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Art by stable diffusion. Prompt: 'Gopher running and falling photo 4k'

Thoughts on the “Guard” Proposal for Go’s Error Handling

By Lane Wagner on Nov 5, 2022

I found this proposal for improvements to error handling in Go interesting, but still not something I’d be happy to see implemented.

Allow me to clear up my thoughts on Go’s errors. Overall, I prefer how Go forces me to think about errors at every turn. When working in try/catch languages like JavaScript, I often easily forget which functions can throw. Even if I do remember, it’s easy to think “I think this gets caught somewhere up the call chain”. It’s easy to ignore the fact that things can go wrong. I almost never have issues with unhandled errors in Go, and I love that.

Okay, so what don’t I like? Well like everyone else, I think 3 extra lines after most function calls just to do the same old error handling can bloat a codebase real quick. The classic example looks like this.

The simple CopyFile function:

func CopyFile(src, dst string) throws error {
	r := os.Open(src)
	defer r.Close()

	w := os.Create(dst)
	io.Copy(w, r)
	w.Close()
}

The actual CopyFile function:

func CopyFile(src, dst string) error {
	r, err := os.Open(src)
	if err != nil {
		return err
	}
	defer r.Close()

	w, err := os.Create(dst)
	if err != nil {
		return err
	}
	defer w.Close()

	if _, err := io.Copy(w, r); err != nil {
		return err
	}
	if err := w.Close(); err != nil {
		return err
	}
}

The “guard/must” proposal

func CopyFile(src, dst string) (err error) {
	defer func() {
		if err != nil {
			err = fmt.Errorf("copy %s to %s: %v", src, dst, err)
		}
	}()

	r := guard os.Open(src) 
	defer must r.Close()		

	w := guard os.Create(dst)
	defer must w.Close()

	err = io.Copy(w, r)
	
	// here we need to do extra stuff when an Copy error happens: now we must use the 'normal' error handling method, and cannot use guard or must
	if err != nil { 
		_ := os.Remove(dst) // fail silently if errors happen during error handling
	}
	return
}

To be honest, I don’t think this “guard/must” proposal is a big improvement in terms of practicality. The basic idea here is that:

Problem #1 - We don’t need syntactic sugar for panic

Panicking in Go is a code smell. We shouldn’t be doing it very often, and when we do, I’m okay with it being a bit of a pain to write.

Problem #2 - Missing context

Strictly returning errors in Go isn’t always the best way to handle them, in fact it’s usually not. It’s best to wrap them with additional context. For example:

func CopyFile(src, dst string) error {
    r, err := os.Open(src)
    if err != nil {
        return fmt.Errorf("could not copy file: %w", err)
    }
    ...
}

This proposal uses a defer function to add context to errors, which has several problems:

What’s a better solution?

I love the idea of a guard keyword. I think it fits nicely within the pattern of guard clauses in Go.

What if, instead, we forget the must keyword, and the guard keyword simply operates on a single error expression? Here’s what that could look like:

func CopyFile(src, dst string) error {
	r, err := os.Open(src)
	guard err
	defer r.Close()

	w, err := os.Create(dst)
	guard fmt.Guardf("could not create file to copy: %w", err)
	defer w.Close()

	guard io.Copy(w, r)
	guard w.Close()
}

Notes

  1. In the case that the CopyFile returns more than just a single error, guard would return zero values for everything but the non-nil error.
  2. I made up the fmt.Guardf function. We would need something like this. It’s a version of fmt.Errorf that returns nil if the error that’s passed in is nil.

I think something like this could solve the only real problem with Go errors: “How do we save those 3 lines of code while still encouraging good error wrapping”? That said, I’m perfectly happy for us to do absolutely nothing about the “errors problem”. After all, to quote the Zen of Python:

There should be one– and preferably only one –obvious way to do it.