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Diagnosing Java code: Java generics without the pain, Part 2
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Limitations on generic types
A double-edged sword
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Some limitations of generics in the JSR-14 prototype compiler

Level: Intermediate

Eric E. Allen ( generics without the pain, Part 2)
Ph.D. candidate, Java programming languages team, Rice University
11 March 2003

Column iconThis month Eric Allen continues the discussion of generic types in JSR-14 and Tiger. He outlines several limitations imposed in those Java extensions and explains how the limitations are necessitated by the implementation strategy used by the compilers of these extended languages. Share your thoughts on this article with the author and other readers in the accompanying discussion forum. (You can also click Discuss at the top or bottom of the article to access the forum.)

J2SE 1.5 -- code-named "Tiger" -- is scheduled for release near the end of 2003 and will include generic types (as previewed in the JSR-14 prototype compiler, available for download right now). In Part 1, we discussed the basics of generic types and why they will be an important and much needed addition to the Java language. We also touched upon how the incarnation of generic types scheduled for Tiger includes several "kinks" that limit the contexts in which generic types can be used.

To help new programmers in their efforts to use generics effectively, I'll elaborate on exactly which usages of generic types are prohibited in Tiger and JSR-14, and I'll explain why the limitations are a necessary consequence of the implementation strategy used by JSR-14 (and consequently, Tiger) to compatibly implement generic types on the JVM.

Limitations on generic types
Let's start by reviewing the limitations on the use of generic types in Tiger and JSR-14:

  • Enclosing type parameters should not be referred to inside static members.
  • Generic type parameters can't be instantiated with primitive types.
  • "Naked" type parameters can't be used in casts or instanceof operations.
  • "Naked" type parameters can't be used in new operations.
  • "Naked" type parameters can't be used in the implements or extends clauses of class definitions.

Don't miss the rest of this series

Part 1, Introduction to generic types and support features (February 2003)

Part 3, Adding support for new operations (April 2003)

Part 4, Adding support for mixins through generic types (May 2003)

Why do these limitations exist? Because of the mechanism used by Tiger and JSR-14 to implement generic types on the JVM. Because the JVM doesn't provide any support for generic types, these compilers perform a "trick" to make it seem like support for generic types exists -- they type check all the code with the generic type information, but then "erase" all generic types and produce class files that include nothing but ordinary types.

For example, a generic type such as List<T> is erased to simply List. "Naked" type parameters -- type parameters that appear alone rather than inside of a type, such as type parameter T in class List<T> -- are simply erased to their upper bounds (in the case of T, that would be Object).

This technique is extremely powerful; we get almost all of the increased precision of generic types, but we maintain compatibility with the JVM. In fact, we can even use non-generic legacy classes such as List with their generic counterparts (List<T>) interchangeably; both look the same at runtime.

Unfortunately, as the above limitations show, there is a price for this power. Erasing in this manner introduces holes in the type system that limit how we can safely use generic types.

To help clarify each limitation, we'll review an example of where it can occur. In this article, we'll discuss the first three limitations. The issues with the last two are so intricate that they need a more in-depth treatment, which we'll save for the next article.

Enclosing type parameters in static members
Referring to enclosing type parameters inside static methods and static inner classes is prohibited outright by the compiler. So, for instance, the following code is illegal in Tiger:

class C<T> {

  static void m() {
    T t;
  static class D {
    C<T> t;

When this code is compiled, it generates two errors:

  • An error for the illegal reference to T inside static method m
  • An error for the illegal reference to T inside static class D

When defining static fields, things get more complicated. In both JSR-14 and Tiger, static fields in a generic class are shared across all instantiations of the class. Now in the JSR-14 compilers 1.0 and 1.2, if you refer to a type parameter in a static field declaration, the compiler doesn't complain but it should. The fact that the field is shared can easily lead to weird errors at runtime, such as a ClassCastException in code that doesn't include a cast.

For example, the following program will compile without warning under these versions of JSR-14:

class C<T> {
  static T member;
  C(T t) { member = t; }
  T getMember() { return member; }
  public static void main(String[] args) {
    C<String> c = new C<String>("test");
    new C<Integer>(new Integer(1));

Notice that every time an instance of class C is allocated, the static field member is reset. What's more, the type of the object it is set to is dependent on the type of the instantiation of C! In the main method provided, the first instance, c, is of type C<String>. But the second is of type C<Integer>. Whenever the shared static field member is accessed from c, it is assumed that the type of member is String. However, after the second instance of type C<Integer> is allocated, member is of type Integer.

The result of running C's main method might surprise you -- it'll issue a ClassCastException! How can that be, since the source code doesn't include any casts? It turns out that the compiler actually inserts casts into the code during compilation to account for the fact that type erasure reduces the precision of the types of certain expressions. These casts are supposed to succeed, but in this case they don't.

This particular "feature" of JSR-14 1.0 and 1.2 should be considered a bug. It breaks the soundness of the type system, in other words, the fundamental contract that a type system should uphold with the programmer. It would be much better to simply prevent the programmer from referring to generic types in static fields, as is done in the case of static methods and classes.

Note that the problem with allowing such potentially explosive code is not that programmers could intentionally override the type system in their own code. The problem is that programmers could accidentally write such code (say by mistakenly including a static modifier in a field declaration, due to copy-and-pasting).

The type checker is supposed to help a programmer recover from exactly these sorts of mistakes, but in the case of static fields, the type system could actually help to confuse the programmer. How are we supposed to diagnose a bug like this one when the only error signaled is a ClassCastException in code that makes no use of casts? The situation is worse for a programmer who isn't aware of the implementation scheme used for generic types in Tiger and just assumes that the type system acts reasonably. In this case, it doesn't.

Luckily, the latest version of JSR-14 (1.3) outlaws the use of type parameters in static fields. Therefore, we can reasonably expect that they will be outlawed in static fields in Tiger as well.

Generic type parameters and primitive types
This restriction doesn't have the same potential pitfalls as what we just discussed, but it can make your code pretty wordy. For example, in the generic version of java.util.Hashtable there are two type parameters: one for the type of Keys and one for the type of Values. So, if we want a Hashtable mapping Strings to Strings, we can specify the new instance with the expression new Hashtable<String, String>(). However, if we want a Hashtable that maps Strings to ints, we have no choice but to create an instance of Hashtable<String, Integer> and wrap all int values in Integers.

Again, this aspect of Tiger follows naturally from the implementation scheme used. Since type parameters are erased to their bounds and the bounds can't be primitive types, there is no way that an instantiation with primitive types would make sense once the types are erased.

"Naked" parameters in casts or instanceof operations
Recall that by "naked" type parameters, we mean type parameters that lexically occur alone, not as a syntactic subcomponent of a larger type. For instance C<T> is not a naked type parameter, but (in the body of C), T is.

If you use casts or instanceof operations on naked type parameters inside your code, the compiler will issue what is called an "unchecked" warning. For example, the following code will generate the warning: Warning: unchecked cast to type T:

import java.util.Hashtable;

interface Registry {
  public void register(Object o);

class C<T> implements Registry {
  int counter = 0;
  Hashtable<Integer, T> values;
  public C() {
    values = new Hashtable<Integer, T>();
  public void register(Object o) {
    values.put(new Integer(counter), (T)o);

You should take such warnings seriously because they indicate that your code could behave very strangely at runtime. In fact, they can make it extraordinarily difficult to diagnose bugs. In the previous code, we'd expect that if register("test") were called on an instance of C<JFrame>, a ClassCastException would be signaled. But it won't be; the computation will continue as if the cast had succeeded, signaling an error further into the computation or worse, completing with corrupt data but no outward signs of trouble. Similarly, instanceof checks on naked type parameters will result in an "unchecked" warning at compile time and the check will not occur as expected at runtime.

A double-edged sword
So, what's going on here? Because Tiger relies on type erasure, the naked type parameters in casts and instanceof tests are "erased" to their upper bounds (in the earlier case, that'll be type Object). So, casts to type parameters will turn into casts to the upper bound of the parameter.

Similarly, instanceof will check that the operand is an instanceof the bound of the parameter. That's not what we intended at all, and if it were, we would have simply cast to the bound explicitly. So, in general, avoid using casts and instanceof checks on type parameters.

Nevertheless, you will sometimes have to rely on casts to type parameters in order to get your code to compile. When that happens, just remember that, in that part of the code, there is no safety from type checking -- you're on your own.

Although generic types can be a powerful weapon for producing robust code, we've shown how their misuse can lead to code that is not only less robust but also extraordinarily hard to diagnose and fix. Next time, we'll cover the last two limitations of generic types in Tiger and discuss some of the issues that necessarily come up in any attempt to include them in a generic Java type system.


  • Participate in the discussion forum on this article. (You can also click Discuss at the top or bottom of the article to access the forum.)

  • Get a jump on generics in Java by downloading the JSR-14 prototype compiler; it includes the sources for a prototype compiler written in the extended language, a jar file containing the class files for running and bootstrapping the compiler, and a jar file containing stubs for the collection classes.

  • Eric Allen has a new book on the subject of bug patterns, Bug Patterns in Java, which presents a methodology for diagnosing and debugging computer programs by focusing on bug patterns, Extreme Programming methods, and ways to craft powerful testable and extensible software.

  • Martin Fowler's Web site contains much useful information about effective refactoring.

  • Examine seven principles to build a base for code design with testing in mind in this article, "Diagnosing Java code: Designing 'testable' applications" (developerWorks, September 2001).

  • Explore the developerWorks repository of Eric Allen's columns -- from bug patterns to testability to design strategies -- in the Diagnosing Java code columns roundup.

  • Follow the discussion of adding generic types to Java by reading the Java Community Process proposal, JSR-14.

  • Keith Turner offers another look at this topic with his article "Catching more errors at compile time with Generic Java" (developerWorks, March 2001).

  • "Automatic Code Generation from Design Patterns" from IBM Research describes the architecture and implementation of a tool that automates the implementation of design patterns.

  • Also, these two Diagnosing Java code articles can bolster your knowledge of generic types and the Java type system: "Killer combo -- Mixins, Jam, and unit testing" (December 2002) and "The case for static types" (June 2002).

  • Find hundreds more Java resources on the developerWorks Java technology zone.

About the author
Eric Allen possesses a broad range of hands-on knowledge of technology and the computer industry. With a B.S. in computer science and mathematics from Cornell University and an M.S. in computer science from Rice University, Eric is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Java programming languages team at Rice. Eric's research concerns the development of semantic models and static analysis tools for the Java language at the source and bytecode levels. He is also concerned with the verification of security protocols through semantic formalisms and type checking.
Eric is a project manager for and a founding member of the DrJava project, an open-source Java IDE designed for beginners; he is also the lead developer of the university's experimental compiler for the NextGen programming language, an extension of the Java language with added experimental features. Eric has moderated several Java forums for the online magazine JavaWorld. In addition to these activities, Eric teaches software engineering to Rice University's computer science undergraduates. You can contact Eric at

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