java - Why explicitly throw a NullPointerException rather than letting it happen naturally?

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Top 5 Answer for java - Why explicitly throw a NullPointerException rather than letting it happen naturally?

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91

There are a number of reasons that come to mind, several being closely related:

Fail-fast: If it's going to fail, best to fail sooner rather than later. This allows problems to be caught closer to their source, making them easier to identify and recover from. It also avoids wasting CPU cycles on code that's bound to fail.

Intent: Throwing the exception explicitly makes it clear to maintainers that the error is there purposely and the author was aware of the consequences.

Consistency: If the error were allowed to happen naturally, it might not occur in every scenario. If no mapping is found, for example, remappingFunction would never be used and the exception wouldn't be thrown. Validating input in advance allows for more deterministic behavior and clearer documentation.

Stability: Code evolves over time. Code that encounters an exception naturally might, after a bit of refactoring, cease to do so, or do so under different circumstances. Throwing it explicitly makes it less likely for behavior to change inadvertently.

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82

It is for clarity, consistency, and to prevent extra, unnecessary work from being performed.

Consider what would happen if there wasn't a guard clause at the top of the method. It would always call hash(key) and getNode(hash, key) even when null had been passed in for the remappingFunction before the NPE was thrown.

Even worse, if the if condition is false then we take the else branch, which doesn't use the remappingFunction at all, which means the method doesn't always throw NPE when a null is passed; whether it does depends on the state of the map.

Both scenarios are bad. If null is not a valid value for remappingFunction the method should consistently throw an exception regardless of the internal state of the object at the time of the call, and it should do so without doing unnecessary work that is pointless given that it is just going to throw. Finally, it is a good principle of clean, clear code to have the guard right up front so that anyone reviewing the source code can readily see that it will do so.

Even if the exception were currently thrown by every branch of code, it is possible that a future revision of the code would change that. Performing the check at the beginning ensures it will definitely be performed.

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79

In addition to the reasons listed by @shmosel's excellent answer ...

Performance: There may be / have been performance benefits (on some JVMs) to throwing the NPE explicitly rather than letting the JVM do it.

It depends on the strategy that the Java interpreter and JIT compiler take to detecting the dereferencing of null pointers. One strategy is to not test for null, but instead trap the SIGSEGV that happens when an instruction tries to access address 0. This is the fastest approach in the case where the reference is always valid, but it is expensive in the NPE case.

An explicit test for null in the code would avoid the SIGSEGV performance hit in a scenario where NPEs were frequent.

(I doubt that this would be a worthwhile micro-optimization in a modern JVM, but it could have been in the past.)


Compatibility: The likely reason that there is no message in the exception is for compatibility with NPEs that are thrown by the JVM itself. In a compliant Java implementation, an NPE thrown by the JVM has a null message. (Android Java is different.)

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65

Apart from what other people have pointed out, it's worth noting the role of convention here. In C#, for example, you also have the same convention of explicitly raising an exception in cases like this, but it's specifically an ArgumentNullException, which is somewhat more specific. (The C# convention is that NullReferenceException always represents a bug of some kind - quite simply, it shouldn't ever happen in production code; granted, ArgumentNullException usually does, too, but it could be a bug more along the line of "you don't understand how to use the library correctly" kind of bug).

So, basically, in C# NullReferenceException means that your program actually tried to use it, whereas ArgumentNullException it means that it recognized that the value was wrong and it didn't even bother to try to use it. The implications can actually be different (depending on the circumstances) because ArgumentNullException means that the method in question didn't have side effects yet (since it failed the method preconditions).

Incidentally, if you're raising something like ArgumentNullException or IllegalArgumentException, that's part of the point of doing the check: you want a different exception than you'd "normally" get.

Either way, explicitly raising the exception reinforces the good practice of being explicit about your method's pre-conditions and expected arguments, which makes the code easier to read, use, and maintain. If you didn't explicitly check for null, I don't know if it's because you thought that no one would ever pass a null argument, you're counting it to throw the exception anyway, or you just forgot to check for that.

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54

It is so you will get the exception as soon as you perpetrate the error, rather than later on when you're using the map and won't understand why it happened.

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