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I am wondering whether it is a bad style to use "exception". For example, in Ocaml, the exception does not appear as the .mli file. So it appears to me that "exception" is something that cannot be tracked by a type system.

So my question in general is, is using exception a bad style because it hides information against the type system?

Concretely, I am trying to implement a type checker for an imperative language, say, Pascal. The essential judgment should have been of this signature,

well-typed_1: environment -> statement -> unit

But this seems to be insufficient because the environment would be modified due to a local variable declaration, thus a more reasonable interface for typechecker would be

well-typed_2: environment -> statement -> environment

An alternative would be use the former one, well-typed_1, dealing with local variables declaration through an exception Var_declaration (e : environment) which returns the updated environment to the type checker for its other recursion.

So, my question for this concrete example is , should I use the well-typed_1 + exception for variable declaration, or well-typed_2?

The disadvantage of well-typed_2 seems to be that, for most statement there are no side effect with regard to environment of types, thus that signature of well-typed_2 seems to be a bit redundant. The disadvantage of well_typed_2 + exception seems to reveal a general issue: the the signature of well-typed_1 in does not tell the whole story. (it does not tell the potential exception)

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2 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

There have been numerous type systems dealing with exceptions and other kinds of computational effect, so the reason it doesn't appear in O'Caml is not that it cannot be done. I think there are two reasons why exceptions do not appear in types:

  1. The types that programmers have to write become larger.

  2. Exception typing interacts poorly with subtyping and higher-order features, such function types. Ultimately, this is because exception declarations will be an over-approximation of the exceptions that will be thrown, so reusable code needs to have very general exception declarations. For example, the exception declarations for a higher-order function need to be general enough to describe all possible functions passed to the higher-order function. Similarly, the exception declarations on a superclass need to anticipate all possible exceptions that can occur in the subclasses. (Subtyping among exception types alleviates this problem somewhat.)

Java is a good example programming language that has exception typing and these two problems.

Here is some of the research done in the area:

Looking at these papers and chasing the references within will give you more details of what has been done in the field.

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Can you comment about "exception types are contravariant" please? If $E_1$ is a subclass of $E_2$ and $M$ is a computation that may throw an $E_1$ exception, then $M$ is also a computation that may throw an $E_2$ exception. Of course, if you want to raise an $E_2$ exception inside $M$ you may not do so without changing the exception annotation on $M$, but why is that contravariant? –  Ohad Kammar Jul 24 '11 at 11:53
Also, there's a more general story here: type systems inherently under-approximate program behaviour. Research into type-systems, especially dependent types, pushes the boundary of what can be determined statically and what cannot. However, a language designer may choose not to support state-of-the-art type system features for several reasons which roughly fall under your two categories: It may make the implementation difficult (=mistake prone). It may interact poorly with other language features. It will make the programming experience in the language different. –  Ohad Kammar Jul 24 '11 at 12:05
@Ohad Why don't you write your own answer and earn some upvotes? ;-) –  Marc Hamann Jul 24 '11 at 20:37
@marc: I hardly think I deserve them, as Dave's answer is pretty good (modulo the two comments). –  Ohad Kammar Jul 24 '11 at 20:39
I replaced the phrase "exception types are contravariant" with two examples illustrating what I meant. –  Dave Clarke Jul 24 '11 at 20:48
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The question you ask has been widely and acrimoniously discussed under the heading "checked exceptions or unchecked exceptions?". Here "checked exceptions" means the Java model where all possible exceptions a method can throw have to be declared explicitly. I think it's mostly agreed that while checked exceptions might seem a good idea when looked at from the point of view of a conventional type-theorist, they are terrible for large scale software engineering, because simple changes to code in one place may trigger changes in the exception interface of vast amounts of seemingly unrelated code. As Neel points out, with modern typing systems (typically extensions of Fω), more expressive than Java's, some of these problems can be alleviated, although not always without introducing new problems (such as making type-inference harder). This is the main reason why modern, and otherwise strongly typed languages such as Scala and Ocaml don't have checked exceptions.

In my opinion, the last word on this issue has not been spoken, because with increasing use of logic-based specification and verification techniques, it's increasingly useful to let the type-checker infer as many (basic) program properties as possible. OTOH, most exception usage is simple (when something goes wrong, throw an exception, and catch it in the outermost loop, printing "sorry, please restart" or some variant thereof), using unchecked exceptions is not that big a software engineering problem in practise.

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Java has both checked and unchecked exceptions. But, yes, most people use the checked ones and regard the latter as "bad style." –  Radu GRIGore Jul 27 '11 at 13:37
Radu, I agree. Java's exception model is a mess. Unchecked exceptions in Java "represent conditions that, generally speaking, reflect errors in your program's logic and cannot be reasonably recovered from at run time." Examples are OutOfMemoryError exceptions. It is debatable whether such exceptions can really be avoided. Java's exceptions were developed before their large-scale software engineering properties were understood. Now we know better. –  Martin Berger Jul 28 '11 at 11:25
I meant that one can declare new exceptions to be unchecked and throw them without advertising the possibility in the type. There's nothing in the language preventing one from doing so. What you quote is a guideline, not a constraint. Just to be clear, I am merely pointing out it is possible, without passing any judgement on whether it is good or bad. The reason I commented is that your answers says "[in] Java [...] all possible exceptions a method can throw have to be declared explicitly," which is false. I am nitpicking. –  Radu GRIGore Jul 28 '11 at 11:53
Radu, yes, you are right, exceptions that are subtypes of unchecked exceptions classes don't need to show up in the exception specification. I have not programmed in Java for a long time, I had forgotten this detail. Thanks for correcting me. –  Martin Berger Jul 28 '11 at 12:15
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