Rationals Revisited

C# has a built-in method to sort a List. List is a generic type, however, so how does C# know how to do comparisons for all different types? Is this specially programmed in for built-in types, or can it be extended to user-defined types?

In fact it can be extended to user defined types, such as our Rational. To sort objects, you only need to be able to do one thing: indicate which object comes before another. We can do that. The CompareTo method already does that. If Rational r1 is less than Rational r2, then

r1.CompareTo(r2) < 0

The single CompareTo method is very versatile: Just by varying the comparison with 0, you vary the corresponding comparison of Rationals:

r1.CompareTo(r2) < 0 means r1 < r2
r1.CompareTo(r2) <= 0 means r1 <= r2
r1.CompareTo(r2) > 0 means r1 > r2
r1.CompareTo(r2) >= 0 means r1 >= r2
r1.CompareTo(r2) == 0 means r1 is equal to r2
r1.CompareTo(r2) != 0 means r1 is not equal to r2

None of the other methods for Rationals make any difference for sorting: Just this one method is needed. Of course the comparison of strings or doubles are done with totally different implementations, but they have methods with the same name, CompareTo, and with the same abstract meaning. Still C# is strongly typed and we are talking about totally different types.

An interface allows us to group diverse classes under one interface type. An interface just focuses on the commonality of behavior in one or more methods among the different classes. Interface types, like classes can also be generic. For sorting we are only concerned with one method, CompareTo. We want it to be able to compare to another object of the same type.

C# defines a generic interface IComparable<T>. A type T can satisfy this interface if if has a public instance method with signature:

public int CompareTo(T other);

There is one more step before we can use a library method to sort: Although the signature shown above for CompareTo is the one that C# requires to be able to satisfy the Icomparable<T> interface, it does not automatically assume that this is your intention. You must explicitly say that you want your class to be considered to satisfy this interface. For instance for Rational, we need to change the class heading to:

public class Rational : IComparable<Rational>

In general one or more interface names can be listed after the class name and a colon, and before the opening brace of the class body. This particular interface is defined in System.Collections.Generic, so we need to be using that namespace.

The project interfaces has the modified rational.cs and test_rational_sort.cs to test this with a list of Rationals:

using System;
using System.Collections.Generic;

namespace IntroCS
/// Use IComparable<Rational> interface to sort Rationals.
   class TestRationalSort
      public static void Main(string[] args)
         List<Rational> nums = new List<Rational>();
         nums.Add(new Rational(1, 2));
         nums.Add(new Rational(11, 3));
         nums.Add(new Rational(-1, 10));
         nums.Add(new Rational(2, 5));
         nums.Add(new Rational(2, 3));
         nums.Add(new Rational(1, 3));
         Console.WriteLine("Before sorting: " + ListString(nums));
         Console.WriteLine("After sorting:  " + ListString(nums));

      public static string ListString(List<Rational> list)
         string s = "";
         foreach (Rational r in list) {
            s += r + " ";
         return s;

which prints:

Before sorting: 1/2 11/3 -1/10 2/5 2/3 1/3
After sorting:  -1/10 1/3 2/5 1/2 2/3 11/3

Interfaces are very handy for dealing with the common abstract behavior of different objects and different underlying class, but if an object is declared to be of interface type the compiler no longer sees the attributes that are not common to the interface. A silly example, legal as far as it goes:

IComparable<Rational> r1 = new Rational(2,5),
                      r2 = new Rational(1, 2);
Console.WriteLine(r1.CompareTo(r2) > 0); // prints false

The declarations are legal because a Rational does have interface type IComparable<Rational>. The use of CompareTo is legal because that is the one method that this interface type guarantees.

However, if we add this extra line:

Console.WriteLine(r1.Multiply(r2)); // compiler error!

Even though r1 and r2 are actually Rational underneath, where the Multiply method is legal, their declaration as only their interface type hides this extra functionality from the compiler. 1


It is possible to deal with the actual underlying class type, but this gets more complicated. It is better discussed in a course that more fully explores inheritance.

Interface Syntax Examples

In the previous section we showed a realistic application of an existing interface. It was in a fairly sophisticated class with a lot of other things included. Now you can look at examples that are designed to highlight syntax for interfaces without distractions. They are very simple and artificial.

There is a comment at the bottom of each file explaining the new features introduced. Like all our other examples, they compile and run as given. After running an example, see if the notes include instructions to delete or comment out parts or uncomment lines. If so, follow instructions and try to compile again. Check that the change causes a compiler error.

Look through and process these examples in order:

interface_syntax1/interface_demo1.cs, interface_syntax2/interface_demo2.cs, interface_syntax3/interface_demo3.cs, interface_syntax4/interface_demo4.cs, interface_syntax5/interface_demo5.cs, interface_syntax6/interface_demo6.cs, interface_syntax7/interface_demo7.cs, interface_syntax8/interface_demo8.cs

After looking at those simple bare examples illustrating the syntax, go on to the next section Csproject Revisited, where a useful, more sophisticated user-defined interface is introduced….

Example Class Sorting - Worked Exercise

In More Getters and Setters we introduced example example_class/example_class.cs.

Elaborate the code for the Example class, adding a CompareTo method. The rules for comparison are:

  1. An object with a larger n value is considered larger.

  2. If the n values are the same, then the object with the larger d value is considered larger.

  3. If they completely match, then they are equal, of course.

Modify the Main driver to merely test sorting: create and sort a list of Example elements. Show the before and after sequence in the list.

You can compare your solution to ours: example_class2/example_class2.cs.