Terminology: “reference” versus “pointer”

Random832 random832 at fastmail.com
Sat Sep 12 07:03:26 CEST 2015


Ben Finney <ben+python at benfinney.id.au> writes:

> Random832 <random832 at fastmail.com> writes:
>
>> Ben Finney <ben+python at benfinney.id.au> writes:
>> > With the significant difference that “pointer” implies that it has its
>> > own value accessible directly by the running program, such as a pointer
>> > in C.
>>
>> Its own value *is* what you're accessing when you assign or return it.
>
> You're not describing Python references.

Yes I am. You're just making the implicit assumption that a "value" has
to be a number, and I was ignoring that assumption. The value is the
address of an object. Like I said, an arrow on a diagram.

> Can you clarify what you mean, and what in my description you are
> disagreeing with?
>
>> > That's different from a “reference”, which to my understanding
>> > implies the running program does *not* normally have direct access
>> > to it as a distinct value. The only way you can use a reference is
>> > to get at the object to which it refers.
>>
>> In C++, references cannot be reassigned. I consider *that* the
>> fundamental difference - a pointer is a variable that you can reassign
>> and return; a reference always refers to the same object once created.
>
> Sure, that will work fine.
>
> So in Python, we don't have pointers because we don't have access to
> change or reassign them.

Yes you do. That's _exactly what happens_ in an assignment statement -
you are reassigning it to the address of another object. And that's
something you *can't do* with references in C++.

Neither term is perfect, but "reference" is a *terrible* fit because of
that.

> A Python reference isn't accessible and can't be changed; you can just
> make another reference and switch to that.

Huh?

> You can't, for example, keep the old reference (there are no references
> to references in Python), because they're not accessible as values in
> themselves. Once you assign a different reference, the old one is gone
> and can't be found again.

You can keep it by copying it to somewhere. The pointer is the value,
not the variable, you don't _need_ a reference to it.



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