Understand Go pointers in less than 500 words

Hiep Nguyen
May 30, 2019 · 3 min read

This post is for programmers coming to Go who are unfamiliar with the idea of pointers or a pointer type in Go.

What is the variable?

image from https://urlzs.com/C2Qif

Let’s first understand what a variable is before we begin talking about pointer in Go. General speaking, when we write a program, we need to store some data or information in memory. The data is stored in memory at a particular address. Memory addresses are often represented with hex integer literals, such as 0x1234CDEF

Now we need to know the address where it is stored. We can keep track of all the memory addresses where the data related to our program is stored. But imagine how hard to remember all those memory addresses in order to access data using them

That is the reason why we have a concept of variables.

image from https://urlzs.com/c4BSG

A variable just a convenient name given to a memory location where the data is stored.

What is the pointer?

A pointer is also a variable. But it’s a special kind of variable because the data that it stores is not just any primitives type such as integer or a string, it's a memory address of another variable.

image from https://urlzs.com/Akb5a

In the above image, the pointer p contains the value 0x0001 which is the address of the variable a. And *, & symbols meaning as a description in the image below, please remember it

Why do we need pointers?

Let view an example firstly

The double function in the above example is expected to modify the input argument by doubling it. However, it fails. Why? Because of all value assignments, including function argument passing are value copying. What the double function modified is a copy x of variable a but not variable a

One solution to fix the above double function is to let it return the modification result. This solution doesn’t always work for all scenarios. The following example shows another solution, by using a pointer parameter

We can find that, by changing the parameter to a pointer type, the passed pointer argument &a and its copy x used in the function body both reference the same value, so the modification on *x is equivalent to a modification on *p, a.k.a., variable a. In other words, the modification in the double function body can be reflected out of the function now.

Surely, the modification of the copy of the passed pointer argument itself still can’t be reflected on the passed pointer argument. After the second double function call, the local pointer p doesn't get modified to nil.

TL;DR

In short, pointers provide indirect ways to access some values. Many languages have not pointer concept. However, pointers are just hidden under other concepts in those languages

Link reference

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