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Section 3.5 Passing a Value and Passing a Reference

The effect of passing arguments to a method differs depending on whether you are passing a value of primitive type (such as 5 or true) or a value of reference type (such as “Hello” or game1).

Subsection 3.5.1 Primitive Types: Pass by Value

When an argument of primitive type is passed to a method, a copy of the argument is passed to the formal parameter. For example, consider the PrimitiveCall class shown in Figure 3.5.1. Note that we have an int variable k, which initially stores the value 5, and a method myMethod(), which takes an int parameter n. In this case, when we invoke myMethod(k), k's value (5) is copied into n and stored there during the method. Run the code below to trace through it. Notice that the original variable in main does not change its value because its value is copied into the parameter variable.

public class PrimitiveCall
{
   public static void myMethod(int n)
   {   System.out.println("myMethod: n= " + n);
       n = 100;
       System.out.println("myMethod: n= " + n);
   } // myMethod()

   public static void main(String argv[])
   {   int k = 5;
       System.out.println("main: k= " + k);
       myMethod(k);
       System.out.println("main: k= " + k);
   } // main()
 } // PrimitiveCall
Listing 3.5.1. Passing a primitive value to a method.

Activity 3.5.1.

Run the code below. Click on Show CodeLens to step through the code with the Next button.

One implication of passing a copy of a primitive value to a method is that the original value of k in main() cannot be altered from inside the method. Thus, the output generated by PrimitiveCall is

main: k= 5
myMethod: n= 5
myMethod: n= 100
main: k= 5

Note that in main(), k's value is printed both before and after myMethod() is called, but that its value remains unaffected even though n's value is changed within the method. This is because myMethod() contains just a copy of k's value, not k itself. Any changes to the copy within myMethod() leave k unaltered.

Figure 3.5.3. Tracing the state of variables k and n in PrimitiveCall(a) Just before calling myMethod(k) in main. (b) Just before executing the body of myMethod(). (c) Just after executing the body of myMethod(). (d) After flow of control returns to main().

Subsection 3.5.2 Passing Reference Types

In contrast to this, when an argument of a reference type, like String or another class type like OneRowNim, is passed to a method, a copy of the reference to the object itself is assigned to the parameter. For example, in the case of a String parameter or a OneRowNim parameter, the method would be given a reference to the object–that is, the address of the object. The object itself is not passed, because it would be too inefficient to copy the entire object with all its data and methods. However, because the object's reference gives the object's location in memory, the method will have access to the object and can make changes to the original object from within the method.

For example, consider the ReferenceCall class (Listing 3.5.4). In this case, myMethod() takes a parameter g of type OneRowNim. Because a OneRowNim instance is an object, g is a reference variable. So when myMethod(game) is invoked in main(), a reference to game is passed to myMethod(). Note that in myMethod(), we use takeSticks(3) to change the number of sticks of g from 10 to 7 and that this change persists even after the method returns control to main(). The reason is that during the method's execution, both game and g refer to the exact same object.

public class ReferenceCall
{
    public static void myMethod(OneRowNim g)
    {   System.out.print("myMethod: Number of sticks: ");
        System.out.println(g.getSticks());
        g.takeSticks(3);
        System.out.print("myMethod: Number of sticks: ");
        System.out.println(g.getSticks());
    } // myMethod()

    public static void main(String argv[])
    {   OneRowNim game = new OneRowNim(10);
         System.out.print("main: Number of sticks: ");
         System.out.println(game.getSticks());
         myMethod(game);
         System.out.print("main: Number of sticks: ");
         System.out.println(game.getSticks());
    }// main()
} // ReferenceCall
Listing 3.5.4. Passing a reference value to a method.

Activity 3.5.2.

Run the code below. Click on Show CodeLens to step through the code with the Next button.

The output generated by ReferenceCall would be

main: Number of sticks: 10
myMethod: Number of sticks: 10
myMethod: Number of sticks: 7
main: Number of sticks: 7
Figure 3.5.5. Tracing the state of OneRowNim object in ReferenceCall(a) Just before calling myMethod(game). (b) Just before executing the body of myMethod(). (c) Just after executing the body of myMethod(). (d) After flow of control returns to main().

This illustrates that when passing a reference variable to a method, it is possible for the method to change the state of the object associated with the reference variable. In subsequent chapters, we will see ways to make use of this feature of reference parameters.

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