Python return error from main

Do I raise or return errors in Python?

Raise, return, and how to never fail silently in Python.

2021-02-09 05:34:48 -0500 -0500 February 9, 2021 4 min read

⬍ Table of Contents

I hear this question a lot: “Do I raise or return this error in Python?”

The right answer will depend on the goals of your application logic. You want to ensure your Python code doesn’t fail silently, saving you and your teammates from having to hunt down deeply entrenched errors.

Here’s the difference between raise and return when handling failures in Python.

When to raise

The raise statement allows the programmer to force a specific exception to occur. (8.4 Raising Exceptions)

Use raise when you know you want a specific behavior, such as:

Raising an exception terminates the flow of your program, allowing the exception to bubble up the call stack. In the above example, this would let you explicitly handle TypeError later. If TypeError goes unhandled, code execution stops and you’ll get an unhandled exception message.

Raise is useful in cases where you want to define a certain behavior to occur. For example, you may choose to disallow certain words in a text field:

Raise takes an instance of an exception, or a derivative of the Exception class. Here are all of Python’s built-in exceptions.

Raise can help you avoid writing functions that fail silently. For example, this code will not raise an exception if JAM doesn’t exist:

To cause the sandwich_or_bust() function to actually bust, add a raise :

Any time your code interacts with an external variable, module, or service, there is a possibility of failure. You can use raise in an if statement to help ensure those failures aren’t silent.

Raise in try and except

To handle a possible failure by taking an action if there is one, use a try … except statement.

This lets you buy_more_jam() before re-raising the exception. If you want to propagate a caught exception, use raise without arguments to avoid possible loss of the stack trace.

If you don’t know that the exception will be a ValueError , you can also use a bare except: or catch any derivative of the Exception class with except Exception: . Whenever possible, it’s better to raise and handle exceptions explicitly.

Use else for code to execute if the try does not raise an exception. For example:

You could also place the print line within the try block, however, this is less explicit.

When to return

When you use return in Python, you’re giving back a value. A function returns to the location it was called from.

While it’s more idiomatic to raise errors in Python, there may be occasions where you find return to be more applicable.

For example, if your Python code is interacting with other components that do not handle exception classes, you may want to return a message instead. Here’s an example using a try … except statement:

Note that when you return an Exception class object, you’ll get a representation of its associated value, usually the first item in its list of arguments. In the example above, this is the string explanation of the exception. In some cases, it may be a tuple with other information about the exception.

You may also use return to give a specific error object, such as with HttpResponseNotFound in Django. For example, you may want to return a 404 instead of a 403 for security reasons:

Using return can help you write appropriately noisy code when your function is expected to give back a certain value, and when interacting with outside elements.

The most important part

Silent failures create some of the most frustrating bugs to find and fix. You can help create a pleasant development experience for yourself and your team by using raise and return to ensure that errors are handled in your Python code.

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Victoria Drake

Victoria Drake is an experienced software engineer with a unique background in technical and executive leadership. She loves to help technology teams raise programming proficiency and streamline development processes. Victoria is an award-winning technical author and open source community mentor. She serves as core maintainer and co-author for the OWASP Web Security Testing Guide.

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8. Errors and Exceptions¶

Until now error messages haven’t been more than mentioned, but if you have tried out the examples you have probably seen some. There are (at least) two distinguishable kinds of errors: syntax errors and exceptions.

8.1. Syntax Errors¶

Syntax errors, also known as parsing errors, are perhaps the most common kind of complaint you get while you are still learning Python:

The parser repeats the offending line and displays a little ‘arrow’ pointing at the earliest point in the line where the error was detected. The error is caused by (or at least detected at) the token preceding the arrow: in the example, the error is detected at the function print() , since a colon ( ‘:’ ) is missing before it. File name and line number are printed so you know where to look in case the input came from a script.

8.2. Exceptions¶

Even if a statement or expression is syntactically correct, it may cause an error when an attempt is made to execute it. Errors detected during execution are called exceptions and are not unconditionally fatal: you will soon learn how to handle them in Python programs. Most exceptions are not handled by programs, however, and result in error messages as shown here:

The last line of the error message indicates what happened. Exceptions come in different types, and the type is printed as part of the message: the types in the example are ZeroDivisionError , NameError and TypeError . The string printed as the exception type is the name of the built-in exception that occurred. This is true for all built-in exceptions, but need not be true for user-defined exceptions (although it is a useful convention). Standard exception names are built-in identifiers (not reserved keywords).

The rest of the line provides detail based on the type of exception and what caused it.

The preceding part of the error message shows the context where the exception occurred, in the form of a stack traceback. In general it contains a stack traceback listing source lines; however, it will not display lines read from standard input.

Built-in Exceptions lists the built-in exceptions and their meanings.

8.3. Handling Exceptions¶

It is possible to write programs that handle selected exceptions. Look at the following example, which asks the user for input until a valid integer has been entered, but allows the user to interrupt the program (using Control — C or whatever the operating system supports); note that a user-generated interruption is signalled by raising the KeyboardInterrupt exception.

The try statement works as follows.

First, the try clause (the statement(s) between the try and except keywords) is executed.

If no exception occurs, the except clause is skipped and execution of the try statement is finished.

If an exception occurs during execution of the try clause, the rest of the clause is skipped. Then, if its type matches the exception named after the except keyword, the except clause is executed, and then execution continues after the try/except block.

If an exception occurs which does not match the exception named in the except clause, it is passed on to outer try statements; if no handler is found, it is an unhandled exception and execution stops with a message as shown above.

A try statement may have more than one except clause, to specify handlers for different exceptions. At most one handler will be executed. Handlers only handle exceptions that occur in the corresponding try clause, not in other handlers of the same try statement. An except clause may name multiple exceptions as a parenthesized tuple, for example:

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A class in an except clause is compatible with an exception if it is the same class or a base class thereof (but not the other way around — an except clause listing a derived class is not compatible with a base class). For example, the following code will print B, C, D in that order:

Note that if the except clauses were reversed (with except B first), it would have printed B, B, B — the first matching except clause is triggered.

When an exception occurs, it may have associated values, also known as the exception’s arguments. The presence and types of the arguments depend on the exception type.

The except clause may specify a variable after the exception name. The variable is bound to the exception instance which typically has an args attribute that stores the arguments. For convenience, builtin exception types define __str__() to print all the arguments without explicitly accessing .args .

The exception’s __str__() output is printed as the last part (‘detail’) of the message for unhandled exceptions.

BaseException is the common base class of all exceptions. One of its subclasses, Exception , is the base class of all the non-fatal exceptions. Exceptions which are not subclasses of Exception are not typically handled, because they are used to indicate that the program should terminate. They include SystemExit which is raised by sys.exit() and KeyboardInterrupt which is raised when a user wishes to interrupt the program.

Exception can be used as a wildcard that catches (almost) everything. However, it is good practice to be as specific as possible with the types of exceptions that we intend to handle, and to allow any unexpected exceptions to propagate on.

The most common pattern for handling Exception is to print or log the exception and then re-raise it (allowing a caller to handle the exception as well):

The try … except statement has an optional else clause, which, when present, must follow all except clauses. It is useful for code that must be executed if the try clause does not raise an exception. For example:

The use of the else clause is better than adding additional code to the try clause because it avoids accidentally catching an exception that wasn’t raised by the code being protected by the try … except statement.

Exception handlers do not handle only exceptions that occur immediately in the try clause, but also those that occur inside functions that are called (even indirectly) in the try clause. For example:

8.4. Raising Exceptions¶

The raise statement allows the programmer to force a specified exception to occur. For example:

The sole argument to raise indicates the exception to be raised. This must be either an exception instance or an exception class (a class that derives from BaseException , such as Exception or one of its subclasses). If an exception class is passed, it will be implicitly instantiated by calling its constructor with no arguments:

If you need to determine whether an exception was raised but don’t intend to handle it, a simpler form of the raise statement allows you to re-raise the exception:

8.5. Exception Chaining¶

If an unhandled exception occurs inside an except section, it will have the exception being handled attached to it and included in the error message:

To indicate that an exception is a direct consequence of another, the raise statement allows an optional from clause:

This can be useful when you are transforming exceptions. For example:

It also allows disabling automatic exception chaining using the from None idiom:

For more information about chaining mechanics, see Built-in Exceptions .

8.6. User-defined Exceptions¶

Programs may name their own exceptions by creating a new exception class (see Classes for more about Python classes). Exceptions should typically be derived from the Exception class, either directly or indirectly.

Exception classes can be defined which do anything any other class can do, but are usually kept simple, often only offering a number of attributes that allow information about the error to be extracted by handlers for the exception.

Most exceptions are defined with names that end in “Error”, similar to the naming of the standard exceptions.

Many standard modules define their own exceptions to report errors that may occur in functions they define.

8.7. Defining Clean-up Actions¶

The try statement has another optional clause which is intended to define clean-up actions that must be executed under all circumstances. For example:

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If a finally clause is present, the finally clause will execute as the last task before the try statement completes. The finally clause runs whether or not the try statement produces an exception. The following points discuss more complex cases when an exception occurs:

If an exception occurs during execution of the try clause, the exception may be handled by an except clause. If the exception is not handled by an except clause, the exception is re-raised after the finally clause has been executed.

An exception could occur during execution of an except or else clause. Again, the exception is re-raised after the finally clause has been executed.

If the finally clause executes a break , continue or return statement, exceptions are not re-raised.

If the try statement reaches a break , continue or return statement, the finally clause will execute just prior to the break , continue or return statement’s execution.

If a finally clause includes a return statement, the returned value will be the one from the finally clause’s return statement, not the value from the try clause’s return statement.

A more complicated example:

As you can see, the finally clause is executed in any event. The TypeError raised by dividing two strings is not handled by the except clause and therefore re-raised after the finally clause has been executed.

In real world applications, the finally clause is useful for releasing external resources (such as files or network connections), regardless of whether the use of the resource was successful.

8.8. Predefined Clean-up Actions¶

Some objects define standard clean-up actions to be undertaken when the object is no longer needed, regardless of whether or not the operation using the object succeeded or failed. Look at the following example, which tries to open a file and print its contents to the screen.

The problem with this code is that it leaves the file open for an indeterminate amount of time after this part of the code has finished executing. This is not an issue in simple scripts, but can be a problem for larger applications. The with statement allows objects like files to be used in a way that ensures they are always cleaned up promptly and correctly.

After the statement is executed, the file f is always closed, even if a problem was encountered while processing the lines. Objects which, like files, provide predefined clean-up actions will indicate this in their documentation.

8.9. Raising and Handling Multiple Unrelated Exceptions¶

There are situations where it is necessary to report several exceptions that have occurred. This is often the case in concurrency frameworks, when several tasks may have failed in parallel, but there are also other use cases where it is desirable to continue execution and collect multiple errors rather than raise the first exception.

The builtin ExceptionGroup wraps a list of exception instances so that they can be raised together. It is an exception itself, so it can be caught like any other exception.

By using except* instead of except , we can selectively handle only the exceptions in the group that match a certain type. In the following example, which shows a nested exception group, each except* clause extracts from the group exceptions of a certain type while letting all other exceptions propagate to other clauses and eventually to be reraised.

Note that the exceptions nested in an exception group must be instances, not types. This is because in practice the exceptions would typically be ones that have already been raised and caught by the program, along the following pattern:

8.10. Enriching Exceptions with Notes¶

When an exception is created in order to be raised, it is usually initialized with information that describes the error that has occurred. There are cases where it is useful to add information after the exception was caught. For this purpose, exceptions have a method add_note(note) that accepts a string and adds it to the exception’s notes list. The standard traceback rendering includes all notes, in the order they were added, after the exception.

For example, when collecting exceptions into an exception group, we may want to add context information for the individual errors. In the following each exception in the group has a note indicating when this error has occurred.

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