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What are the forward reference rules?

Using an instance variable before its declaration is called a forward reference. If an instance variable tries to forward reference another instance variable during initialization, the result in a compile-time error.

Java Language Specification designs the following restrictions to catch, at compile time, circular or otherwise malformed initializations.

8.3.2.3 Restrictions on the use of Fields during Initialization in Java Language Specification

The declaration of a member needs to appear textually before it is used only if the member is an instance (respectively static) field of a class or interface C and all of the following conditions hold:

  • The usage occurs in an instance (respectively static) variable initializer of C or in an instance (respectively static) initializer of C.
  • The usage is not on the left hand side of an assignment.
  • The usage is via a simple name.
  • C is the innermost class or interface enclosing the usage.

If the declaration of a member does not precede a use of that member, and the above conditions are met, a compile-time error occurs(Warn about problematic forward references).

The last sentence is not the original one in the current specification. It comes from the above bug report. And most of people had been confused by the original one. Please check the above bug report link.

Let's take a look at the examples listed in 8.3.2.3 Restrictions on the use of Fields during Initialization in Java Language Specification:

class Program {
int i = j; // compile-time error: incorrect forward reference
int j = 1;
}

let's try to map these restrictions described in the above.

  • Rule 1: The usage occurs in an instance (respectively static) variable initializer of C or in an instance (respectively static) initializer of C.
    Yes, "int i = j;" is instance variable initializer.
  • Rule 2: The usage is not on the left hand side of an assignment.
    Right. The j is on the right hand side of an assignment.
  • Rule 3: The usage is via a simple name.
    Yes. "int i = j;" and j is a simple name.
  • Rule 4: C is the innermost class or interface enclosing the usage.
    Yes. The innermost class Program is enclosing this reference j.

All restrictions are passed and the declaration of instance variable j should to precede a use of it by the instance variable i. But we did not. Therefore, a compile time error occurs.

The following example compiles without error:

class Program {
Program() { k = 2; }
int j = 1;
int i = j;
int k;
}

because the usage of k variable is in the constructor and does not match the first restriction.

These restrictions are designed to catch, at compile time, circular or otherwise malformed initializations. Thus, both:

class Z {
static int i = j + 2;
static int j = 4;
}

and:

class Z {
static { i = j + 2; }
static int i, j;
static { j = 4; }
}

result in compile-time errors.

The static initializer expressions are executed in textual order. In the above case, the static initializer block: static{i=j+2;} tries to read the value of j before it has been declared. Hence the compile-time error.

Getting Around the Forward Reference Rule

Accesses by methods are not checked by the forward reference rule, that is a way you could inadvertently (or purposefully) circumvent the compiler's preventative restrictions. However, the value of the forwarded variable will be zero, false, or null, depending on the type of the variable.

class Z {
static int peek() { return j; }
static int i = peek();
static int j = 1;
}
class Program {
public static void main(String[] args) {
System.out.println(Z.i);
}
}

produces the output:

0

because the variable initializer for i uses the class method peek to access the value of the variable j before j has been initialized by its variable initializer, at which point it still has its default value that is 0. As a result, peek returns zero, and i is initialized to zero.


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