The Concept of Polymorphism

For a while I thought of many computer science terms as useless hype. For example, as said by Jon Blow in one of his recent videos, some terms can be vague or hard to recollect. Buzzwords.

Polymorphism, semantics, encapsulation, instantiate, interface, API, functional, abstraction, indirection, blah blah blah. Reading too many of these words make my eyes glaze over.

In Compilers, Principles, Techniques and Tools by Aho, Sethi and Ullman has a keen description of polymorphism — at least it really stuck with me. Here with me I have the 1988 reprint so it actually contains C code (unlike the new “shiny” version), and in it states:

“An ordinary procedure allows the statements in its body to be executed with arguments of fixed types; each time a polymorphic procedure is called, the statements in its body can be executed with arguments of different types. The term “polymorphic” can also be applied to any piece of code that can be executed with arguments of different types. so we can talk of polymorphic functions and operators as well.

Built-in operators for indexing arrays, applying functions, and manipulating pointers are usually polymorphic because they are not restricted to a particular kind of array, function, or pointer. For example, the C reference manual states about the pointer operator &: “If the type of the operand is ‘…’, the type of the result is ‘pointer to …’.” Since any type can be substituted for “…” the operator & in C is polymorphic.”

So, some of these buzzwords are just misrepresented.

It seems the idea of polymorphism is useful to express, in code, algorithms that manipulate data structures. If the data being transformed is a data structure, then the data within the structure can sometimes be irrelevant.

For example, perhaps we have a math library that runs matrix operations on 32-bit floats. The library is used extensively in a large project. One day some strange numeric bug creeps into a complex algorithm. It would be helpful to be able to swap all 32-bit floats (the data within the “structure”, where the structure is the project) to 64-bit floats to see if more precision affects the numerically-related bug. If polymorphism is supported, perhaps through function overloads or compiler-supported binary operators, this task might be trivial.

Another example is the need to compute the height of a tree.

Another example is to find a circular dependency in a dependency graph.

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