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Exceptions in Java
Exceptions in the Java Language and Virtual Machine
by Bill Venners
First Published in JavaWorld, June 1998

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Checked vs. unchecked exceptions
There are two kinds of exceptions in Java, checked and unchecked, and only checked exceptions need appear in throws clauses. The general rule is: Any checked exceptions that may be thrown in a method must either be caught or declared in the method's throws clause. Checked exceptions are so called because both the Java compiler and the Java virtual machine check to make sure this rule is obeyed.

Whether or not an exception is "checked" is determined by its position in the hierarchy of throwable classes. Figure 4 shows that some parts of the Throwable family tree contain checked exceptions while other parts contain unchecked exceptions. To create a new checked exception, you simply extend another checked exception. All throwables that are subclasses of Exception, but not subclasses of RuntimeException are checked exceptions.


Figure 4. Checked and unchecked throwables

The conceptual difference between checked and unchecked exceptions is that checked exceptions signal abnormal conditions that you want client programmers to deal with. For instance, because the drinkCoffee() method allocates memory with the new operator, it could potentially complete abruptly by throwing an OutOfMemoryError. This is not a checked exception, because it's not a subclass of Exception. It's a subclass of Error. Conceptually, OutOfMemoryError isn't a checked exception because you don't want client programmers to have to deal directly with the fact that drinkCoffee() could complete abruptly due to low memory.

When you place an exception in a throws clause, it forces client programmers who invoke your method to deal with the exception, either by catching it or by declaring it in their own throws clause. If they don't deal with the exception in one of these two ways, their classes won't compile. For example, because the drinkCoffee() method declares three exceptions in its throws clause, the serveCustomer() method, which invokes drinkCoffee(), has to deal with those three exceptions. In this case, serveCustomer() catches one exception, TooColdException, but not the other two. If serveCustomer() hadn't declared in its throws clause the other two exceptions, TemperatureException and UnusualTasteException, the VirtualCafe class would not have compiled.

Most unchecked throwables declared in java.lang (subclasses of Error and RuntimeException) are problems that would be detected by the Java virtual machine. Errors usually signal abnormal conditions that you wouldn't want a program to handle. Problems with linking, such as NoClassDefFoundError, or memory, such as StackOverflowError, could happen just about anywhere in a program. In the rare cases in which they happen, it is usually reasonable that the thread terminate.

Although most runtime exceptions (members of the RuntimeException family) also are thrown by the Java virtual machine itself, they usually are more an indication of software bugs. Problems with arrays, such as ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException, or passed parameters, such as IllegalArgumentException, also could happen just about anywhere in a program. When exceptions like these are thrown, you'll want to fix the bugs that caused them to be thrown. You won't, however, want to force client programmers to wrap every invocation of a method that uses arrays with a catch clause for ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException.

You can throw and catch unchecked exceptions just like checked exceptions, but the Java Language Specification advises against throwing errors. It is intended that errors be thrown only by the Java runtime. You may, however, reasonably throw runtime exceptions. You can throw a runtime exception declared in java.lang or declare your own subclasses of RuntimeException.

To decide whether to throw a checked exception or an unchecked runtime exception, you must look at the abnormal condition you are signalling. If you are throwing an exception to indicate an improper use of your class, you are signalling a software bug. The class of exception you throw probably should descend from RuntimeException, which will make it unchecked. Otherwise, if you are throwing an exception to indicate not a software bug but an abnormal condition that client programmers should deal with every time they use your method, your exception should be checked.

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