Pass-by-reference : Could a C#-like approach work in Python?

Thomas Bellman bellman at
Thu Sep 11 10:06:22 CEST 2003

Erik Max Francis <max at> writes:

> That isn't what I meant.  Look at the following code:

>	someFunction(thisArgument, thatArgument)

> With Python as it stands right now, I know that this call can never
> rebind the names thisArgument and thatArgument.  It doesn't matter what
> someFunction is, it doesn't matter what thisArgument or thatArgument
> are.  I know it can never happen.

> With your proposed change, now whenever I see a function call in code I
> don't know whether it's going to rebind names from the caller's side. 
> It might, it might not.  Furthermore, with Python's dynamicism, it might
> be hard to tell without running the code (since functions are first
> class objects, inspecting the function name may not help).

No, you *would* know.  The above call would *not* be able to
rebind any of thisArgument or thatArgument.  In fact, if
someFunction() is defined with a ref parameter, the call would
*fail*, raising an exception.  Just like calling it with the
wrong number of parameters would.

For someFunction() to be able to rebind, e.g, thisArgument, there
are *two* prerequisites:
  1. someFunction() must be defined as 'def someFunction(ref a, b)'.
  2. the *call* must be 'someFunction(ref x, y)'.
*Both* these must be met.  If only one of them is met, the call
will fail.

Here's a sample session of what would happen under Stephen's

    >>> def ref_f(ref x):
    ...     x = 17
    >>> def norm_f(x):
    ...     x = 23
    >>> a = 0
    >>> ref_f(a)
    Traceback (most recent call last):
      File "<stdin>", line 1, in ?
    TypeError: ref_f() must have reference parameter
    >>> print a
    >>> ref_f(ref a)
    >>> print a
    >>> norm_f(a)
    >>> print a
    >>> norm_f(ref a)
    Traceback (most recent call last):
      File "<stdin>", line 1, in ?
    TypeError: norm_f() must not have reference parameter
    >>> print a

(For the record, I do not support Stephen's proposal, nor any
other kinds of call-by-reference in Python.  For one, I don't
think it meshes well with the rest of Python, and moreover, I
have yet to encounter a real-world example where this would
actually make code more readable - and I have been using Python
for eight years now, and Lisp (which has similar call semantics)
for a few years before that.)

Thomas Bellman,   Lysator Computer Club,   Linköping University,  Sweden
"God is real, but Jesus is an integer."      !  bellman @
                                             !  Make Love -- Nicht Wahr!

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