Lecture 9: Inheritance and Dynamic Dispatch

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NOTE: The actual code I used in the lecture is different from the examples below, you should download and study the code from the lecture as well.

1. Inheritance

  • A way of extending the functionality and properties of an existing class.
    • Allows you to add new features.
    • Allows you to replace existing ones.

1.1. Example (Person / Student Inheritance)

#ifndef PERSON_H
#define PERSON_H

#include <string>
#include <iostream>

class Person {
  Person(std::string name, int age);
  Person() : name(""), age(-1) {}
    virtual std::string getName() const;
    int getAge() const;
    void setName(std::string name);
    void setAge(int age);
  virtual std::string toString() const = 0;
  virtual ~Person() {
    std::cout << "person dtor\n";
    std::string name;
    int age;

#endif // PERSON_H
  • Every person should have some identifiable name and age.
  • Potential classes that may inherit from a Person are specific type of people (i.e.¬†Students, Soldiers, Artists, Bankers, Musicians, etc.).

    // Student.h
    #ifndef STUDENT_H
    #define STUDENT_H
    #include "Person.h"
    class Student : public Person {
        Student(std::string name, int age, int studentId);
        int getStudentId() const;
        void setStudentId(int id);
        int studentId;
  • We say that a Person is the base class (or parent class) of Student
  • Student is a derived class (or subclass or child class) of Person.
  • Note: With inheritance, we can have an additional protected access specifier as well. protected is just like private with the following exception:
    • Protected members are accessible in the class that defines them and in classes that inherit from that class. The child classes that inherit from the parent can access protected members only through a child pointer. For example, a method of Student can access protected members of Person through a Student reference, but not through a Person reference.
  • The : here means the Student class inherits everything from a Person class. So, you can read Student : public Person as "Student inherits public-ly from Person".
    • Public Inheritance: Public members of base class become public members of derived class. Protected members of base class become protected members of derived class.
    • Protected Inheritance: Public and protected members of base class become protected members of derived class.
    • Private Inheritance: Public and protected members of base class become private members of derived class.
  • Protected and private inheritance are usually a bad idea. It is a better idea to use a member variable (field) in this case. Because, protected and private inheritance effectively encode a "has-a" relationship (e.g. Student has a Person) because the functionality of the parent is not exposed to outside, rather than an "is-a" relationship (e.g. Student is a Person). A good rule of thumb is to use inheritance for "is-a" (exposing the same or a similar interface, so the users of the child class can pretend like it is the parent class), and member variables for "has-a" relationships (not guaranteeing any interface, but just reusing existing code).

    // Person.cpp
    #include <string>
    #include "Person.h"
    using namespace std;
    Person::Person(string name, int age) {
        this->name = name;
        this->age = age;
    string Person::getName() { return name; }
    int Person::getAge() { return age; }
    void Person::setName(string name) { this->name = name; }
    void Person::setAge(int age) { this->age = age; }
// Student.cpp
#include <string>
#include "Student.h"

using namespace std;

Student::Student(string name, int age, int id) : Person(name, age), studentId(id) {}

int Student::getStudentId() { return studentId; }

void Student::setStudentId(int id) { studentId = id; }


  • You can initialize your class variables using the initialization list notation.
  • You must use this notation when calling the base class' constructor.
  • Even though memory for Person's attributes are reserved in memory, a subclass cannot access a base class' private variables by name.
  • You must use the base class' getters and setters.
  • The "protected" qualifier can be used to do this.

1.2. Note on constructors and inheritance

  • A student is a Person AND a Student
    • Therefore, we must construct the Person first and then construct a Student.
    • This gets done automatically (using the base class' default constructor) if no explicit base class constructor is used in the initialization list.
      • An error will occur if no default constructor is available in the base class.

2. Redefining inherited functions

  • If a class inherits a method, but there is specific functionality you want to include in the sub class, then you are able to redefine the function.
  • For example, let's say you want to prepend "STUDENT:" in the getName method for students
// in Student.h
std::string getName();

// in Student.cpp
string Student::getName() {
    //return "STUDENT: " + name; //ERROR, name isn’t inherited
    //return "STUDENT: " + getName(); // ERROR Student::getName() is called.
    return "STUDENT: " + Person::getName(); // OK!

3. Inheritance Types

  • We've been saying a Student IS A Person, but a Person is not necessarily a Student.
  • We can think of class types in a similar way:
Person p1("Chris Gaucho", 21);
Student s1("John Doe", 22, 12345678);

Person p2  = s1; // Legal, a student is a person
Student s2 = p1; // illegal, a person may not be a student

4. Memory Slicing

  • Remember, C++ must reserve memory for each type… so what happens when a Person stores a Student that contains additional information… so how does C++ allocate the memory for a Student?
    • It doesn't. Object/memory slicing happens where the Person member variables are copied but the Student member variables are not.
cout << p2.getName() << endl;
cout << p2.getAge() << endl;
cout << p2.getStudentId() << endl; // ERROR! p2 doesn’t have studentID

5. Pointers of base types

  • A Person pointer can point to Student objects.
  • A Student pointer cannot point to a Person object
    • since a student is a Person, but a Person may not be a Student.
Person* p1 = new Person("R1", 10);
Student* s1 = new Student("JD", 21, 1234567);

// Student* s2 = p1;    // Illegal!
Person* p2 = s1;        // OK.
cout << p2->getName() << endl;
cout << p2->getAge() << endl;
//cout << p2->getStudentId() << endl; // illegal! getStudentId() is not known in Person
cout << s1->getStudentId() << endl; // OK.

6. Destructors and Inheritance

  • As far as destructing goes, the process works in reverse
    • Student's destructor gets called first, then Person's destructor.
    • Destructor calls are chained upwards (from derived to base)

6.1. Example

// in Student.h
// in Student.cpp
Student::~Student() {
    cout << "in Student Destructor" << endl;
// in Person.h
// in Person.cpp
Person::~Person() {
    cout << "in Person destructor" << endl;
// in main.cpp
Person* p1 = new Person("R1", 10);
Student* s1 = new Student("JD", 21, 1234567);
delete p1;
cout << "---" << endl;
delete s1;

Person* p2 = new Student("Student", 25,7654321);

// calls Person's destructor only
delete p2;

// But student object memory has not been destructed properly in this case.
// Dynamic dispatch and virtual destructors will allows us to call
// the appropriate destructor in this scenario...

7. Dynamic Dispatch (one form of polymorphism) - Read PS 15.3

  • When a function is called on a base type object pointing to a subtype, then the appropriate function of the subtype is called.
    • In simpler terms, objects behave appropriately given their constructed type, even if assigned to a base class type.
    • This allows a form of polymorphism: subtype polymorphism. We were doing other kinds of polymorphism with templates and function overloading already.
    • The proper term is dynamic dispatch, polymorphism is a more general concept but some sources equate the two. So, beware of this when reading the textbooks or other resources.
    • It is also called dynamic binding but that term is overloaded with several meanings.

7.1. Example: Adding a toString function to both Person and Student

class Person {
    std::string toString();

string Person::toString() {
    return "Person - Name: " + name + ", age: " + to_string(age);

class Student {
    std::string toString();

string Student::toString() {
    return "Student - name: " + getName() + ", age: " +
      to_string(getAge()) + ", " + to_string(studentId);

// main.cpp
Person p1("Richert", 32);
cout << p.toString() << endl;

Student s1("John Doe", 21, 12345678);
cout << s.toString() << endl;

Person* p2 = new Person("Someone", 18);
cout << p2->toString() << endl;

Student* s2 = new Student("Jane Doe", 19, 23456789);
cout << s2->toString() << endl;

Person* p3 = new Student("Person Student", 21, 11111111);
cout << p3->toString() << endl;//uses Person::toString(). Not polymorphic

The above example uses Person's toString function instead of Student's even though p3 points to a Student object.

  • Dynamic dispatch isn't used here because you need to explicitly state which functions are polymorphic using the keyword virtual.
// add the keyword "virtual" to the toString functions
class Person {
    virtual std::string toString() const;

class Student {
    virtual std::string toString() const;


  • Technically, we don't need to word virtual in Student since the virtual property of the function is inherited as well. However, it's good style to state any virtual function as virtual in the function declaration. A better option is to use the keyword override, like so:

    class Student {
        std::string toString() const override;
  • override keyword makes sure that the parent class also has a virtual method with the same signature so we are overriding its behavior rather than defining another method with the same name.
  • If we want to prevent a child class from overriding a virtual method, we can mark it final. For example, this would prevent any class inheriting from Student override toString() const.

    class Student {
        std::string toString() const final;
  • By declaring the toString functions as virtual, the previous example will use Student's toString function.
  • Constructors cannot be virtual.
  • They never need to be. The compiler knows exactly what object you're creating and what constructor needs to be called.
  • Destructors can (and most likely should) be virtual. The compiler will issue a warning when we have other virtual methods but the destructor is not virtual.
  • If a Person pointer is pointing to a Student, we want to call the destructor for the Student as well. If not, there can be potential memory leaks. So, if the destructor is not virtual then we may leak some resources.

7.2. Example of Object slicing

Person p4 = Student("Person Student 2", 21, 1000000);
cout << p4.toString() << endl; // which toString is called?
  • In this case, even though toString is virtual and a Student object was constructed, Person::toString() is called.
  • a Student object is constructed.
  • the assignment operator is used in the Person class. In this case, a shallow copy of all relevant Person attributes in the space allocated for a Person object is done.
  • the Student object is destructed. Only the Person object in memory (stack) is left.
  • Therefore, when p4.toString() is called, then Person::toString() method is used.

7.3. Example of Polymorphism with Objects on the Stack

void f1(Person& p) {
    cout << p.toString() << endl;
int main () {
    Student r = Student("Richert", 21, 1234567);
    cout << r.toString() << endl; // Calls Student::toString

    Person s = Student("T", 12, 1111112);
    cout << s.toString() << endl; // calls Person::toString() (object sliced)

    Person* t = new Student("R", 10, 654321);
    cout << t->toString() << endl; // calls Student::toString (polymorphic)

    f1(r); // calls Student::toString()

    f1(s); // calls Person::toString() since a person is constructed in memory

    f1(*t); // calls Student::toString() since a student is constructed on heap

8. Inheritance and Memory Layout Example

  • Note that when base class fields are inherited by a subclass, it's as if the base class fields are part of the subclass' fields and memory padding is done accordingly.
class X {
    X() { a = 10; b = 20; }
    short a;    // change this to int
    int b;      // change this to short
                // observe how class Y is memory padded

class Y : public X {
    Y() : X() { c = 30; d = 40; }
    short c;
    short d;

int main() {
    X x;
    Y y;
    X z = y;

    cout << "&x = " << &x << endl;
    cout << "&x.a = " << &x.a << endl;
    cout << "&x.b = " << &x.b << endl;
    cout << "---" << endl;
    cout << "&y = " << &y << endl;
    cout << "&y.a = " << &y.a << endl;
    cout << "&y.b = " << &y.b << endl;
    cout << "&y.c = " << &y.c << endl;
    cout << "&y.d = " << &y.d << endl;
    cout << "---" << endl;
    cout << "&z = " << &z << endl;
    cout << "&z.a = " << &z.a << endl;
    cout << "&z.b = " << &z.b << endl;

    return 0;

9. Pure Virtual Functions and Abstract Classes

There are times where it doesn't make sense for a base class to have a virtual function.

9.1. Example

class Shape {
    virtual double area();
  • How would we know how to compute the area of a general Shape? We would need to know what type of shape it is…
  • We can make Shape an abstract class since it can contain fields that all shapes have in common and can inherit from.
  • An abstract class is defined as having one or more pure virtual functions.
  • A virtual function can be overridden with an inheriting class by a function with the same signature.
  • A pure virtual function is REQUIRED to be implemented by a derived class that is not abstract.
  • You cannot create objects of abstract classes (for good reqson since it wouldn't make sense to call area() on a general Shape).

9.2. Example (defining a pure virtual function)

class Shape {
    virtual double area() = 0; // pure virtual function

You can have references or pointers to abstract classes (i.e. Shape* s is legal and can point to objects of any child class).

class Rectangle : public Shape {
    Rectangle() {}
    Rectangle(double length, double width);
    virtual double area();
    double length;
    double width;

Rectangle::Rectangle(double length, double width) {
    this->length = length;
    this->width = width;

double Rectangle::area() {
    cout << "In Rectangle::area()" << endl;
    return length * width;

class Square : public Shape {
    Square(double side);
    virtual double area();
    double side;

Square::Square(double side) {
    this->side = side;

double Square::area() {
    cout << "In Square::area()" << endl;
    return side * side;

10. Array of Pointers

  • The following won't work since abstract classes cannot be instantiated:
Shape shapes[2]; // ERROR, tries to construct a shape object.
  • But we can point abstract classes to sub classes that inherit and implement the pure virtual function:
Shape* shapes[2]; // OK

shapes[0] = new Square(10);
shapes[1] = new Rectangle(3, 4);

cout << shapes[0]->area() << endl;
cout << shapes[1]->area() << endl;

The correct area() function will be called on a sub class object if that object is pointed to by Shape* even if Shape does not have an area() definition.

10.1. Example with various scenarios

Rectangle* r = new Rectangle[100]; // Rectangle array on the heap
//r[0] = new Rectangle(2,2); // ERROR, expects objects, not pointers
r[0] = Rectangle(2,2); // OK, r[0] is an object

//Rectangle* r1 = new Rectangle*[100]; // ERROR
Rectangle** r1 = new Rectangle*[100]; // OK, r1 is a pointer to an array of pointers
r1[0] = new Rectangle(2,3); // r1[0] is a pointer
cout << r1[0]->area() << endl;

Shape* s = new Rectangle(5,5);
cout << s->area() << endl; // Works as expected.

Shape* s1[100]; // Array declared on the stack
s1[0] = new Rectangle(6,6);
cout << s1[0]->area() << endl; // Works as expected.

delete [] r;    // OK, deletes the array of Rectangles on heap
delete [] r1;
// OK, deletes array of Rectangle pointers on heap
// Be careful, Rectangle objects that elements in r1
// point to may still be on the heap.
// You may need to manually delete these as well.

delete s1[0];
// OK, deleting a Rectangle object on the heap
// may receive a warning if Shape does not have a virtual destructor

//delete [] s1; // ERROR. Trying to delete something on the stack.

Author: Mehmet Emre


The material for this class is based on Prof. Richert Wang's material for CS 32