Main Page

Previous Page
Next Page

[Page 635 (continued)]

12.2. Base Classes and Derived Classes

Often, an object of one class is an object of another class, as well. For example, in geometry, a rectangle is a quadrilateral (as are squares, parallelograms and trapezoids). Thus, in C++, class Rectangle can be said to inherit from class Quadrilateral. In this context, class Quadrilateral is a base class, and class Rectangle is a derived class. A rectangle is a specific type of quadrilateral, but it is incorrect to claim that a quadrilateral is a rectanglethe quadrilateral could be a parallelogram or some other shape. Figure 12.1 lists several simple examples of base classes and derived classes.

[Page 636]

Figure 12.1. Inheritance examples.

Base class

Derived classes


GraduateStudent, UndergraduateStudent


Circle, Triangle, Rectangle, Sphere, Cube


CarLoan, HomeImprovementLoan, MortgageLoan


Faculty, Staff


CheckingAccount, SavingsAccount

Because every derived-class object is an object of its base class, and one base class can have many derived classes, the set of objects represented by a base class typically is larger than the set of objects represented by any of its derived classes. For example, the base class Vehicle represents all vehicles, including cars, trucks, boats, airplanes, bicycles and so on. By contrast, derived class Car represents a smaller, more specific subset of all vehicles.

Inheritance relationships form treelike hierarchical structures. A base class exists in a hierarchical relationship with its derived classes. Although classes can exist independently, once they are employed in inheritance relationships, they become affiliated with other classes. A class becomes either a base classsupplying members to other classes, a derived classinheriting its members from other classes, or both.

Let us develop a simple inheritance hierarchy with five levels (represented by the UML class diagram in Fig. 12.2). A university community has thousands of members.

Figure 12.2. Inheritance hierarchy for university CommunityMembers.

[Page 637]

These members consist of employees, students and alumni. Employees are either faculty members or staff members. Faculty members are either administrators (such as deans and department chairpersons) or teachers. Some administrators, however, also teach classes. Note that we have used multiple inheritance to form class AdministratorTeacher. Also note that this inheritance hierarchy could contain many other classes. For example, students can be graduate or undergraduate students. Undergraduate students can be freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors.

Each arrow in the hierarchy (Fig. 12.2) represents an is-a relationship. For example, as we follow the arrows in this class hierarchy, we can state "an Employee is a CommunityMember" and "a Teacher is a Faculty member." CommunityMember is the direct base class of Employee, Student and Alumnus. In addition, CommunityMember is an indirect base class of all the other classes in the diagram. Starting from the bottom of the diagram, the reader can follow the arrows and apply the is-a relationship to the topmost base class. For example, an AdministratorTeacher is an Administrator, is a Faculty member, is an Employee and is a CommunityMember.

Now consider the Shape inheritance hierarchy in Fig. 12.3. This hierarchy begins with base class Shape. Classes TwoDimensionalShape and ThreeDimensionalShape derive from base class ShapeShapes are either TwoDimensionalShapes or ThreeDimensionalShapes. The third level of this hierarchy contains some more specific types of TwoDimensionalShapes and THReeDimensionalShapes. As in Fig. 12.2, we can follow the arrows from the bottom of the diagram to the topmost base class in this class hierarchy to identify several is-a relationships. For instance, a triangle is a TwoDimensionalShape and is a Shape, while a Sphere is a ThreeDimensionalShape and is a Shape. Note that this hierarchy could contain many other classes, such as Rectangles, Ellipses and trapezoids, which are all TwoDimensionalShapes.

Figure 12.3. Inheritance hierarchy for Shapes.

To specify that class TwoDimensionalShape (Fig. 12.3) is derived from (or inherits from) class Shape, class TwoDimensionalShape could be defined in C++ as follows:

class TwoDimensionalShape : public Shape

This is an example of public inheritance, the most commonly used form. We also will discuss private inheritance and protected inheritance (Section 12.6). With all forms of inheritance, private members of a base class are not accessible directly from that class's derived classes, but these private base-class members are still inherited (i.e., they are still considered parts of the derived classes). With public inheritance, all other base-class members retain their original member access when they become members of the derived class (e.g., public members of the base class become public members of the derived class, and, as we will soon see, protected members of the base class become protected members of the derived class). Through these inherited base-class members, the derived class can manipulate private members of the base class (if these inherited members provide such functionality in the base class). Note that friend functions are not inherited.

[Page 638]

Inheritance is not appropriate for every class relationship. In Chapter 10, we discussed the has-a relationship, in which classes have members that are objects of other classes. Such relationships create classes by composition of existing classes. For example, given the classes Employee, BirthDate and TelephoneNumber, it is improper to say that an Employee is a BirthDate or that an Employee is a TelephoneNumber. However, it is appropriate to say that an Employee has a BirthDate and that an Employee has a TelephoneNumber.

It is possible to treat base-class objects and derived-class objects similarly; their commonalities are expressed in the members of the base class. Objects of all classes derived from a common base class can be treated as objects of that base class (i.e., such objects have an is-a relationship with the base class). In Chapter 13, Object-Oriented Programming: Polymorphism, we consider many examples that take advantage of this relationship.

Previous Page
Next Page