Returning references to local variables from a function in c

1 Min. Read
Aug 9, 2018

You might have read and experienced that you can either return the value itself or the pointers to global objects. However, you cannot return references to any of the local variables. If you have wondered why, then you are about to read the reason and process to return local references.

If you don’t know, there are two kinds of memory assigned to a program in run-time namely stack and heap. Stacks are maintained by subconscious part of you program setup during compilation; or for interpreted languages like Ruby the interpreter takes care of it.


Basically, when you call a function in C, all the data like local vars defined and function arguments are store in the stack . Whenever the program execution/flow comes out of the function i.e. return is triggered, all the local data are popped out of the stack, meaning, they no longer exist. Stacks are volatile you see. This is the reason C does not allow you to return the references to objects that are no longer gonna be available.

Can we return pointers to local vars?

Yes! we can. If you have noticed, the only thing stopping you returning references is the unavailability (stored in stacks). How about storing your data in heap. Heap does not flush just after the function dies; it lives till your program dies.

You will have to free up the memory once you are done though, using free method. Please feel free to comment in case of any mistakes and typos.

See blog/javascript/2018/09/10/memory-management-in-c/ to learn how.