Method Parameters Core Java

Let us review the computer science terms that describe how parameters can be passed to amethod (or a function) in a programming language. The term call by value means that themethod gets just the value that the caller provides. In contrast, call by reference means thatthe method gets the location of the variable that the caller provides. Thus, a method can modifythe value stored in a variable that is passed by reference but not in one that is passed byvalue. These “call by . . . ” terms are standard computer science terminology that describethe behavior of method parameters in various programming languages, not just Java. (Infact, there is also a call by name that is mainly of historical interest, being employed in theAlgol programming language, one of the oldest high-level languages.)

The Java programming language always uses call by value. That means that the method gets a copy of all parameter values. In particular, the method cannot modify the contentsof any parameter variables that are passed to it.

For example, consider the following call:

No matter how the method is implemented, we know that after the method call, thevalue of percent is still 10.

Let us look a little more closely at this situation. Suppose a method tried to triple thevalue of a method parameter:

However, this does not work. After the method call, the value of percent is still 10. Here iswhat happens:

  1. x is initialized with a copy of the value of percent (that is, 10).
  2. x is tripled—it is now 30. But percent is still 10 (see Figure below).
  3. The method ends, and the parameter variable x is no longer in use.

Modifying a numeric parameter has no lasting effect

Modifying a numeric parameter has no lasting effect

There are, however, two kinds of method parameters:

  • Primitive types (numbers, boolean values)
  • Object references

You have seen that it is impossible for a method to change a primitive type parameter.The situation is different for object parameters. You can easily implement a method that triples the salary of an employee:

then the following happens:
  1. x is initialized with a copy of the value of harry, that is, an object reference.
  2. The raiseSalary method is applied to that object reference. The Employee object to whichboth x and harry refer gets its salary raised by 200 percent.
  3. The method ends, and the parameter variable x is no longer in use. Of course, theobject variable harry continues to refer to the object whose salary was tripled).

Modifying an object parameter has a lasting effect

Modifying an object parameter has a lasting effect

As you have seen, it is easily possible—and in fact very common—to implement method sthat change the state of an object parameter. The reason is simple. The method gets acopy of the object reference, and both the original and the copy refer to the same object.

Many programming languages (in particular, C++ and Pascal) have two methods for parameter passing: call by value and call by reference. Some programmers (and unfortunately even some book authors) claim that the Java programming language uses call byreference for objects. However, that is false. Because this is such a common misunderstanding,it is worth examining a counter example in detail.

Let’s try to write a method that swaps two employee objects:

If the Java programming language used call by reference for objects, this method would work:

However, the method does not actually change the object references that are stored inthe variables a and b. The x and y parameters of the swap method are initialized with copiesof these references. The method then proceeds to swap these copies.

But ultimately, this is a wasted effort. When the method ends, the parameter variables xand y are abandoned. The original variables a and b still refer to the same objects as theydid before the method call.

Swapping object parameters has no lasting effect

Swapping object parameters has no lasting effect

This discussion demonstrates that the Java programming language does not use call byre ference for objects. Instead, object references are passed by value.

Here is a summary of what you can and cannot do with method parameters in the Java programming language:

  • A method cannot modify a parameter of primitive type (that is, numbers or Boolean values).
  • A method can change the state of an object parameter.
  • A method cannot make an object parameter refer to a new object.

The program in Listing below demonstrates these facts. The program first tries to triple thevalue of a number parameter and does not succeed:

Testing tripleValue: Before: percent=10.0 End of method: x=30.0 After: percent=10.0

It then successfully triples the salary of an employee:

Testing tripleSalary: Before: salary=50000.0 End of method: salary=150000.0 After: salary=150000.0

After the method, the state of the object to which harry refers has changed. This is possible because the method modified the state through a copy of the object reference.

Finally, the program demonstrates the failure of the swap method:

Testing swap: Before: a=Alice Before: b=Bob End of method: x=Bob End of method: y=Alice After: a=Alice After: b=Bob

As you can see, the parameter variables x and y are swapped, but the variables a and bare not affected.

C++ NOTE: C++ has both call by value and call by reference. You tag reference parameters with &. For example, you can easily implement methods void tripleValue(double& x) or void swap(Employee& x, Employee& y) that modify their reference parameters.

ParamTest.java



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