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10.5.3.3 Writing Code to Handle Errors

The usual effect of signaling an error is to terminate the command that is running and return immediately to the Emacs editor command loop. You can arrange to trap errors occurring in a part of your program by establishing an error handler, with the special form condition-case. A simple example looks like this:

     (condition-case nil
         (delete-file filename)
       (error nil))

This deletes the file named filename, catching any error and returning nil if an error occurs. (You can use the macro ignore-errors for a simple case like this; see below.)

The condition-case construct is often used to trap errors that are predictable, such as failure to open a file in a call to insert-file-contents. It is also used to trap errors that are totally unpredictable, such as when the program evaluates an expression read from the user.

The second argument of condition-case is called the protected form. (In the example above, the protected form is a call to delete-file.) The error handlers go into effect when this form begins execution and are deactivated when this form returns. They remain in effect for all the intervening time. In particular, they are in effect during the execution of functions called by this form, in their subroutines, and so on. This is a good thing, since, strictly speaking, errors can be signaled only by Lisp primitives (including signal and error) called by the protected form, not by the protected form itself.

The arguments after the protected form are handlers. Each handler lists one or more condition names (which are symbols) to specify which errors it will handle. The error symbol specified when an error is signaled also defines a list of condition names. A handler applies to an error if they have any condition names in common. In the example above, there is one handler, and it specifies one condition name, error, which covers all errors.

The search for an applicable handler checks all the established handlers starting with the most recently established one. Thus, if two nested condition-case forms offer to handle the same error, the inner of the two gets to handle it.

If an error is handled by some condition-case form, this ordinarily prevents the debugger from being run, even if debug-on-error says this error should invoke the debugger.

If you want to be able to debug errors that are caught by a condition-case, set the variable debug-on-signal to a non-nil value. You can also specify that a particular handler should let the debugger run first, by writing debug among the conditions, like this:

     (condition-case nil
         (delete-file filename)
       ((debug error) nil))

The effect of debug here is only to prevent condition-case from suppressing the call to the debugger. Any given error will invoke the debugger only if debug-on-error and the other usual filtering mechanisms say it should. See Error Debugging.

— Macro: condition-case-unless-debug var protected-form handlers...

The macro condition-case-unless-debug provides another way to handle debugging of such forms. It behaves exactly like condition-case, unless the variable debug-on-error is non-nil, in which case it does not handle any errors at all.

Once Emacs decides that a certain handler handles the error, it returns control to that handler. To do so, Emacs unbinds all variable bindings made by binding constructs that are being exited, and executes the cleanups of all unwind-protect forms that are being exited. Once control arrives at the handler, the body of the handler executes normally.

After execution of the handler body, execution returns from the condition-case form. Because the protected form is exited completely before execution of the handler, the handler cannot resume execution at the point of the error, nor can it examine variable bindings that were made within the protected form. All it can do is clean up and proceed.

Error signaling and handling have some resemblance to throw and catch (see Catch and Throw), but they are entirely separate facilities. An error cannot be caught by a catch, and a throw cannot be handled by an error handler (though using throw when there is no suitable catch signals an error that can be handled).

— Special Form: condition-case var protected-form handlers...

This special form establishes the error handlers handlers around the execution of protected-form. If protected-form executes without error, the value it returns becomes the value of the condition-case form; in this case, the condition-case has no effect. The condition-case form makes a difference when an error occurs during protected-form.

Each of the handlers is a list of the form (conditions body...). Here conditions is an error condition name to be handled, or a list of condition names (which can include debug to allow the debugger to run before the handler); body is one or more Lisp expressions to be executed when this handler handles an error. Here are examples of handlers:

          (error nil)
          
          (arith-error (message "Division by zero"))
          
          ((arith-error file-error)
           (message
            "Either division by zero or failure to open a file"))

Each error that occurs has an error symbol that describes what kind of error it is. The error-conditions property of this symbol is a list of condition names (see Error Symbols). Emacs searches all the active condition-case forms for a handler that specifies one or more of these condition names; the innermost matching condition-case handles the error. Within this condition-case, the first applicable handler handles the error.

After executing the body of the handler, the condition-case returns normally, using the value of the last form in the handler body as the overall value.

The argument var is a variable. condition-case does not bind this variable when executing the protected-form, only when it handles an error. At that time, it binds var locally to an error description, which is a list giving the particulars of the error. The error description has the form (error-symbol . data). The handler can refer to this list to decide what to do. For example, if the error is for failure opening a file, the file name is the second element of data—the third element of the error description.

If var is nil, that means no variable is bound. Then the error symbol and associated data are not available to the handler.

Sometimes it is necessary to re-throw a signal caught by condition-case, for some outer-level handler to catch. Here's how to do that:

            (signal (car err) (cdr err))

where err is the error description variable, the first argument to condition-case whose error condition you want to re-throw. See Definition of signal.

— Function: error-message-string error-descriptor

This function returns the error message string for a given error descriptor. It is useful if you want to handle an error by printing the usual error message for that error. See Definition of signal.

Here is an example of using condition-case to handle the error that results from dividing by zero. The handler displays the error message (but without a beep), then returns a very large number.

     (defun safe-divide (dividend divisor)
       (condition-case err
           ;; Protected form.
           (/ dividend divisor)
         ;; The handler.
         (arith-error                        ; Condition.
          ;; Display the usual message for this error.
          (message "%s" (error-message-string err))
          1000000)))
     ⇒ safe-divide
     
     (safe-divide 5 0)
          -| Arithmetic error: (arith-error)
     ⇒ 1000000

The handler specifies condition name arith-error so that it will handle only division-by-zero errors. Other kinds of errors will not be handled (by this condition-case). Thus:

     (safe-divide nil 3)
          error--> Wrong type argument: number-or-marker-p, nil

Here is a condition-case that catches all kinds of errors, including those from error:

     (setq baz 34)
          ⇒ 34
     
     (condition-case err
         (if (eq baz 35)
             t
           ;; This is a call to the function error.
           (error "Rats!  The variable %s was %s, not 35" 'baz baz))
       ;; This is the handler; it is not a form.
       (error (princ (format "The error was: %s" err))
              2))
     -| The error was: (error "Rats!  The variable baz was 34, not 35")
     ⇒ 2
— Macro: ignore-errors body...

This construct executes body, ignoring any errors that occur during its execution. If the execution is without error, ignore-errors returns the value of the last form in body; otherwise, it returns nil.

Here's the example at the beginning of this subsection rewritten using ignore-errors:

            (ignore-errors
             (delete-file filename))
— Macro: with-demoted-errors body...

This macro is like a milder version of ignore-errors. Rather than suppressing errors altogether, it converts them into messages. Use this form around code that is not expected to signal errors, but should be robust if one does occur. Note that this macro uses condition-case-unless-debug rather than condition-case.