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23.1 Introduction to Non-Local Exits

As an example of a situation where a non-local exit can be useful, suppose you have an interactive program that has a “main loop” that prompts for and executes commands. Suppose the “read” command reads input from a file, doing some lexical analysis and parsing of the input while processing it. If a low-level input error is detected, it would be useful to be able to return immediately to the “main loop” instead of having to make each of the lexical analysis, parsing, and processing phases all have to explicitly deal with error situations initially detected by nested calls.

(On the other hand, if each of these phases has to do a substantial amount of cleanup when it exits—such as closing files, deallocating buffers or other data structures, and the like—then it can be more appropriate to do a normal return and have each phase do its own cleanup, because a non-local exit would bypass the intervening phases and their associated cleanup code entirely. Alternatively, you could use a non-local exit but do the cleanup explicitly either before or after returning to the “main loop”.)

In some ways, a non-local exit is similar to using the ‘return’ statement to return from a function. But while ‘return’ abandons only a single function call, transferring control back to the point at which it was called, a non-local exit can potentially abandon many levels of nested function calls.

You identify return points for non-local exits by calling the function setjmp. This function saves information about the execution environment in which the call to setjmp appears in an object of type jmp_buf. Execution of the program continues normally after the call to setjmp, but if an exit is later made to this return point by calling longjmp with the corresponding jmp_buf object, control is transferred back to the point where setjmp was called. The return value from setjmp is used to distinguish between an ordinary return and a return made by a call to longjmp, so calls to setjmp usually appear in an ‘if’ statement.

Here is how the example program described above might be set up:

#include <setjmp.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <stdio.h>

jmp_buf main_loop;

abort_to_main_loop (int status)
  longjmp (main_loop, status);

main (void)
  while (1)
    if (setjmp (main_loop))
      puts ("Back at main loop....");
      do_command ();

do_command (void)
  char buffer[128];
  if (fgets (buffer, 128, stdin) == NULL)
    abort_to_main_loop (-1);
    exit (EXIT_SUCCESS);

The function abort_to_main_loop causes an immediate transfer of control back to the main loop of the program, no matter where it is called from.

The flow of control inside the main function may appear a little mysterious at first, but it is actually a common idiom with setjmp. A normal call to setjmp returns zero, so the “else” clause of the conditional is executed. If abort_to_main_loop is called somewhere within the execution of do_command, then it actually appears as if the same call to setjmp in main were returning a second time with a value of -1.

So, the general pattern for using setjmp looks something like:

if (setjmp (buffer))
  /* Code to clean up after premature return. */
  /* Code to be executed normally after setting up the return point. */

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