August 22, 2011

Casting pointers to references

Casting a pointer (like Foo *) to a reference (like Foo &) via reinterpret_cast or a C-style cast probably doesn't do what you want.

References ("refs") exist so that you can make libraries with user-defined constructs that "feel like" a built-in language abstraction. Refs are definitely confusing if you've transitioned from C to C++ — they're "pointerish" in the sense that the compiler ultimately boils them down to pointer values, but "not" in the sense that the language semantics restrict their use. [*]

I came across one such casting bug today, and wondered what the compiler actually emits for it.

As it turns out, GCC warns when you cast a pointer to its corresponding ref type:

test.cpp:12:23: warning: casting ‘int*’ to ‘int&’ does not dereference pointer

Unfortunately, if you cast it to a corresponding const ref type it stays silent. Consider this snippet of C++ code:

#include <stdio.h>

extern int SomeGlobal;

void DumpValue(const int &value)
    printf("%d\n", value);

int main() {
    int *pval = &SomeGlobal;
    DumpValue((const int &) pval);
    return 0;

Note that the correct approach is to use the deref operator (*) on pval to turn it into an int &, which is compatible with the const int & signature of DumpValue.

After a quick give-me-the-assembly command line sequence:

g++ -o test.o -c test.cpp
objdump -d -r test.o # Get assembly with inline linker relocation directives.

We can see the resulting x64 assembly:

0000000000000025 <main>:
  25:   55                      push   %rbp
  26:   48 89 e5                mov    %rsp,%rbp
  29:   48 83 ec 10             sub    $0x10,%rsp
  2d:   48 c7 45 f8 00 00 00    movq   $0x0,-0x8(%rbp)
  34:   00
                        31: R_X86_64_32S    SomeGlobal
  35:   48 8d 45 f8             lea    -0x8(%rbp),%rax
  39:   48 89 c7                mov    %rax,%rdi
  3c:   e8 00 00 00 00          callq  41 <main+0x1c>
                        3d: R_X86_64_PC32   _Z9DumpValueRi-0x4
  41:   b8 00 00 00 00          mov    $0x0,%eax
  46:   c9                      leaveq
  47:   c3                      retq

Walking through it step by step:

So, the argument won't contain the address of SomeGlobal, like we were hoping to provide to DumpValue, but the stack slot address instead. [‡] The cast resulted in a pointer to its operand — the behavior that you would expect if you took a value type and casted it to a ref, like so:

#include <stdio.h>

struct MyStruct {
    int foo, bar;

void DumpValues(const MyStruct &ms)
    printf("%d %d\n",,;

int main(void) {
    MyStruct ms = {42, 1024};
    DumpValues(reinterpret_cast<const MyStruct &>(ms));
    return 0;



See ISO C++ (14882:2003) 8.3.2 #4:

  • You can't have references to references, arrays of references, or pointers to references

  • You can't have uninitialized references

  • A null reference technically can't exist in a "well defined" program, because dereffing the null pointer causes undefined behavior


Recall that on x64, the stack grows "down" in memory space; i.e. as you push more function frames due to function invocation, the value in %rsp gets smaller. The base pointer is at the start of the frame, in the highest address, and the stack pointer %rsp is at the end of the frame, in the lowest address. The return address is at 8(%rbp), the previous frame's %rbp value is at 0(%rbp), and the first local stack slot for this function is -8(%rbp).


On an LP64 system like my x64 Linux machine we can see half of the stack slot value through this reference.