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My incremental approach to error handling in Rust

I have recently begun working on a small language following this book. Instead of writing the language in C, I chose to write in Rust. I had already written non-trivial programs in Rust before and used this as an opportunity to get more practice building systems in the language. When I started working on the project, my error handling situation wasn’t the best. I had a custom Error type, an enum called LispyError which had a few variants which I added as I went. The error type was then used with a corresponding result type EvalResult, since I thought that the errors would have to be reported when the code would be evaluated. This system did not scale very well as I soon realized that in order to have good insight why your code is broken, your programming language’s tools need to point out what’s wrong and present that information in an understandable manner.

This blog post talks about how I ended up leveraging Rust’s type system to encode logic to help make the Rust compiler help me write better code.

I started by first moving my custom error and result types into their own module:


pub enum LispyError {

impl fmt::Display for LispyError {
 // Display implementation for LispyError

impl Error for LispyError {}

pub type EvalResult<T> = Result<T, LispyError>;

Since the errors reported to the user need to be message giving information about what happened, I changed he error type into a struct with two fields: kind and message. Then I made a simple constructor for the error type.

struct LispyError {
    kind: ErrorKind,
    message: &'static str,

pub fn make_error(kind: ErrorKind, message: &str) -> LispyError {
    LispyError { kind, message }

As I started using this across the different parts of the system, I quickly realized that this lead to a lot of code duplication. This is because most of the errors that my system currently reported were generally of the form where the system expected one thing and got something else. This lead to a lot of repetition especially in my builtin methods. This is where I learnt how awesome traits, generics and trait bounds were. All my builtin methods were created by implementing a custom trait called Operate.

pub trait Operate {
    fn operate(&self, operands: &Vec<Expr>, env: &mut Env) -> EvalResult<Expr>;

This defined the logic for the operation of the given buitin. Since all of them were using the same trait, I defined a method in the trait with a default implementation called handle_error. This method accepted a kind, an expected value and the value which the calling method called. It matched on the error kind and returned an appropriately formatted error. The expected and got parameters were generics with the trait bound Debug. This meant that as long as the values being passed to the function implemented the Debug trait, the error would be properly formatted, this also meant that at compile time, I would be notified if I had mistakenly passed in a parameter which did not implement the trait.

fn handle_error<G, X>(kind: ErrorKind, got: G, expected: X) where G: Display, X: Display -> LispyError {
  let fomat_string = String::from("");
  match kind {
      ErrorKind::BadArgument => format_string.push_str(
          "Funciton '{}' passed incorrect number of arguments.  Got {}, Expected: {}",
      ErrorKind::BadType => format_string.push_str(
          "Function '{}' passed incorrect type for argument 0.  Got {}, Expected {}",
      // TODO: This is horrible split the enums and make LispyError generic over them
      _ => format_string.push_str(""),

  make_error(kind, format!(format_string, self,, pair.expceted))

This solution cleaned up the code significantly, but there was still some smell left. Since you cannot specify which variants of an enum a method accepts, I had to match on all the errors. But in the Operate trait, I only wanted to handle errors made by the user. This meant that my ErrorKind type was not enough to convey this to the user.

Inorder to differentiate between user error and language error, I split the ErrorKind enum into two different enums LangError and ProgramError and changed ErrorKind to an empty trait and created the corresponding impls for the two new enums. Then I made the struct LispyError generic with the trait bound being ErrorKind + Debug.

pub struct LispyError<T>
    T: ErrorKind + Debug,
    kind: T,
    message: String,

pub trait ErrorKind {}

pub enum ProgramError {
  // ProgramError variants
impl ErrorKind for ProgramError {}

pub enum LangError {
  // LangError variants
impl ErrorKind for LangError {}

This meant that LispyError’s size would be unknown at compile time, therefore, I had to put LispyError in a Box and pass that around in my program. Once I made the required changes, my handle_error method was now accepting only ProgramError as it’s kind.

 fn handle_error<G, X>(&self, kind: ProgramError, got: G, expected: X) -> Box<Error>
        Self: Debug,
        G: Debug,
        X: Debug,

While the make_error method from the error module now was generic over T with the trait bound ErrorKind. This meant that I could have the appropriate error type be enforced by the compiler instead of it being a part of some comment or documented in a different part of the code base.

 pub fn make_error<T: ErrorKind + Debug + 'static>(kind: T, message: String) -> Box<Error> {

All in all, this exercise taught me about approaching a problem by taking it one step at a time and incrementally improving an existing situation. At every step, I built on top of the changed made in the previous step, and the compiler helping me along the way to ensure that the code I was writing was safe. Plus, it was a great way to really understand what makes rust so amazingly productive. The compiler actually inspired me to improve the error messages in my program and now, anyone reading the code will be able to clearly understand the logic behind why handle_error only takes a certain type, and the compiler will ensure that those rules are being obeyed.

The next steps in error handling, if I need something more complex would be using the Failure crate which provides many more features for error handling in applications with more complex requirements. But for now, and for my usecase I feel like this system works. Please do let me know if I can improve upon this in any way or have made any mistakes.