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Exceptions -II: What's an exception and why do I care?
Thursday, February 28, 2008 (20:57:24)

Posted by jalex

Advantage 3: grouping error types and error differentiation

Part I was published here.

Often exceptions fall into categories or groups. For example, you could imagine a group of exceptions, each of which represents a specific type of error that can occur when manipulating an array: the index is out of range for the size of the array, the element being inserted into the array is of the wrong type, or the element being searched for is not in the array. Furthermore, you can imagine that some methods would like to handle all exceptions that fall within a category (all array exceptions), and other methods would like to handle specific exceptions (just the invalid index exceptions, please).

Because all exceptions that are thrown within a Java program are first-class objects, grouping or categorisation of exceptions is a natural outcome of the class hierarchy. Java exceptions must be instances of Throwable or any Throwable descendant. As for other Java classes, you can create subclasses of the Throwable class and subclasses of your subclasses. Each "leaf" class (a class with no subclasses) represents a specific type of exception and each "node" class (a class with one or more subclasses) represents a group of related exceptions.

For example, in the following diagram, ArrayException is a subclass of Exception (a subclass of Throwable) and has three subclasses.

InvalidIndexException, ElementTypeException, and NoSuchElementException are all leaf classes. Each one represents a specific type of error that can occur when manipulating an array. One way a method can catch exceptions is to catch only those that are instances of a leaf class. For example, an exception handler that handles only invalid index exceptions has a catch statement like this:


catch (InvalidIndexException e) {
  . . .

ArrayException is a node class and represents any error that can occur when manipulating an array object, including those errors specifically represented by one of its subclasses. A method can catch an exception based on its group or general type by specifying any of the exception's superclasses in the catch statement.

For example, to catch all array exceptions regardless of their specific type, an exception handler would specify an ArrayException argument:


catch (ArrayException e) {
  . . .

This handler would catch all array exceptions including InvalidIndexException, ElementTypeException, and NoSuchElementException. You can find out precisely which type of exception occurred by querying the exception handler parameter e. You could even set up an exception handler that handles any Exception with this handler:


catch (Exception e) {
  . . .

Exception handlers that are too general, such as the one shown here, can make your code more error prone by catching and handling exceptions that you didn't anticipate and therefore are not correctly handled within the handler. We don't recommend writing general exception handlers as a rule.

As you've seen, you can create groups of exceptions and handle exceptions in a general fashion, or you can use the specific exception type to differentiate exceptions and handle exceptions in an exact fashion.

Your first encounter with Java exceptions

The following error message is one of two similar error messages you will see if you try to compile the class InputFile, because the InputFile class contains calls to methods that throw exceptions when an error occurs: Warning: Exception must be caught, or it must be declared in throws clause of this method.

in = new FileReader(filename);

The Java language requires that methods either catch or specify all checked exceptions that can be thrown within the scope of that method. If the compiler detects a method, such as those in InputFile, that doesn't meet this requirement, it issues an error message like the one shown above and refuses to compile the program.

Let's look at InputFile in more detail and see what's going on.

The InputFile class wraps a FileReader and provides a method, getWord, for reading a word from the current position in the reader.


// Note: This class won't compile by design!
public class InputFile {
    private FileReader in;
    public InputFile(String filename) {
        in = new FileReader(filename);

    public String getWord() {
        int c;
        StringBuffer buf = new StringBuffer();
        do {
        c =;
        if (Character.isWhitespace((char)c))
            return buf.toString();
        } while (c != -1);
        return buf.toString();

The compiler prints the first error message because of the bold line in the above code listing. The bold line creates a new FileReader object and uses it to open a file whose name is passed into the FileReader constructor.

So what should the FileReader do if the named file does not exist on the file system? Well, that depends on what the program using the FileReader wants to do. The implementers of FileReader have no idea what the InputFile class wants to do if the file does not exist. Should the FileReader kill the program? Should it try an alternate filename? Should it just create a file of the indicated name?

There's no possible way the FileReader implementers could choose a solution that would suit every user of FileReader. So, they punted, or rather, threw, an exception. If the file named in the argument to the FileReader constructor does not exist on the file system, the constructor throws a By throwing an exception, FileReader allows the calling method to handle the error in whatever way is most appropriate for it.

As you can see from the code, the InputFile class completely ignores the fact that the FileReader constructor can throw an exception. However, as stated previously, the Java language requires that a method either catch or specify all checked exceptions that can be thrown within the scope of that method. Because the InputFile class does neither, the compiler refuses to compile the program and prints an error message.

In addition to the first error message shown above, you also see the following similar error message when you compile the InputFile class: Warning: Exception must be caught, or it must be declared in throws clause of this method.

while ((c = != -1) {

The InputFile class's getWord method reads from the FileReader that was opened in InputFile's constructor. The FileReader read method throws a if for some reason it can't read from the file. Again, the InputFile class makes no attempt to catch or specify this exception. Thus you see the second error message.

At this point, you have two options. You can either arrange to catch the exceptions within the appropriate methods in the InputFile class, or the InputFile methods can "duck" and allow other methods further up the call stack to catch them. Either way, the InputFile methods must do something, either catch or specify the exceptions, before the InputFile class can be compiled. For the diligent, there's a class, InputFileDeclared, that fixes the bugs in InputFile by specifying the exceptions.