13

Inheritance

Once we were blobs in the sea, and then fishes, and then lizards and rats and then monkeys, and hundreds of things in between. This hand was once a fin, this hand once had claws! In my human mouth I have the pointy teeth of a wolf and the chisel teeth of a rabbit and the grinding teeth of a cow! Our blood is as salty as the sea we used to live in! When we’re frightened, the hair on our skin stands up, just like it did when we had fur. We are history! Everything we’ve ever been on the way to becoming us, we still are.

Terry Pratchett

Can you believe it? We’ve reached the last chapter of Part II. We’re almost done with our first Lox interpreter. The previous chapter was a big ball of intertwined object-orientation features. I couldn’t separate those from each other, but I did manage to untangle one piece. In this chapter, we’ll finish off Lox’s class support by adding inheritance.

Inheritance appears in object-oriented languages all the way back to the first one, Simula. Early on, Kristen Nygaard and Ole-Johan Dahl noticed commonalities across classes in the simulation programs they wrote. Inheritance gave them a way to reuse the code for those similar parts.

13 . 1 Superclasses and Subclasses

Given that the concept is “inheritance”, you would hope they would pick a consistent metaphor and call them “parent” and “child” classes, but that would be too easy. Way back when, C.A.R. Hoare coined the term “subclass” to refer to a record type that refines another type. Simula borrowed that term to refer to a class that inherits from another. I don’t think it was until Smalltalk came along that someone flipped the Latin prefix to get “superclass” to refer to the other side of the relationship. From C++, you also hear “base” and “derived” classes. I’ll mostly stick with “superclass” and “subclass”.

Our first step towards supporting inheritance in Lox is a way to specify a superclass when declaring a class. There’s a lot of variety in syntax for this. C++ and C# place a : after the subclass’s name, followed by the superclass name. Java uses extends instead of the colon. Python puts the superclass(es) in parentheses after the class name. Simula puts the superclass’s name before the class keyword.

This late in the game, I’d rather not add a new reserved word or token to the lexer. We don’t have extends or even :, so we’ll follow Ruby and use <:

class Doughnut {
  // General doughnut stuff...
}

class BostonCream < Doughnut {
  // Boston Cream-specific stuff...
}

To work this into the grammar, we add a new optional clause in our existing classDecl rule:

classDecl  "class" IDENTIFIER ( "<" IDENTIFIER )?
            "{" function* "}" ;

After the class name, you can have a < followed by the superclass’s name. The superclass clause is optional because you don’t have to have a superclass. Unlike some other object-oriented languages like Java, Lox has no root “Object” class that everything inherits from, so when you omit the superclass clause, the class has no superclass, not even an implicit one.

We want to capture this new syntax in the class declaration’s AST node:

      "Block      : List<Stmt> statements",
tool/GenerateAst.java
in main()
replace 1 line
      "Class      : Token name, Expr superclass," +
                  " List<Stmt.Function> methods",
      "Expression : Expr expression",

You might be surprised that we store the superclass name as an Expr, not a Token. The grammar restricts the superclass clause to a single identifier, but at runtime, that identifier is evaluated as a variable access. Wrapping the name in an Expr early on in the parser gives us an object that the resolver can hang the resolution information off of.

The new parser code follows the grammar directly:

    Token name = consume(IDENTIFIER, "Expect class name.");
lox/Parser.java
in classDeclaration()

Expr superclass = null; if (match(LESS)) { consume(IDENTIFIER, "Expect superclass name."); superclass = new Expr.Variable(previous()); }
    consume(LEFT_BRACE, "Expect '{' before class body.");

Once we’ve (possibly) parsed a superclass declaration, we store it in the AST:

    consume(RIGHT_BRACE, "Expect '}' after class body.");

lox/Parser.java
in classDeclaration()
replace 1 line
    return new Stmt.Class(name, superclass, methods);
  }

If we didn’t parse a superclass clause, the superclass expression will be null. We’ll have to make sure the later passes check for that. The first of those is the resolver:

    currentClass = ClassType.CLASS;
lox/Resolver.java
in visitClassStmt()

if (stmt.superclass != null) { resolve(stmt.superclass); }

beginScope();

The class declaration AST node has a new subexpression, so we traverse into and resolve that. Since classes are usually declared at the top level, the superclass name will most likely be a global variable, so this doesn’t usually do anything useful. However, Lox allows class declarations even inside blocks, so it’s possible the superclass name refers to a local variable. In that case, we need to make sure it’s resolved.

Once that’s done, we move to the interpreter:

    environment.define(stmt.name.lexeme, null);
lox/Interpreter.java
in visitClassStmt()
    Object superclass = null;
    if (stmt.superclass != null) {
      superclass = evaluate(stmt.superclass);
      if (!(superclass instanceof LoxClass)) {
        throw new RuntimeError(stmt.name,
            "Superclass must be a class.");
      }
    }

    Map<String, LoxFunction> methods = new HashMap<>();

If the class has a superclass expression, we evaluate it. Since that could potentially evaluate to some other kind of object, we have to check at runtime that the thing you want to be the superclass is actually a class. Bad things would happen if we allowed code like:

var NotAClass = "I am totally not a class";

class Subclass < NotAClass {} // ?!

Assuming that check passes, we continue on. Executing a class declaration turns the syntactic representation of a class — its AST node — into its runtime representation, a LoxClass object. We need to plumb the superclass through to that too. We pass it through the constructor:

      methods.put(method.name.lexeme, function);
    }

lox/Interpreter.java
in visitClassStmt()
replace 1 line
    LoxClass klass = new LoxClass(stmt.name.lexeme,
        (LoxClass)superclass, methods);

    environment.assign(stmt.name, klass);

…which store it:

lox/LoxClass.java
method LoxClass()
replace 1 line
  LoxClass(String name, LoxClass superclass,
           Map<String, LoxFunction> methods) {
    this.superclass = superclass;
    this.name = name;

…in a new field:

  final String name;
lox/LoxClass.java
in class LoxClass
  final LoxClass superclass;
  private final Map<String, LoxFunction> methods;

That’s our foundation — the syntax and runtime representation the semantics will build on. We can define classes that are subclasses of other classes. Now, what does having a superclass actually do?

13 . 2 Inheriting Methods

Inheriting from another class means that everything that’s true of the superclass should be true, more or less, of the subclass. In statically-typed languages that carries a lot of implications. The sub-class must also be a sub-type and the memory layout is controlled so that you can pass an instance of a subclass to a function expecting a superclass and it can still access the inherited fields correctly.

Lox is a dynamically-typed language, so our requirements are much simpler. Basically, it means that if you can call some method on an instance of the superclass, you should be able to call that method when given an instance of the subclass. In other words, methods are inherited from the superclass.

This lines up with one of the goals of inheritance — to give users a way to reuse code across classes. Implementing this is in our interpreter is astonishingly easy:

      return methods.get(name).bind(instance);
    }

lox/LoxClass.java
in findMethod()
    if (superclass != null) {
      return superclass.findMethod(instance, name);
    }

    return null;

That’s literally all there is to it. When we are looking up a method on an instance, if we don’t find it on the instance’s class, we recurse up through the superclass chain and look there. Give it a try:

class Doughnut {
  cook() {
    print "Fry until golden brown.";
  }
}

class BostonCream < Doughnut {}

BostonCream().cook();

There we go, half of our inheritance features are complete with only three lines of Java code.

13 . 3 Calling Superclass Methods

In findMethod() we look for a method on the current class before walking up the superclass chain. If a method with the same name exists in both the subclass and the superclass, the subclass one takes precedence or overrides the superclass method. Sort of like how variables in inner scopes shadow outer ones.

That’s great if the subclass wants to replace some superclass behavior completely. But, in practice, subclasses often want to refine the superclass’s behavior. They want to do a little work specific to the subclass, but also execute the original superclass behavior too.

However, since the subclass has overridden the method, there’s no way to refer to the original one. If the subclass method tries to call it by name, it will just recursively hit its own override. We need a way to say “Call this method, but look for it directly on my superclass and ignore my override”. Java uses super for this, and we’ll use that same syntax in Lox:

class Doughnut {
  cook() {
    print "Fry until golden brown.";
  }
}

class BostonCream < Doughnut {
  cook() {
    super.cook();
    print "Pipe full of custard and coat with chocolate.";
  }
}

BostonCream().cook();
// Prints:
// Fry until golden brown.
// Pipe full of custard and coat with chocolate.

The super keyword, followed by a dot and an identifier looks for a method with that name. Unlike calls on this, the search starts at the superclass.

13 . 3 . 1 Syntax

With this, the keyword works sort of like a magic variable and the expression is that one lone token. But with super, the subsequent . and property name are inseparable parts of the super expression. You can’t have a bare super token all by itself:

print super; // Syntax error.

So the new clause we add to the primary rule in our grammar includes the property access as well:

primary  "true" | "false" | "null" | "this"
        | NUMBER | STRING | IDENTIFIER | "(" expression ")"
        | "super" "." IDENTIFIER ;

Typically, a super expression is used for a method call, but, as with regular methods, the argument list is not part of the expression. Instead, a super call is a super access followed by a function call. Like other method calls, you can get a handle to a superclass method and invoke it separately:

var method = super.cook;
method();

So the super expression itself contains only the token for the super keyword and the name of the method being looked up. The corresponding syntax tree node is thus:

      "Set      : Expr object, Token name, Expr value",
tool/GenerateAst.java
in main()
      "Super    : Token keyword, Token method",
      "This     : Token keyword",

Following the grammar, the new parsing code goes inside our existing primary() method:

      return new Expr.Literal(previous().literal);
    }
lox/Parser.java
in primary()

if (match(SUPER)) { Token keyword = previous(); consume(DOT, "Expect '.' after 'super'."); Token method = consume(IDENTIFIER, "Expect superclass method name."); return new Expr.Super(keyword, method); }

if (match(THIS)) return new Expr.This(previous());

A leading super keyword tells us we’ve hit a super expression. After that we consume the expected . and method name.

13 . 3 . 2 Semantics

Earlier, I said a super expression starts the method lookup from “the superclass”, but which superclass? I need to be more precise. The naïve answer is the superclass of this, the object the surrounding method was called on. That coincidentally produces the right behavior in a lot of cases, but that’s not actually correct. Gaze upon:

class A {
  method() {
    print "A method";
  }
}

class B < A {
  method() {
    print "B method";
  }

  test() {
    super.method();
  }
}

class C < B {}

C().test();

Translate this program to Java, C#, or C++ and it would print “A method”, which is what we want Lox to do too. When this program runs, inside the body of test(), this is an instance of C. The superclass of C is B, but that is not where the lookup should start. If it did, we would hit B’s method().

Instead, lookup should start on the superclass of the class containing the super expression. In this case, since test() is defined inside B, the super expression inside it should start the lookup on B’s superclass — A.

The call chain flowing through the classes.

Thus, in order to evaluate a super expression, we need access to the superclass of the class definition surrounding the call. Alack and alas, at the point in the interpreter where we are executing a super expression, we don’t have that easily available.

We could add a field to LoxFunction to store a reference to the LoxClass that owns that method. The interpreter would keep a reference to the currently-executing LoxFunction so that we could look it up later when we hit a super expression. From there, we’d get the LoxClass of the method, then its superclass.

That’s a lot of plumbing. In the last chapter, we had a similar problem when we needed to add support for this. In that case, we used our existing environment and closure mechanism to store a reference to the current object. Could we do something similar for storing the superclass? Well, I probably wouldn’t be talking about it if the answer was “no”, so… yes.

One important difference is that we bound this when the method was accessed. The same method can be called on difference instances and each needs its own this. With super expressions, the superclass is a fixed property of the class declaration itself. Every time you evaluate some super expression, the superclass is always the same.

That means we can create the environment for the superclass once, when the class definition is executed. Immediately before we define the methods, we make a new environment to bind the class’s superclass to the name super:

The superclass environment.

When we create the LoxFunction runtime representation for each method, that is the environment they will capture in their closure. Later, when a method is invoked and this is bound, the superclass environment becomes the parent for the method’s environment, like so:

The environment chain including the superclass environment.

That’s a lot of machinery, but we’ll get through it a step at a time. Before we can get to creating the environment at runtime, we need to handle the corresponding scope chain in the resolver:

    if (stmt.superclass != null) {
      resolve(stmt.superclass);
lox/Resolver.java
in visitClassStmt()
      beginScope();
      scopes.peek().put("super", true);
    }

If the class declaration has a superclass, then we create a new scope surrounding all of its methods. In that scope, we define the name “super”. Once we’re done resolving the class’s methods, we discard that scope:

    endScope();

lox/Resolver.java
in visitClassStmt()
    if (stmt.superclass != null) endScope();

    currentClass = enclosingClass;

It’s a minor optimization, but we only create the superclass environment if the class actually has a superclass. There’s no point creating it when there isn’t a superclass since there’d be no superclass to store in it anyway.

With “super” defined in a scope chain, we are able to resolve the super expression itself:

lox/Resolver.java
add after visitSetExpr()
  @Override
  public Void visitSuperExpr(Expr.Super expr) {
    resolveLocal(expr, expr.keyword);
    return null;
  }

We resolve the super token exactly as if it were a variable. That stores the number of hops along the environment chain the interpreter needs to walk to find the environment where the superclass is stored.

This code is mirrored in the interpreter. When we evaluate a subclass definition, we create a new environment:

    if (stmt.superclass != null) {
      superclass = evaluate(stmt.superclass);
      if (!(superclass instanceof LoxClass)) {
        throw new RuntimeError(stmt.name,
            "Superclass must be a class.");
      }
lox/Interpreter.java
in visitClassStmt()
      environment = new Environment(environment);
      environment.define("super", superclass);
    }

Inside that environment, we store a reference to the superclass — the actual LoxClass object for the superclass which we have now that we are in the runtime. Then we create the LoxFunctions for each method. Those will capture the current environment — the one where we just bound “super” — as their closure, holding onto the superclass like we need. Once that’s done, we pop the environment:

    LoxClass klass = new LoxClass(stmt.name.lexeme,
        (LoxClass)superclass, methods);
lox/Interpreter.java
in visitClassStmt()

if (superclass != null) { environment = environment.enclosing; }

environment.assign(stmt.name, klass);

We’re ready to interpret super expressions themselves. There’s a few moving parts, so we’ll build this method up in pieces:

lox/Interpreter.java
add after visitSetExpr()
  @Override
  public Object visitSuperExpr(Expr.Super expr) {
    int distance = locals.get(expr);
    LoxClass superclass = (LoxClass)environment.getAt(
        distance, "super");
  }

First, the work we’ve been leading up to. We look up the surrounding class’s superclass by looking up “super” in the proper environment.

When we access a method, we also need to bind this to the object the method is accessed from. In an expression like doughnut.cook, the object is whatever we get from evaluating doughnut. In a super expression like super.cook, the current object is implicitly the same current object that we’re using. In other words, this. Even though we are looking up the method on the superclass, the instance is still this.

Unfortunately, inside the super expression, we don’t have a convenient node for the resolver to hang the number of hops to this on. Fortunately, we do control the layout of the environment chains. The environment where “this” is bound is always right inside the environment where we store “super”:

    LoxClass superclass = (LoxClass)environment.getAt(
        distance, "super");
lox/Interpreter.java
in visitSuperExpr()

// "this" is always one level nearer than "super"'s environment. LoxInstance object = (LoxInstance)environment.getAt( distance - 1, "this");
  }

Offsetting the distance by one looks up “this” in that inner environment. I admit this isn’t the most elegant code, but it works.

Now we’re ready to look up and bind the method, starting at the superclass:

    LoxInstance object = (LoxInstance)environment.getAt(
        distance - 1, "this");
lox/Interpreter.java
in visitSuperExpr()

LoxFunction method = superclass.findMethod( object, expr.method.lexeme); return method;
  }

This is almost exactly like the code for looking up a method of a get expression, except that we call findMethod() on the superclass instead of on the class of the current object.

That’s basically it. Except, of course, that we might fail to find the method. So we check for that too:

    LoxFunction method = superclass.findMethod(
        object, expr.method.lexeme);
lox/Interpreter.java
in visitSuperExpr()

if (method == null) { throw new RuntimeError(expr.method, "Undefined property '" + expr.method.lexeme + "'."); }

return method;

There you have it! Take that BostonCream example earlier and give it a try. Assuming you and I did everything right, it should fry it first, then stuff it with cream.

13 . 3 . 3 Invalid uses of super

As with previous language features, our implementation does the right thing when the user writes correct code, but we haven’t bulletproofed the intepreter against bad code. In particular, consider:

class Eclair {
  cook() {
    super.cook();
    print "Pipe full of crème pâtissière.";
  }
}

This class has a super expression, but no superclass. At runtime, the code for evaluating super expressions assumes that “super” was successfully resolved and will be found in the environment. That’s going to fail here because there is no surrounding environment for the superclass since there is no superclass. The JVM will throw an exception and bring our interpreter to its knees.

Heck, there are even simpler broken uses of super:

super.notEvenInAClass();

We could handle errors like these at runtime by checking to see if the look-up of “super” succeeded. But we can tell statically — just by looking at the source code — that Eclair has no superclass and thus no super expression will work inside it. Likewise, in the second example, we know that the super expression is not even inside a method body.

Even though Lox is dynamically typed, that doesn’t mean we want to defer everything to runtime. If the user made a mistake, we’d like to help them find it sooner rather than later. So we’ll report these errors statically, in the resolver.

First, we add a new case to the enum we use to keep track of what kind of class is surrounding the current code being visited:

    NONE,
lox/Resolver.java
in class Resolver
replace 1 line
    CLASS,
    SUBCLASS
  }

We’ll use that to distinguish when we’re inside a class that has a superclass versus one that doesn’t. When we resolve a class declaration, we set that if the class is a subclass:

    if (stmt.superclass != null) {
lox/Resolver.java
in visitClassStmt()
      currentClass = ClassType.SUBCLASS;
      resolve(stmt.superclass);

Then, when we resolve a super expression, we check to see that we are currently inside a scope where that’s allowed:

  public Void visitSuperExpr(Expr.Super expr) {
lox/Resolver.java
in visitSuperExpr()
    if (currentClass == ClassType.NONE) {
      Lox.error(expr.keyword,
          "Cannot use 'super' outside of a class.");
    } else if (currentClass != ClassType.SUBCLASS) {
      Lox.error(expr.keyword,
          "Cannot use 'super' in a class with no superclass.");
    }

    resolveLocal(expr, expr.keyword);

If not — oopsie! — the user made a mistake.

13 . 4 Conclusion

We made it! That final bit of error-handling is the last chunk of code needed to complete our Java implementation of Lox. This is a real accomplishment and one you should be proud of. In the past dozen chapters and a thousand or so lines of code, we have learned and implemented…

We did all of that from scratch, with no external dependencies or magic tools. Just you and I, our respective text editors, a couple of collection classes in the Java standard library, and the JVM runtime.

This marks the end of Part II, but not the end of the book. Take a break. Maybe write a few fun Lox programs and run them in your interpreter. (You may want to add a few more native methods for things like reading user input.) When you’re refreshed and ready, we’ll embark on our next adventure.

Challenges

  1. Lox only supports single inheritance — a class may have a single superclass and that’s the only way to reuse methods across classes. Other languages have explored a variety of ways to more freely reuse and share capabilities across classes: mixins, traits, multiple inheritance, virtual inheritance, extension methods, etc.

    If you were to add some feature along these lines to Lox, which would you pick and why? If you’re feeling courageous (and you should be at this point), go ahead and add it.

  2. In Lox, as in most other object-oriented languages, when looking up a method, we start at the bottom of the class hierarchy and work our way up —  a subclass’s method is preferred over a superclass’s. In order to get to the superclass method from within an overriding method, you use super.

    The language BETA takes the opposite approach. When you call a method, it starts at the top of the class hierarchy and works down. A superclass method wins over a subclass method. In order to get to the subclass method, the superclass method can call inner, which is sort of like the inverse of super. It chains to the next method down the hierarchy.

    The superclass method controls when and where the subclass is allowed to refine its behavior. If the superclass method doesn’t call inner at all, then the subclass has no way of overriding or modifying the superclass’s behavior.

    Take out Lox’s current overriding and super behavior and replace it with BETA’s semantics. In short:

    • When calling a method on a class, prefer the method highest on the class’s inheritance chain.

    • Inside the body of a method, a call to inner looks for a method with the same name in the nearest subclass along the inheritance chain between the class containing the inner and the class of this. If there is no matching method, the inner call does nothing.

    For example:

    class Doughnut {
      cook() {
        print "Fry until golden brown.";
        inner();
        print "Place in a nice box.";
      }
    }
    
    class BostonCream < Doughnut {
      cook() {
        print "Pipe full of custard and coat with chocolate.";
      }
    }
    
    BostonCream().cook();
    

    This should print:

    Fry until golden brown.
    Pipe full of custard and coat with chocolate.
    Place in a nice box.
    
  3. In the chapter where I introduced Lox, I challenged you to come up with a couple of features you think the language is missing. Now that you know how to build an interpreter, implement one of those features.