C# 7 Ref Returns and Ref Locals

A reference return value allows a method to return a reference to a variable, rather than a value, back to a caller. The caller can then choose to treat the returned variable as if it were returned by value or by reference. The caller can create a new variable that is itself a reference to the returned value, called a ref local.

Reference Return

A reference return value means that a method returns a reference to some variable. That variable's scope must include the method.

  • The lifetime of that variable must extend beyond the return of the method.
  • Any modifications to the return value by the caller are made to the variable that is returned by the method.
  • When a method is declared that returns a reference, it indicates that the method returns an alias to a variable.
  • The calling code should have access to that variable through the alias, including modifying it.
  • It follows that methods returning by reference can't have the return type void.

To declare a method returning reference we need to use the ref keyword in the method signature. The ref is also needed in the return statement.

public class Customer
    public string Name { get; set; }
    public int Age { get; set; }
    public string Address { get; set; }

private static ref Customer GetLastCustomer(Customer[] customers)
    return ref customers[customers.Length -1];

Let's try to call GetLastCustomer and it will return a reference.

Customer[] customers = new Customer[]
    new Customer () { Name =  "Mark", Age = 24, Address = "22 Ashdown close"},
    new Customer () { Name =  "John", Age = 31, Address = "9 Ashdown close"},
    new Customer () { Name = "Stella", Age = 29, Address = "32 burak town" }

ref Customer customerReference = ref GetLastCustomer(customers);

PrintCustomerInfo(customerReference);               // Name: Stella, Age: 29, Address: 32 burak town

customerReference.Name = "Jenifer";

PrintCustomerInfo(customers[customers.Length -1]);  // Name: Jenifer, Age: 29, Address: 32 burak town

The Ref local in C# is a new variable type that is used to store the references. It is mostly used in conjunction with Ref returns to store the reference in a local variable. That means local variables now can also be declared with the ref modifier as you can see in the above example.

ref Customer customerReference = ref GetLastCustomer(customers);