What Is a Pointer in Data Structure?


Angela Bailey

In the field of data structures, a pointer is a fundamental concept that plays a crucial role in managing and manipulating data. Understanding pointers is essential for effectively working with complex data structures and optimizing memory usage.

What is a Pointer?

A pointer is a variable that stores the memory address of another variable. In other words, it “points” to the location in memory where the actual data is stored. Pointers allow us to create dynamic data structures and efficiently access and modify data.


int num = 10;
int *ptr = #

In this example, we have declared an integer variable num with a value of 10. We then declare a pointer variable ptr, which points to the memory address of num. This is achieved by using the & operator, which returns the address of a variable.

Why Use Pointers?

Dynamically Allocating Memory:

A primary use of pointers is to dynamically allocate memory during runtime. This allows us to create data structures such as linked lists, trees, and graphs where the size or number of elements may vary over time.

Passing Arguments by Reference:

In some cases, it may be more efficient or necessary to pass arguments by reference rather than by value. Pointers enable us to pass variables as references, allowing functions to directly modify their values instead of creating copies.

The Importance of Pointers in Data Structures

Data structures such as arrays, linked lists, and trees heavily rely on pointers for their implementation. Pointers enable us to establish relationships between different elements, traverse through the structure, and efficiently manipulate the data.


struct Node {
    int data;
    struct Node *next;

In this example, we define a Node structure that represents a node in a linked list. The structure contains an int data field to store the actual data and a struct Node *next field that points to the next node in the list. This allows us to create a chain of connected nodes.

Pointer Arithmetic

Pointers also support arithmetic operations such as addition and subtraction. This is particularly useful when working with arrays or iterating over linked lists.


int arr[] = {1, 2, 3, 4, 5};
int *ptr = arr;

for (int i = 0; i < 5; i++) {
    printf("%d ", *ptr);

In this example, we have an integer array arr. We declare a pointer ptr, which initially points to the first element of the array. By incrementing the pointer using ptr++, we can iterate through each element of the array and print its value.

The Null Pointer

An important concept related to pointers is the null pointer. A null pointer does not point to any valid memory address. It is often used to indicate that a pointer does not currently refer to any object or variable.


int *ptr = NULL;

In this example, ptr is initialized as a null pointer by assigning it the value NULL. This allows us to check if a pointer is valid or has been assigned a memory address.


Pointers are an essential concept in data structures and enable efficient manipulation and management of data. They allow us to create dynamic data structures, pass arguments by reference, and optimize memory usage. Understanding pointers is crucial for any programmer looking to work with complex data structures.

To summarize:

  • A pointer stores the memory address of another variable.
  • Pointers enable dynamic memory allocation and passing arguments by reference.
  • Data structures heavily rely on pointers for their implementation.
  • Pointer arithmetic allows efficient traversal of arrays and linked lists.
  • The null pointer represents a pointer that does not currently refer to any object or variable.

By mastering pointers, you will have a powerful tool at your disposal for working with complex data structures and optimizing your programs' performance.

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