What is polymorphism, what is it for, and how is it used?

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asked Jun 23, 2009 by unkwntech

I was watching a Google Tech Talks video, and they frequently referred to polymorphism.

What is polymorphism, what is it for, and how is it used?

27 Answers

0 votes
answered Jan 23, 2009 by jespere

Usually this refers the the ability for an object of type A to behave like an object of type B. In object oriented programming this is usually achieve by inheritance. Some wikipedia links to read more:

EDIT: fixed broken links.

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answered Jan 23, 2009 by tom-dalling

Polymorphism is the ability to treat a class of object as if it is the parent class.

For instance, suppose there is a class called Animal, and a class called Dog that inherits from Animal. Polymorphism is the ability to treat any Dog object as an Animal object like so:

Dog* dog = new Dog;
Animal* animal = dog;
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answered Jan 23, 2009 by eran-rehavi

In Object Oriented languages, polymorphism allows treatment and handling of different data types through the same interface. For example, consider inheritance in C++: Class B is derived from Class A. A pointer of type A* (pointer to class A) may be used to handle both an object of class A AND an object of class B.

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answered Jan 23, 2009 by tzup

The term polymorphism comes from:

poly = many

morphism = the ability to change

In programming, polymorphism is a "technique" that lets you "look" at an object as being more than one type of thing. For instance:

A student object is also a person object. If you "look" (ie cast) at the student, you can probably ask for the student ID. You can't always do that with a person, right? (a person is not necessarily a student, thus might not have a student ID). However, a person probably has a name. A student does too.

Bottom line, "looking" at the same object from different "angles" can give you different "perspectives" (ie different properties or methods)

So this technique lets you build stuff that can be "looked" at from different angles.

Why do we use polymorphism? For starters ... abstraction. At this point it should be enough info :)

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answered Jan 23, 2009 by stewart

Generally speaking, it's the ability to interface a number of different types of object using the same or a superficially similar API. There are various forms:

  • Function overloading: defining multiple functions with the same name and different parameter types, such as sqrt(float), sqrt(double) and sqrt(complex). In most languages that allow this, the compiler will automatically select the correct one for the type of argument being passed into it, thus this is compile-time polymorphism.

  • Virtual methods in OOP: a method of a class can have various implementations tailored to the specifics of its subclasses; each of these is said to override the implementation given in the base class. Given an object that may be of the base class or any of its subclasses, the correct implementation is selected on the fly, thus this is run-time polymorphism.

  • Templates: a feature of some OO languages whereby a function, class, etc. can be parameterised by a type. For example, you can define a generic "list" template class, and then instantiate it as "list of integers", "list of strings", maybe even "list of lists of strings" or the like. Generally, you write the code once for a data structure of arbitrary element type, and the compiler generates versions of it for the various element types.

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answered Jan 23, 2009 by alex-basson

Polymorphism is the ability of the programmer to write methods of the same name that do different things for different types of objects, depending on the needs of those objects. For example, if you were developing a class called Fraction and a class called ComplexNumber, both of these might include a method called display(), but each of them would implement that method differently. In PHP, for example, you might implement it like this:

//  Class definitions

class Fraction
    public $numerator;
    public $denominator;

    public function __construct($n, $d)
        //  In real life, you'd do some type checking, making sure $d != 0, etc.
        $this->numerator = $n;
        $this->denominator = $d;

    public function display()
        echo $this->numerator . '/' . $this->denominator;

class ComplexNumber
    public $real;
    public $imaginary;

    public function __construct($a, $b)
        $this->real = $a;
        $this->imaginary = $b;

    public function display()
        echo $this->real . '+' . $this->imaginary . 'i';

//  Main program

$fraction = new Fraction(1, 2);
$complex = new ComplexNumber(1, 2);

echo 'This is a fraction: '
echo "\n";

echo 'This is a complex number: '
echo "\n";


This is a fraction: 1/2
This is a complex number: 1 + 2i

Some of the other answers seem to imply that polymorphism is used only in conjunction with inheritance; for example, maybe Fraction and ComplexNumber both implement an abstract class called Number that has a method display(), which Fraction and ComplexNumber are then both obligated to implement. But you don't need inheritance to take advantage of polymorphism.

At least in dynamically-typed languages like PHP (I don't know about C++ or Java), polymorphism allows the developer to call a method without necessarily knowing the type of object ahead of time, and trusting that the correct implementation of the method will be called. For example, say the user chooses the type of Number created:

$userNumberChoice = $_GET['userNumberChoice'];

switch ($userNumberChoice) {
    case 'fraction':
        $userNumber = new Fraction(1, 2);
    case 'complex':
        $userNumber = new ComplexNumber(1, 2);

echo "The user's number is: ";
echo "\n";

In this case, the appropriate display() method will be called, even though the developer can't know ahead of time whether the user will choose a fraction or a complex number.

0 votes
answered Jun 23, 2009 by paxdiablo

If you think about the Greek roots of the term, it should become obvious.

  • Poly = many: polygon = many-sided, polystyrene = many styrenes (a), polyglot = many languages, and so on.
  • Morph = change or form: morphology = study of biological form, Morpheus = the Greek god of dreams able to take any form.

So polymorphism is the ability (in programming) to present the same interface for differing underlying forms (data types).

For example, in many languages, integers and floats are implicitly polymorphic since you can add, subtract, multiply and so on, irrespective of the fact that the types are different. They're rarely considered as objects in the usual term.

But, in that same way, a class like BigDecimal or Rational or Imaginary can also provide those operations, even though they operate on different data types.

The classic example is the Shape class and all the classes that can inherit from it (square, circle, dodecahedron, irregular polygon, splat and so on).

With polymorphism, each of these classes will have different underlying data. A point shape needs only two co-ordinates (assuming it's in a two-dimensional space of course). A circle needs a center and radius. A square or rectangle needs two co-ordinates for the top left and bottom right corners and (possibly) a rotation. An irregular polygon needs a series of lines.

By making the class responsible for its code as well as its data, you can achieve polymorphism. In this example, every class would have its own Draw() function and the client code could simply do:


to get the correct behavior for any shape.

This is in contrast to the old way of doing things in which the code was separate from the data, and you would have had functions such as drawSquare() and drawCircle().

Object orientation, polymorphism and inheritance are all closely-related concepts and they're vital to know. There have been many "silver bullets" during my long career which basically just fizzled out but the OO paradigm has turned out to be a good one. Learn it, understand it, love it - you'll be glad you did :-)

(a) I originally wrote that as a joke but it turned out to be correct and, therefore, not that funny. The momomer styrene happens to be made from carbon and hydrogen, C8H8, and polystyrene is made from groups of that, (C8H8)n.

Perhaps I should have stated that a polyp was many occurrences of the letter p although, now that I've had to explain the joke, even that doesn't seem funny either.

Sometimes, you should just quit while you're behind :-)

0 votes
answered Jan 24, 2010 by tim-hoolihan

This wikipedia article has good examples in many languages.

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answered Jan 24, 2010 by vinko-vrsalovic

Polymorphism is this:

class Cup {
   int capacity

class TeaCup : Cup {
   string flavour

class CoffeeCup : Cup {
   string brand

Cup c = new CoffeeCup();

public int measure(Cup c) {
    return c.capacity

you can pass just a Cup instead of a specific instance. This aids in generality because you don't have to provide a specific measure() instance per each cup type

0 votes
answered Jan 24, 2010 by brian-scott

Polymorphism in coding terms is when your object can exist as multiple types through inheritance etc. If you create a class named "Shape" which defines the number of sides your object has then you can then create a new class which inherits it such as "Square". When you subsequently make an instance of "Square" you can then cast it back and forward from "Shape" to "Square" as required.

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