Go Pointers Tutorial Image Go Pointers Tutorial

In this tutorial, we are going to be covering pointers in Go and how you can use them within your own Go programs. We’ll be covering the best practices and we’ll be covering some of the most common use-cases for pointers.

By the end of this tutorial, you will have a solid understanding of pointers and how they can be used and you will also know how to

Introduction

In Go, when we call a function and pass in a bunch of arguments to that function, the language creates copies of the arguments which are then used within said function. For example:

main.go
package main

import "fmt"

func myTestFunc(a int) {
    a += 3
    fmt.Println(a)
}

func main() {
    a := 2
    myTestFunc(a)
    fmt.Println(a) // prints out 2
}

In the above code, myTestFunc takes in an integer variable and makes a copy of it for use within the context of the function body. Any changes we make to a within myTestFunc will only persist inside the body of the myTestFunc function.

Now, say we wanted to call myTestFunc and update the original a variable and add 3 to it?

In this particular instance, we could change the function signature so that it takes in a pointer as opposed to a reference. This would then mean that any changes we make to a within the myTestFunc function would be done against the original variable and not against a copy!

main.go
package main

import "fmt"

func myTestFunc(a *int) {
    a += 3
    fmt.Println(a)
}

func main() {
    a := 2
    myTestFunc(a)
    fmt.Println(a) // prints out 5
}

When we run the above code, we should see that myTestFunc has correctly updated the original value of a and added 3:

$ go run main.go
5
5

Defining Pointers

Let’s now take a step back and looks at the fundamentals of working with pointers.

We’ll start by looking at how we can define pointers within our Go code. In order to define a pointer, we can use the * symbol at the point at which we are declaring the variable and it will turn the variable into a pointer variable.

main.go
package main

import "fmt"

func main() {
    var age *int

    fmt.Println(age)
    fmt.Println(&age)
}

When we attempt to run this? We should see the following:

$ go run main.go
<nil>
0xc00000e018

The first value represents the value of our pointer variable age. The second represents the address of this variable.

Assigning Values to Pointers

Question - What happens if you try and assign a value to age?

As it stands, our age variable is nil. Let’s attempt to set it to 26 and see what happens:

main.go
package main

import "fmt"

func main() {
    var age *int

    *age = 26

    fmt.Println(age)
    fmt.Println(&age)
}

This will actually cause the compiler to panic.

$ go run main.go
panic: runtime error: invalid memory address or nil pointer dereference
[signal SIGSEGV: segmentation violation code=0x1 addr=0x0 pc=0x1092f6e]

goroutine 1 [running]:
main.main()
        /Users/elliot/Documents/Projects/TutorialEdge/Projects/Go/go-pointers-tutorial/main.go:8 +0x3e
exit status 2

The reason for this is that we need to use the built-in function new in order to allocate enough memory to fit a value of type int. Let’s see this in action now:

main.go
package main

import "fmt"

func main() {
    var age *int
	age = new(int)
	*age = 26

    fmt.Println(*age)
    fmt.Println(&age)
}

Important Note - We can eliminate the first line of our main function in the above example and modify age = new(int) to be age := new(int) should we wish to be a little more succinct.

Nullability

Important Note - A big advantage of using pointers within your Go code is that they are nullable.

If we have a function that has a pointer return value, we can take advantage of the fact that pointers are nullable.

Take for instance this first function:

func testFunc(id string) (Guitarist, error) {
    result, err := getSongs(id)
    if err != nil {
        return Guitarist{}, err
    }

    return result, nil
}

In the above code, we have had to populate an empty Guitarist{} struct in order to return the error. However, if we were to define this function with a pointer return value then we could simplify the above code like so:

func testFunc(id string) (*Guitarist, error) {
    result, err := getSongs(id)
    if err != nil {
        return nil, err
    }

    return result, nil
}

Passing Variables

When teaching Go, I often see developers stumble over how they pass pointer variables to functions that take a value receiver. Let’s see an example of this:

main.go
package main

import "fmt"

func YearsUntilRetirement(age int) {
    fmt.Println(100 - age)
}

func main() {
	var age *int
	age = new(int)
	*age = 26
    
    YearsUntilRetirement(age)
}

When we try to run this, we should see that it complains that we cannot pass in a type *int to our function YearsUntilRetirement.

$ go run main.go
# command-line-arguments
./main.go:13:25: cannot use age (type *int) as type int in argument to YearsUntilRetirement

In order to pass the value of this pointer, we can dereference is by passing it into our function as *age like so:

main.go
package main

import "fmt"

func YearsUntilRetirement(age int) {
    fmt.Println(100 - age)
}

func main() {
	var age *int
	age = new(int)
	*age = 26
    
    YearsUntilRetirement(*age)
}

Now, when we go to run this, we should see that our Go applications executes!

$ go run main.go
74

Conclusion

Awesome, so in this tutorial, we covered the basics of pointers within Go and how you can use and abuse them within your own Go applications!

Hopefully you found this tutorial useful and interesting, if you did, or you have any additional comments or questions, then please feel free to let me know in the comments section below!

Further Reading:

If you enjoyed this tutorial, then you may also be interested in some of the other tutorials on my site:

Elliot Forbes

Elliot Forbes
Twitter: @Elliot_f

Hey, I'm Elliot and I've been working on TutorialEdge for the last 4 years! If my work has helped you in any way, shape, or form then please consider supporting my work.

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