Polymorphism in Python

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In the realm of object-oriented programming (OOP), polymorphism stands as one of the principal pillars, alongside inheritance, encapsulation, and abstraction. With its roots in the Greek words ‘Poly’ (many) and ‘Morph’ (form), polymorphism in OOP refers to the ability of different classes to be treated as instances of the same class through inheritance. Python, as a multi-paradigm language, embraces polymorphism with open arms, making coding flexible and dynamic. This article will delve deep into understanding polymorphism in Python.

1. What is Polymorphism in Python?

Polymorphism in Python refers to the ability of different data types or classes to be processed by the same function or method. In other words, a single interface can be used to represent different types, and the specific implementation is decided during runtime, allowing for greater flexibility and scalability in code.

2. Function Polymorphism

In the broadest sense, polymorphism allows entities of different types to be accessed through the same interface. When applied to functions, it refers to the ability of a single function to accept arguments of various types, or for multiple functions to have the same name based on the number or type of arguments.

There are primarily two types of function polymorphism:

  1. Compile-time Polymorphism (Also known as Static Polymorphism)
  2. Run-time Polymorphism (Also known as Dynamic Polymorphism)

1. Compile-time Polymorphism:

This type of polymorphism is determined at compile time. In languages that require compilation (like C++ or Java), this is typically achieved through function overloading or operator overloading. However, since Python is an interpreted language and doesn’t have traditional function overloading like C++ or Java, it doesn’t support compile-time polymorphism in the strictest sense.

2. Run-time Polymorphism:

This type of polymorphism is determined during program execution (at run-time). In the context of functions, this usually relates to the ability of a function to handle different types or classes of objects, as long as they support the method or operation the function is trying to use.

Function Polymorphism in Python:

Python inherently supports function polymorphism through its dynamic typing and duck typing principles.

Duck Typing: It’s based on the saying, “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.” In other words, Python is more concerned with what the object can do (the methods and properties it has) rather than what the object is.


Let’s consider a simple function that adds two entities:

def add(x, y):
    return x + y

# Numbers
print(add(5, 3))         # Outputs: 8

# Strings
print(add("Hello", " World"))  # Outputs: Hello World

# Lists
print(add([1, 2, 3], [4, 5]))  # Outputs: [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

In this example, the add function is polymorphic. It can handle different data types—integers, strings, lists—as long as they support the + operation.

Advantages of Function Polymorphism:

  1. Flexibility: A single function can be used for different data types, making the code more adaptable.
  2. Code Reusability: Instead of writing separate functions for each type, a single function can handle multiple types, promoting DRY (Don’t Repeat Yourself) principles.
  3. Easier Maintenance: Fewer functions mean there’s less code to maintain. If a change is required, it’s applied in one place, reducing the chances of bugs.

In summary, function polymorphism, especially in Python, revolves around the idea of designing functions that can handle various types of input. This adaptability leans into Python’s dynamic and duck typing principles, making the language particularly powerful and flexible. Whether you’re dealing with different data types or custom objects, understanding and leveraging function polymorphism can simplify and elevate your coding endeavors.

3. Class Polymorphism

Class polymorphism, in its essence, allows objects of different classes to be treated as objects of a common super class. The most common use of polymorphism is when a parent class reference is used to refer to a child class object. This is especially powerful when combined with method overriding in inheritance hierarchies.

How Class Polymorphism Works:

  1. Base or Parent Class: Usually, there’s a base class (or interface in some languages) that defines a set of methods without necessarily implementing them or provides a default implementation.
  2. Derived or Child Classes: Multiple child classes inherit from the base class, and they provide their own specific implementation for the methods defined in the base class.
  3. Polymorphic Behavior: When we create an instance of the child class and assign it to a reference of the parent class, then call a method on it, the method of the child class (specific implementation) gets invoked instead of the parent class method (if overridden).

Example in Python:

Let’s use the classic example of shapes to illustrate class polymorphism:

class Shape:
    def area(self):

    def perimeter(self):

class Circle(Shape):
    def __init__(self, radius):
        self.radius = radius

    def area(self):
        return 3.14 * self.radius * self.radius

    def perimeter(self):
        return 2 * 3.14 * self.radius

class Rectangle(Shape):
    def __init__(self, length, width):
        self.length = length
        self.width = width

    def area(self):
        return self.length * self.width

    def perimeter(self):
        return 2 * (self.length + self.width)

Here, Shape is a base class with methods area() and perimeter(). Circle and Rectangle are derived classes that provide specific implementations for these methods.

Using class polymorphism:

shapes = [Circle(5), Rectangle(4, 6)]

for shape in shapes:
    print(f"Area: {shape.area()}, Perimeter: {shape.perimeter()}")


Area: 78.5, Perimeter: 31.400000000000002
Area: 24, Perimeter: 20

Even though the type of shape during iteration is the base class Shape, the methods of the derived classes (Circle and Rectangle) get invoked due to polymorphism.

Advantages of Class Polymorphism:

  1. Flexibility: Polymorphism offers a unified interface to operate on objects of different classes. It abstracts away the complexities and variations of individual classes behind a consistent interface.
  2. Maintainability: When new derived classes are introduced, or existing ones are modified, it often doesn’t require changes in the code that uses the base class interface. This decoupling is fundamental for maintainable code.
  3. Expandability: Adding a new class (like Triangle in our shapes example) is straightforward. We just need to ensure it adheres to the contract of the base class (Shape).

Class polymorphism is about leveraging inheritance and method overriding to achieve flexibility in how objects are used. It emphasizes the principle that it’s more important what an object can do (its methods) than what it is (its class). This abstraction and unification of different classes behind a single interface make polymorphism a cornerstone of object-oriented design.

4. Inheritance Class Polymorphism

Inheritance is a cornerstone of object-oriented programming. It allows a class (often called the “subclass” or “derived class”) to inherit attributes and methods from another class (often referred to as the “superclass” or “base class”). This leads to a hierarchical relationship between the base class and its derived classes.

Polymorphism builds upon this concept: thanks to inheritance, objects of a derived class can be treated as objects of the base class. This becomes especially powerful when combined with method overriding, where a derived class provides a specific implementation of a method already defined in the base class.

In-Depth Explanation:

1. Method Overriding:

This is the primary mechanism that drives inheritance-based polymorphism. When a derived class provides its own version of a method already defined in its base class, it’s said to “override” that method.

The power of this is that if you have a reference to an object of the base class that actually points to an instance of a derived class, and you call an overridden method, the derived class’s version of the method is executed, not the base class’s version.

2. Base Class Reference:

For polymorphism to take effect, we generally deal with references (or pointers in some languages) of the base class type. This allows a single reference type (base class) to point to any of its derived class objects.

3. Dynamic Binding:

In many modern programming languages, including Python, the decision about which method version to call (base vs. derived) is made at runtime based on the actual object the reference points to. This is often referred to as “dynamic binding” or “late binding.”


Let’s illustrate inheritance-based class polymorphism with an example:

class Animal:
    def sound(self):
        return "Some sound"

class Dog(Animal):
    def sound(self):
        return "Bark"

class Cat(Animal):
    def sound(self):
        return "Meow"

In the example above:

  • Animal is the base class with a method sound().
  • Dog and Cat are derived classes that override the sound() method.

Now, let’s see polymorphism in action:

def animal_sound(animal):
    return animal.sound()

a = Animal()
d = Dog()
c = Cat()

print(animal_sound(a))  # Outputs: Some sound
print(animal_sound(d))  # Outputs: Bark
print(animal_sound(c))  # Outputs: Meow

Although the animal_sound function accepts a parameter of type Animal, thanks to polymorphism, it can work with objects of any class derived from Animal as well.

Advantages of Inheritance Class Polymorphism:

  1. Code Reusability: Inheritance allows derived classes to reuse the code of the base class, promoting the DRY principle (Don’t Repeat Yourself).
  2. Extensibility: New derived classes can be easily added without modifying existing code, ensuring the system is extensible.
  3. Maintainability: Polymorphic code can operate on the base class without knowing about the specific derived classes, which decouples different parts of a system, making it more maintainable.

Inheritance class polymorphism is a powerful concept in object-oriented programming. It allows objects of different classes (related through inheritance) to be treated uniformly, enhancing the flexibility and scalability of software systems. The combination of inheritance and polymorphism provides a robust framework for building extensible, maintainable, and organized code.

5. Conclusion

Polymorphism, with its versatility and dynamic nature, plays an integral role in enriching the object-oriented programming capabilities of Python. By adopting a “single interface, multiple methods” approach, polymorphism promotes code reusability, reduces complexity, and enhances flexibility. Whether you’re dealing with functions or classes, understanding polymorphism can significantly uplift the efficiency and elegance of your Python code.

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