Returning References from Functions

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Sometimes it can be very useful to design a function so that it returns a reference. For example, when we overload the insertion operator, operator<<(ostream&, NewType), we always return a reference to the output stream. This makes it possible to chain operations like this:

cout << thing1 << thing2 << thing3 ... ;

A reference return (especially of *this) is used to provide lvalue behavior for member functions.

As with reference parameters, it is possible to protect a reference return by specifying that the object it aliases is const.

Example 5.15 captures the essence of reference returns.

Example 5.15. src/reference/maxi.cpp

using namespace std;

int& maxi(int& x, int& y) {
 return (x > y) ? x : y;

int main() {
 int a = 10, b = 20;
 maxi(a,b) = 5; <-- 1
 maxi(a,b) += 6; <-- 2
 ++maxi(a, b) ; <-- 3
 cout << a << '	' << b << endl;
 return 0;


17 5

(1)Assigns the value 5 to b.

(2)Increases a by 6. a is now 16.

(3)Increments a by 1.

As we see in the main() function, the reference return value of the function maxi() makes the expression maxi(a,b) into a modifiable lvalue.

Be very careful that your function does not return a reference to a temporary (local) object. A moment's thought should make that restriction clear: When the function returns, all of its local variables are destroyed.

int& max(int i,int j) {
 int retval = i > j ? i : j;

 return retval;

Code like the above may generate a compiler warning (if you are lucky). Alas, the compiler does not consider it an error.

badmax.cpp:4: warning: reference to local variable 'retval' returned

A more practical example showing the benefits of reference returns is coming up in Example 5.16, which defines some common operators for vectors.

Overloading on const ness

Part I: Introduction to C++ and Qt 4

C++ Introduction


Introduction to Qt



Inheritance and Polymorphism

Part II: Higher-Level Programming


Introduction to Design Patterns


Generics and Containers

Qt GUI Widgets


Validation and Regular Expressions

Parsing XML

Meta Objects, Properties, and Reflective Programming

More Design Patterns

Models and Views

Qt SQL Classes

Part III: C++ Language Reference

Types and Expressions

Scope and Storage Class

Statements and Control Structures

Memory Access

Chapter Summary

Inheritance in Detail

Miscellaneous Topics

Part IV: Programming Assignments

MP3 Jukebox Assignments

Part V: Appendices

MP3 Jukebox Assignments


MP3 Jukebox Assignments

An Introduction to Design Patterns in C++ with Qt 4
An Introduction to Design Patterns in C++ with Qt 4
ISBN: 0131879057
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2004
Pages: 268 © 2008-2020.
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