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Java Methods

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In this sample chapter, author Josh Bloch discusses several aspects of method design: how to treat parameters and return values, how to design method signatures, and how to document methods. This chapter focuses on usability, robustness, and flexibility; much of the material applies to constructors as well as to methods.
This sample chapter is excerpted from Effective Java™ Programming Language Guide: The Java™Series, by Josh Bloch.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter discusses several aspects of method design: how to treat parameters and return values, how to design method signatures, and how to document methods. Much of the material in this chapter applies to constructors as well as to methods. Like Chapter 5, this chapter focuses on usability, robustness, and flexibility.

Item 23: Check parameters for validity

Most methods and constructors have some restrictions on what values may be passed into their parameters. For example, it is not uncommon that index values must be nonnegative and object references must be non-null. You should clearly document all such restrictions and enforce them with checks at the beginning of the method body. This is a special case of the general principle, and you should attempt to detect errors as soon as possible after they occur. Failing to do so makes it less likely that an error will be detected and makes it harder to determine the source of an error once it has been detected.

If an invalid parameter value is passed to a method and the method checks its parameters before execution, it will fail quickly and cleanly with an appropriate exception. If the method fails to check its parameters, several things could happen. The method could fail with a confusing exception in the midst of processing. Worse, the method could return normally but silently compute the wrong result. Worst of all, the method could return normally but leave some object in a compromised state, causing an error at some unrelated point in the code at some undetermined time in the future.

For public methods, use the Javadoc @throws tag to document the exception that will be thrown if a restriction on parameter values is violated (Item 44). Typically the exception will be IllegalArgumentException, IndexOutOfBoundsException, or NullPointerException (Item 42). Once you've documented the restrictions on a method's parameters and you've documented the exceptions that will be thrown if these restrictions are violated, it is a simple matter to enforce the restrictions. Here's a typical example:

/**
 * Returns a BigInteger whose value is (this mod m).  This method
 * differs from the remainder method in that it always returns a
 * nonnegative BigInteger.
 *
 * @param  m the modulus, which must be positive.
 * @return this mod m.
 * @throws ArithmeticException if m <= 0.
 */
public BigInteger mod(BigInteger m) {
    if (m.signum() <= 0)
           throw new ArithmeticException("Modulus not positive");

    ... // Do the computation
}

For an unexported method, you as the package author control the circumstances under which the method is called, so you can and should ensure that only valid parameter values are ever passed in. Therefore nonpublic methods should generally check their parameters using assertions rather than normal checks. If you are using a release of the platform that supports assertions (1.4 or later), you should use the assert construct; otherwise you should use a makeshift assertion mechanism.

It is particularly important to check the validity of parameters that are not used by a method but are stored away for later use. For example, consider the static factory method on page 86, which takes an int array and returns a List view of the array. If a client of this method were to pass in null, the method would throw a NullPointerException because the method contains an explicit check. If the check had been omitted, the method would return a reference to a newly created List instance that would throw a NullPointerException as soon as a client attempted to use it. By that time, unfortunately, the origin of the List instance might be very difficult to determine, which could greatly complicate the task of debugging.

Constructors represent a special case of the principle that you should check the validity of parameters that are to be stored away for later use. It is very important to check the validity of parameters to constructors to prevent the construction of an object that violates class invariants.

There are exceptions to the rule that you should check a method's parameters before performing its computation. An important exception is the case in which the validity check would be expensive or impractical and the validity check is performed implicitly in the process of doing the computation. For example, consider a method that sorts a list of objects, such as Collections.sort(List). All of the objects in the list must be mutually comparable. In the process of sorting the list, every object in the list will be compared to some other object in the list. If the objects aren't mutually comparable, one of these comparisons will throw a ClassCastException, which is exactly what the sort method should do. Therefore there would be little point in checking ahead of time that the elements in the list were mutually comparable. Note, however, that indiscriminate application of this technique can result in a loss of failure atomicity (Item 46).

Occasionally, a computation implicitly performs the required validity check on some parameter but throws the wrong exception if the check fails. That is to say, the exception that the computation would naturally throw as the result of an invalid parameter value does not match the exception that you have documented the method to throw. Under these circumstances, you should use the exception translation idiom described in Item 43 to translate the natural exception into the correct one.

Do not infer from this item that arbitrary restrictions on parameters are a good thing. On the contrary, you should design methods to be as general as it is practical to make them. The fewer restrictions that you place on parameters, the better, assuming the method can do something reasonable with all of the parameter values that it accepts. Often, however, some restrictions are intrinsic to the abstraction being implemented.

To summarize, each time you write a method or constructor, you should think about what restrictions exist on its parameters. You should document these restrictions and enforce them with explicit checks at the beginning of the method body. It is important to get into the habit of doing this; the modest work that it entails will be paid back with interest the first time a validity check fails.

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