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Tip of the Day
Language: C++
Expertise: All
Oct 13, 1998

Three Flavors of Polymorphism

Polymorphism is the ability of different objects to react in an individual manner to the same message. This notion was imported from natural languages. For example, the verb "to close" means different things when applied to different objects. Closing a door, closing a bank account, or closing a program's window are all different actions; their exact meaning is determined by the object on which the action is performed.

Most object-oriented languages implement polymorphism only in the form of virtual functions. But C++ has two more mechanisms of static (meaning: compile-time) polymorphism:

  1. Operator overloading. Applying the += operator to integers or string objects, for example, is interpreted by each of these objects in an individual manner. Obviously, the underlying implementation of += differs in every type. Yet, intuitively, we can predict what results are.
  2. Templates. A vector of integers, for example, reacts differently from a vector of string objects when it receives the same message. We can expect close behaviors:
    vector < int > vi;  vector < string > names; 
    string name("Bjarne");
    vi.push_back( 5 ); // add an integer at the end of the vector
    names.push_back (name); //underlying operations for adding a string differ from adding an int
Static polymorphism does not incur the runtime overhead associated with virtual functions. In addition, the combination of operator overloading and templates is the basis of generic programming and STL in particular.
Danny Kalev
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