Generic Types in Java, C++, and C

Brad Vander Zanden

  1. Polymorphism: refers to the ability of the same code to perform the same action on different types of data. There are two primary types of polymorphism:
    1. Parametric polymorphism: The code takes the type as a parameter, either explicitly (as in C++/Java templates) or implicitly (as in Lisp, which determines the type from the data being used). Some compilers, such as the C++ compiler, generate multiple copies of the code, one for each type. Other compilers, such as the Java compiler, generate a single copy of the code which should work with all types. This is why Java's templates cannot support primitive types, because a single copy of the code cannot use built-in operations, such as + or <. Instead it must rely on method calls, and hence it must work with objects.
    2. Subtype polymorphism: Subtype polymorphism is associated with inheritance hierarchies. It refers to a procedure that should yield the same behavior but might require different implementations for different subtypes. There are two types of subtype polymorphism:
      1. The code is shared between the super class and its children via a non-virtual method. In this case one copy of the procedure works for all subtypes.
      2. The super class declares a virtual method for which it expects each subclass to provide a different implementation. In this case the expected behavior is the same, such as to draw an object to the screen or to indicate whether or not a mouse point is contained in the object, but the implementation is different.
  2. Polymorphism in C, C++, and Java
    1. Java
      1. Original approach: the developers of Java felt that C++ templates were too complicated, so their original solution was to provide the implicit master class Object.
        1. Generic code uses the type Object whenever it needs to refer to a specific piece of data
        2. Programs downcast the Object type to a specific type when they retrieve an object from a generic data structure
        3. Disadvantages
          1. downcasting can be dangerous
          2. Object supports generic data structures but not generic algorithms, such as quicksort, which require a common comparator method
        4. Advantages: One copy of the code works with multiple types
      2. All this downcasting was both bothersome to use, and ran the risk of run-time type conversion errors that could not be type-checked by the compiler. Eventually the Java developers introduced a simplified template mechanism. When programmers declare a variable to use a template type, the declaration looks much like a C++ template. However, the definition of a template type is simpler. Here's a simple declaration of a wrapper type:
                        public class Box<T> {
                            // T stands for "Type"
                            protected T t;
                            public void add(T t) {
                                this.t = t;
                            public T get() {
                                return t;
        As you can see, the type looks like a parameter to a function. You are allowed to pass multiple types to a template. For example, a hash table would have types for both the key and the value objects.

        Here is a declaration of a variable of type Box, and its use:

        class Test {
            static public void main(String args[]) {
        	Box<String> b = new Box<String>();
        	String myArg = b.get();
        1. Starting with Java 1.7, you can omit the type arguments required to invoke the constructor. Hence you can instead write
          Box<String> b = new Box<>();
        2. Java generics have the restriction that they must be instantiated with a user-defined class. Hence generics may not be instantiated with primitive types, such as ints. If you want to use a primitive type, use its wrapper type instead, such as Integer.
        3. Java uses only one copy of the code and uses an "upper bound" on the type to instantiate the code. In the above example, Object is the upper bound on the type, and hence the Java compiler would instantiate the code using the type Object. If a Box<Integer> were declared, then the Java compiler would then introduce explicit Integer downcasts wherever necessary to make the code work.
        4. If you forget to provide a type argument, either in declaring a variable with a generic type, or in calling the constructor to create an object of a generic type, then you get an object with the raw type of the generic class. The raw type uses Object (or the upper bound for the type parameter). This can mess you up if you are expecting to use specific types, since Java may give you vague error messages. For example in the following code I have inadvertently omitted the diamond operator from the instantiation of the LinkedList constructor, which means that Java creates a LinkedList that stores Objects rather than Integers. I get a vague error message:
          class Foo {
              LinkedList<Integer> a = new LinkedList();
              Foo() {
          	int x = a.get(0) + a.get(1);
          UNIX> javac
          Note: uses unchecked or unsafe operations.
          Note: Recompile with -Xlint:unchecked for details.
          If you recompile with -Xlint then the Java compiler will be forthcoming about the fact that you omitted the diamond operator when creating the LinkedList object.
        5. Generic Methods: You can also declare generic methods within either non-generic classes, or within a generic class that has a different type. For example, a generic printing method that I place inside might look as follows:
                             public <V> void print(V data[]) {
                                 for (V val : data) {
          Notice that there is a <V> in front of the void and after the public keywords. If I had instead used T, I would not have been required to use a leading <T>.

          When I invoke a generic method, I may or may not have to prefix it with the type of the object I am passing in:

                             Box b;
                             b.<String>print(args);  // always works
                             b.print(args) // usually works
          If you do not prefix the method call with the type of the object you are passing as an argument, then the java compiler will attempt to use type inference to determine the type of the parameter. Usually this will be successful. If the java compiler cannot determine the type and gives you an error message, then you will have to explicitly prefix the method with the type of the object you are passing to it.
        6. Bounded Type Parameters: Sometimes you will want to guarantee that a type implements a certain interface. For example, a sort method wants to have certain comparator methods defined, such as equals and lessThan. You can require a type to implement either an interface or class using the keyword extends:
          public <V extends Comparator<V>> void sort(V data[]){...}
        7. Upper Bounded Wildcards: Suppose that you write the following code:
          		   List<Number> myList = new List<Integer>();
          This code looks like it should compile since Integer is a subclass of Number. However, the java compiler complains and says that List<Integer> is not a subclass of List<Number>. The reason is that myList should be able to store any type of number, such as a floating point number, but by assigning it a list of integers, you have restricted it to storing only integers. Java considers this an impermissable restriction, even though you should be able to perform any operation on the list of integers that you could on the list of numbers. To get around this restriction, you can use upper bounded wildcards, which indicates that a variable can accept an object that contains any subtype of the upper bound. For example the following function sums the numbers in a list and can accept any list whose objects are a subtype of Number:
          public static double sumOfList(List<? extends Number> list) {
              double s = 0.0;
              for (Number n : list)
                  s += n.doubleValue();
              return s;

          You can also use unbounded wild cards, which is a ? followed by nothing else. In the following example, printList accepts a list of any type of object:

          public static void printList(List<?> list) {
              for (Object elem: list)
                  System.out.print(elem + " ");

        8. Lower Bounded Wildcards: You can also specify that any supertype of an object can be accepted as a type parameter. For example, suppose that you want to create a list variable that can store integers, but you also this variable to be able to store any type of list that could store integers, such as List<Number> or List<Object>. You can accomplish this by specifying a lower bound with <? super A> where A is the lower bound for the type. For our list example, we would declare our variable as:
          List<? super Integer> myList;
          In my experience lower bounds never come up while upper bounds do because of the desire to use subclasses in place of superclasses.
      3. Type Erasure: Java compiles templates into a single piece of code and it does that by replacing each template parameter with the template parameter's upper bound. For example, the Box template I wrote earlier in this note will be compiled as:
                        public class Box {
                            protected Object t;
                            public void add(Object t) {
                                this.t = t;
                            public Object get() {
                                return t;
        The Java compiler then inserts downcasts into your code to ensure that the objects get converted to the appropriate type before they are used.

      4. Restrictions on Java Generics

        1. You cannot declare generics with primitive types, although Java does auto boxing on primitive types to try to simplify your life. For example, the following declaration is illegal:
          Pair<int, char> p = new Pair<>(8, 'a');  // compile-time error
          However, the follow declaration is legal because Java will auto box the 8 into an Integer object and the 'a' into a Character object.
          Pair<Integer, Character> p = new Pair<>(8, 'a');
        2. You cannot create instances of type parameters. For example, you cannot create an instance of E in the following code.
          public static <E> void append(List<E> list) {
              E elem = new E();  // compile-time error
          The reason for this restriction is because type erasure will replace E with its upper bound. Hence rather than creating an instance of E, you will create an instance of its upper bound, which is not what you intended.

        3. You cannot create arrays of parameterized types. For example, the following declaration is illegal:
                List<Integer>[] arrayOfLists = new List<Integer>[2];  // compile-time error
          The Java tutorial gives the following example to show why this declaration could prove problematic if it were allowed:

          The following code works as you expect:
          Object[] strings = new String[2];
          strings[0] = "hi";   // OK
          strings[1] = 100;    // An ArrayStoreException is thrown.
          If you try the same thing with a generic list, there would be a problem:
          Object[] stringLists = new List<String>[2];  // compiler error, but pretend it's allowed
          stringLists[0] = new ArrayList<String>();   // OK
          stringLists[1] = new ArrayList<Integer>();  // An ArrayStoreException should be thrown,
                                                      // but the runtime can't detect it.
          If arrays of parameterized lists were allowed, the previous code would fail to throw the desired ArrayStoreException.
          You can work around this problem by using the original "raw type" generics:
            List [] arrayOfLists = new List[2];
          You can now insert Integers into your lists and downcast them when you remove them.
    2. C++ provides templates
      1. Disadvantages
        1. the code is very complicated to write, to debug, and to understand
        2. a copy of the code must be created for each different type
        3. templates cannot be compiled until they have been completely expanded, which can make the error messages almost impossible to read
        4. if the template requires that a certain method or operator be supported (e.g., < or >), there is no way to explicitly declare that requirement in the template, so the programmer has to be aware that it is an "implicit" requirement. The compiler will produce an error message if the instantiated type does not include the necessary operation.
      2. Advantages: Supports both generic data structures and generic functions
    3. C provides void *'s
      1. The programmer can create generic data types by declaring values to be of type "void *". For example:
        struct Node {
             void *value;
             struct Node *next;
      2. The programmer can pass in type-specific functions (e.g., comparator functions) that take void *'s as parameters and that downcast the void *'s to the appropriate type before manipulating the data. For example, this sample program has a generic min function that computes and returns the minimum of two elements. As an example, we are having the sample program compare two strings:
        #include <stdio.h>
        #include <string.h>
        // generic min function
        void *min(void *element1, void *element2, int (*compare)(void *, void *)) {
            if (compare(element1, element2) < 0)
        	return element1;
        	return element2;
        // stringCompare downcasts its void * arguments to char * and then passes
        // them to strcmp for comparison
        int stringCompare(void *item1, void *item2) {
            return strcmp((char *)item1, (char *)item2);
        int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {
            if (argc != 3) {
        	printf("usage: min string1 string2\n");
        	return 1;
            // call min to compare the two string arguments and downcast the return
            // value to a char *
            char *minString = (char *)min(argv[1], argv[2], stringCompare); 
            printf("min = %s\n", minString);
            return 0;
      3. Advantages
        1. One copy of the code works with multiple objects
        2. The approach supports both generic data structures and generic algorithms--Note that this approach cannot be used to support generic algorithms in Java since functions cannot be passed as pointers
      4. Disadvantages
        1. Downcasting can be dangerous, even more so than in Java, since run-time type checks are not performed in C
        2. The code often has a cluttered appearance
  3. Both Java and C++ provide a set of generic data structures.
    1. C++ provides the standard template library (STL), which includes both templates for common data structures, such as lists and hash tables, as well as common algorithms, such as quicksort.
    2. Java provides a set of standard data structures, such as lists and hash tables, in its java.util package.