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Part 8: Pointers to Arrays

A Tutorial on Pointers and Arrays in C

By Ted Jensen

Version 0.1

This material is hereby placed in the public domain.

Table of Contents

Chapter 8: Pointers to Arrays

Pointers, of course, can be "pointed at" any type of data object, including arrays. While that was evident when we discussed program 3.1, it is important to expand on how we do this when it comes to multi-dimensional arrays.

To review, in Chapter 2 we stated that given an array of integers we could point an integer pointer at that array using:

    int *ptr;

    ptr = &my_array[0];       /* point our pointer at the first
                                 integer in our array */

As we stated there, the type of the pointer variable must match the type of the first element of the array.

In addition, we can use a pointer as a formal parameter of a function which is designed to manipulate an array. e.g.


      int array[3] = {'1', '5', '7'};

      void a_func(int *p);

we can pass the address of the array to the function by making the call


This kind of code promotes the mis-conception that pointers and arrays are the same thing. Of course, if you have followed this text carefully up to this point you know the difference between a pointer and an array. The function would be better written (in terms of clarity) as a_func(int p[]); Note that here we need not include the dimension since what we are passing is the address of the array, not the array itself.

We now turn to the problem of the 2 dimensional array. As stated in the last chapter, C interprets a 2 dimensional array as an array of one dimensional arrays. That being the case, the first element of a 2 dimensional array of integers is a one dimensional array of integers. And a pointer to a two dimensional array of integers must be a pointer to that data type. One way of accomplishing this is through the use of the keyword "typedef". typedef assigns a new name to a specified data type. For example:

   typedef unsigned char byte;

provides the name "byte" to mean type "unsigned char". Hence

  byte b[10];     would be an array of unsigned characters.

Note that in the typedef declaration, the word "byte" has replaced that which would normally be the name of our unsigned char. That is, the rule for using typedef is that the new name for the data type is the name used in the definition of the data type. Thus in:

    typedef int Array[10];

Array becomes a data type for an array of 10 integers. i.e.

    Array my_arr;

declares my_arr as an array of 10 integers and

    Array arr2d[5];

makes arr2d an array of 5 arrays of 10 integers each.

Also note that

      Array *p1d;    

makes p1d a pointer to an array of 10 integers. Because *p1d points to the same type as arr2, assigning the address of the two dimensional array arr2d to p1d, the pointer to a one dimensional array of 10 integers is acceptable. i.e.

       p1d = &arr2d[0];


       p1d = arr2d;

are both correct.

Since the data type we use for our pointer is an array of 10 integers we would expect that incrementing p1d by 1 would change its value by 10*sizeof(int), which it does. That is sizeof(*p1d) is 20. You can prove this to yourself by writing and running a simple short program.

Now, while using typedef makes things clearer for the reader and easier on the programmer, it is not really necessary. What we need is a way of declaring a pointer like p1d without the need of the typedef keyword. It turns out that this can be done and that

int (*p1d)[10];

is the proper declaration, i.e. p1d here is a pointer to an array of 10 integers just as it was under the declaration using the Array type. Note that this is different than

int *p1d[10];

which would make p1d the name of an array of 10 pointers to type int.

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