Inheritance syntax

Thursday Mar 1st 2001

Inheritance is such an integral part of Java (and OOP languages in general) that it was introduced in Chapter 1 and has been used occasionally in chapters before this one because certain situations required it. In addition, you’re always doing inheritance when you create a class, because if you don’t say otherwise you inherit from Java’s standard root class Object .

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Inheritance is such an integral part of Java (and OOP languages in general) that it was introduced in Chapter 1 and has been used occasionally in chapters before this one because certain situations required it. In addition, you’re always doing inheritance when you create a class, because if you don’t say otherwise you inherit from Java’s standard root class Object.

The syntax for composition is obvious, but to perform inheritance there’s a distinctly different form. When you inherit, you say “This new class is like that old class.” You state this in code by giving the name of the class as usual, but before the opening brace of the class body, put the keyword extends followed by the name of the base class . When you do this, you automatically get all the data members and methods in the base class. Here’s an example:

//: Detergent.java
// Inheritance syntax & properties
class Cleanser {
  private String s = new String("Cleanser");
  public void append(String a) { s += a; }
  public void dilute() { append(" dilute()"); }
  public void apply() { append(" apply()"); }
  public void scrub() { append(" scrub()"); }
  public void print() { System.out.println(s); }
  public static void main(String[] args) {
    Cleanser x = new Cleanser();
    x.dilute(); x.apply(); x.scrub();
public class Detergent extends Cleanser {
  // Change a method:
  public void scrub() {
    append(" Detergent.scrub()");
    super.scrub(); // Call base-class version
  // Add methods to the interface:
  public void foam() { append(" foam()"); }
  // Test the new class:
  public static void main(String[] args) {
    Detergent x = new Detergent();
    System.out.println("Testing base class:");
} ///:~ 

This demonstrates a number of features. First, in the Cleanser append( ) method, Strings are concatenated to s using the += operator, which is one of the operators (along with ‘ +’) that the Java designers “overloaded” to work with Strings.

Second, both Cleanser and Detergent contain a main( ) method. You can create a main( ) for each one of your classes, and it’s often recommended to code this way so that your test code is wrapped in with the class. Even if you have a lot of classes in a program only the main( ) for the public class invoked on the command line will be called. (And you can have only one public class per file.) So in this case, when you say java Detergent , Detergent.main( ) will be called. But you can also say java Cleanser to invoke Cleanser.main( ), even though Cleanser is not a public class. This technique of putting a main( ) in each class allows easy unit testing for each class. And you don’t need to remove the main( ) when you’re finished testing; you can leave it in for later testing.

Here, you can see that Detergent.main( ) calls Cleanser.main( ) explicitly.

It’s important that all of the methods in Cleanser are public. Remember that if you leave off any access specifier the member defaults to “friendly,” which allows access only to package members. Thus, within this package, anyone could use those methods if there were no access specifier. Detergent would have no trouble, for example. However, if a class from some other package were to inherit Cleanser it could access only public members. So to plan for inheritance, as a general rule make all fields private and all methods public. (protected members also allow access by derived classes; you’ll learn about this later.) Of course, in particular cases you must make adjustments, but this is a useful guideline.

Note that Cleanser has a set of methods in its interface: append( ), dilute( ), apply( ), scrub( ) and print( ). Because Detergent is derived from Cleanser (via the extends keyword) it automatically gets all these methods in its interface, even though you don’t see them all explicitly defined in Detergent. You can think of inheritance, then, as reusing the interface. (The implementation comes along for free, but that part isn’t the primary point.)

As seen in scrub( ), it’s possible to take a method that’s been defined in the base class and modify it. In this case, you might want to call the method from the base class inside the new version. But inside scrub( ) you cannot simply call scrub( ), since that would produce a recursive call, which isn’t what you want. To solve this problem Java has the keyword super that refers to the “superclass” that the current class has been inherited from. Thus the expression super.scrub( ) calls the base-class version of the method scrub( ).

When inheriting you’re not restricted to using the methods of the base class. You can also add new methods to the derived class exactly the way you put any method in a class: just define it. The extends keyword suggests that you are going to add new methods to the base-class interface, and the method foam( ) is an example of this.

In Detergent.main( ) you can see that for a Detergent object you can call all the methods that are available in Cleanser as well as in Detergent (i.e. foam( )).

Initializing the base class

Since there are now two classes involved – the base class and the derived class – instead of just one, it can be a bit confusing to try to imagine the resulting object produced by a derived class. From the outside, it looks like the new class has the same interface as the base class and maybe some additional methods and fields. But inheritance doesn’t just copy the interface of the base class. When you create an object of the derived class, it contains within it a subobject of the base class. This subobject is the same as if you had created an object of the base class by itself. It’s just that, from the outside, the subobject of the base class is wrapped within the derived-class object.

Of course, it’s essential that the base-class subobject be initialized correctly and there’s only one way to guarantee that: perform the initialization in the constructor, by calling the base-class constructor, which has all the appropriate knowledge and privileges to perform the base-class initialization. Java automatically inserts calls to the base-class constructor in the derived-class constructor. The following example shows this working with three levels of inheritance:

//: Cartoon.java
// Constructor calls during inheritance
class Art {
  Art() {
    System.out.println("Art constructor");
class Drawing extends Art {
  Drawing() {
    System.out.println("Drawing constructor");
public class Cartoon extends Drawing {
  Cartoon() {
    System.out.println("Cartoon constructor");
  public static void main(String[] args) {
    Cartoon x = new Cartoon();
} ///:~ 

The output for this program shows the automatic calls:

Art constructor
Drawing constructor
Cartoon constructor

You can see that the construction happens from the base “outward,” so the base class is initialized before the derived-class constructors can access it.

Even if you don’t create a constructor for Cartoon( ), the compiler will synthesize a default constructor for you that calls the base class constructor.

Constructors with arguments
The above example has default constructors; that is, they don’t have any arguments. It’s easy for the compiler to call these because there’s no question about what arguments to pass. If your class doesn’t have default arguments or if you want to call a base-class constructor that has an argument you must explicitly write the calls to the base-class constructor using the super keyword and the appropriate argument list:

//: Chess.java
// Inheritance, constructors and arguments
class Game {
  Game(int i) {
    System.out.println("Game constructor");
class BoardGame extends Game {
  BoardGame(int i) {
    System.out.println("BoardGame constructor");
public class Chess extends BoardGame {
  Chess() {
    System.out.println("Chess constructor");
  public static void main(String[] args) {
    Chess x = new Chess();
} ///:~ 

If you don’t call the base-class constructor in BoardGame( ), the compiler will complain that it can’t find a constructor of the form Game( ). In addition, the call to the base-class constructor must be the first thing you do in the derived-class constructor. (The compiler will remind you if you get it wrong.)

Catching base constructor exceptions

As just noted, the compiler forces you to place the base-class constructor call first in the body of the derived-class constructor. This means nothing else can appear before it. As you’ll see in Chapter 9, this also prevents a derived-class constructor from catching any exceptions that come from a base class. This can be inconvenient at times.

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