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3.5 Parameter Passing

Objects communicate by calling methods on each other. A method call is used to invoke a method on an object. Parameters in the method call provide one way of exchanging information between the caller object and the callee object (which need not be different).

Declaring methods is discussed in §3.2, p. 49. Invoking static methods on classes is discussed in §4.8, p. 132.

The syntax of a method call can be any one of the following:




The object_reference must be an expression that evaluates to a reference value denoting the object on which the method is called. If the caller and the callee are the same, object reference can be omitted (see the discussion of the this reference in §3.2, p. 50). The class_name can be the fully qualified name (§4.2, p. 97) of the class. The actual_parameter_list is comma separated if there is more than one parameter. The parentheses are mandatory even if the actual parameter list is empty. This distinguishes the method call from field access. One can specify fully qualified names for classes and packages using the dot operator (.).

objRef.doIt(time, place);         // Explicit object reference
int i = java.lang.Math.abs(-1);   // Fully qualified class name
int j = Math.abs(-1);             // Simple class name
someMethod(ofValue);              // Object or class implicitly implied
someObjRef.make().make().make();  // make() returns a reference value

The dot operator (.) has left associativity. In the last code line, the first call of the make() method returns a reference value that denotes the object on which to execute the next call, and so on. This is an example of call chaining.

Each actual parameter (also called an argument) is an expression that is evaluated, and whose value is passed to the method when the method is invoked. Its value can vary from invocation to invocation. Formal parameters are parameters defined in the method declaration (§3.2, p. 49) and are local to the method (§2.4, p. 44).

In Java, all parameters are passed by value—that is, an actual parameter is evaluated and its value is assigned to the corresponding formal parameter. Table 3.1 summarizes the value that is passed depending on the type of the parameters. In the case of primitive data types, the data value of the actual parameter is passed. If the actual parameter is a reference to an object, the reference value of the denoted object is passed and not the object itself. Analogously, if the actual parameter is an array element of a primitive data type, its data value is passed, and if the array element is a reference to an object, then its reference value is passed.

Table 3.1 Parameter Passing by Value

Data type of the formal parameter

Value passed

Primitive data type

Primitive data value of the actual parameter

Reference type (i.e., class, interface, array, or enum type)

Reference value of the actual parameter

It should also be stressed that each invocation of a method has its own copies of the formal parameters, as is the case for any local variables in the method (§6.5, p. 230).

The order of evaluation in the actual parameter list is always from left to right. The evaluation of an actual parameter can be influenced by an earlier evaluation of an actual parameter. Given the following declaration:

int i = 4;

the method call

leftRight(i++, i);

is effectively the same as

leftRight(4, 5);

and not the same as

leftRight(4, 4);

An overview of the conversions that can take place in a method invocation context is provided in §5.2, p. 148. Method invocation conversions for primitive values are discussed in the next subsection (p. 73), and those for reference types are discussed in §7.10, p. 315. Calling variable arity methods is discussed in §3.6, p. 81.

For the sake of simplicity, the examples in subsequent sections primarily show method invocation on the same object or the same class. The parameter passing mechanism is no different when different objects or classes are involved.

Passing Primitive Data Values

An actual parameter is an expression that is evaluated first, with the resulting value then being assigned to the corresponding formal parameter at method invocation. The use of this value in the method has no influence on the actual parameter. In particular, when the actual parameter is a variable of a primitive data type, the value of the variable is copied to the formal parameter at method invocation. Since formal parameters are local to the method, any changes made to the formal parameter will not be reflected in the actual parameter after the call completes.

Legal type conversions between actual parameters and formal parameters of primitive data types are summarized here from Table 5.1, p. 147:

  • Widening primitive conversion

  • Unboxing conversion, followed by an optional widening primitive conversion

These conversions are illustrated by invoking the following method

static void doIt(long i) { /* ... */ }

with the following code:

Integer intRef = 34;
Long longRef = 34L;
doIt(34);         // (1) Primitive widening conversion: long <-- int
doIt(longRef);    // (2) Unboxing: long <-- Long
doIt(intRef);     // (3) Unboxing, followed by primitive widening conversion:
                  //     long <-- int <-- Integer

However, for parameter passing, there are no implicit narrowing conversions for integer constant expressions (§5.2, p. 148).

Example 3.6 Passing Primitive Values

public class CustomerOne {
  public static void main (String[] args) {
    PizzaFactory pizzaHouse = new PizzaFactory();
    int pricePrPizza = 15;
    System.out.println("Value of pricePrPizza before call: " + pricePrPizza);
    double totPrice = pizzaHouse.calcPrice(4, pricePrPizza);             // (1)
    System.out.println("Value of pricePrPizza after call: " + pricePrPizza);

class PizzaFactory {
  public double calcPrice(int numberOfPizzas, double pizzaPrice) {       // (2)
    pizzaPrice = pizzaPrice / 2.0;       // Changes price.
    System.out.println("Changed pizza price in the method: " + pizzaPrice);
    return numberOfPizzas * pizzaPrice;

Output from the program:

Value of pricePrPizza before call: 15
Changed pizza price in the method: 7.5
Value of pricePrPizza after call: 15

In Example 3.6, the method calcPrice() is defined in the class PizzaFactory at (2). It is called from the CustomerOne.main() method at (1). The value of the first actual parameter, 4, is copied to the int formal parameter numberOfPizzas. Note that the second actual parameter pricePrPizza is of the type int, while the corresponding formal parameter pizzaPrice is of the type double. Before the value of the actual parameter pricePrPizza is copied to the formal parameter pizzaPrice, it is implicitly widened to a double. The passing of primitive values is illustrated in Figure 3.2.

Figure 3.2

Figure 3.2 Parameter Passing: Primitive Data Values

The value of the formal parameter pizzaPrice is changed in the calcPrice() method, but this does not affect the value of the actual parameter pricePrPizza on return: It still has the value 15. The bottom line is that the formal parameter is a local variable, and changing its value does not affect the value of the actual parameter.

Passing Reference Values

If the actual parameter expression evaluates to a reference value, the resulting reference value is assigned to the corresponding formal parameter reference at method invocation. In particular, if an actual parameter is a reference to an object, the reference value stored in the actual parameter is passed. Consequently, both the actual parameter and the formal parameter are aliases to the object denoted by this reference value during the invocation of the method. In particular, this implies that changes made to the object via the formal parameter will be apparent after the call returns.

Type conversions between actual and formal parameters of reference types are discussed in §7.10, p. 315.

In Example 3.7, a Pizza object is created at (1). Any object of the class Pizza created using the class declaration at (5) always results in a beef pizza. In the call to the bake() method at (2), the reference value of the object referenced by the actual parameter favoritePizza is assigned to the formal parameter pizzaToBeBaked in the declaration of the bake() method at (3).

Example 3.7 Passing Reference Values

public class CustomerTwo {
  public static void main (String[] args) {
    Pizza favoritePizza = new Pizza();              // (1)
    System.out.println("Meat on pizza before baking: " + favoritePizza.meat);
    bake(favoritePizza);                            // (2)
    System.out.println("Meat on pizza after baking: " + favoritePizza.meat);

  public static void bake(Pizza pizzaToBeBaked) {   // (3)
    pizzaToBeBaked.meat = "chicken";  // Change the meat on the pizza.
    pizzaToBeBaked = null;                          // (4)

class Pizza {                                       // (5)
  String meat = "beef";

Output from the program:

Meat on pizza before baking: beef
Meat on pizza after baking: chicken

One particular consequence of passing reference values to formal parameters is that any changes made to the object via formal parameters will be reflected back in the calling method when the call returns. In this case, the reference favoritePizza will show that chicken has been substituted for beef on the pizza. Setting the formal parameter pizzaToBeBaked to null at (4) does not change the reference value in the actual parameter favoritePizza. The situation at method invocation, and just before the return from method bake(), is illustrated in Figure 3.3.

Figure 3.3

Figure 3.3 Parameter Passing: Reference Values

In summary, the formal parameter can only change the state of the object whose reference value was passed to the method.

The parameter passing strategy in Java is call by value and not call by reference, regardless of the type of the parameter. Call by reference would have allowed values in the actual parameters to be changed via formal parameters; that is, the value in pricePrPizza would be halved in Example 3.6 and favoritePizza would be set to null in Example 3.7. However, this cannot be directly implemented in Java.

Passing Arrays

The discussion of passing reference values in the previous section is equally valid for arrays, as arrays are objects in Java. Method invocation conversions for array types are discussed along with those for other reference types in §7.10, p. 315.

In Example 3.8, the idea is to repeatedly swap neighboring elements in an integer array until the largest element in the array percolates to the last position in the array.

Example 3.8 Passing Arrays

public class Percolate {

  public static void main (String[] args) {
    int[] dataSeq = {8,4,6,2,1};    // Create and initialize an array.

    // Write array before percolation:

    // Percolate:
    for (int index = 1; index < dataSeq.length; ++index)
      if (dataSeq[index-1] > dataSeq[index])
        swap(dataSeq, index-1, index);                    // (1)

    // Write array after percolation:

  public static void swap(int[] intArray, int i, int j) { // (2)
    int tmp = intArray[i]; intArray[i] = intArray[j]; intArray[j] = tmp;

  public static void swap(int v1, int v2) {               // (3) Logical error!
    int tmp = v1; v1 = v2; v2 = tmp;

  public static void printIntArray(int[] array) {         // (4)
    for (int value : array)
      System.out.print(" " + value);

Output from the program:

8 4 6 2 1
4 6 2 1 8

Note that in the declaration of the method swap() at (2), the formal parameter intArray is of the array type int[]. The swap() method is called in the main() method at (1), where one of the actual parameters is the array variable dataSeq. The reference value of the array variable dataSeq is assigned to the array variable intArray at method invocation. After return from the call to the swap() method, the array variable dataSeq will reflect the changes made to the array via the corresponding formal parameter. This situation is depicted in Figure 3.4 at the first call and return from the swap() method, indicating how the values of the elements at indices 0 and 1 in the array have been swapped.

Figure 3.4

Figure 3.4 Parameter Passing: Arrays

However, the declaration of the swap() method at (3) will not swap two values. The method call

swap(dataSeq[index-1], dataSeq[index]);

will have no effect on the array elements, as the swapping is done on the values of the formal parameters.

The method printIntArray() at (4) also has a formal parameter of array type int[]. Note that the formal parameter is specified as an array reference using the [] notation, but this notation is not used when an array is passed as an actual parameter.

Array Elements as Actual Parameters

Array elements, like other variables, can store values of primitive data types or reference values of objects. In the latter case, they can also be arrays—that is, arrays of arrays (§3.4, p. 63). If an array element is of a primitive data type, its data value is passed; if it is a reference to an object, the reference value is passed. The method invocation conversions apply to the values of array elements as well.

Example 3.9 Array Elements as Primitive Data Values

public class FindMinimum {

  public static void main(String[] args) {
    int[] dataSeq = {6,4,8,2,1};

    int minValue = dataSeq[0];
    for (int index = 1; index < dataSeq.length; ++index)
      minValue = minimum(minValue, dataSeq[index]);            // (1)

    System.out.println("Minimum value: " + minValue);

  public static int minimum(int i, int j) {                    // (2)
    return (i <= j) ? i : j;

Output from the program:

Minimum value: 1

In Example 3.9, the value of all but one element of the array dataSeq is retrieved and passed consecutively at (1) to the formal parameter j of the minimum() method defined at (2). The discussion in §3.5, p. 73, on passing primitive values also applies to array elements that have primitive values.

In Example 3.10, the formal parameter seq of the findMinimum() method defined at (4) is an array variable. The variable matrix denotes an array of arrays declared at (1) simulating a multidimensional array, which has three rows, where each row is a simple array. The first row, denoted by matrix[0], is passed to the findMinimum() method in the call at (2). Each remaining row is passed by its reference value in the call to the findMinimum() method at (3).

Example 3.10 Array Elements as Reference Values

public class FindMinimumMxN {

  public static void main(String[] args) {
    int[][] matrix = { {8,4},{6,3,2},{7} };                  // (1)

    int min = findMinimum(matrix[0]);                        // (2)
    for (int i = 1; i < matrix.length; ++i) {
      int minInRow = findMinimum(matrix[i]);                 // (3)
      min = Math.min(min, minInRow);
    System.out.println("Minimum value in matrix: " + min);

  public static int findMinimum(int[] seq) {                 // (4)
    int min = seq[0];
    for (int i = 1; i < seq.length; ++i)
      min = Math.min(min, seq[i]);
    return min;

Output from the program:

Minimum value in matrix: 2

final Parameters

A formal parameter can be declared with the keyword final preceding the parameter declaration in the method declaration. A final parameter is also known as a blank final variable; that is, it is blank (uninitialized) until a value is assigned to it, (e.g., at method invocation) and then the value in the variable cannot be changed during the lifetime of the variable (see also the discussion in §4.8, p. 133). The compiler can treat final variables as constants for code optimization purposes. Declaring parameters as final prevents their values from being changed inadvertently. A formal parameter's declaration as final does not affect the caller’s code.

The declaration of the method calcPrice() from Example 3.6 is shown next, with the formal parameter pizzaPrice declared as final:

public double calcPrice(int numberOfPizzas, final double pizzaPrice) {  // (2')
  pizzaPrice = pizzaPrice/2.0;                       // (3) Not allowed
  return numberOfPizzas * pizzaPrice;

If this declaration of the calcPrice() method is compiled, the compiler will not allow the value of the final parameter pizzaPrice to be changed at (3) in the body of the method.

As another example, the declaration of the method bake() from Example 3.7 is shown here, with the formal parameter pizzaToBeBaked declared as final:

public static void bake(final Pizza pizzaToBeBaked) { // (3)
  pizzaToBeBaked.meat = "chicken";                    // (3a) Allowed
  pizzaToBeBaked = null;                              // (4) Not allowed

If this declaration of the bake() method is compiled, the compiler will not allow the reference value of the final parameter pizzaToBeBaked to be changed at (4) in the body of the method. Note that this applies to the reference value in the final parameter, but not to the object denoted by this parameter. The state of the object can be changed as before, as shown at (3a).

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