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8.9: Polymorphism

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  • Type-based dispatch is useful when it is necessary, but (fortunately) it is not always necessary. Often you can avoid it by writing functions that work correctly for arguments with different types.

    Many of the functions we wrote for strings will actually work for any kind of sequence. For example, in Section 11.1 we used histogram to count the number of times each letter appears in a word.

    def histogram(s):
        d = dict()
        for c in s:
            if c not in d:
                d[c] = 1
                d[c] = d[c]+1
        return d

    This function also works for lists, tuples, and even dictionaries, as long as the elements of s are hashable, so they can be used as keys in d.

    >>> t = ['spam', 'egg', 'spam', 'spam', 'bacon', 'spam']
    >>> histogram(t)
    {'bacon': 1, 'egg': 1, 'spam': 4}

    Functions that can work with several types are called polymorphic. Polymorphism can facilitate code reuse. For example, the built-in function sum, which adds the elements of a sequence, works as long as the elements of the sequence support addition.

    Since Time objects provide an add method, they work with sum:

    >>> t1 = Time(7, 43)
    >>> t2 = Time(7, 41)
    >>> t3 = Time(7, 37)
    >>> total = sum([t1, t2, t3])
    >>> print total

    In general, if all of the operations inside a function work with a given type, then the function works with that type.

    The best kind of polymorphism is the unintentional kind, where you discover that a function you already wrote can be applied to a type you never planned for.