Object Oriented Idioms in C

John Sadler
10 Aug 98
Review of Key OO Characteristics


"A package of information and descriptions of its manipulation" [Robson]

Objects separate interface from implementation, "what" is wanted (on the outside) from "how" it is accomplished (on the inside). This idea of hiding the data inside a package with a fixed set of allowed manipulations is called encapsulation. Why? If the object always selects how to perform a requested manipulation, you guarantee that the procedure and the data it operates on always match.

A message denotes an operation that can be performed on an object. The code that describes how to perform an operation on a specific object type is called a method. From the outside, objects receive messages. On the inside, these messages are mapped to methods that perform appropriate actions for the specific kind of object. An object’s interface is the set of messages to which it can respond. For example, several object types may have a "dump" method to cause the object to display its state. Each kind of object will need a unique method to accomplish this. So the message-method idea separates the interface from the implementation. The idea that different kinds of objects might invoke different methods to respond to the same message is called polymorphism. Methods can be bound to messages as soon as the type of the object receiving the message is known (called early binding), or this mapping can wait until run-time (late binding).

Some languages (notably C++) make a syntactic distinction between early and late binding of methods to messages (virtual functions are bound late, while all others are bound early – at link time). Smalltalk makes no such distinction. The C++ approach has potentially dangerous consequences when you manipulate an object through a pointer to its parent class. If a method of the superclass is virtual, you get late binding to the appropriate function for the object’s class. On the other hand, if that method is not virtual, you get early binding to the parent class’s definition even if the child class has overridden it. Smalltalk adheres rigorously to the idea that the object itself has sole ownership of the mapping from methods to messages.


"A description of one or more similar objects" [Robson]

A specific object described by a particular class is called an instance of the class.
(Example: Dog is a class; Poodle is a subclass of Dog; FiFi is an object, an instance of Poodle).
A class is a kind of object that describes the behaviors (methods) of its instances, and whose methods provide for creation, initialization, and destruction of an instance. All instances of a particular class use the same method to respond to a given message. Classes may define other members that are shared by all instances of the class. These are called class variables. (In C++, these would be static members.)


A means for creating a new object or class using an existing one as a starting place and defining only what changes. C++ only supports class-based inheritance, but some systems also allow objects to inherit directly from other objects. At minimum, inheritance requires that the child class override its parent’s name. In addition, a child class can:
  • add instance variables
  • add class variables
  • define methods for new messages
  • provide methods for (override) messages already handled by the parent class

What C++ Does for you…

Name mangling – separation of name spaces

This mechanism – decorating symbol names with extra characters that uniquely identify their class and prototype – is the traditional C++ method for operator overloading, method overloading, and namespace separation. C provides a much smaller set of namespaces than C++ requires, so this strategy allowed C++ to be implemented as a preprocessor for C compilers originally.

Rigorous type checking

Because of the function prototype requirement and name mangling, a C++ compiler can provide strict type checking for method invocations.

Automatic lifetime control

Guarantees constructor call upon creation and destructor call upon deletion

Multiple Storage classes (same as C)

Automatic, static, dynamically allocated

Typed dynamic memory management

Default constructor, destructor, copy constructor, and assignment operator

Explicit early and late binding support

And more…

What other OO languages do (or don’t do)

Just to make sure we don’t get caught in a C++ centered view of the world, here are some ways other OO systems differ.

Run-time type identification

This is a Big Deal in C++, but it’s relatively trivial in an interpreted language to know the type of a reference at run-time.


Classes are objects, too (Smalltalk, Java?)

Garbage collection

Java and smalltalk both manage memory for you, freeing objects when they go out of scope or are no longer referenced anywhere.

Single Inheritance only

Java, Smalltalk 80

Everything is an object


Operator overloading

Smalltalk makes no distinction between operators and other kinds of messages. The message syntax is flexible enough that you can define operators in the same way as any other kind of message.

Visibility control

Smalltalk 80 does not appear to provide options for visibility control (based on my quick survey). Instance variables are always private, methods are always public as far as I can tell.


Not in Smalltalk, Java: Both languages deal with objects through implicit references. It is still possible to create data structures, but the language hides much of the memory management work.

No Casting

As far as I can tell, smalltalk has no equivalent of a C/C++ cast.

Late binding

Smalltalk makes no syntactic distinction between late and early bound methods (unlike C++ "virtual" methods)

OO-C framework options

Covered: objects (encapsulation, explicit construct and destruct), classes, inheritance, polymorphism
Not covered: multiple inheritance, automatic initialization / destruction,

Strategy 1: message maps and aggregation

Class: a struct with a pointer to a method table (message map). Contructor and destuctor are really initializer and destructor, and are invoked manually at beginning and end of lifetime.

Messages and methods: mapping table (first cut: use macros like MFC to create a mapping between messages and methods). Alternative: message map can be built at run-time (hash, tree, linked list) – method resolution may be slower.

Inheritance: aggregate the parent struct (recursively) at the beginning of the derived one, link the child method table to the parent and search recursively to resolve messages to methods

Pros and cons:

+ flexible and minimal manual steps required
+ relatively simple – no need to write a preprocessor!
- all methods are late bound, run-time penalty
­ defeats compile time type checking, may require a single prototype for all methods

Strategy 2: manual name mangling
This is how the Samek article handles encapsulation

Strategy 3: preprocessor
This is how C++ started out.

  • David Robson, Object Oriented Software Systems. Byte, August 1981
  • Miro Samek, Portable Inheritance and Polymorphism in C. Embedded Systems Programming, December 1997