Error Handling

In OCaml, errors can be handled in several ways. This document presents most of the available means. However, handling errors using the effect handlers introduced in OCaml 5 hasn't been addressed yet. This topic is also addressed in the Error Handling chapter of the Real World OCaml book by Yaron Minsky and Anil Madhavapeddy (see references).

Errors as Special Values

Don't do that.

Some languages, most emblematically C, treat certain values as errors. For instance, in Unix systems, here what is contained in man 2 read:

read - read from a file descriptor

#include <unistd.h>

ssize_t read(int fd, void *buf, size_t count);


On error, -1 is returned, and errno is set to indicate the error.

Great software was written using this style. However, as expected return values can't be distinguished from values representing errors, nothing but the programmer's discipline ensures errors aren't ignored. This has been the cause of many bugs, some with dire consequences. This is not the proper way to deal with errors in OCaml.

There are three major ways to make it impossible to ignore errors in OCaml:

  1. Exceptions
  2. option values
  3. result values

Use them. Do not encode errors inside data.

Exceptions provide a means to deal with errors at the control flow level, while option and result make errors distinct from normal return values.

The rest of this document presents and compares approaches towards error handling.


Historically, the first way of handling errors in OCaml is exceptions. The standard library relies heavily upon them.

The biggest issue with exceptions is that they do not appear in types. One has to read the documentation to see that, indeed, List.find or String.sub are functions that might fail by raising an exception.

However, exceptions have the great merit of being compiled into efficient machine code. When implementing trial and error approaches likely to back-track often, exceptions can be used to achieve good performance.

Exceptions belong to the type exn, which is an extensible sum type.

# exception Foo of string;;
exception Foo of string

# let i_will_fail () = raise (Foo "Oh no!");;
val i_will_fail : unit -> 'a = <fun>

# i_will_fail ();;
Exception: Foo "Oh no!".

Here, we add a variant Foo to the type exn and create a function that will raise this exception. Now, how do we handle exceptions? The construct is try ... with ...:

# try i_will_fail () with Foo _ -> ();;
- : unit = ()

Predefined Exceptions

The standard library predefines several exceptions, see Stdlib. Here are a few examples:

# 1 / 0;;
Exception: Division_by_zero.
# List.find (fun x -> x mod 2 = 0) [1; 3; 5];;
Exception: Not_found.
# String.sub "Hello world!" 3 (-2);;
Exception: Invalid_argument "String.sub / Bytes.sub".
# let rec loop x = x :: loop x;;
val loop : 'a -> 'a list = <fun>
# loop 42;;
Stack overflow during evaluation (looping recursion?).

Although the last one doesn't look as an exception, it actually is.

# try loop 42 with Stack_overflow -> [];;
- : int list = []

Among the predefined exceptions of the standard library, the following ones are intended to be raised by user-written functions:

  • Exit can be used to terminate an iteration, like a break statement
  • Not_found should be raised when searching failed because there isn't anything satisfactory to be found
  • Invalid_argument should be raised when a parameter can't be accepted
  • Failure should be raised when a result can't be produced

Functions are provided by the standard library to raise Invalid_argument and Failure using a string parameter:

val invalid_arg : string -> 'a
(** @raise Invalid_argument *)
val failwith : string -> 'a
(** @raise Failure *)

When implementing a software component which exposes functions raising exceptions, a design decision must be made:

  • Use the preexisting exceptions
  • Raise custom exceptions

Both can make sense, and there isn't a general rule. If the standard library exceptions are used, they must be raised under their intended conditions, otherwise handlers will have trouble processing them. Using custom exceptions will force client code to include dedicated catch conditions. This can be desirable for errors that must be handled at the client level.

Using Fun.protect

Because handling exceptions interrupts normal control flow, using them can complicate some tasks requiring strictly ordered and coupled processes. For these scenarios, the Fun module of the standard library provides:

val protect : finally:(unit -> unit) -> (unit -> 'a) -> 'a

This function is meant to be used when something always needs to be done after a computation is complete, whether it succeeds or fails. The unlabeled function argument is called first, then the function passed as the labeled argument finally is called. protect then returns the same value as the unlabeled argument or raises the same exception that function raised.

Note that functions passed to protect take only () as a parameter. This does not limit the cases where protect can be used. Any computation f x can be wrapped in a function fun () -> f x. As always, the body of the function won't be evaluated until the function is called.

The finally function is only expected to perform some side-effect, and should not raise any exception itself. If finally does throw an exception e, protect will raise Finally_raised e, wrapped to make it clear that the exception is not coming from the protected function.

Let's demonstrate with a function that tries reading the first n lines of a text file (like the Unix command head). If the file has fewer than n lines, the function must throw End_of_file. In any case, the file descriptor must be closed afterwards. Here is a possible implementation using Fun.protect:

# let head_channel chan =
  let rec loop acc n = match input_line chan with
    | line when n > 0 -> loop (line :: acc) (n - 1)
    | _ -> List.rev acc in
  loop [];;
val head_channel : in_channel -> int -> string list = <fun>
# let head_file filename n =
  let ic = open_in filename in
  let finally () = close_in ic in
  let work () = head_channel ic n in
  Fun.protect ~finally work;;
val head_file : string -> int -> string list = <fun>

When head_file is called, it opens a file descriptor, defines finally and work, then Fun.protect ~finally work performs two computations in order: work () and then finally (), and has the same result as work (), either returning a value or raising an exception. Either way, the file descriptor is closed after use.

Asynchronous Exceptions

Some exceptions don't arise because something attempted by the program failed, but rather because an external factor is impeding its execution. Those exceptions are called asynchronous. These include:

  • Out_of_memory
  • Stack_overflow
  • Sys.Break

The latter is thrown when the user interrupts an interactive execution. Because they are loosely or not at all related with the program logic, it mostly doesn't make sense to track the place where an asynchronous exceptions was thrown, as it could be anywhere. Deciding if an application needs to catch those exceptions and how it should be done is beyond the scope of this tutorial. Interested readers may refer to Guillaume Munch-Maccagnoni's A Guide to recover from interrupts.


Functions that can raise exceptions should be documented like this:

val foo : a -> b
(** [foo] does this and that, here is how it works, etc.
    @raise Invalid_argument if [a] doesn't satisfy ...
    @raise Sys_error if filesystem is not happy

Stack Traces

To get a stack trace when an unhandled exception makes your program crash, you need to compile the program in debug mode (with -g when calling ocamlc, or -tag 'debug' when calling ocamlbuild). Then:

OCAMLRUNPARAM=b ./myprogram [args]

And you will get a stack trace. Alternatively, you can call, from within the program,

let () = Printexc.record_backtrace true


To print an exception, the module Printexc comes in handy. For instance, the function notify_user : (unit -> 'a) -> 'a below calls a function, and if it fails, prints the exception on stderr. If stack traces are enabled, this function will also display it.

let notify_user f =
  try f () with e ->
    let msg = Printexc.to_string e
    and stack = Printexc.get_backtrace () in
      Printf.eprintf "there was an error: %s%s\n" msg stack;
      raise e

OCaml knows how to print its built-in exceptions, but you can also tell it how to print your own exceptions:

exception Foo of int

let () =
      | Foo i -> Some (Printf.sprintf "Foo(%d)" i)
      | _ -> None (* for other exceptions *)

Each printer should take care of the exceptions it knows about, returning Some <printed exception>, and return None otherwise (let the other printers do the job).

Runtime Crashes

Although OCaml is a very safe language, it is possible to trigger unrecoverable errors at runtime.

Exceptions Not Raised

The compiler and runtime makes a best effort for raising meaningful exceptions. However, some error conditions may remain undetected, which can result in a segmentation fault. This is especially the case for Out_of_memory, which is not reliable. It used to be the case for Stack_overflow:

But catching stack overflows is tricky, both in Unix-like systems and under Windows, so the current implementation in OCaml is a best effort that is occasionally buggy.

Xavier Leroy, October 2021

This has improved since. Only linked C code should be able to trigger an undetected stack overflow.

Inherently Unsafe Functions

Some OCaml functions are inherently unsafe. Use them with care, not like this:

> echo "fst Marshal.(from_string (to_string 0 []) 0)" | ocaml -stdin
Segmentation fault (core dumped)

Language Bugs

When a crash isn't coming from:

  • A limitation of the native code compiler
  • An inherently unsafe function such as are found in modules Marshal and Obj

it may be a language bug. It happens. Here is what to do when this is suspected:

  1. Make sure the crash affects both compilers: bytecode and native
  2. Write a self-contained and minimal proof-of-concept code which does nothing but triggering the crash
  3. File an issue in the OCaml Bug Tracker in GitHub

Here is an example of such a bug:

Safe vs. Unsafe Functions

Uncaught exceptions cause runtime crashes. Therefore, there is a tendency to use the following terminology:

  • Function raising exceptions: Unsafe
  • Function handling errors in data: Safe

The main ways to write such safe error-handling functions are to use either option (next section) or result (following section) values. Although handling errors in data using those types may avoid the issues of error values and exceptions, it requires extracting the enclosed value at every step, which may lead to boilerplate code and comes with a runtime cost.

Using the option Type for Errors

The option module provides the first alternative to exceptions. The 'a option data type represents either data of type 'a - for instance, Some 42 is of type int option - or the absence of data due to any error as None.

Using option it is possible to write functions that return None instead of throwing an exception. Here are two examples of such functions:

# let div_opt m n =
  try Some (m / n) with
    Division_by_zero -> None;;
val div_opt : int -> int -> int option = <fun>

# let find_opt p l =
  try Some (List.find p l) with
    Not_found -> None;;
val find_opt : ('a -> bool) -> 'a list -> 'a option = <fun>

We can try those functions:

# 1 / 0;;
Exception: Division_by_zero.
# div_opt 42 2;;
- : int option = Some 21
# div_opt 42 0;;
- : int option = None
# List.find (fun x -> x mod 2 = 0) [1; 3; 5];;
Exception: Not_found.
# find_opt (fun x -> x mod 2 = 0) [1; 3; 4; 5];;
- : int option = Some 4
# find_opt (fun x -> x mod 2 = 0) [1; 3; 5];;
- : int option = None

It tends to be considered good practice nowadays when a function can fail in cases that are not bugs (i.e., not assert false, but network failures, keys not present, etc.) to return type such as 'a option or ('a, 'b) result (see next section) rather than throwing an exception.

Naming Conventions

There are two conventions for naming pairs of functions with the same basic behavior where one may raise an exception and the other returns an option. In the above examples, the convention of the standard library is used: adding an _opt suffix to the name of the version of the function that returns an option instead of raising an exception.

val find: ('a -> bool) -> 'a list -> 'a
(** @raise Not_found *)
val find_opt: ('a -> bool) -> 'a list -> 'a option

This is extracted from the List module of the standard library.

However, some projects tend to avoid or reduce the usage of exceptions. In such a context, the opposite convention is relatively common: the version of the function that raises exceptions is suffixed with _exn. Using the same functions, that would give the specification:

val find_exn: ('a -> bool) -> 'a list -> 'a
(** @raise Not_found *)
val find: ('a -> bool) -> 'a list -> 'a option

Composing Functions Returning Options

The function div_opt can't raise exceptions. However, since it doesn't return a result of type int, it can't be used in place of an int. The same way OCaml doesn't promote integers into floats, it doesn't automatically convert int option into int or vice versa.

# 21 + Some 21;;
Error: This expression has type 'a option
       but an expression was expected of type int

In order to combine option values with other values, conversion functions are needed. Here are the functions provided by the option module to extract the data contained in an option:

val get : 'a t -> 'a
val value : 'a t -> default:'a -> 'a
val fold : none:'a -> some:('b -> 'a) -> 'b t -> 'a

get returns the contents, or raises Invalid_argument if applied to None. value returns the contents, or its default argument if applied to None. fold returns its some argument applied to the contents of the option, or its none argument if applied to None.

As a remark, observe that value can be implemented using fold:

# let value ~default = Option.fold ~none:default;;
val value : default:'a -> 'a option -> 'a = <fun>
# Option.value ~default:() None = value ~default:() None;;
- : bool = true
# Option.value ~default:() (Some ()) = value ~default:() (Some ());;
- : bool = true

It is also possible to perform pattern matching on option values:

match opt with
| None -> ...    (* Something *)
| Some x -> ...  (* Something else *)

However, sequencing such expressions leads to deep nesting which is often considered bad:

if you need more than 3 levels of indentation, you're screwed anyway, and should fix your program.

Linux Kernel Style Guide

The recommended way to avoid that is to refrain from or delay attempting to access the content of an option value, as explained in the next sub section.

Using on and Option.bind

Let's start with an example: imagine one needs to write a function returning the hostname part of an email address provided as a string. For instance, given the string "" it would return the string "courrier" (one may have a point arguing against such a design, but this is only an example).

Here is a questionable but straightforward implementation using exceptions:

# let host email =
  let fqdn_pos = String.index email '@' + 1 in
  let fqdn_len = String.length email - fqdn_pos in
  let fqdn = String.sub email fqdn_pos fqdn_len in
    let host_len = String.index fqdn '.' in
    String.sub fqdn 0 host_len
  with Not_found ->
    if fqdn <> "" then fqdn else raise Not_found;;
val host : string -> string = <fun>

This may fail by raising Not_found if the first the call to String.index does, which could happen if there is no @ character in the input string, signifying that it's not an email address. However, if the second call to String.index fails, meaning no dot character was found, we may return the whole fully qualified domain name (FQDN) as a fallback, but only if it isn't the empty string.

Note that generally String.sub may throw Invalid_argument. Fortunately, this can't happen when calculating fqdn. In the worst case, the @ character is the last one, when fqdn_pos is off range by one but fqdn_len is null, and that combination of parameters gives an empty string rather than an exception.

Below is the equivalent function using the same logic, but using option instead of exceptions:

# let host_opt email =
  match String.index_opt email '@' with
  | Some at_pos -> begin
      let fqdn_pos = at_pos + 1 in
      let fqdn_len = String.length email - fqdn_pos in
      let fqdn = String.sub email fqdn_pos fqdn_len in
      match String.index_opt fqdn '.' with
      | Some host_len -> Some (String.sub fqdn 0 host_len)
      | None -> if fqdn <> "" then Some fqdn else None
  | None -> None;;
val host_opt : string -> string option = <fun>

Although it qualifies as safe, its legibility isn't improved. Some may even claim it is worse.

Before showing how to improve this code, we need to explain how and Option.bind work. Here are their types:

val map : ('a -> 'b) -> 'a option -> 'b option
val bind : 'a option -> ('a -> 'b option) -> 'b option applies a function f to an option parameter, if it isn't None

let map f = function
| Some x -> Some (f x)
| None -> None

If f can be applied to something, its result is rewrapped into a fresh option. If there isn't anything to supply to f, None is forwarded.

If we don't take arguments order into account, Option.bind is almost exactly the same, except we assume f returns an option. Therefore, there is no need to rewrap its result, since it's already an option value:

let bind opt f = match opt with
| Some x -> f x
| None -> None

bind having flipped parameter order with respect to map allows its use as a binding operator, which is a popular extension of OCaml providing means to create “custom let”. Here is how it goes:

# let ( let* ) = Option.bind;;
val ( let* ) : 'a option -> ('a -> 'b option) -> 'b option = <fun>

Using these mechanisms, here is a possible way to rewrite host_opt:

# let host_opt email =
  let* fqdn_pos = (( + ) 1) (String.index_opt email '@') in
  let fqdn_len = String.length email - fqdn_pos in
  let fqdn = String.sub email fqdn_pos fqdn_len in
  String.index_opt fqdn '.'
  |> (fun host_len -> String.sub fqdn 0 host_len)
  |> function None when fqdn <> "" -> Some fqdn | opt -> opt;;
val host_opt : string -> string option = <fun>

This version was picked to illustrate how to use and combine operations on options allowing users to achieve some balance between understandability and robustness. A couple of observations:

  • As in the original host function (with exceptions):
    • The calls to String functions (index_opt, length, and sub) are the same and in the same order
    • The same local names are used with the same types
  • There isn't any remaining indentation or pattern-matching
  • Line 1:
    • right-hand side of = : allows adding 1 to the result of String.index_opt, if it didn't fail
    • left-hand side of = : the let* syntax turns all the rest of the code (from line 2 to the end) into the body of an anonymous function which takes fqdn_pos as parameter, and the function ( let* ) is called with fqdn_pos and that anonymous function.
  • Lines 2 and 3: same as in the original
  • Line 4: try or match is removed
  • Line 5: String.sub is applied, if the previous step didn't fail, otherwise the error is forwarded
  • Line 6: if nothing was found earlier, and if isn't empty, fqdn is returned as a fallback

When used to handling errors with catch statements, it requires some time to get used the latter style. The key idea is avoiding or deferring looking directly into option values. Instead, pass them along using ad hoc pipes (such as map and bind). Erik Meijer calls that style “following the happy path.” Visually, it also resembles the “early return“ pattern often found in C.

One of the limitations of the option type is that it doesn't record the reason that prevented having a return value. None is silent, it doesn't say anything about what went wrong. For this reason, functions returning option values should document the circumstances under which they may return None. Such documentation is likely to resemble that required for exceptions using @raise. The result type, described in the next section, is intended to fill this gap: manage errors in data like option values and provide information on errors like exceptions.

Using the result Type for Errors

The result module of the standard library defines the following type:

type ('a, 'b) result =
  | Ok of 'a
  | Error of 'b

A value Ok x means that the computation succeeded and produced x, a value Error e means that it failed, and e represents whatever error information has been collected in the process. Pattern matching can be used to deal with both cases, as with any other sum type. However using map and bind can be more convenient, maybe even more than it was with option.

Before taking a look at, let's think about and under a changed perspective. Both functions behave as identity when applied to [] or None, respectively. That's the only possibility since those parameters don't carry any data - unlike result with its Error constructor. Nevertheless, is implemented similarly: on Error, it also behaves like identity.

Here is its type:

val map : ('a -> 'b) -> ('a, 'c) result -> ('b, 'c) result

And here is how it is written:

let map f = function
| Ok x -> Ok (f x)
| Error e -> Error e

The result module has two map functions: the one we've just seen and another one, with the same logic, applied to Error

Here is its type:

val map_error : ('c -> 'd) -> ('a, 'c) result -> ('a, 'd) result

And here is how it is written:

let map_error f = function
| Ok x -> Ok x
| Error e -> f e

The same reasoning applies to Result.bind, except there's no bind_error. Using those functions, here is an hypothetical example of code using Anil Madhavapeddy's OCaml YAML library:

let file_opt = File.read_opt path in
let file_res = Option.to_result ~none:(`Msg "File not found") file_opt in begin
  let* yaml = Yaml.of_string file_res in
  let* found_opt = Yaml.Util.find key yaml in
  let* found = Option.to_result ~none:(`Msg (key ^ ", key not found")) found_opt in
end |> Result.map_error (Printf.sprintf "%s, error: %s: " path)

Here are the types of the involved functions:

val File.read_opt : string -> string option
val Yaml.of_string : string -> (Yaml.value, [`Msg of string]) result
val Yaml.Util.find : string -> Yaml.value -> (Yaml.value option, [`Msg of string]) result
val Option.to_result : none:'e -> 'a option -> ('a, 'e) result
  • File.read_opt is supposed to open a file, read its contents and return it as a string wrapped in an option, if anything goes wrong None is returned.
  • Yaml.of_string parses a string and turns it into an ad hoc OCaml type
  • Yaml.find recursively searches for a key in a Yaml tree. If found, it returns the corresponding data, wrapped in an option
  • Option.to_result performs conversion of an option into a result.
  • Finally, let* stands for Result.bind.

Since both functions from the Yaml module return result data, it is easier to write a pipe which processes that type all along. That's why Option.to_result needs to be used. Stages which produce result must be chained using bind; stages which do not must be chained using some map function to wrap their values back into a result.

The map functions of the result module allows processing of data or errors, but the routines used must not fail, as will never turn an Ok into an Error and Result.map_error will never turn an Error into an Ok. On the other hand, functions passed to Result.bind are allowed to fail. As stated before there isn't a Result.bind_error. One way to make sense out of that absence is to consider its type, it would have to be:

val Result.bind_error : ('a, 'e) result -> ('e -> ('a, 'f) result) -> ('a, 'f) result

We would have:

  • Result.map_error f (Ok x) = Ok x
  • And either:
    • Result.map_error f (Error e) = Ok y
    • Result.map_error f (Error e) = Error e'

This means an error would be turned back into valid data or changed into another error. This is almost like recovering from an error. However, when recovery fails, it may be preferable to preserve the initial cause of failure. That behaviour can be achieved by defining the following function:

# let recover f = Result.(fold ~ok:ok ~error:(fun (e : 'e) -> Option.to_result ~none:e (f e)));;
val recover : ('e -> 'a option) -> ('a, 'e) result -> ('a, 'e) result = <fun>

Although any kind of data can be wrapped as a result Error, it is recommended to use that constructor to carry actual errors, for instance:

  • exn, in which case the result type just makes exceptions explicit
  • string, where the error case is a message that indicates what failed
  • string Lazy.t, a more elaborate form of error message that is only evaluated if printing is required
  • some polymorphic variant, with one case per possible error. This is very accurate (each error can be dealt with explicitly and occurs in the type), but the use of polymorphic variants sometimes make the code harder to read.

Note that some say the types result and Either.t are isomorphic. Concretely, it means it's always possible to replace one by the other, like in a completely neutral refactoring. Values of type result and Either.t can be translated back and forth, and appling both translations one after the other, in any order, returns to the starting value. Nevertheless, this doesn't mean result should be used in place of Either.t, or vice versa. Naming things matters, as punned by Phil Karlton's famous quote:

There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things.

Handling errors necessarily complicates code, making it harder to read and understand than simple code that behaves incorrectly or fails under exceptional conditions. The right tools, data, and functions can help you ensure correct behavior with minimal loss of clarity. Use them.

bind as a Binary Operator

When Option.bind or Result.bind are used, they are often aliased into a custom binding operator, such as let*. However, it is also possible to use it as a binary operator, which is very often writen >>=. Using bind this way must be detailed because it is extremely popular in other functional programming languages, especially in Haskell.

Assuming a and b are valid OCaml expressions, the following three pieces of source code are functionally identical:

bind a (fun x -> b)
let* x = a in b
a >>= fun x -> b

It may seem pointless. To make sense, one must look at expressions where several calls to bind are chained. The following three are also equivalent:

bind a (fun x -> bind b (fun y -> c))
let* x = a in
let* y = b in
a >>= fun x -> b >>= fun y -> c

Variables x and y may appear in c in the three cases. The first form isn't very convenient, as it uses a lot of parentheses. The second one is often preferred due to its resemblance with regular local definitions. The third one is harder to read, as >>= associates to the right in order to avoid parentheses in that precise case, but it's easy to get lost. Nevertheless, it has some appeal when named functions are used. It looks a bit like good old Unix pipes:

a >>= f >>= g

looks better than:

let* x = a in
let* y = f x in
g y

Writing x >>= f is very close to what is found in functionally tainted programming languages which have methods and receivers such as Kotlin, Scala, Go, Rust, Swift, or even modern Java, where it would look like: x.bind(f).

Here is the same code as presented at the end of the previous section, rewritten using Result.bind as a binary opeator:

File.read_opt path
|> Option.to_result ~none:(`Msg "File not found")
>>= Yaml.of_string
>>= Yaml.Util.find key
>>= Option.to_result ~none:(`Msg (key ^ ", key not found"))
|> Result.map_error (Printf.sprintf "%s, error: %s: " path)

By the way, this style is called tacit programming. Thanks to the associativity priorities of the >>= and |> operators, no parenthesised expression extends beyond a single line.

OCaml has a strict typing discipline, not a strict styling discipline; therefore, picking the right style is left to the author's decision. That applies error handling, so pick a style knowingly. See the OCaml Programming Guidelines for more details on those matters.

Conversions Between Errors

Throwing Exceptions From option or result

This is done by using the following functions:

  • From option to Invalid_argument exception, use function Option.get:

    val get : 'a option -> 'a
  • From result to Invalid_argument exception, use functions Result.get_ok and Result.get_error:

    val get_ok : ('a, 'e) result -> 'a
    val get_error : ('a, 'e) result -> 'e

To raise other exceptions, pattern matching and raise must be used.

Conversion Between option and result

This is done by using the following functions:

  • From option to result, use function Option.to_result:
    val to_result : none:'e -> 'a option -> ('a, 'e) result
  • From result to option, use function Result.to_option:
    val to_option : ('a, 'e) result -> 'a option

Turning Exceptions into option or result

The standard library does not provide such functions. This must be done using try ... with or match ... exception statements. For instance, here is how to create a version of Stdlib.input_line which returns an option instead of throwing an exception:

let input_line_opt ic = try Some (input_line ic) with End_of_file -> None

It would be same for result, except some data must be provided to the Error constructor.

Some may like to turn this into a higher-order generic function:

# let catch f x = try Some (f x) with _ -> None;;
val catch : ('a -> 'b) -> 'a -> 'b option = <fun>


The built-in assert instruction takes an expression as an argument and throws the Assert_failure exception if the provided expression evaluates to false. Assuming that you don't catch this exception (it's probably unwise to catch this exception, particularly for beginners), this causes the program to stop and print the source file and line number where the error occurred. An example:

# assert (Sys.os_type = "Win32");;
Exception: Assert_failure ("//toplevel//", 1, 0).

Running this on Win32, of course, won't throw an error.

Writing assert false would just stop your program. This idiom is sometimes used to indicate dead code, parts of the program that must be written (often for type checking or pattern matching completeness) but are unreachable at run time.

Asserts should be understood as executable comments. They aren't supposed to fail, unless during debugging or truly extraordinary circumstances that absolutely prevent the execution from making any kind of progress.

When the execution reaches conditions which can't be handled, the right thing to do is to throw a Failure, by calling failwith "error message". Assertions aren't meant to handle those cases. For instance, in the following code:

match Sys.os_type with
| "Unix" | "Cygwin" ->   (* code omitted *)
| "Win32" ->             (* code omitted *)
| "MacOS" ->             (* code omitted *)
| _ -> failwith "this system is not supported"

It is right to use failwith, other operating systems aren't supported, but they are possible. Here is the dual example:

function x when true -> () | _ -> assert false

Here, it wouldn't be correct to use failwith because it requires a corrupted system or the compiler to be bugged for the second code path to be executed. Breakage of the language semantics qualifies as extraordinary circumstances. It is catastrophic!

Concluding Remarks

Properly handling errors is a complex matter. It is cross-cutting concern, touches all parts of an application, and can't be isolated in a dedicated module. In contrast to several other mainstream languages, OCaml provides several mechanisms to handle exceptional events, all with good runtime performance and code understandability. Using them properly requires some initial learning and practice. Later, it always requires some thinking, which is beneficial because proper error management shouldn't ever be overlooked. No error handling mechanism is always better than the others, and choosing one to use should be a matter of fitting the context rather than that of taste. But opinionated OCaml code is also fine, so it's a balance.

External Resources

  • “Exceptions” in ”The OCaml Manual, The Core Language”, chapter 1, section 6, December 2022
  • Module option in OCaml Library
  • Module result in Ocaml Library
  • “Error Handling” in “Real World OCaml”, part 7, Yaron Minsky and Anil Madhavapeddy, 2ⁿᵈ edition, Cambridge University Press, October 2022
  • “Add "finally" function to Pervasives”, Marcello Seri, GitHub PR, ocaml/ocaml/pull/1855
  • “A guide to recover from interrupts”, Guillaume Munch-Maccagnoni, parf the memprof-limits documentation

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