What is a Fatal Error?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

A fatal error is a type of computer issue in which some type of activity causes a currently running program to cease functioning and close. In most cases, the occurrence of a fatal error leads to the display of a message that partially explains the nature of the error, then returns the user to the operating system. In spite of the ominous sound of the name, the occurrence of this type of computer error does not usually mean the hardware is permanently disabled or corrupted, although the assistance of an information system specialist may be required to correct the problem.

A fatal computer error causes a program to stop working completely.
A fatal computer error causes a program to stop working completely.

While the reasons for a fatal error vary, there are a few scenarios that account for the majority of the incidents. One of the more common is the reception of an illegal instruction, or instructions that are not in harmony with the programming code. When this occurs, the program usually shuts down, since there are no protocols within the programming that make it possible to proceed.

Computer users may experience frustration when facing a fatal error.
Computer users may experience frustration when facing a fatal error.

In the event that some type of invalid code or data is accessed while the program is executing a specific instruction, a fatal error may occur. The underlying cause for the problem could be code or data that has been corrupted in some manner, or that is no longer present on the hard drive for use. Once again, the program is unable to process the order and shuts down rather than attempting to proceed.

Once a program has aborted due to the occurrence of a fatal error, there is a good chance that any data that the program was processing at the time of the failure will be lost. For this reason, it is important to consistently take a moment to save data during the session. This means that if someone is using a word processing program, depending on an auto-save feature is not sufficient. Stopping every few minutes to initiate a manual save will at least mean that the loss of data is kept to a minimum, and the specific file can always be copied and loaded onto a different system if necessary.

While the term can inspire fear of major problems, a fatal error is usually a serious but short-term issue that can be successfully identified and corrected. By analyzing the error message that is displayed and using that data to isolate the problem, it is often possible to correct the origin of the error and allow the system performance to proceed without further incident. While some users may have the background to accurately diagnose and fix errors of this type, others will require the attention of a professional such as a computer programmer.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including EasyTechJunkie, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


@Melonlity -- it's important to remember that fatal errors aren't as common as they used to be. Remember when those infamous blue screens of death could bring a Windows computer to it's knees? When is the last time you saw one of those?

The fact is a lot of fatal errors were caused by buggy operating systems (or, more precisely, Windows operating systems mated to cheap or nonstandard hardware). Windows XP took care of a lot of those problems and Microsoft has improved things since then (for the most part). Fatal errors, then, are rarer than they used to be.


These can still cause problems, but they are not as catastrophic as they once were. Programs such as Microsoft Office and Adobe InDesign constantly record save states so that you can often pick up right where you left off in the case of a fatal error.

A fatal error can still be a sign of an underlying problem, but at least software manufacturers now recognize that users are usually horrible about saving regularly and have taken steps to protect us from ourselves.

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