# Inheritance

October 12, 2021—Musings about favoring either inheritance or composition

Inheritance is subtyping plus subclassing. It is a domain-specific taxonomy with behavior and semantics. And “semantics” means dependencies, an interface, and a name. Inheritance is a kind of an “is a” relationship, as in “a baby is a person”.

Here is a UML diagram of inheritance:

## The good

When you need a domain-specific taxonomy with behavior and semantics, then there really is nothing quite as suited to the task as inheritance.

When you use inheritance you get all of that. Even if you’d rather not have it all.

And can you think of a single time you have needed to glue both semantics and behavior onto a taxonomy? Was it impossible to accomplish that task without inheritance?

The only times that come to mind for me are when inheritance was forced on me by a design that already used and required it. I used to think inheritance was the best solution to a lot of problems, but looking back I can tell that things would have been better if done differently.

### Behavior vs semantics

Behavior is what the thing does. Semantics is what it looks like (its public methods and properties).

What if you only want the semantics of a thing but not its behavior?

Here’s an example of using inheritance to get the semantics of a thing when you don’t care about its behavior:

// A thing that can drive on roads
abstract class Car
{
public abstract double WheelSize { get; } // In inches

public virtual void Drive(double speed)
{
Console.WriteLine($"We're driving {speed} MPH, which means the wheels are turning at {speed * 1056 / WheelSize / Math.PI / 2.0} RPM!"); } public virtual void Honk() { Console.WriteLine("Honk!"); } } // A thing that cars can drive on class Road { double _speedLimit; public Road(double speedLimit) { _speedLimit = speedLimit; } public virtual void Drive(Car car) { car.Drive(_speedLimit); car.Honk(); } } // You can go fast on highways class Highway : Road { public Highway() : base(70.0) {} } // You have to go slow on driveways class Driveway : Road { public Driveway() : base(5.0) {} } // A taxiway is a road, is it not? class Taxiway : Road { public Taxiway() : base(30.0) // Speed limit for planes {} } // Planes need to operate on taxiways, so I guess it's a car abstract class Plane : Car { public override void Drive(double speed) { // Planes do not drive like normal cars if (speed < 50.0) { Console.WriteLine($"We're taxiing at {speed} MPH!");
}
else
{
Console.WriteLine($"We're flying at {speed} MPH!"); } } public override void Honk() { // Planes do not have horns } }  Notice how Plane is implemented. It uses none of the behavior of the underlying Car class. The only reason it inherits from Car is so that it can operate on a Taxiway (which is a kind of road)—it needs the semantics of a Car. But it gets all the baggage of a Car as well. ### Constructor parameters and other dependencies What about constructor parameters? They’re part of the semantics, too—the constructor is often a publicly-facing member. Have you ever added a constructor parameter? Perhaps to refactor and encapsulate some behavior after you realized it was repeated all over the place? Inheritance hierarchies tend to get deeper over time. And the deeper it gets, the harder it is to change constructor parameters. And sometimes the behavior that uses the constructor parameter is totally ignored in child classes—what a waste of effort! Or how about refactoring a base class. Think about the effort that is required to do that when there are hundreds of derived classes. You have to understand exactly what your change means in the context of every single one of those classes. I’ve had to do that multiple times. It’s no fun! ### Crossing domain boundaries Let’s continue the above example. Planes have to inherit from Car because they operate on taxiways (which is a kind of road). What about float planes? Image from Wikimedia Commons That’s definitely a plane. And it’s operating on a waterway. They can sometimes operate on land, too. See? Image from Viking Air Okay, let’s implement waterways and float planes: // A thing that can operate on waterways class Watercraft { ... } // It would be strange to call a waterway a "road", wouldn't it? class Waterway { public void Operate(Watercraft watercraft) { ... } } // A particular kind of watercraft. It's definitely not a car class Speedboat : Watercraft { ... } // A plane that can operate on the waterways class FloatPlane : ????? { ... }  From what class should FloatPlane inherit? If it inherits from Plane then it cannot operate on waterways. And if it inherits from Watercraft then it cannot operate on taxiways. And C# won’t let you inherit from both. Have you ever found yourself wishing for multiple inheritance in C#? I bet you were trying to use inheritance to cross domains. ## The fixes One fix that would enable you to cross between taxonomies would be to create adapter classes that inherit from one taxonomy while delegating to an instance of the other. But that’s just composition in ugly disguise. Which brings me to my favorite fix: composition. When something is “composed” of other things, that means it has those other things. Composition is a “has a” relationship. As in “a plane has an engine”. I favor composition over inheritance. Why relegate composition to only those times when you need to hack up an inheritance hierarchy? ### Behavior vs semantics Do you want the semantics of being eligible to operate on a road? // Something that can operate on a road interface IRoadWorthy { void Operate(double speed); } // A road sealed class Road { readonly double _speed; public Road(double speed) { _speed = speed; } public void Operate(IRoadWorthy thing) { thing.Operate(_speed); } } // Creates highways sealed class HighwayFactory { public Road Create() => new Road(70.0); } // Creates driveways sealed class DrivewayFactory { public Road Create() => new Road(5.0); } // Creates taxiways sealed class TaxiwayFactory { public Road Create() => new Road(30.0); }  Do you want the behavior of a car? sealed class Car { public void Drive(double speed) { Console.WriteLine($"We're driving at {speed} MPH!");
}

public void Honk()
{
Console.WriteLine("Honk honk!");
}
}


Do you want to be able to operate a car on a road in a particular way?

sealed class DrivingHonkingCarToRoadWorthyAdapter : IRoadWorthy
{

{
_car = car;
}

public void Operate(double speed)
{
_car.Drive(speed);
_car.Honk();
}
}


Do you want a float plane to operate on a road in a particular way?

sealed class FloatPlane
{
public void Crash(string reason) { ... }

public void Fly(double speed) { ... }

public void Float() { ... }

public void RollOnWheels(double speed) { ... }

public void SkimWater(double speed) { ... }
}

{

{
_floatPlane = floatPlane;
}

public void Operate(double speed)
{
if (speed <= 50.0)
{
_floatPlane.RollOnWheels(speed);
}
else
{
_floatPlane.Crash("Too fast to stay on the road");
}
}
}


### “But there are too many classes!”

Did you notice how many more classes there are now than there were before? There is basically one class for each behavior and also for each kind of usage of the behavior.

Actually, you should count them. There aren’t as many more as you might think (make sure to remember that Speedboat, Waterway, and Watercraft don’t have equivalents in the above composition example).

But even if there were dozens more classes, would that be a bad thing?

The classes will tend to be smaller. They’ll tend to be easier to understand at a glance. Often, everything you need to know fits on a single screen.

The classes will tend to do less. And just by doing less they will be less prone to bugs. And smaller humbler classes tend to be more unit testable.

The classes will tend to change less. If you use composition then you’ll find that you are either creating or deleting classes more than you are modifying them. And the fewer the modifications, the fewer the regressions.

The classes will tend to be less affected by change. They cannot be affected by changes upstream in the inheritance hierarchy, because there is no inheritance hierarchy. As you tailor classes to specific aspects (and then compose those aspects instead of using inheritance) then you’ll find that there are fewer dependencies between classes. And the fewer the dependencies, the lower the likelihood of a dependency introducing a breaking change.

And with good design these things will remain true as your codebase grows to arbitrary complexity and thousands of source code files.

Now, you can definitely go overboard with layer upon layer of interfaces and abstractions—I’m guilty of that!—but that doesn’t necessarily happen when you favor composition over inheritance. And neither is that necessarily prevented by using inheritance.

In fact, I have found more than one misuse of inheritance that encouraged copy-and-paste instead of encapsulation-and-reuse, and that encouraged needlessly large and deep inheritance hierarchies (read: needlessly many classes). And I have personally misused inheritance to create needlessly many layers of abstraction.

## The point

There is more that could be said, perhaps about how interfaces should be tailored to the interface’s consumer, or the value of unit testing, or how to make behavior unit-testable, or how following the SOLID principles (especially Single Responsibility!) naturally leads to composition and unit-testability, or the best ways to create an escape hatch from inheritance without disturbing too much.

But the point is: Why are you favoring inheritance over composition? Are you misusing inheritance?