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Understanding Java Inheritance and Polymorphism

December 6, 2021

Java is an object-oriented programming language since it provides Java developers with the ability to implement objects as real-life entities. OOP (object-oriented programming) is a programming paradigm built around objects and their properties (attributes) and behaviors (methods). So, generally, software design using object-oriented principles focuses on objects and operations. Amongst many features of object-oriented programming is that it encourages code reusability and extensibility. We will explain these two terms in detail later. But, first, this article will explain two core OOP principles in inheritance and polymorphism.


The reader should have:

  • A basic understanding of Java programming
  • Java installed on your computer
  • An IDE of your choice


At the end of this tutorial, the reader should understand:

  • What is inheritance
  • Multiple inheritances
  • Inheritance hierarchy
  • What is polymorphism
  • The importance of polymorphism and inheritance
  • Implementation of inheritance and polymorphism in Java

To get started, read this article to understand how to create objects from classes.

What is inheritance?

Imagine designing a class to create Car objects such as Toyota, Benz, Rolls Royce, etc. All car objects have the same properties and behaviors. For example, all cars can move (drive), honk, accelerate, and they all have a name and engine number. Instead of creating these classes individually, a general car class (superclass) with all the attributes and behaviors of a car can be used to model all car objects. The other classes then inherit or are created based on the superclass attributes and methods. In a nutshell, inheritance lets you build classes based on other classes and avoid duplication and repeating code. Here is some code to explain the above illustration:

// Declare a car superclass
public class Car {
    private int speed;
    private String name;
    private String color;
    private int enginePower;

    public Car() {


    public void accelerate() {
        System.out.println("The car is accelerating…");

    public void setSpeed(int speed) {
        System.out.println("The car is " + speed);

    public int getSpeed() {
        return speed;

// Declare a sub car class
public class Toyota extends Car {
    private int registrationNumber;
    private int engineNumber;

    public Toyota() {
        // Toyota constructor calling the constructor of the superclass

The keyword extends implies that the Toyota class inherits from and is a child of the Car class. The Toyota class has both the attributes and methods of the Car class and its own. This is the core principle of inheritance; it supports the concept of code reusability. The code snippet below shows how the Toyota object can access both the attributes and methods in the superclass Car:

public class Main {
    public static void main(String[] args) {
        // This is the setSpeed() and accelerate() method in the Car class being accessed by the Toyota object.
        Toyota myToyota = new Toyota();

It is proper to say that a subclass is a specialized version of the superclass. As a generally accepted Java programming approach, before we create an object, it must be declared as a given type: the class that the object is an instance of. Inheritance changes this through the polymorphic substitution principle. The polymorphic substitution principle states that wherever an object of a given type is needed in an expression, it can be substituted for by an object which is a subclass of the given type. Below is a code snippet to illustrate the polymorphic substitution principle:

Car myToyota = new Car();
// An object of type Car is assigned to a variable of type Car or
Car myToyota1 = new Toyota();

An object of type Toyota is assigned to a variable of type Car. This is possible because Toyota is a subclass or a descendant of Car. Unfortunately, the polymorphic substitution principle cannot hold in the reverse direction. Therefore, a car object can not be used in place of a Toyota object. For instance, the code below will cause a compilation error:

Toyota myToyota = new Car();
/* Every Toyota is a Car but not every car is a Toyota */

It is now time to look at types of inheritance but before that, let me make one point clear. When a method in the superclass is overridden in the subclass, the superclass method is accessible in the base class using the super keyword followed by a period. The code snippet below illustrates this:

public class Toyota extends Car{
    public void accelerate() {
        System.out.println("Toyota is accelerating");

Types of inheritance

These are the types of inheritance:

  1. Single Inheritance
  2. Multiple inheritance
  3. Multi-level inheritance
  4. Hierarchical inheritance

Single inheritance

The subclass only inherits properties and methods from a single parent class in this kind of inheritance. The subclass can also add more features to the existing code. The example below illustrates single inheritance:

public class SectionStudent {
    // Declare your instance variables and methods here

public class SectionInheritance extends SectionStudent {
    // Declare your instance variables and methods here

In single inheritance, the class SectionInheritance only inherits from SectionStudent.

Multiple inheritance

In Java, multiple inheritances are not allowed, although they can be implemented through interfaces. Multiple interfaces can be implemented in Java, but only one class can be extended.

Multi-level inheritance

In multi-level inheritance, a subclass also serves as a base class for yet another subclass. For instance, say a vehicle class serves as a superclass for every moving machine, including a car, and a car also serves as a superclass for specific kinds of cars like Toyota, Benz, etc. This is the concept of multi-level inheritance. The code snippet below illustrates this:

public class Vehicle {
    // Do something
public class Car extends Vehicle {
    // Do something
    // At this point Car is a subclass of Vehicle
public class Benz extends Car {
    // Here car is now a superclass

Hierarchical inheritance

This type of inheritance in which more than one class is based on a superclass. For instance, a Benz class inherits from a Car, a Toyota class inherits from a Car, and the list continues. In simpler terms, hierarchical inheritance is the kind of inheritance in which different classes inherit the parent:

public class Car {
    // Write your methods here
public class Benz extends Car {
    // Write your methods here

public class Porsche extends Car {
    // Write your methods here

Notes on inheritance

  1. Constructors are not inherited
  2. Private members of a class are not inherited
  3. Final methods are inherited but cannot be overridden
  4. All public and protected members and fields are inherited

We’ve been able to explain inheritance and the inheritance hierarchy. Now let us focus on polymorphism.

Polymorphism and its implementation

As the name implies, polymorphism is the ability to take multiple forms or shapes. Polymorphism is an object-oriented programming concept that allows you to treat objects that share the same superclass, whether directly or indirectly, as though they were objects of the superclass. For example, we inherit superclass methods in inheritance, while polymorphism uses the methods in different forms.

Suppose we create a program that mimics the movement of animals. Classes Dog, Fish, Bird, and Snake, for example, move differently even though they all implement the move method in the superclass animal. The code snippet below gives a vivid illustration to the statement above:

public class Animal {
    public void animalMove() {
        System.out.println("Animal move");

public class Dog extends Animal{
    public void animalMove() {
        System.out.println("Dog is running");

public class Fish extends Animal{
    public void animalMove() {
        System.out.println("Fish is swimming");

public class Bird extends Animal{
    public void animalMove() {
        System.out.println("Bird is flying");

public class Snake extends Animal{
    public void animalMove() {
        System.out.println("Snake is crawling");

To test whether the above code applies polymorphism, let’s use the primary method to test it.

public static void main(String[] args) {
    Animal animal = new Animal();

    Animal dog = new Dog();

    Animal fish = new Fish();

    Animal bird = new Bird();

    Animal snake = new Snake();


The following will be printed out on our console when we run this application:

Animal move
Dog is running
Fish is swimming
Bird is flying
Snake is crawling

Types of polymorphism

There are two types of polymorphism, and they are listed below:

  1. Compile-time polymorphism
  2. Run-time polymorphism

Compile-time polymorphism

When the compiler encounters a method call, it checks the object’s type to determine if it can make that call. The program is compiled if the class contains the method or inherits one. One primary application of compile-time polymorphism is Java’s method overloading.

Method overloading

This is a concept in which methods are declared with the same name but with different parameter types. The method is determined at compile time hence the words compile-time in the name. Here is an example:

public class MathAddition {
    public int sum(int a, int b, int c) {
        return a + b + c;

    public int sum(int x, int y) {
        return x + y;

The method sum was declared twice from the above code snippet. Assuming sum was called by an object of type MathAddition, which do you think will be invoked? The answer is simple, the method invoked is determined by the number of arguments passed at compile-time, as shown below:

public static void main(String []args){
    MathAddition addition = new MathAddition();
    System.out.println(addition.sum(3, 3, 3));

The result of the above method call will be 9. Remember, we have two methods with the same name and different parameters. Still, at invocation, three arguments were passed into the method to execute the method with the three parameters. This is compile-time polymorphism.

Runtime polymorphism

This is the kind of polymorphism that occurs at runtime. In runtime polymorphism, two methods with the same name exist in two different classes, unlike compile-time polymorphism, where both methods exist in the same class. In runtime polymorphism, one class is the parent class and another the subclass. A perfect application of runtime polymorphism is seen in method overriding.

Method overriding

This is a concept in which a method declared in the parent class is given a different implementation in the subclass. At runtime, the method invoked is determined by the object being created and not by the reference type. This code snippet illustrates method overriding:

public class Animal {
    public void animalRun() {
        System.out.println("Animal is running");

public class Bird extends Animal {
    public void animalRun() {
        System.out.println(Bird is running);

public class Main {
    public static void main(String[] args) {

        // This will invoke the method in the Animal superclass
        Animal newAnimal = new Animal();

        // This will invoke the method in the Bird subclass
        Animal birdAnimal = new Bird();


At runtime, the birdAnimal object will invoke the method animalRun() in the Bird subclass since the object created is of type Bird.

Now that we have exhaustively talked about inheritance, polymorphism, and their types, let us go ahead and talk about the difference between them.

The difference between inheritance and polymorphism

In inheritance, we create new classes that inherit features of the superclass while polymorphism decides what form of method to execute. Inheritance applies to classes, whereas polymorphism applies to methods.

The importance of polymorphism and inheritance

Below are a few reasons why polymorphism and inheritance are essential OOP concepts:

  • Inheritance encourages class hierarchy
  • Inheritance encourages code reusability
  • Polymorphism makes for simplicity
  • Polymorphism encourages code extensibility


In this article, we have learned about the concept of inheritance and polymorphism. We talked about the types of inheritance and polymorphism and their implementation. We also talked about their differences.

Happy Coding!


Peer Review Contributions by: John Amiscaray