My personal guideline is: an exception is thrown when a fundamental assumption of the current code block is found to be false.

Example 1: say I have a function which is supposed to examine an arbitrary class and return true if that class inherits from List<>. This function asks the question, “Is this object a descendant of List?” This function should never throw an exception, because there are no gray areas in its operation – every single class either does or does not inherit from List<>, so the answer is always “yes” or “no”.

Example 2: say I have another function which examines a List<> and returns true if its length is more than 50, and false if the length is less. This function asks the question, “Does this list have more than 50 items?” But this question makes an assumption – it assumes that the object it is given is a list. If I hand it a NULL, then that assumption is false. In that case, if the function returns either true or false, then it is breaking its own rules. The function cannot return anything and claim that it answered the question correctly. So it doesn’t return – it throws an exception.

This is comparable to the “loaded question” logical fallacy. Every function asks a question. If the input it is given makes that question a fallacy, then throw an exception. This line is harder to draw with functions that return void, but the bottom line is: if the function’s assumptions about its inputs are violated, it should throw an exception instead of returning normally.

The other side of this equation is: if you find your functions throwing exceptions frequently, then you probably need to refine their assumptions.