Fengyang Wang

Call by Sharing

Most people know of two calling evaluation strategies: call-by-value and call-by-reference. Lost in the noise is how the most common evaluation strategy today is really neither of the above. Indeed, many languages, including JavaScript, Java, Julia, Python, Ruby, and countless more, use the “call-by-sharing” evaluation strategy.

In many ways, call-by-sharing is the most intuitive evaluation strategy. It captures the semantics where the caller of the function shares objects with the function being called. The called function can mutate those objects so long as the objects themselves are mutable. Because the objects are shared, any changes will be reflected in the calling function. This convention is applied to all objects being passed.

For immutable objects, call-by-sharing is indistiguishable from call-by-value. Indeed, the key to functional programming is that aliasing (the result of sharing objects instead of copying them) is always 100% safe. This is achievable by forbidding mutation. A class of powerful functional data structures exist that exploit this efficiency. These data structures can usually be efficiently updated without destroying the original copy, because the update aliases large parts of the original data structure instead of mutating it.

This nuance with immutable objects is the source of much confusion. For instance, the following JavaScript code mutates the array:

function mutateArray(A) {
  A[0] = 0;
A = [1];
console.log(A);  // [1]
console.log(A);  // [0]

whereas the following does not mutate the number:

function mutateNumber(n) {
  n = 0;
n = 1;
console.log(n);  // 1
console.log(n);  // 1

A common but incorrect explanation is that the semantics in JavaScript for passing numbers and arrays are different. Some claim that numbers are passed by value, whereas arrays are passed by reference. Rather, it is more accurate to say that both arrays and numbers are passed by sharing. Whereas arrays are mutable, numbers are not.

In the first example, the syntax A[0] = 0 is a mutation of the array. The array does not become a different object; it is the same object as before, but its first element is changed. In the second example, the syntax n = 0 is very different. It does not mean “change the value of this number to 0”; instead, it means “rebind the name n to the new value 0”. This subtlety is the source of much confusion. In languages with call-by-sharing semantics, names are often distinguished from objects. Names are bound to objects, and a name can be rebound to a different object using an assignment keyword. Assignments do not affect the object the name was originally bound to.

Indeed, if we had written our first example as

function mutateArray(A) {
  A = [0];
A = [1];
console.log(A);  // [1]
console.log(A);  // [1]

then we would have seen a similar result as our second example. Here we are no longer mutating the array; we are now binding the name A to a new array.

There is a wealth of resources online that claim that Java is call-by-value, or that Ruby is call-by-reference. These languages are both call-by-sharing. So are these resources wrong? In fact, the former is not wrong. The latter is a little bit of a stretch, but there is some meaning in the nonsense. Rather, this exposes some nuance about what exactly is a value, and what exactly is a reference.

Java is call-by-value

In Java 1.8, there are exactly 9 user-visible value types: byte, short, int, long, float, double, boolean, char, and Object. The first 8 of these are known as the primitive types. Each of these types can be represented as a machine integer of various fixed sizes. All the primitives represent themselves, but Objects are more interesting. Objects can be thought of as effectively pointers to another memory location. That means that Objects are just numbers, like longs are. However, these numbers do not contain the user-facing substance of an Object, but rather the location of the user-facing substance. They are still values deep down—but their values are not directly exposed to the user.

This understanding of what an Object really is helps to understand much of the behaviour of objects. For instance, even if two Objects have identical internal structure (like, say, two Strings that contain the same contents), they might not test ==! This is a common “gotcha” for new Java programmers, who try writing

if (myString == "Hello World") {
  System.out.println("myString is Hello World!")

The conditional here, to their confoundment, can be false even if myString also contains "Hello World". Why is this? Because even if the two Objects have identical user-facing structure, they might be stored in different locations in memory, and hence not have the same value. And in Java, the == comparison operator compares the values of Objects, as it does with any primitive type. This is why Java programmers need to instead using the .equals() method to compare the substance of Objects.

Now it might be clear why Java programmers often call their language “call-by-value”: because it is! However, from a programmers perspective, treating Objects as memory addresses is often not helpful. If I have an Object that represents a complex number, its value—as far as I’m concerned—is the number itself, not the memory address where the number is stored. Although “call-by-value” is accurate from a low-level viewpoint, it is more helpful for the programmer to think in terms of Objects’ substance than in terms of pointers. And when we think of Objects’ and primitives in terms of their user-visible behaviour—in which case primitives behave quite similarly to immutable Objects—it leads to the inevitable conclusion that Java is indeed “call-by-sharing”.

Ruby can look like call-by-reference

To call Java’s behaviour call-by-value is defensible. In strictest terms, to call Ruby’s behaviour call-by-reference is not.

Indeed, Ruby has the same semantics as Java:

def mutate!(x)  # a little misleading 😉
  x = 0
x = 1
mutate! x
puts x  # 1

At this point it is clear that Ruby is not call-by-reference. This is clear if we consider the equivalent C++ code, which is call-by-reference:

void mutate(int& x) {
  x = 0;
x = 1;
std::cout << x << std::endl;  // 0

But why then do so many sources claim that it is? They are wrong, but there is meaning in their madness. Firstly, there is no concept of a primitive type, as with Java. All objects are first-class objects and have similar behaviour. Indeed, in the most simple implementations, all objects are internally stored as what are effectively pointers. Since all objects are references, therefore all calls pass some kind of reference.

Further confounding the situation is that Ruby has no immutable types. Rather, immutability is a property of the instances. Some types are practically immutable; there is no real standard way to mutate a numeric type, for example. But theoretically, the semantics permit mutation of all unfrozen instances. This makes calling the behaviour call-by-value more confusing than it is illuminating.

As mentioned earlier, Ruby is not call-by-reference. Rather, it is more accurate to call this behaviour call-by-value-of-reference, which is just a fancy way of saying call-by-value. But this is needlessly confusing and low-level. Indeed, Ruby’s semantics are identical to those of Java and JavaScript. It is call-by-sharing.

Semantics vs. Implementation

Above I had explained how various languages have call-by-sharing semantics. Sharing, it would seem, implies that the objects being passed are located in the same memory location. This idea is false.

Indeed, one implementation of sharing is to place two objects in the same memory location. Then, any mutation on one object would mutate the other.

But another, equally valid, implementation is to place two objects in different memory locations, but to proxy mutations on one object to the other. This may sound stupid—why do extra work, after all? But the user is none the wiser. The semantics of both implementations are identical.

Many languages that call-by-sharing do not necessarily share some things at all. Java does not share its primitive types; those are immutable, so copying them is the same as sharing them from the user’s perspective. And copying a number provides much faster access than copying a pointer to a number allocated on the heap somewhere.

For efficiency reasons, JIT compilers will aggressively stack-allocate objects that they observe to be or are declared to be immutable. This enables JavaScript code accessing points stored as two-element arrays to be reasonably efficient. Julia’s JIT compiler is especially aggressive at stack-allocating almost all immutable objects. This does not change the semantics from the user’s perspective; it is merely an optimization made by the compiler.

In summary, memory does not need to be actually shared by a particular implementation for a language to have call-by-sharing semantics.

Closing Remarks

I hope this blog post has cleared up some of the confusion regarding call-by-value and call-by-reference, and how call-by-sharing—a relatively unknown term—is indeed more precise and accurate for many languages.

(Updated Jan 29, 2019: Fixed a typo in example, thanks to Nicolas Rouanne for pointing it out!)