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Multiple Base Classes

A class can be derived from more than one base class. In a multiple-inheritance model (where classes are derived from more than one base class), the base classes are specified using the base-list grammar element. For example, the class declaration for CollectionOfBook, derived from Collection and Book, can be specified:

// deriv_MultipleBaseClasses.cpp
// compile with: /LD
class Collection {
class Book {};
class CollectionOfBook : public Book, public Collection {
    // New members

The order in which base classes are specified isn't significant except in certain cases where constructors and destructors are invoked. In these cases, the order in which base classes are specified affects the following:

  • The order in which constructors are called. If your code relies on the Book portion of CollectionOfBook to be initialized before the Collection part, the order of specification is significant. Initialization takes place in the order the classes are specified in the base-list.

  • The order in which destructors are invoked to clean up. Again, if a particular "part" of the class must be present when the other part is being destroyed, the order is significant. Destructors are called in the reverse order of the classes specified in the base-list.


    The order of specification of base classes can affect the memory layout of the class. Do not make any programming decisions based on the order of base members in memory.

When specifying the base-list, you can't specify the same class name more than once. However, it's possible for a class to be an indirect base to a derived class more than once.

Virtual base classes

Because a class can be an indirect base class to a derived class more than once, C++ provides a way to optimize the way such base classes work. Virtual base classes offer a way to save space and avoid ambiguities in class hierarchies that use multiple inheritance.

Each nonvirtual object contains a copy of the data members defined in the base class. This duplication wastes space and requires you to specify which copy of the base class members you want whenever you access them.

When a base class is specified as a virtual base, it can act as an indirect base more than once without duplication of its data members. A single copy of its data members is shared by all the base classes that use it as a virtual base.

When declaring a virtual base class, the virtual keyword appears in the base lists of the derived classes.

Consider the class hierarchy in the following figure, which illustrates a simulated lunch line:

Diagram of a simulated lunch line.

The base class is Queue. Cashier Queue and Lunch Queue both inherit from Queue. Finally, Lunch Cashier Queue inherits from both Cashier Queue and Lunch Queue.

Simulated lunch-line graph

In the figure, Queue is the base class for both CashierQueue and LunchQueue. However, when both classes are combined to form LunchCashierQueue, the following problem arises: the new class contains two subobjects of type Queue, one from CashierQueue and the other from LunchQueue. The following figure shows the conceptual memory layout (the actual memory layout might be optimized):

Diagram of a simulated lunch line object.

The figure shows a Lunch Cashier Queue object with two subobjects in it: Cashier Queue and Lunch Queue. Both Cashier Queue and Lunch Queue contain a Queue subobject."

Simulated lunch-line object

There are two Queue subobjects in the LunchCashierQueue object. The following code declares Queue to be a virtual base class:

// deriv_VirtualBaseClasses.cpp
// compile with: /LD
class Queue {};
class CashierQueue : virtual public Queue {};
class LunchQueue : virtual public Queue {};
class LunchCashierQueue : public LunchQueue, public CashierQueue {};

The virtual keyword ensures that only one copy of the subobject Queue is included (see the following figure).

Diagram of a simulated lunch line object, with virtual base classes depicted.

The diagram shows a Lunch Cashier Queue object, which contains a Cashier Queue subobject and a Lunch Queue subobject. Both Cashier Queue and Lunch Queue share the same Queue subobject.

Simulated lunch-line object with virtual base classes

A class can have both a virtual component and a nonvirtual component of a given type. This happens in the conditions illustrated in the following figure:

Diagram of virtual and non virtual components of a class.

The diagram shows a queue base class. A Cashier Queue class and Lunch Queue class inherit virtually from Queue. A third class, Takeout Queue, inherits non virtually from queue. Lunch Cashier Queue inherits from both Cashier Queue and Lunch Queue. Lunch Takeout Cashier Queue inherits from both Lunch Cashier Queue and Takeout Queue.

Virtual and nonvirtual components of the same class

In the figure, CashierQueue and LunchQueue use Queue as a virtual base class. However, TakeoutQueue specifies Queue as a base class, not a virtual base class. Therefore, LunchTakeoutCashierQueue has two subobjects of type Queue: one from the inheritance path that includes LunchCashierQueue and one from the path that includes TakeoutQueue. This is illustrated in the following figure.

Diagram of the object layout for virtual and non virtual inheritance.

A Lunch Takeout Cashier Queue object is shown that contains two subobjects: a Takeout Queue (which contains a Queue subobject) and a Lunch Cashier Queue. The Lunch Cashier Queue subobject contains a Cashier Queue subobject and a Lunch Queue subobject, both of which share a Queue sub object.

Object layout with virtual and nonvirtual inheritance


Virtual inheritance provides significant size benefits when compared with nonvirtual inheritance. However, it can introduce extra processing overhead.

If a derived class overrides a virtual function that it inherits from a virtual base class, and if a constructor or a destructor for the derived base class calls that function using a pointer to the virtual base class, the compiler may introduce other hidden "vtordisp" fields into the classes with virtual bases. The /vd0 compiler option suppresses the addition of the hidden vtordisp constructor/destructor displacement member. The /vd1 compiler option, the default, enables them where they're necessary. Turn off vtordisps only if you're sure that all class constructors and destructors call virtual functions virtually.

The /vd compiler option affects an entire compilation module. Use the vtordisp pragma to suppress and then reenable vtordisp fields on a class-by-class basis:

#pragma vtordisp( off )
class GetReal : virtual public { ... };
\#pragma vtordisp( on )

Name ambiguities

Multiple inheritance introduces the possibility for names to be inherited along more than one path. The class-member names along these paths aren't necessarily unique. These name conflicts are called "ambiguities."

Any expression that refers to a class member must make an unambiguous reference. The following example shows how ambiguities develop:

// deriv_NameAmbiguities.cpp
// compile with: /LD
// Declare two base classes, A and B.
class A {
    unsigned a;
    unsigned b();

class B {
    unsigned a();  // class A also has a member "a"
    int b();       //  and a member "b".
    char c;

// Define class C as derived from A and B.
class C : public A, public B {};

Given the preceding class declarations, code such as the following is ambiguous because it's unclear whether b refers to the b in A or in B:

C *pc = new C;


Consider the preceding example. Because the name a is a member of both class A and class B, the compiler can't discern which a designates the function to be called. Access to a member is ambiguous if it can refer to more than one function, object, type, or enumerator.

The compiler detects ambiguities by performing tests in this order:

  1. If access to the name is ambiguous (as just described), an error message is generated.

  2. If overloaded functions are unambiguous, they're resolved.

  3. If access to the name violates member-access permission, an error message is generated. (For more information, see Member-Access Control.)

When an expression produces an ambiguity through inheritance, you can manually resolve it by qualifying the name in question with its class name. To make the preceding example compile properly with no ambiguities, use code such as:

C *pc = new C;



When C is declared, it has the potential to cause errors when B is referenced in the scope of C. No error is issued, however, until an unqualified reference to B is actually made in C's scope.


it's possible for more than one name (function, object, or enumerator) to be reached through an inheritance graph. Such cases are considered ambiguous with nonvirtual base classes. They're also ambiguous with virtual base classes, unless one of the names "dominates" the others.

A name dominates another name if it's defined in both classes and one class is derived from the other. The dominant name is the name in the derived class; this name is used when an ambiguity would otherwise have arisen, as shown in the following example:

// deriv_Dominance.cpp
// compile with: /LD
class A {
    int a;

class B : public virtual A {
    int a();

class C : public virtual A {};

class D : public B, public C {
    D() { a(); } // Not ambiguous. B::a() dominates A::a.

Ambiguous conversions

Explicit and implicit conversions from pointers or references to class types can cause ambiguities. The next figure, Ambiguous Conversion of Pointers to Base Classes, shows the following:

  • The declaration of an object of type D.

  • The effect of applying the address-of operator (&) to that object. The address-of operator always supplies the base address of the object.

  • The effect of explicitly converting the pointer obtained using the address-of operator to the base-class type A. Coercing the address of the object to type A* doesn't always provide the compiler with enough information as to which subobject of type A to select; in this case, two subobjects exist.

Diagram showing how the conversion of pointers to base classes can be ambiguous.

The diagram first shows an inheritance hierarchy: A is the base class. B and C inherit from A. D inherits from B and C. Then, the memory layout is shown for object D. There are three subobjects in D: B (which includes a subobject A) and C (which includes a subobject A). The code & d points to the A in subobject B. The code ( * A ) & d points to both subobject B and subobject C.

Ambiguous conversion of pointers to base classes

The conversion to type A* (pointer to A) is ambiguous because there's no way to discern which subobject of type A is the correct one. You can avoid the ambiguity by explicitly specifying which subobject you mean to use, as follows:

(A *)(B *)&d       // Use B subobject.
(A *)(C *)&d       // Use C subobject.

Ambiguities and virtual base classes

If virtual base classes are used, functions, objects, types, and enumerators can be reached through multiple-inheritance paths. Because there's only one instance of the base class, there's no ambiguity when accessing these names.

The following figure shows how objects are composed using virtual and nonvirtual inheritance.

Diagram showing virtual derivation and nonvirtual derivation.

The diagram first shows an inheritance hierarchy: A is the base class. B and C virtually inherit from A. D virtually inherits from B and C. Then, the layout of D is shown. D contains subobjects B and C, which share subobject A. Then the layout is shown as though the same hierarchy had been derived using nonvirtual inheritance. In that case, D contains the subobjects B and C. Both B and C contain their own copy of subobject A.

Virtual and nonvirtual derivation

In the figure, accessing any member of class A through nonvirtual base classes causes an ambiguity; the compiler has no information that explains whether to use the subobject associated with B or the subobject associated with C. However, when A is specified as a virtual base class, there's no question which subobject is being accessed.

See also