Darren Burgess Darren Burgess - 4 months ago 29
Java Question

What is the main difference between Inheritance and Polymorphism?

I was presented with this question in an end of module open book exam today and found myself lost. I was reading

Head first Java
and both definitions seemed to be exactly the same. I was just wondering what the MAIN difference was for my own piece of mind. I know there are a number of similar questions to this but, none I have seen which provide a definitive answer.


Inheritance is when a 'class' derives from an existing 'class'. So if you have a Person class, then you have a Student class that extends Person, Student inherits all the things that Person has. There are some details around the access modifiers you put on the fields/methods in Person, but that's the basic idea. For example, if you have a private field on Person, Student won't see it because its private, and private fields are not visible to subclasses.

Polymorphism deals with how the program decides which methods it should use, depending on what type of thing it has. If you have a Person, which has a read method, and you have a Student which extends Person, which has its own implementation of read, which method gets called is determined for you by the runtime, depending if you have a Person or a Student. It gets a bit tricky, but if you do something like

Person p = new Student();

the read method on Student gets called. Thats the polymorphism in action. You can do that assignment because a Student is a Person, but the runtime is smart enough to know that the actual type of p is Student.

Note that details differ among languages. You can do inheritance in javascript for example, but its completely different than the way it works in Java.