Fortunately, we don’t need to go into the details of polymorphism and overloading, which is just as well, because they tend to be both confusing and ambiguous. For instance, some computer scientists say that overloading is a form of polymorphism, whereas others say it is not. We will discuss only those issues that are directly relevant to the .NET Framework.
Overloading refers to an item being used in more than one way. Operator names are often overloaded. For instance, the plus sign (+) refers to addition of integers, addition of singles, addition of doubles, and concatenation of strings. Thus, the plus symbol (+) is overloaded. It’s a good thing, too; otherwise, we would need separate symbols for adding integers, singles, and doubles.
Function names can also be overloaded. For instance, the absolute value function, Abs, can take an integer parameter, a single parameter, or a double parameter. Because the name Abs represents several different functions, it is overloaded. In fact, if you look at the documentation for the Abs member of the Math class (in the System namespace of the Framework Class Library), you will find the following declarations, showing the different functions using the Abs name:
Overloads Public Shared Function Abs(Decimal) As Decimal Overloads Public Shared Function Abs(Double) As Double Overloads Public Shared Function Abs(Integer) As Short Overloads Public Shared Function Abs(Integer) As Integer Overloads Public Shared Function Abs(Long) As Long Overloads Public Shared Function Abs(SByte) As SByte Overloads Public Shared Function Abs(Single) As Single
Specifically, a function name is overloaded when two defined functions use the same name but have different argument signatures. For instance, consider a function that retrieves a current account balance. The account could be identified either by the person’s name or by the account number. Thus, we might define two functions, each called GetBalance:
Overloads Function GetBalance(sCustName As String) As Decimal Overloads Function GetBalance(sAccountNumber As Long) As Decimal
Note also that VB.NET permits function overloading only because the argument signatures of the two functions are different, so that no ambiguity can arise. The function calls:
GetBalance("John Smith") GetBalance(123456)
are resolved by the compiler without difficulty, based on the data type of the argument. This type of overloading is often referred to as overloading the function GetBalance. On the other hand, there are two different functions here, so it seems more appropriate to say that the function name is being overloaded. Overloading is very common and not exclusive to object-oriented programming.
The term polymorphism means having or passing through many different forms. In the .NET Framework, polymorphism is tied directly to inheritance. Again, let us consider our Employee example. The function IncSalary is defined in three classes: the base class CEmployee and the derived classes CExecutive and CSecretary. Thus, the IncSalary function takes on three forms. This is polymorphism, VB.NET style.
In case you are interested, many computer scientists would not consider this to be polymorphism. They would argue that the function IncSalary takes on only one form. It is the implementation that differs, not the function. They would refer to the situation described here for IncSalary as function overloading. The main point here is that there is a lot of confusion as to how Microsoft and others use the terms overloading and polymorphism, so you should be on guard when reading documentation.