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C# reference types are passed by value!

, 19 Aug 2010 CPOL
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C# reference types are passed by value!

How many times have I read: "In C# reference types are passed by reference, primitive types by value"? The essential point is that reference types have nothing to do with passing by reference!

But let us start with some basics. There are two types of objects, the value types (structs) where the variable is the object and the reference types which only points to the object. When you pass in a variable to a method, its value gets copied to the method by default. For value types, that means the object itself gets copied. For reference types, that means only the thing that points at the object gets copied!

It is a little bit confusing, because only the reference to the object is copied, not the entire structure. It is a way to save performance, otherwise larger the reference type would be, more performance it would cost. This strategy is also known as call by sharing (which makes it a less confusing than calling it also call by value with reference types). So in a call by value scenario, if the data of a reference type is changed inside the method, the caller variable is also affected. If you change the value of a value type, which is passed to a method, it will not affect the caller variable.

public void Sample()
    Point point = new Point(20, 30);
    Person person = new Person() { Name = "Meier" };

    CallByValue(point, person); 

    Console.WriteLine("Point X: {0}", point.X);
    Console.WriteLine("Name: {0}", person.Name); 

public void CallByValue(Point point, Person person)
    point.X = 10;
    person.Name = "Müller"; 

The ref keyword indicates in C# a call by reference. When passing a value type by reference to a method, the changes to the value which are done in the method scope will also affect the variable in the code of the caller. But what happens if you pass reference type to a method by ref?

public void Sample()
    Point point = new Point(20, 30);
    Person person = new Person() { Name = "Meier" };

    CallByValue(ref point, ref person); 

    Console.WriteLine("Point X: {0}", point.X);
    Console.WriteLine("Name: {0}", person.Name); 

public void CallByValue(ref Point point, ref Person person)
    point.X = 10;
    person = new Person() { Name = "Müller" };

It allows to change the instance which the variable points to. So you can assign a new object to the variable and also the caller variable will point to the new object. By the way, the behaviour in VB.NET is similar to the behaviour of C#. The only difference is that in VB.NET, you always have to define if you want to pass a value by value or reference.


This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)


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Mattia Baldinger
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Comments and Discussions

GeneralMy vote of 1 Pinmembergrmrppr10-Sep-12 12:12 
GeneralMy vote of 2 Pinmembergbb2115-Feb-11 18:46 
Question[My vote of 2] maybe... handle? PinmemberDaniele Rota Nodari24-Aug-10 4:31 
GeneralPoint Isn't the Object Pinmembertf_ics24-Aug-10 4:20 
GeneralMy vote of 1 Pinmemberaganyadevi24-Aug-10 0:48 
GeneralNot sure I agree either PinmvpRichard MacCutchan23-Aug-10 11:47 
GeneralI don't think you're right PinmemberMichal Blazejczyk23-Aug-10 11:37 
GeneralExactly Pinmembersupercat920-Aug-10 7:14 
GeneralRe: Exactly PinmemberSilic0re0920-Aug-10 8:55 
GeneralConfusing title... [modified] PinmemberSilic0re0920-Aug-10 4:53 
GeneralRe: Confusing title... PinmemberNinja-the-Nerd23-Aug-10 17:11 
To get this straight, uh...

Passing a reference type would be like having two separate C-style pointers to an object; i.e. method A adjusts pointer A, and calls method B, which can set pointer B to null, leaving pointer A still pointing to the same thing.
Passing by ref would be like having method A modify pointer A and then method B also modify pointer A.

Is that correct?
If it is then that explanation finally made ref fall into place inside my mind. I have no idea what I thought of it before.

And as for value types...
Passing them normally from method A means method B can modify the value but method A never sees the changes.
Passing by reference means method A can adjust value A and method B can also, with changes reflected.

No new references/values are allocated when using ref, yes?

Ninja (the Nerd)

Confused? You will be...

GeneralRe: Confusing title... Pinmemberjohannesnestler26-Aug-10 3:33 
GeneralRe: Confusing title... PinmemberNinja-the-Nerd26-Aug-10 9:03 
Generalhave 5 PinmemberPranay Rana20-Aug-10 2:23 

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