9: Error handling with exceptions

Bruce Eckel's Thinking in Java Contents | Prev | Next

with exceptions

In C and other earlier languages, there could be several of these formalities, and they were generally established by convention and not as part of the programming language. Typically, you returned a special value or set a flag, and the recipient was supposed to look at the value or the flag and determine that something was amiss. However, as the years passed, it was discovered that programmers who use a library tend to think of themselves as invincible, as in, “Yes, errors might happen to others but not in my code.” So, not too surprisingly, they wouldn’t check for the error conditions (and sometimes the error conditions were too silly to check for [41]). If you were thorough enough to check for an error every time you called a method, your code could turn into an unreadable nightmare. Because programmers could still coax systems out of these languages they were resistant to admitting the truth: This approach to handling errors was a major limitation to creating large, robust, maintainable programs.

The solution is to take the casual nature out of error handling and to enforce formality. This actually has a long history, since implementations of exception handling go back to operating systems in the 1960s and even to BASIC’s on error goto . But C++ exception handling was based on Ada, and Java’s is based primarily on C++ (although it looks even more like Object Pascal).

The word “exception” is meant in the sense of “I take exception to that.” At the point where the problem occurs you might not know what to do with it, but you do know that you can’t just continue on merrily; you must stop and somebody, somewhere, must figure out what to do. But you don’t have enough information in the current context to fix the problem. So you hand the problem out to a higher context where someone is qualified to make the proper decision (much like a chain of command).

The other rather significant benefit of exceptions is that they clean up error handling code. Instead of checking for a particular error and dealing with it at multiple places in your program, you no longer need to check at the point of the method call (since the exception will guarantee that someone catches it). And, you need to handle the problem in only one place, the so-called exception handler . This saves you code and it separates the code that describes what you want to do from the code that is executed when things go awry. In general, reading, writing, and debugging code becomes much clearer with exceptions than when using the old way.

[41] The C programmer can look up the return value of printf( ) for an example of this.


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