Making C++ Exceptions Less Terrible

If you’re a fan of doingmyprogramming, you’ve likely heard me opine on the subject of exceptions. If you’re new around here, I’ll spare you a link to some required reading and just let you know: they’re poop. With the exception of Java and it’s checked exceptions, they just represent secret ways that a function can crash your whole program. Just about nobody gets it right, not C++, not C#, and the worst offender is probably my beloved Haskell where you can’t even catch them unless you’re in the IO monad.

C++ used to have an annotation (throw()), where you could specify what exceptions a function throws, and if none are specified then the function cannot throw. This was considered poor form and deprecated long before I came on the scene. It turns out that there is good news though; throw() wasn’t forgotten! It was replaced by noexcept, and that is what we’ll be talking about today.

What is noexcept?

noexcept is an annotation that basically says “this function will never throw an exception”. You can think of it as being like const. If you some class method:

void myClass::isPure() const;

… then you know that, whatever it does, the state of the object will not be mutated. Similarly, if you see some function:

void neverThrows() noexcept;

… then you know that, whatever it does, the function will never throw an exception. Optimization implications aside, this is great because if you see a function declared noexcept, then you know for sure that you don’t have to put it in a try/catch block. If we ever start living in a world where people use this annotation, then a function not marked noexcept is a function that likely throws, and we can act accordingly without having to read through mountains of likely incorrect or incomplete documentation!

Specifically, the meaning of noexcept (according to Microsoft) is:

noexcept ( and its synonym noexcept(true)) specify that the function will never throw an exception or allow an exception to be propagated from any other function that it invokes either directly or indirectly. More specifically, noexcept means the function is noexcept only if all the functions that it calls are also noexcept or const, and there are no potentially evaluated dynamic casts that require a run-time check, typeid expressions applied to a glvalue expression whose type is a polymorphic class type, or throw expressions.

The Burning Quetion

So I read that blurb, and thought to myself: “…only if all the functions it calls are noexcept? So, I can’t catch all possible exceptions and be noexcept?”. I felt despair wash over me as C++ got something wrong yet again. Then I thought “there’s no way that’s correct… To the Googler!”

Of course, the Googler didn’t help my case. I decided to give it a shot. First, let’s consider two functions: one that throws and one that is noexcept:

static void doesThrow() noexcept(false) { std::cerr << "Entering doesThrow..." << std::endl; throw 42; std::cerr << "Still in doesThrow. Up is down, cats and dogs living together!" << std::endl; } static void catchesAll() noexcept(true) { std::cerr << "About to enter the try/catch..." << std::endl; try { doesThrow(); } catch (...) { std::cerr << "Caught the exception..." << std::endl; } std::cerr << "Exited the try/catch..." << std::endl; }

doesThrow is annotated noexcept(false), which is the same as saying “This function can throw an exception.” And sure enough, it throws in 100% of its code paths.

catchesAll is annotated noexcept(true), which is just the long form of noexcept. noexcept accepts arguments that evalutate to bool, and compile-time magic happens to allow conditional noexcept-ness. noexcept(expr) can also be used in an if/then/else to conditionally do something based on if some expr is noexcept.

In catchesAll, we have a try/catch block that prevents the exception thrown by doesThrow() from propagating out of catchesAll(). Does this work? Let’s write a test harness and see:

int main(int argc, char ** argv) { std::cerr << "About to call catchesAll..." << std::endl; catchesAll(); std::cerr << "Managed to not die!" << std::endl; }

… if we compile it with gcc (with -std=c++11) and run it, we see that all is well!

About to call catchesAll... About to enter the try/catch... Entering doesThrow... Caught the exception... Exited the try/catch... Managed to not die!

You may be wondering what happens if we don’t catch the exception. Let’s find out! If we remove the try/catch, but leave everything else the same:

About to call catchesAll... About to enter the try/catch... Entering doesThrow... terminate called after throwing an instance of 'int' Aborted (core dumped)

We see that the exception propagated out of catchesAll() and caused a core dump. This is the expected behavior. In fact, there’s no way we could have prevented this. If some function marked noexcept throws, then that function has a bug. If you wrote it, you have to fix it. If somebody else wrote it, then they have to fix it. There’s no band-aid that will keep it from crashing your program. If you find this happening often, then you should consider finding an alternative library that does what the broken dependency claims to do, since they clearly don’t know what they’re doing…

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