C++ – When to use references vs. pointers


I understand the syntax and general semantics of pointers versus references, but how should I decide when it is more-or-less appropriate to use references or pointers in an API?

Naturally some situations need one or the other (operator++ needs a reference argument), but in general I'm finding I prefer to use pointers (and const pointers) as the syntax is clear that the variables are being passed destructively.

E.g. in the following code:

void add_one(int& n) { n += 1; }
void add_one(int* const n) { *n += 1; }
int main() {
  int a = 0;
  add_one(a); // Not clear that a may be modified
  add_one(&a); // 'a' is clearly being passed destructively

With the pointer, it's always (more) obvious what's going on, so for APIs and the like where clarity is a big concern are pointers not more appropriate than references? Does that mean references should only be used when necessary (e.g. operator++)? Are there any performance concerns with one or the other?


Besides allowing NULL values and dealing with raw arrays, it seems the choice comes down to personal preference. I've accepted the answer below that references Google's C++ Style Guide, as they present the view that "References can be confusing, as they have value syntax but pointer semantics.".

Due to the additional work required to sanitise pointer arguments that should not be NULL (e.g. add_one(0) will call the pointer version and break during runtime), it makes sense from a maintainability perspective to use references where an object MUST be present, though it is a shame to lose the syntactic clarity.

Best Answer

Use reference wherever you can, pointers wherever you must.

Avoid pointers until you can't.

The reason is that pointers make things harder to follow/read, less safe and far more dangerous manipulations than any other constructs.

So the rule of thumb is to use pointers only if there is no other choice.

For example, returning a pointer to an object is a valid option when the function can return nullptr in some cases and it is assumed it will. That said, a better option would be to use something similar to std::optional (requires C++17; before that, there's boost::optional).

Another example is to use pointers to raw memory for specific memory manipulations. That should be hidden and localized in very narrow parts of the code, to help limit the dangerous parts of the whole code base.

In your example, there is no point in using a pointer as argument because:

  1. if you provide nullptr as the argument, you're going in undefined-behaviour-land;
  2. the reference attribute version doesn't allow (without easy to spot tricks) the problem with 1.
  3. the reference attribute version is simpler to understand for the user: you have to provide a valid object, not something that could be null.

If the behaviour of the function would have to work with or without a given object, then using a pointer as attribute suggests that you can pass nullptr as the argument and it is fine for the function. That's kind of a contract between the user and the implementation.