How to write a PMD rule

Writing PMD rules is cool because you don't have to wait for us to get around to implementing feature requests.

Get a development environment set up first

Here's some initial information on compiling PMD

Java or XPath?

There are two way to write rules:

  • Write a rule using Java
  • Write an XPath expression

We'll cover the Java way first and the XPath way second. Most of this documentation is applicable to both methods, too, so read on.

Figure out what you want to look for

Lets's figure out what problem we want to spot. We can use "While loops must use braces" as an example. In the source code below, it's easy to get lost visually - it's kind of hard to tell what the curly braces belong to.

class Example {
 void bar() {
  while (baz)

So we know what an example in source code looks like, which is half the battle.

Write a test-data example and look at the AST

PMD doesn't use the source code directly; it uses a JavaCC generated parser to parse the source code and produce an AST (Abstract Syntax Tree). The AST for the code above looks like this:

  ClassDeclaration:(package private)
      MethodDeclaration:(package private)

You can generate this yourself by:

  • Run the batch file bin/designer.bat
  • Paste the code into the left text area and click the "Go" button
  • Note that there's another panel and a textfield to test out XPath expressions; more on that later.
  • Here's a screenshot:

So you can see in the example above that the AST for a WhileStatement looks kind of like this (excluding that expression gibberish for clarity):


If you were to add curly braces around the call to buz.doSomething()and click "Go" again, you'd see that the AST would change a bit. It'd look like this:


Ah ha! We see that the curly braces add a couple more AST nodes - a Block and a BlockStatement. So all we have to do is write a rule to detect a WhileStatement that has a Statement that's not followed by a Block, and we've got a rule violation.

By the way, all this structural information - i.e., the fact that a Statement may be followed a Block - is concisely defined in the EBNF grammar. So, for example, the Statement definition looks like this:

void Statement() :
  LOOKAHEAD( { isNextTokenAnAssert() } ) AssertStatement()
| LOOKAHEAD(2) LabeledStatement()
| Block()
| EmptyStatement()
| StatementExpression() ";"
| SwitchStatement()
| IfStatement()
| WhileStatement()
| DoStatement()
| ForStatement()
| BreakStatement()
| ContinueStatement()
| ReturnStatement()
| ThrowStatement()
| SynchronizedStatement()
| TryStatement()
showing that a Statement may be followed by all sorts of stuff.

Write a rule class

Create a new Java class that extends net.sourceforge.pmd.AbstractRule:

import net.sourceforge.pmd.*;
public class WhileLoopsMustUseBracesRule extends AbstractRule {

That was easy. PMD works by creating the AST and then traverses it recursively so a rule can get a callback for any type it's interested in. So let's make sure our rule gets called whenever the AST traversal finds a WhileStatement:

import net.sourceforge.pmd.*;
import net.sourceforge.pmd.ast.*;
public class WhileLoopsMustUseBracesRule extends AbstractRule {
    public Object visit(ASTWhileStatement node, Object data) {
        System.out.println("hello world");
        return data;

We stuck a println() in there for now so we can see when our rule gets hit.

Put the WhileLoopsMustUseBracesRule rule in a ruleset file

Now our rule is written - at least, the shell of it is - and now we need to tell PMD about it. We need to add it to a ruleset XML file. Look at rulesets/basic.xml; it's got lots of rule definitions in it. Copy and paste one of these rules into a new ruleset - call it mycustomrules.xml or something. Then fill in the elements and attributes:

  • name - WhileLoopsMustUseBracesRule
  • message - Use braces for while loops
  • class - Wherever you put the rule. Note this doesn't have to be in net.sourceforge.pmd; it can be in com.yourcompany.util.pmd or whereever you want
  • description - Use braces for while loops
  • example - A little code snippet in CDATA tags that shows a rule violation

The whole ruleset file should look something like this:

        <?xml version="1.0"?>
        <ruleset name="My custom rules"
            <rule name="WhileLoopsMustUseBracesRule"
                  message="Avoid using 'while' statements without curly braces"
              Avoid using 'while' statements without using curly braces

            public void doSomething() {
              while (true)


Run PMD using your new ruleset

OK, let's run the new rule so we can see something work. Like this:

            pmd.bat c:\path\to\my\src xml c:\path\to\mycustomrules.xml

This time your "hello world" will show up right after the AST gets printed out. If it doesn't, post a message to the forum so we can improve this document :-)

Write code to add rule violations where appropriate

Now that we've identified our problem, recognized the AST pattern that illustrates the problem, written a new rule, and plugged it into a ruleset, we need to actually make our rule find the problem, create a RuleViolation, and put it in the Report, which is attached to the RuleContext. Like this:

public class WhileLoopsMustUseBracesRule extends AbstractRule {
    public Object visit(ASTWhileStatement node, Object data) {
        SimpleNode firstStmt = (SimpleNode)node.jjtGetChild(1);
        if (!hasBlockAsFirstChild(firstStmt)) {
            addViolation(data, node);
        return super.visit(node,data);
    private boolean hasBlockAsFirstChild(SimpleNode node) {
        return (node.jjtGetNumChildren() != 0 && (node.jjtGetChild(0) instanceof ASTBlock));

TODO - if you don't understand the code for the rule, post a message to the forum so we can improve this document :-)

Writing a rule as an XPath expression

Daniel Sheppard integrated an XPath engine into PMD, so now you can write rules as XPath expressions. For example, the XPath expression for our WhileLoopsMustUseBracesRule looks like this:


Concise, eh? Here's an article with a lot more detail.

Note that for XPath rules you'll need to set the class attribute in the rule definition to net.sourceforge.pmd.rules.XPathRule. Like this:

                <rule name="EmptyCatchBlock"
                      message="Avoid empty catch blocks"
                  etc., etc.

Note that access modifiers are held as attributes, so, for example,

finds all private fields. You can see the code that determines all the attributes here

Thanks to Miguel Griffa for writing a longer XPath tutorial.

I want to implement a rule that analyse more than the class !

An obvious limitation of the previous mechanism is the "class-centric" focus of the rule. How can you implement a rule that checks stuff accross the all source code ? Let's take a dummy example. Let's say you want to implement a rule that count how many Expression Node you have in your source code (told you, it was a dummy example :) ).

You realize quite simply. You just have to add static field to the RulesContext, as an attribute, and uses Rule.start() and Rule.end() hook to initialized and finalize your rule's implementation :

			package net.sourceforge.pmd.rules;

			import java.util.concurrent.atomic.AtomicLong;

			import net.sourceforge.pmd.AbstractJavaRule;
			import net.sourceforge.pmd.RuleContext;
			import net.sourceforge.pmd.ast.ASTExpression;

			public class CountRule extends AbstractJavaRule {

			       private static final String COUNT = "count";

			       public void start(RuleContext ctx) {
			               ctx.setAttribute(COUNT, new AtomicLong());

			       public Object visit(ASTExpression node, Object data) {
			               // How many Expression nodes are there in all files parsed!  I must know!
			               RuleContext ctx = (RuleContext)data;
			               AtomicLong total = (AtomicLong)ctx.getAttribute(COUNT);
			               return super.visit(node, data);

			       public void end(RuleContext ctx) {
			               AtomicLong total = (AtomicLong)ctx.getAttribute(COUNT);
			               addViolation(ctx, null, new Object[] { total });

As you can see in this example, the method start will be call the first time the rule is going to be used, so you can initialize properly your rule here. Once the rule will have finished to parses the source code, the method end() will be invoke you can assert there if, or not, your rule has been violated.

Note that the example log a violation without a proper classname. This is not really a good idea. Indeed, a lot of aggregating tools that PMD (Such as XRadar, or Sonar) probably uses this kind of meta data on their aggregation processes. So, when implements such a rule, always try to find a way to add classname to the violation report.

Bundle it up

To use your rules as part of a nightly build or whatever, it's helpful to bundle up both the rule and the ruleset.xml file in a jar file. Then you can put that jar file on the CLASSPATH of your build. Setting up a script or an Ant task to do this can save you some tedious typing.

Repeat as necessary

I've found that my rules usually don't work the first time, and so I have to go back and tweak them a couple times. That's OK, if we were perfect programmers PMD would be useless anyhow :-).

As an acceptance test of sorts, I usually run a rule on the JDK 1.4 source code and make sure that a random sampling of the problems found are in fact legitimate rule violations. This also ensures that the rule doesn't get confused by nested inner classes or any of the other oddities that appear at various points in the JDK source.

You're rolling now. If you think a rule would benefit the Java development community as a whole, post a message to the forum so we can get the rule moved into one of the core rulesets.

Or, if you can improve one of the existing rules, that'd be great too! Thanks!

Finally, for many more details on writing rules, pick up PMD Applied!