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References and Borrowing

The issue with the tuple code at the end of the preceding section is that we have to return the String to the calling function so we can still use the String after the call to calculate_length, because the String was moved into calculate_length.

Here is how you would define and use a calculate_length function that has a reference to an object as a parameter instead of taking ownership of the value:

Filename: src/main.rs

fn main() {
    let s1 = String::from("hello");

    let len = calculate_length(&s1);

    println!("The length of '{}' is {}.", s1, len);
}

fn calculate_length(s: &String) -> usize {
    s.len()
}

First, notice that all the tuple code in the variable declaration and the function return value is gone. Second, note that we pass &s1 into calculate_length, and in its definition, we take &String rather than String.

These ampersands are references, and they allow you to refer to some value without taking ownership of it. Figure 4-8 shows a diagram.

&String s pointing at String s1

Figure 4-8: &String s pointing at String s1

Let’s take a closer look at the function call here:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
# fn calculate_length(s: &String) -> usize {
#     s.len()
# }
let s1 = String::from("hello");

let len = calculate_length(&s1);

#}

The &s1 syntax lets us create a reference that refers to the value of s1 but does not own it. Because it does not own it, the value it points to will not be dropped when the reference goes out of scope.

Likewise, the signature of the function uses & to indicate that the type of the parameter s is a reference. Let’s add some explanatory annotations:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
fn calculate_length(s: &String) -> usize { // s is a reference to a String
    s.len()
} // Here, s goes out of scope. But because it does not have ownership of what
  // it refers to, nothing happens.

#}

The scope in which the variable s is valid is the same as any function parameter's scope, but we don’t drop what the reference points to when it goes out of scope because we don’t have ownership. Functions that have references as parameters instead of the actual values mean we won’t need to return the values in order to give back ownership, since we never had ownership.

We call having references as function parameters borrowing. As in real life, if a person owns something, you can borrow it from them. When you’re done, you have to give it back.

So what happens if we try to modify something we’re borrowing? Try the code in Listing 4-9. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work!

Filename: src/main.rs

fn main() {
    let s = String::from("hello");

    change(&s);
}

fn change(some_string: &String) {
    some_string.push_str(", world");
}

Listing 4-9: Attempting to modify a borrowed value

Here’s the error:

error: cannot borrow immutable borrowed content `*some_string` as mutable
 --> error.rs:8:5
  |
8 |     some_string.push_str(", world");
  |     ^^^^^^^^^^^

Just as variables are immutable by default, so are references. We’re not allowed to modify something we have a reference to.

Mutable References

We can fix the error in the code from Listing 4-9 with just a small tweak:

Filename: src/main.rs

fn main() {
    let mut s = String::from("hello");

    change(&mut s);
}

fn change(some_string: &mut String) {
    some_string.push_str(", world");
}

First, we had to change s to be mut. Then we had to create a mutable reference with &mut s and accept a mutable reference with some_string: &mut String.

But mutable references have one big restriction: you can only have one mutable reference to a particular piece of data in a particular scope. This code will fail:

Filename: src/main.rs

let mut s = String::from("hello");

let r1 = &mut s;
let r2 = &mut s;

Here’s the error:

error[E0499]: cannot borrow `s` as mutable more than once at a time
 --> borrow_twice.rs:5:19
  |
4 |     let r1 = &mut s;
  |                   - first mutable borrow occurs here
5 |     let r2 = &mut s;
  |                   ^ second mutable borrow occurs here
6 | }
  | - first borrow ends here

This restriction allows for mutation but in a very controlled fashion. It’s something that new Rustaceans struggle with, because most languages let you mutate whenever you’d like. The benefit of having this restriction is that Rust can prevent data races at compile time.

A data race is a particular type of race condition in which these three behaviors occur:

  1. Two or more pointers access the same data at the same time.
  2. At least one of the pointers is being used to write to the data.
  3. There’s no mechanism being used to synchronize access to the data.

Data races cause undefined behavior and can be difficult to diagnose and fix when you’re trying to track them down at runtime; Rust prevents this problem from happening because it won’t even compile code with data races!

As always, we can use curly brackets to create a new scope, allowing for multiple mutable references, just not simultaneous ones:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
let mut s = String::from("hello");

{
    let r1 = &mut s;

} // r1 goes out of scope here, so we can make a new reference with no problems.

let r2 = &mut s;

#}

A similar rule exists for combining mutable and immutable references. This code results in an error:

let mut s = String::from("hello");

let r1 = &s; // no problem
let r2 = &s; // no problem
let r3 = &mut s; // BIG PROBLEM

Here’s the error:

error[E0502]: cannot borrow `s` as mutable because it is also borrowed as
immutable
 --> borrow_thrice.rs:6:19
  |
4 |     let r1 = &s; // no problem
  |               - immutable borrow occurs here
5 |     let r2 = &s; // no problem
6 |     let r3 = &mut s; // BIG PROBLEM
  |                   ^ mutable borrow occurs here
7 | }
  | - immutable borrow ends here

Whew! We also cannot have a mutable reference while we have an immutable one. Users of an immutable reference don’t expect the values to suddenly change out from under them! However, multiple immutable references are okay because no one who is just reading the data has the ability to affect anyone else’s reading of the data.

Even though these errors may be frustrating at times, remember that it’s the Rust compiler pointing out a potential bug early (at compile time rather than at runtime) and showing you exactly where the problem is instead of you having to track down why sometimes your data isn’t what you thought it should be.

Dangling References

In languages with pointers, it’s easy to erroneously create a dangling pointer, a pointer that references a location in memory that may have been given to someone else, by freeing some memory while preserving a pointer to that memory. In Rust, by contrast, the compiler guarantees that references will never be dangling references: if we have a reference to some data, the compiler will ensure that the data will not go out of scope before the reference to the data does.

Let’s try to create a dangling reference:

Filename: src/main.rs

fn main() {
    let reference_to_nothing = dangle();
}

fn dangle() -> &String {
    let s = String::from("hello");

    &s
}

Here’s the error:

error[E0106]: missing lifetime specifier
 --> dangle.rs:5:16
  |
5 | fn dangle() -> &String {
  |                ^^^^^^^
  |
  = help: this function's return type contains a borrowed value, but there is no
    value for it to be borrowed from
  = help: consider giving it a 'static lifetime

error: aborting due to previous error

This error message refers to a feature we haven’t covered yet: lifetimes. We’ll discuss lifetimes in detail in Chapter 10. But, if you disregard the parts about lifetimes, the message does contain the key to why this code is a problem:

this function's return type contains a borrowed value, but there is no value
for it to be borrowed from.

Let’s take a closer look at exactly what’s happening at each stage of our dangle code:

fn dangle() -> &String { // dangle returns a reference to a String

    let s = String::from("hello"); // s is a new String

    &s // we return a reference to the String, s
} // Here, s goes out of scope, and is dropped. Its memory goes away.
  // Danger!

Because s is created inside dangle, when the code of dangle is finished, s will be deallocated. But we tried to return a reference to it. That means this reference would be pointing to an invalid String! That’s no good. Rust won’t let us do this.

The solution here is to return the String directly:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
fn no_dangle() -> String {
    let s = String::from("hello");

    s
}

#}

This works without any problems. Ownership is moved out, and nothing is deallocated.

The Rules of References

Let’s recap what we’ve discussed about references:

  1. At any given time, you can have either but not both of:
  • One mutable reference.
  • Any number of immutable references.
  1. References must always be valid.

Next, we’ll look at a different kind of reference: slices.