When to define an exception class and when not to

Written . Tagged Exceptions, Ruby.

In Ruby, when should you define your own exception class and when shouldn’t you bother?

Defining your own exception class looks something like

class UnparsableValueError < StandardError; end

def parse(value)
  raise UnparsableValueError unless value.start_with?("number:")

  actually_parse(value)
end

Raising a generic RuntimeError from a string looks like

def parse(value)
  raise "Couldn't parse: #{value.inspect}" unless value.start_with?("number:")

  actually_parse(value)
end

This is how I decide:

  • If other parts of my code want to rescue this exception (e.g. to show a “parse error” message), I define a class. Because rescuing all exceptions is dangerous, and rescuing by class beats rescuing by message (easier, less fragile).
  • If I’m writing a library for other parties, I usually define a class, if there’s any chance that they may want to rescue that specific error type.
  • Otherwise – with exceptions in my own code that I don’t expect to rescue – I just raise a string. E.g. if parsing should never fail but I want an exception logged if it does anyway. Raising a string is less code and it’s easier to phrase clearly (perhaps with documentation URLs) as a string than as a class name. Coming up with a good class name is harder.

You could raise a custom class with a message string, of course, to get the clear phrasing, but that still means adding a class you don’t need.

In Practical Object Oriented Design in Ruby, Sandi Metz says:

When the future cost of doing nothing is the same as the current cost, postpone the decision. Make the decision only when you must with the information you have at that time.

That’s why I don’t introduce exception classes until I need them.