When we declare a variable in C, we generally do something like this:

int num = 1;

As you might know, variables get stored in memory, and the size of each variable will differ depending on its data type.

For instance, an integer variable like num declared above is 4 bytes long on my Mac, but the size could vary depending on the machine.

You can always check the size of a particular data type by using the sizeof() operator.

printf("%lu\n", sizeof(int));

output: 4

The address-of operator (&)

The address-of operator is just an operator we place before some variable name to get that variable’s address in memory. We print this address using the %p format specifier to get the address in hexadecimal.

int num = 1;
printf("%p", &num);

output: 0x7ffee7ea278c

The concept of a pointer

A pointer is just a variable that holds the address in memory of some other variable.

When declaring a pointer variable, we have to place a * symbol just before the variable name.

int *pointer;

Now that we declared our pointer variable let’s try assigning it the address of the variable num

pointer = #

Now pointer will hold 0x7ffee7ea278c, the address in memory of the variable num.

You can also declare a pointer variable and assign it a value at the same line.

int *pointer = #

Dereferencing a pointer

Dereferencing a pointer means accessing or manipulating data stored at an address in memory through a pointer variable.

Say we wanted to change the value of num from 1 (the value we initialized it with) to 2. We could do something like this:

num = 2;

But, what if we wanted to use the pointer we declared to change num’s value? That’s when we use the dereference operator (*)

*pointer = 2;
printf("%d\n", num);

output: 2

Use Example

Say we wanted to make a function that receives two numbers and swap them. That would be kind of tricky to do because we can only return a single value from a function. But with pointers, we can access some variable’s memory location and change it directly.

Consider the following example:

We are declaring a function that receives two pointers and, we want to swap their values.

  • First, we create a temporary variable and assign it the value pointed by a.

  • Second, we dereference the pointer a and set it to be equal to what b is pointing to. (That is, if a is pointing to a variable x containing 1 and b is pointing to a variable y containing 2 then, a would still be pointing to x but x would now contain 2.)

  • Third, we set the value pointed by b to be equal to temp.

void swap(int *a, int *b)
    int temp = *a;
    *a = *b;
    *b = temp;

Now, we can call the swap function on main and see if it works.

int main(int argc, char **argv)
    int x = 1;
    int y = 2;

    swap(&x, &y);

    printf("x: %i\ny: %i\n", x, y);

output: x: 2 y: 1