Methods, arguments and return values

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and return values

Up until now, the term function has been used to describe a named subroutine. The term that is more commonly used in Java is method, as in “a way to do something.” If you want, you can continue thinking in terms of functions. It’s really only a syntactic difference, but from now on “method” will be used in this book rather than “function.”

Methods in Java determine the messages an object can receive. In this section you will learn how simple it is to define a method.

The fundamental parts of a method are the name, the arguments, the return type, and the body. Here is the basic form:

returnType methodName( /* argument list */ ) {

/* Method body */


The return type is the type of the value that pops out of the method after you call it. The method name, as you might imagine, identifies the method. The argument list gives the types and names for the information you want to pass into the method.

Methods in Java can be created only as part of a class. A method can be called only for an object, [13] and that object must be able to perform that method call. If you try to call the wrong method for an object, you’ll get an error message at compile time. You call a method for an object by naming the object followed by a period (dot), followed by the name of the method and its argument list, like this: objectName.methodName(arg1, arg2, arg3) . For example, suppose you have a method f( ) that takes no arguments and returns a value of type int. Then, if you have an object called a for which f( ) can be called, you can say this:

int x = a.f();

The type of the return value must be compatible with the type of x.

This act of calling a method is commonly referred to as sending a message to an object . In the above example, the message is f( ) and the object is a. Object-oriented programming is often summarized as simply “sending messages to objects.”

The argument list

Consider a method that takes a string as its argument. Here is the definition, which must be placed within a class definition for it to compile:

int storage(String s) {

return s.length() * 2;


This method tells you how many bytes are required to hold the information in a particular String. (Each char in a String is 16 bits, or two bytes, long, to support Unicode characters.) The argument is of type String and is called s. Once s is passed into the method, you can treat it just like any other object. (You can send messages to it.) Here, the length( ) method is called, which is one of the methods for Strings; it returns the number of characters in a string.

You can also see the use of the return keyword, which does two things. First, it means “leave the method, I’m done.” Second, if the method produces a value, that value is placed right after the return statement. In this case, the return value is produced by evaluating the expression s.length( ) * 2 .

You can return any type you want, but if you don’t want to return anything at all, you do so by indicating that the method returns void. Here are some examples:

boolean flag() { return true; }
float naturalLogBase() { return 2.718; }
void nothing() { return; }
void nothing2() {}

When the return type is void, then the return keyword is used only to exit the method, and is therefore unnecessary when you reach the end of the method. You can return from a method at any point, but if you’ve given a non- void return type then the compiler will ensure that you return the appropriate type of value regardless of where you return.

At this point, it can look like a program is just a bunch of objects with methods that take other objects as arguments and send messages to those other objects. That is indeed much of what goes on, but in the following chapter you’ll learn how to do the detailed low-level work by making decisions within a method. For this chapter, sending messages will suffice.

[13] static methods, which you’ll learn about soon, can be called for the class , without an object.

[14] With the usual exception of the aforementioned “special” data types boolean, char , byte, short, int, long, float, and double. In general, though, you pass objects, which really means you pass handles to objects.


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