You are here

Inheritance and Polymorphism

15 January, 2016 - 09:02
Available under Creative Commons-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Download for free at

Inheritance and polymorphism are really just two ways of looking at the same class relationship.

Inheritance is looking at the class hierarchy from the bottom up. A subclass inherits behaviors and attributes from its superclass. A subclass automatically possesses certain behaviors and/or attributes simply because it is classified as being a subclass of an entity that possesses those behaviors and/or attributes. That is, a cherry can be said to automatically contain a seed because it is a subclass of Fruit and all fruit contain seeds.

Inheritance is useful from a code reuse perspective. Any (non-private) code in the superclass does not have to be replicated in any of the subclasses because they will automatically inherit those behaviors and attributes. However, one must be very careful when transferring common code from the subclasses to the superclass (a process called "hoisting"), as the proper abstraction represented by the superclass may be broken (see note above).

Polymorphism, on the other hand, is looking at the class hierarchy from the top down. Any subclass can be used anywhere the superclass is needed because the subclasses are all abstractly equivalent to the superclass. Different behaviors may arise because the subclasses may all have different implementations of the abstract behaviors defined in the superclass. For instance, all liquids have a boiling temperature. They may have different values for that boiling temperature which leads to different behaviors at any given temperature.

Polymorphism is arguably the more useful perspective in an object-oriented programming paradigm. Polymorphism describes how an entity of a lower abstraction level can be substituted for an entity of a higher abstraction level and in the process, change the overall behavior of the original system. This will be the cornerstone that enables us to build OO systems that are flexible, extensible, robust and correct.