Vladimir Vivien
Apr 24, 2016 · 4 min read

In my introductory write up on Go types, I did a (rather length) summarized walk-through of the basic and composite types in Go (read it here if you need a refresher). Continuing with this theme, this write up discusses the pointer type: how to create and initialize pointer types.

Though these are easy concepts in Go, nevertheless, a well-grounded understanding of these topics is certain to lessen frustrating moments if you are a newcomer to Go!

The Pointer Type

The pointer type in Go is used to point to a memory address where data is stored. Similar to C/C++, Go uses the * operator to designate a type as a pointer. The following snippet shows several pointers with different underlying types.

var valPtr *float32
var
countPtr *int
type person struct{name string, age int}
var prsn *person
var matrix *[1024]int
var
row []*int64

The code snippet above declares each variable as a pointer to its associated type:

  • variables valPtr and countPtr are pointers to their respective primitive types float32 and int
  • variables prsn and matrix are declared as pointers to their respective composite types person and [1024]int.
  • Lastly, variable row is a slice of pointers to elements to type int64.

Each pointer stores an address which points to a memory location where a value, of the indicated underlying type, is stored. Go does not allow pointer arithmetic and, as you have come to expect with Go’s strict type system, each pointer type is unique. Meaning, the following will not compile.

var intPtr *int
var
int32Ptr *int32
intPtr = int32Ptr$> cannot use int32Ptr (type *int32) as type *int in assignment

This is because a pointer to an int is not compatible with pointer of type int32, even when both point to types with similar memory layout.

The Address Operator

Go uses the & (ampersand) operator to return the address of a variable. For instance, the following uses the address operator in expressions that return memory locations for associated values.

val := float32(5.5)
var valPtr *float32 = &val
score := 79
scorePtr := &score
func printId(id *string) {
...
}
uid := "abcd-eff-33cc-5534"
printId(&uid)

The two variables valPtr and scorePtr, in the pervious code snippet, are assigned memory addresses with expressions &val and &score respectively. The second portion of the code snippet shows function printId(id *string) that takes a pointer as its sole parameter. It is invoked with the address value &uid as its argument.

It is important to note that in Go, you cannot use ampersand operator directly on literal constants for numeric, string, boolean types. For instance, the following will not compile.

ptr := &5$> cannot take the address of 5

You can, however, apply the ampersand operator to composite type literal expressions. For instance, the following shows the literal expressions for initializing a struct and an array values that use the ampersand operators to return their addresses.

type person struct{name string, age int}
prsn := &person{"Prince", 57}
pair := &[2]string{"left-sock", "right-sock"}

In the previous snippet, variable prsn stores the address of a value of &person{“Prince”, 57}. Variable pair is declared and initialized with the address of value &[2]string{“left-sock”, “right-sock”}.

Pointer Indirection — Dereference Pointer Values

As established, a pointer is simply an address of an actual value in memory. To access that value at the end of the pointer, simply apply the * operator to an address as shown in the following.

func main() {
a := 71
print(&a)
}
func print(val *int) {
fmt.Println(val)
fmt.Println(*val * 2)
}

In the previous example, function print(val *int) accepts a pointer as its parameter. It first prints the address with the first fmt.Println(val) . In the second fmt.Println(*val * 2) statement, the code uses pointer indirection *val to access the actual value pointed to, which is then multiplied by 2. When executed, the output will look something like the following.

0x10434114
142

The new() Function

When the built-in function new(<type>) is used to initialize a value, it allocates the appropriate memory for a zero-value of the specified type. The function then returns the address for the newly created zero-value.

intPtr := new(int)
*intPtr = 77
type person struct{name string, age int}
prsn := new(person)
prsn.first = "Prince"
prsn.age = 57

The previous snippet uses the new() function to initialize a zero-value int and assign its address to variable intPtr. Then the code uses pointer indirection to assign it a value with *intPtr = 77.

Similarly, the code initializes variable prsn with the address of zero-value for composite type person. To access the value (not the address) of the pointed composite, the idiom is more forgiving. It is not necessary to write *prsn.first = “Prince”. We can drop the indirection and just use prsn.first = “Prince”.

Conclusion

In this short(er) write up, I explored the Go pointer type. You saw how to create and initialize pointers. We also explored pointer indirection to access and update pointed values. Future write ups will continue to explore the Go type system covering Functions, Methods, and Interfaces, etc. (Making the write up shorter will hopefully let me get to them sooner!)

Happy go(ding)!

Learning the Go Programming Language

Short and insightful posts for newcomers learning the Go programming language

Vladimir Vivien

Written by

Software Eng • Go Programming • Kubernetes • Author http://golang.fyi

Learning the Go Programming Language

Short and insightful posts for newcomers learning the Go programming language

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