnum(int &i, int &j) {
int temp = i;
i = j;
j = temp;

int main(void) {
int a = 10;
int b = 20;

swapnum(a, b);
printf(“A is %d and B is %d\n”, a, b);
return 0;

In C#,

int a = 1;

modify(ref a); //now a=2

void modify(ref int a)


a = 2;


In Java, however, there’s no such thing as pass by reference.  Even the so-called pointers (created by ‘new’ operator) are passed by copy of the reference.

Thus, if you do the following,

String a = “a”;

modify(a); //a doesn’t change, since a is being passed as a copy of the pointer a.

void modify(String a)


a = “b” //this a is a different pointer, thus does not affect the real ‘a’ pointer outside of the method.


As you can see, there’s no direct way of modifying the variable.  This has become a problem for me in many cases, since from time to time, it is necessary to have direct access to the variables.

The answer is by using a wrapper.

Here’s an example.

public class Test {
public static void main(String[] args) {
String a = “a”;
System.out.println(a); // ‘a’ gets printed
String[] array = new String[]{a}; //adds a copy of pointer ‘a’ to String array
public static void modify(String[] array) {
array[0] = “b”;  //instantiating a new object ‘b’ to the copy of variable a

This is not the most elegant way of doing it, but you get the idea. :)

One thing to remember is that String[] array contains a copy of pointer ‘a’.  When you assign, or add, items to any collections such as array, you’re passing a copy of a pointer.  So the variable ‘a’ in the example above still is pointing to the value ‘a’, whereas array[0] points to ‘b’.  In order to finalize the pointer modification, you need to assign

a = array[0].

So, the basic idea is this:  In Java, when you pass variables around, whether they are pointers or primitive values, you’re always dealing with a copy of the variables, not the variables themselves.  If you understand the basic idea of it, you can take advantage of the true “Pass by Reference”.

I hope this sort of ‘trick/hack’ can be of help to you all. :)

-Seung Kim (SK)

2 Comments. Leave new

I like the workaround although I can’t think of an instance where I needed to use pass by reference.

Makarand Bhandari
March 10, 2009 7:43 am

Also, this is because a String is immutable. The same logic does not apply to an instance of other (mutable) classes. Even for a StringBuffer, you would see this by

public static void main(String args[]){
StringBuffer sb = new StringBuffer();
System.out.println(sb); //would print xyz

public static void modsb(StringBuffer sb) {
sb.delete(0, sb.length());

In this example, if you were to say sb = new StringBuffer(“xyz”), you would be assigning a the new StringBuffer to a COPY of the reference and in effect would be lost when you exit the method, but you can use the copy of the variable and modify the state of the object that it refers to – that wouldn’t be lost.

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