Demystifying ‘super’ and ‘this’ Keywords in Java: A Comprehensive Guide

Naveen Metta
6 min readDec 5, 2023

Introduction:

In the expansive landscape of Java, a language renowned for its robust object-oriented programming paradigm, two keywords, ‘super’ and ‘this,’ play pivotal roles in shaping class relationships and method invocations. This article embarks on a journey deep into the heart of these keywords, unraveling their intricacies and providing an extensive array of code examples for a comprehensive understanding.

Understanding ‘super’:

The ‘super’ keyword in Java acts as a vital connector between a subclass and its superclass, enabling seamless communication and interaction. By invoking ‘super,’ developers gain access to the members (fields or methods) of the superclass, facilitating code reuse and maintaining the integrity of the inheritance hierarchy.

Invoking Superclass Constructor:
One of the fundamental applications of ‘super’ lies in invoking the constructor of the superclass within the subclass. This is particularly useful when the superclass has a parameterized constructor, and the subclass needs to ensure its proper initialization.

class Animal {
Animal() {
System.out.println("Animal constructor");
}
}

class Dog extends Animal {
Dog() {
super(); // invoking superclass constructor
System.out.println("Dog constructor");
}
}

In this example, the ‘Dog’ class extends ‘Animal’ and explicitly calls the ‘super()’ constructor to initialize the ‘Animal’ part of the object before executing its own constructor. This ensures a coherent and step-by-step construction of the entire object.

Accessing Overridden Methods:
Another common use case for ‘super’ arises when dealing with overridden methods. By using ‘super,’ a subclass can explicitly invoke a method from its superclass, even if the method has been overridden in the subclass.

class Animal {
void makeSound() {
System.out.println("Generic animal sound");
}
}

class Dog extends Animal {
void makeSound() {
super.makeSound(); // accessing overridden method in the superclass
System.out.println("Bark");
}
}

In this scenario, the ‘Dog’ class not only defines its unique ‘makeSound’ method but also utilizes ‘super.makeSound()’ to include the generic animal sound defined in the ‘Animal’ class. This allows for a layered and modular approach to method invocation.

Referring to Superclass Fields:
The ‘super’ keyword also proves beneficial when dealing with fields in a subclass that have the same name as fields in the superclass. In such cases, ‘super’ helps distinguish between the two, ensuring the correct variable is accessed.

class Animal {
String name = "Animal";
}

class Dog extends Animal {
String name = "Dog";

void printNames() {
System.out.println("Subclass name: " + name); // prints "Dog"
System.out.println("Superclass name: " + super.name); // prints "Animal"
}
}

Here, the ‘Dog’ class has a field named ‘name,’ which shadows the ‘name’ field in the ‘Animal’ superclass. By using ‘super.name,’ the subclass can explicitly refer to the superclass’s ‘name’ field, preventing any ambiguity.

Understanding ‘this’:

While ‘super’ facilitates communication with the superclass, the ‘this’ keyword is a reference to the current object instance. It serves to distinguish between instance variables and parameters, invoke methods within the current class, and pass the current object as a parameter to other methods.

Differentiating Instance Variables and Parameters:
One primary use of ‘this’ is to disambiguate between instance variables and parameters that share the same name. This situation often arises in constructors when initializing object properties.

class Car {
String color;

void setColor(String color) {
this.color = color; // differentiating between instance variable and parameter
}
}

In this example, the ‘this.color’ syntax ensures that the ‘color’ instance variable of the class is assigned the value of the ‘color’ parameter passed to the method, preventing any confusion.

Invoking Current Class’s Methods:
The ‘this’ keyword also comes into play when invoking methods within the current class. This is particularly useful in scenarios where method names clash with parameter names or instance variables.

class Calculator {
int result;

void add(int num) {
this.result += num; // invoking current class's method
}
}

In this case, ‘this.result’ refers explicitly to the ‘result’ instance variable of the ‘Calculator’ class, ensuring that the correct variable is manipulated within the ‘add’ method.

Combining ‘super’ and ‘this’:

In more complex scenarios, developers often encounter the need to use both ‘super’ and ‘this’ within the same context. This is especially common when dealing with constructors in a subclass that extends another subclass.

class Animal {
String type;

Animal(String type) {
this.type = type;
}
}

class Dog extends Animal {
String sound;

Dog(String type, String sound) {
super(type); // invoking superclass constructor
this.sound = sound; // using 'this' to refer to the current object's instance variable
}
}

Here, the ‘Dog’ class extends ‘Animal,’ and its constructor initializes both the ‘type’ field in the superclass using ‘super(type)’ and the ‘sound’ field in the current class using ‘this.sound.’ This ensures a complete and well-coordinated construction of the ‘Dog’ object.

In-Depth Exploration:

To gain a deeper understanding of the ‘super’ and ‘this’ keywords, it’s crucial to explore their behavior in various contexts, including edge cases and advanced scenarios.

Chaining Constructors:
Java supports constructor chaining, where one constructor can call another within the same class or its superclass using ‘this’ and ‘super.’ This results in a cascading effect, ensuring that all necessary constructors are invoked.

class Animal {
String type;

Animal(String type) {
this.type = type;
}

Animal() {
this("Generic");
}
}

class Dog extends Animal {
String sound;

Dog(String type, String sound) {
super(type); // invoking superclass constructor
this.sound = sound; // using 'this' to refer to the current object's instance variable
}
}

In this example, the ‘Animal’ class has two constructors, one of which calls the other using ‘this(“Generic”)’ to ensure that the ‘type’ field is initialized. The ‘Dog’ class then extends ‘Animal’ and invokes the superclass constructor using ‘super(type),’ creating a seamless chain of constructor calls.

Static Context:
The ‘super’ and ‘this’ keywords behave differently in static and non-static contexts. In a static context (e.g., a static method), ‘this’ is not allowed as it refers to the current object instance, which is not available in a static context. However, ‘super’ can still be used to access static members of the superclass.

class Animal {
static void staticMethod() {
System.out.println("Static method in Animal");
}
}

class Dog extends Animal {
static void staticMethod() {
super.staticMethod(); // accessing static method in the superclass
System.out.println("Static method in Dog");
}
}

Here, ‘super.staticMethod()’ allows the ‘Dog’ class to access the static method of the ‘Animal’ class, demonstrating the use of ‘super’ in a static context.

Anonymous Classes:
When working with anonymous classes, which are classes without a name, ‘this’ and ‘super’ can behave in unexpected ways. In an anonymous class, ‘this’ refers to the instance of the anonymous class itself, while ‘super’ refers to the superclass of the enclosing class.

class Animal {
void makeSound() {
System.out.println("Generic animal sound");
}
}

class AnonymousExample {
void createAnonymousClass() {
Animal animal = new Animal() {
void makeSound() {
System.out.println("Anonymous animal sound");
AnonymousExample.this.methodInEnclosingClass();
super.makeSound();
}
};
animal.makeSound();
}

void methodInEnclosingClass() {
System.out.println("Method in enclosing class");
}
}

In this example, the anonymous class overrides the ‘makeSound’ method, and within the anonymous class, ‘this’ refers to the instance of the anonymous class itself, while ‘super’ refers to the ‘Animal’ class’s method. Additionally, ‘AnonymousExample.this.methodInEnclosingClass()’ demonstrates how to invoke a method from the enclosing class.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, the ‘super’ and ‘this’ keywords in Java are indispensable tools that empower developers to create sophisticated and well-organized code. By understanding the nuances of these keywords, programmers can navigate the complexities of class hierarchies, constructor invocations, and method overriding with precision and clarity.

The provided code examples offer practical insights into the diverse applications of ‘super’ and ‘this,’ ranging from simple constructor calls to intricate scenarios involving constructor chaining, static contexts, and anonymous classes. Armed with this knowledge, Java developers can harness the full potential of these keywords, ensuring the creation of robust and maintainable codebases.

As you continue your journey in Java programming, remember that a deep understanding of language features like ‘super’ and ‘this’ is crucial for mastering the art of object-oriented design. By incorporating these concepts into your programming arsenal, you’ll be well-equipped to tackle the challenges of building scalable and efficient Java applications.

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Naveen Metta

Java Backend Engineer who loves to share his experience in Enterprise Application development.