Uniform handling of failure in switch

Based on some inspiration from OCaml, and given that the significant upgrades to switch so far position it to do a lot more than it could before, we’ve been exploring a further refinement of switch to incorporate failure handling as well.


Enhance the switch construct to support case labels that match exceptions thrown during evaluation of the selector expression, providing uniform handling of normal and exceptional results.


The purpose of the switch construct is to choose a single course of action based on evaluating a single expression (the “selector”). The switch construct is not strictly needed in the language; everything thatswitch does can be done by if-else. But the language includes switch because it embodies useful constraints which both streamline the code and enable more comprehensive error checking.

The original version of switch was very limited: the selector expression was limited to a small number of primitive types, the case labels were limited to numeric literals, and the body of a switch was limited to operating by side-effects (statements only, no expressions.) Because of these limitations, the use of switch was usually limited to low-level code such as parsers and state machines. In Java 5 and 7, switch received minor upgrades to support primitive wrapper types, enums, and strings as selectors, but its role as “pick from one of these constants” did not change significantly.

Recently, switch has gotten more significant upgrades, to the point where it can take on a much bigger role in day-to-day program logic. Switch can now be used as an expression in addition to a statement, enabling greater composition and more streamlined code. The selector expression can now be any type. The case labels in a switch block can be rich patterns, not just constants, and have arbitrary predicates as guards. We get much richer type checking for exhaustiveness when switching over selectors involving sealed types. Taken together, this means much more program logic can be expressed concisely and reliably using switch than previously.

Bringing nulls into switch

Historically, the switch construct was null-hostile; if the selector evaluated to null, the switch immediately completed abruptly with NullPointerException. This made a certain amount of sense when the only reference types that could be used in switch were primitive wrappers and enums, for which nulls were almost always indicative of an error, but as switchbecame more powerful, this was increasingly a mismatch for what we wanted to do with switch. Developers were forced to work around this, but the workarounds had undesirable consequences (such as forcing the use of statement switches instead of expression switches.) Previously, to handle null, one would have to separately evaluate the selector and compare it to null using if:

SomeType selector = computeSelector();
SomeOtherType result;
if (selector == null) {
     result = handleNull();
} else {
     switch (selector) {
         case X:
             result = handleX();
         case Y:
             result = handleY();

Not only is this more cumbersome and less concise, but it goes against the main job of switch, which is streamline “pick one path based on a selector expression” decisions. Outcomes are not handled uniformly, they are not handled in one place, and the inability to express all of this as an expression limits composition with other language features.

In Java 21, it became possible to treat null as just another possible value of the selector in a case clause (and even combine null handling with default), so that the above mess could reduce to

SomeOtherType result = switch (computeSelector()) {
     case null -> handleNull();
     case X -> handleX();
     case Y -> handleY();

This is simpler to read, less error-prone, and interacts better with the rest of the language. Treating nulls uniformly as just another value, as opposed to treating it as an out-of-band condition, made switch more useful and made Java code simpler and better. (For compatibility, a switch that has nocase null still throws NullPointerException when confronted with a null selector; we opt into the new behavior with case null.)

Other switch tricks

The accumulation of new abilities for switch means that it can be used in more situations than we might initially realize. One such use is replacing the ternary conditional expression with boolean switch expressions; now that switch can support boolean selectors, we can replace

expr ? A : B
``` with the switch expression
switch (expr) {
     case true -> A;
     case false -> B;

This might not immediately seem preferable, since the ternary expression is more concise, but the switch is surely more clear.
And, if we nest ternaries in the arms of other ternaries (possibly deeply), this can quickly become unreadable, whereas the corresponding nested switch remains readable even if nested to several levels. We don’t expect people to go out and change all their ternaries to switches overnight, but we do expect that people will increasingly find uses where a boolean switch is preferable to a ternary. (If the language had boolean switch expressions from day 1, we might well not have had ternary expressions at all.)

Another less-obvious example is using guards to do the selection, within the bounds of the “pick one path” that switch is designed for. For example, we can write the classic “FizzBuzz” exercise as:

String result = switch (getNumber()) {
     case int i when i % 15 == 0 -> "FizzBuzz";
     case int i when i % 5 == 0 -> "Fizz";
     case int i when i % 3 == 0 -> "Buzz";
     case int i -> Integer.toString(i);

A more controversial use of the new-and-improved switch is as a replacement for block expressions. Sometimes we want to use an expression (such as when passing a parameter to a method), but the value can only be constructed using statements:

String[] choices = new String[2];
choices[0] = f(0);
choices[1] = f(1);

While it is somewhat “off label”, we can replace this with a switch expression:

m(switch (0) {
     default -> {
         String[] choices = new String[2];
         choices[0] = f(0);
         choices[1] = f(1);
         yield choices;

While these were not the primary use cases we had in mind when upgradingswitch, it illustrates how the combination of improvements to switch have made it a sort of “swiss army knife”.

Handling failure uniformly

Previously, null selector values were treated as out-of-band events, requiring that users handle null selectors in a non-uniform way. The improvements to switch in Java 21 enable null to be handled uniformly as a selector value, as just another value.

A similar source of out-of-band events in switch is exceptions; if evaluating the selector throws an exception, the switch immediately completes with that exception. This is an entirely justifiable design choice, but it forces users to handle exceptions using a separate mechanism, often a cumbersome one, just as we did with null selectors:

Number parseNumber(String s) throws NumberFormatException() { ... }

try {
     switch (parseNumber(input)) {
         case Integer i -> handleInt(i);
         case Float f -> handleFloat(f);
catch (NumberFormatException e) {
     ... handle exception ...

This is already unfortunate, as switch is designed to handle “choose one path based on evaluating the selector”, and “parse error” is one of the possible consequences of evaluating the selector. It would be nice to be able to handle error cases uniformly with success cases, as we did with null. Worse, this code doesn’t even mean what we want: the catch block catches not only exceptions thrown by evaluating the selector, but also by the body of the switch.
To say what we mean, we need the even more unfortunate

var answer = null;
try {
     answer = parseNumber(input);
catch (NumberFormatException e) {
     ... handle exception ...

if (answer != null) {
     switch (answer) {
         case Integer i -> handleInt(i);
         case Float f -> handleFloat(f);

Just as it was an improvement to handle null uniformly as just another potential value of the selector expression, we can get a similar improvement by handling normal and exceptional completion uniformly as well. Normal and exceptional completion are mutually exclusive, and the handling of exceptions in try-catch already has a great deal in common with handling normal values in switch statements (a catch clause is effectively matching to a type pattern). For activities with anticipated failure modes, handling successful completion via one mechanism and failed completion through another makes code harder to read and maintain.


We can extend switch to handle exceptions more uniformly in a similar was as we extended it to handle nulls by introducing throws cases, which match when evaluating the selector expression completes abruptly with a compatible exception:

String allTheLines = switch (Files.readAllLines(path)) {
     case List<String> lines -> 
     case throws IOException e -> "";

This captures the programmer’s intent much more clearly, because the expected success case and the expected failure case are handled uniformly and in the same place, and their results can flow into the result of the switch expression.

The grammar of case labels is extended to include a new form, case throws, which is followed by a type pattern:

 `case throws IOException e:`

Exception cases can be used in all forms of switch: expression and statement switches, switches that use traditional (colon) or single-consequence (arrow) case labels. Exception cases can have guards like any other pattern case.

Exception cases have the obvious dominance order with other exception cases (the same one used to validate order of catch clauses in try-catch), and do not participate in dominance ordering with non-exceptional cases. It is a compile-time error if an exception case specifies an exception type that cannot be thrown by the selector expression, or a type that does not extend Throwable. For clarity, exception cases should probably come after all other non-exceptional cases.

When evaluating a switch statement or expression, the selector expression is evaluated. If evaluation of the selector expression throws an exception, and one of the exception cases in the switch matches the exception, then control is transferred to the first exception case matching the exception. If no exception case matches the exception, then the switch completes abruptly with that same exception.

This slightly adjusts the set of exceptions thrown by a switch; if an exception is thrown by the selector expression but not the body of the switch, and it is matched by an unguarded exception case, then the switch is not considered to throw that exception.


In some cases, we will want to totalize a partial computation by supplying a fallback value when there is an exception:

Function<String, Optional<Integer>> safeParse =
     s -> switch(Integer.parseInt(s)) {
             case int i -> Optional.of(i);
             case throws NumberFormatException _ -> Optional.empty();

In other cases, we may want to ignore exceptional values entirely:

stream.mapMulti((f, c) -> switch (readFileToString(url)) {
                     case String s -> c.accept(s);
                     case throws MalformedURLException _ -> { };

In others, we may want to process the result of a method like Future::get more uniformly:

Future<String> f = ...
switch (f.get()) {
     case String s -> process(s);
     case throws ExecutionException(var underlying) -> throw underlying;
     case throws TimeoutException e -> cancel();


We expect the reaction to this to be initially uncomfortable, because historically the try statement was the only way to control the handling of exceptions. There is clearly still a role for try in its full generality, but just as switch profitably handles a constrained subset of the situations that could be handled with the more general if-else construct, there is similarly profit in allowing it to handle a constrained subset of the cases handled by the more general try-catch construct. Specifically, the situation thatswitch is made for: evaluate an expression, and then choose one path based on the outcome of evaluating that expression, applies equally well to discriminating unsuccessful evaluations. Clients will often want to handle exceptional as well as successful completion, and doing so uniformly within a single construct is likely to be clearer and less error-prone than spreading it over two constructs.

Java APIs are full of methods that can either produce a result or throw an exception, such as Future::get. Writing APIs in this way is natural for the API author, because they get to handle computation in a natural way; if they get to the point where they do not want to proceed, they can throw an exception, just as when they get to the point where the computation is done, they can return a value. Unfortunately, this convenience and uniformity for API authors puts an extra burden on API consumers; handling failures is more cumbersome than handling the successful case. Allowing clients to switch over all the ways a computation could complete heals this rift.

None of this is to say that try-catch is obsolete, any more than switch makes if-else obsolete.
When we have a large block of code that may fail at multiple points, handling all the exceptions from the block together is often more convenient than handling each exception at its generation point.

But when we scale try-catch down to a single expression, it can get awkward. The effect is felt most severely with expression lambdas, which undergo a significant syntactic expansion if they want to handle their own exceptions.

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