Why not inherit from List?

When planning out my programs, I often start with a chain of thought like so:

A football team is just a list of football players. Therefore, I should represent it with:

var football_team = new List<FootballPlayer>();

The ordering of this list represent the order in which the players are listed in the roster.

But I realize later that teams also have other properties, besides the mere list of players, that must be recorded. For example, the running total of scores this season, the current budget, the uniform colors, a string representing the name of the team, etc..

So then I think:

Okay, a football team is just like a list of players, but additionally, it has a name (a string) and a running total of scores (an int). .NET does not provide a class for storing football teams, so I will make my own class. The most similar and relevant existing structure is List<FootballPlayer>, so I will inherit from it:

class FootballTeam : List<FootballPlayer> 
    public string TeamName; 
    public int RunningTotal 

But it turns out that a guideline says you shouldn’t inherit from List<T>. I’m thoroughly confused by this guideline in two respects.

Why not?

Apparently List is somehow optimized for performance. How so? What performance problems will I cause if I extend List? What exactly will break?

Another reason I’ve seen is that List is provided by Microsoft, and I have no control over it, so I cannot change it later, after exposing a “public API”. But I struggle to understand this. What is a public API and why should I care? If my current project does not and is not likely to ever have this public API, can I safely ignore this guideline? If I do inherit from List and it turns out I need a public API, what difficulties will I have?

Why does it even matter? A list is a list. What could possibly change? What could I possibly want to change?

And lastly, if Microsoft did not want me to inherit from List, why didn’t they make the class sealed?

What else am I supposed to use?

Apparently, for custom collections, Microsoft has provided a Collection class which should be extended instead of List. But this class is very bare, and does not have many useful things, such as AddRange, for instance. jvitor83’s answer provides a performance rationale for that particular method, but how is a slow AddRange not better than no AddRange?

Inheriting from Collection is way more work than inheriting from List, and I see no benefit. Surely Microsoft wouldn’t tell me to do extra work for no reason, so I can’t help feeling like I am somehow misunderstanding something, and inheriting Collection is actually not the right solution for my problem.

I’ve seen suggestions such as implementing IList. Just no. This is dozens of lines of boilerplate code which gains me nothing.

Lastly, some suggest wrapping the List in something:

class FootballTeam 
    public List<FootballPlayer> Players; 

There are two problems with this:

  1. It makes my code needlessly verbose. I must now call my_team.Players.Count instead of just my_team.Count. Thankfully, with C# I can define indexers to make indexing transparent, and forward all the methods of the internal List… But that’s a lot of code! What do I get for all that work?

  2. It just plain doesn’t make any sense. A football team doesn’t “have” a list of players. It is the list of players. You don’t say “John McFootballer has joined SomeTeam’s players”. You say “John has joined SomeTeam”. You don’t add a letter to “a string’s characters”, you add a letter to a string. You don’t add a book to a library’s books, you add a book to a library.

I realize that what happens “under the hood” can be said to be “adding X to Y’s internal list”, but this seems like a very counter-intuitive way of thinking about the world.

My question (summarized)

What is the correct C# way of representing a data structure, which, “logically” (that is to say, “to the human mind”) is just a list of things with a few bells and whistles?

Is inheriting from List<T> always unacceptable? When is it acceptable? Why/why not? What must a programmer consider, when deciding whether to inherit from List<T> or not?


There are some good answers here. I would add to them the following points.

What is the correct C# way of representing a data structure, which, “logically” (that is to say, “to the human mind”) is just a list of things with a few bells and whistles?

Ask any ten non-computer-programmer people who are familiar with the existence of football to fill in the blank:

A football team is a particular kind of _____

Did anyone say “list of football players with a few bells and whistles”, or did they all say “sports team” or “club” or “organization”? Your notion that a football team is a particular kind of list of players is in your human mind and your human mind alone.

List<T> is a mechanism. Football team is a business object — that is, an object that represents some concept that is in the business domain of the program. Don’t mix those! A football team is a kind of team; it has a roster, a roster is a list of players. A roster is not a particular kind of list of players. A roster is a list of players. So make a property called Roster that is a List<Player>. And make it ReadOnlyList<Player> while you’re at it, unless you believe that everyone who knows about a football team gets to delete players from the roster.

Is inheriting from List<T> always unacceptable?

Unacceptable to whom? Me? No.

When is it acceptable?

When you’re building a mechanism that extends the List<T> mechanism.

What must a programmer consider, when deciding whether to inherit from List<T> or not?

Am I building a mechanism or a business object?

But that’s a lot of code! What do I get for all that work?

You spent more time typing up your question that it would have taken you to write forwarding methods for the relevant members of List<T> fifty times over. You’re clearly not afraid of verbosity, and we are talking about a very small amount of code here; this is a few minutes work.


I gave it some more thought and there is another reason to not model a football team as a list of players. In fact it might be a bad idea to model a football team as having a list of players too. The problem with a team as/having a list of players is that what you’ve got is a snapshot of the team at a moment in time. I don’t know what your business case is for this class, but if I had a class that represented a football team I would want to ask it questions like “how many Seahawks players missed games due to injury between 2003 and 2013?” or “What Denver player who previously played for another team had the largest year-over-year increase in yards ran?” or “Did the Piggers go all the way this year?”

That is, a football team seems to me to be well modeled as a collection of historical facts such as when a player was recruited, injured, retired, etc. Obviously the current player roster is an important fact that should probably be front-and-center, but there may be other interesting things you want to do with this object that require a more historical perspective.

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