Pointers and the symbol table

In most C++ programming books and tutorials, “pointers” are introduced much later than I am doing in these lecture notes. From experience, I have found that it is better to experience pointers sooner rather than later, because while the concept is simple and understandable early on, their use can become quite complex.

Imagine we have the following (simplistic) program:

#include <iostream>
#include <cmath>
using namespace std;

int main()
    double a, b;
    cout << "Enter triangle lengths a and b: ";
    cin >> a >> b;
    double c = sqrt(a*a + b*b);
    cout << "Side c has length: " << c << endl;

    int n;
    cout << "Enter an integer: ";
    cin >> n;
    int sum = (n * (n+1)) / 2;
    cout << "Sum of integers from 1 to "
         << n << " is: " << sum << endl;

    return 0;

This program has five variables: a, b, c, n, sum. The first three have the “type” double while the latter two have the type int. Also, these variables hold particular values at particular times (obviously).

How does the computer keep track of this information? It uses a symbol table.

Symbol tables

For purposes of this class, a symbol table has a row for each variable, and several columns describing the variable. Here is an example (using the variables above):

Variable name Scope Type Memory location
a top to bottom of main() function double 0x38235628
b top to bottom of main() function double 0x89f83a4b
c middle to bottom of main() function double 0xbf732acd
n middle to bottom of main() function int 0xd64ca84b
sum bottom of main() function int 0x8fff5321

The “variable name” column is obvious, as is the “type” column. The “scope” columns means “where is this variable visible?” We learned about scope in the variables and types notes. The “memory location” column holds a number (written in hexadecimal notation: each digit has 16 possible values, using symbols 0-9 and a-f) which indicates where, in the computer’s memory, the value of the variable is kept.

It’s very important to see that the value of the variable is not in the symbol table! Only the memory location of where the value is kept is in the symbol table. Since different kinds of variables have different sizes (double types hold more data than char types, for example), the symbol table would not be a simple, compact table of information but rather a complicated, varying-size table of data. That’s not what we want. The symbol table stays simple and compact if we only record where, in memory, the data is kept, and don’t actually keep the data in the symbol table.

Note that the memory location is the starting location of the variable’s data. A memory location names a particular byte of memory; a double, for example, has 8 bytes so the memory location would just say where the first byte is stored (the other 7 bytes can be obtained by adding 1, 2, 3, etc. to the memory location).


A memory reference instruction which is to use an indirect address will have a ONE in Bit 5 of the instruction word. […] Thus, Y is not the location of the operand but the location of the location of the operand…. — Programmed Data Processor-1 Manual, 1960

Pointers are a very easy concept but can be very tricky to use correctly. The easy aspect of pointers will be presented now, so that you may be better prepared later learn how to use them correctly.

Say we want to refer to a variable by a different name. Using the same symbol table above, say we want to modify the value of n but don’t want to use the name n. How do we modify n’s value?

We can create a new variable that “points to” n’s value. This is a pointer. Since n is an integer, we want an integer pointer, written int*. Let’s make that pointer:

int* pn;

I call it pn because it will point to n’s value. Right now, however, it doesn’t point to n’s value. We see from the symbol table that n’s value is at memory location 0xd64ca84b. But we can’t just write that number in our code, because that number (that memory location) will probably change every time we run our program. So let’s just ask for n’s memory location:

pn = &n;  // ask for n's memory location, save it in the variable pn

The & (“address of” or “reference”) operator gives us a variable’s memory location.

xkcd comic

Now, pn “points to” n’s value. We can change n’s value by “dereferencing” the pointer:

*pn = 5;

// is the same as:
n = 5;

The * (“dereference”) operator, when it’s not attached to a type (like int*), means in so many words, “look at the memory location stored in this variable (pn), go to that memory location and change the data there to this other data (5).”

In this example, it’s the same operation as n = 5.

If we are using classes, such as:

class Person
    string name;
    int age;       // in years
    double height; // in cm
    double weight; // in kg

then we can create pointers in the same way:

int main()
    Person vignesh;
    vignesh.name = "Vignesh S.";
    vignesh.age = 25;
    vignesh.height = 177;
    vignesh.weight = 68;
    Person* p = &vignesh;
    cout << p->name << " weighs " << p->weight << " kg." << endl;
    return 0;

Notice that when we use classes and pointers together, we use the -> symbols to refer to data inside the class, rather than the . The . is used if we are not using pointers.

dereference v. To trace, with increasing horror, the ultimate object (also called the pointee) being pointed at by a chain of linked pointers.

In C++, the simple rule is: reference by adding an & and dereference by removing an *. — The computer contradictionary

Pointers in the symbol table!

A pointer (like pn above) is a variable. So, information about it is kept in the symbol table:

Variable name Scope Type Memory location
a top to bottom of main() function double 0x38235628
b top to bottom of main() function double 0x89f83a4b
c middle to bottom of main() function double 0xbf732acd
n middle to bottom of main() function int 0xd64ca84b
sum bottom of main() function int 0x8fff5321
pn bottom of main() function int* 0x99267dac

Here it gets a little tricky. Since pn is a variable, it has a value. What is its value? It is 0xd64ca84b. Where is that value kept? It’s kept in memory of course! (like all values) Where in memory? At this location: 0x99267dac.

(Note that all pointers have the same amount of data (32 bits on an older computer, 64 bits on a new computer). This is because no matter if you’re “pointing to” a double or int or char or whatever, all memory locations are of the same type (32 bits or 64 bits).)

Since a pointer is a variable, too, you can point to a pointer:

int** ppn = &pn;

And so on, ad nauseum. The lesson is, pointers are not magical, they’re just variables with values that can be used in a particularly useful way. And we use pointers by asking for the memory location of another variable using the & symbol, and “going to” a memory location and changing the data there using the * symbol.

Naturally, this is all pointless until we start solving problems that truly require pointers. We’ll see that in Linked lists, if not sooner.

Minimal example

This example was shown in class.

#include <iostream>
using namespace std;

int main()
    int n;
    cout << "Enter value for n: ";
    cin >> n;

    cout << "n = " << n << endl;
    cout << "n's memory address is: " << &n << endl;

    int *pn;
    pn = &n;

    cout << "pn = " << pn << endl;
    cout << "*pn = " << *pn << endl;

    *pn = 5;

    cout << "*pn = " << *pn << endl;
    cout << "pn = " << pn << endl;
    cout << "n = " << n << endl;

    return 0;


Enter value for n: 14
n = 14
n's memory address is: 0xbf868ea8
pn = 0xbf868ea8
*pn = 14
*pn = 5
pn = 0xbf868ea8
n = 5

Reserving memory locations

We can create new variables without giving them names. Obviously, int x = 5 makes a variable called x and sets it equal to 5. But what if we wanted to create variables in a loop, or variables that aren’t deleted behind our backs (when the variable’s scope ends)? We use the new operator:

// reserve space for an integer, with no name
new int;

Well that does what we wanted (reserve some space for an integer) but we have no way of using that reserved space. Why? Because we don’t know where that space is!

It turns out that the new operator actually returns a pointer (a memory address) so we can save that and then use the pointer to put values into the space that was reserved.

// reserve space for an integer, with no name;
// but save the address of that space as px
int *px = new int;

// now put a value in that reserved space
*px = 5;

When we use new we should later use delete to free up the space.

delete px;

Now that space is no longer ours to use (even though px still points to it). So we should only delete space when we are done with it.

The reason we need to “delete” space after we are done with it (assuming we used new to reserve the space) is because the normal scope rules don’t apply to memory that is reserved with the new operator.

Recall the rules of scope: If you have a variable x inside some braces, like so:

   int x = 5;
// x no longer exists (outside those braces)

then x is inaccessible (the variable is forgotten) when its enclosing block (braces) ends. For example, functions have their own sets of braces, so variables created inside functions no longer exist after the functions are finished.

But if we use the new operator to reserve memory, then that memory will be ours to use, regardless of scope, for as long as we wish (until we say delete). We just have to keep track of the pointer (address) of the memory that was reserved.

Note, this also works on classes:

Person* p = new Person;
p->name = "Mary S.";
p->age = 45;
// etc...

// later:
delete p;

Blinky pointer fun (no, really)

Check out this video: Blinky pointer fun from Stanford University.

We’ll review this video in class; if you’re reading this from home, you may want to look at the associated Pointer basics document that explains more what Blink pointer fun was all about.

The NULL pointer

Since virtually any memory address (e.g. 1900, 3720446, whatever) may well be a valid memory address, how do we indicate that a pointer points to nothing? (A pointer “pointing to nothing” is useful when we want to be clear that a pointer is no longer valid.) We have designated that the address 0 is an invalid address. There is data at address 0, but there’s no chance that our little C++ program has legitimate access to that address (the operating system manages stuff at the very early areas of memory).

When do we want a pointer that points to nothing? Pointers are very common in complex data structures; for example, a “linked list” (which we’ll learn about later) is composed of values and pointers; each pointer points to the next value in the list. So, the last pointer should point to nothing (there is no next value). Thus, that last pointer equals 0.

A lot of people write px = 0 to point to address 0. Most C++ compilers also let us write px = NULL (NULL is the same as 0) to make it quite clear in the code that px points to nothing.

If a pointer points to an invalid location (a memory location not accessible by our program), and that pointer is dereferenced, the program will crash with a “segmentation fault.”

int* px = NULL;
cout << *px << endl; // crashes the program with a "segfault"

xkcd comic

Background: Why pointers?

Download the PDF


Any discussion of pointers is a bit esoteric without showcasing applications. The real use for pointers will come when we discuss interesting data structures, such as linked lists.

pointee n. That, if anything, pointed at by a pointer.

Many computer languages offer data types such as “pointer to data type T” where T itself can be a pointer type. Thus, pointees may well be pointers, yea even unto themselves. A pointer can be interpreted as the memory address of its pointee (the putative object residing at that place in memory). The devout hope, a sort of computer-scientific Calvinism, is that pointer and pointee values maintain this preordained relationship throughout the manifest volatilities that RAM and code are heir to. A symptom of widespread pointer paranoia is the fact that in C/C++, for example, zero-valued (or NULL) pointers are non-grata; they point nowhere, have no pointees, and noisily resist dereferencing. There is a growing backlash from the parsimonious who resent the fact that a perfectly respectable, physical byte at address 0 is pointlessly ghettoed. — The computer contradictionary

CSE 230 material by Joshua Eckroth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Source code for this website available at GitHub.