Error Handling

As of today, August 2021, the error handling story for Rust is still being ironed out. There are lots of crates in contention of becoming the One True Way.

There are two main options for representing errors:

  1. Enumeration
    • This enables callers to distinguish between different kinds of errors.
  2. One Opaque Error
    • In cases where the user needs to figure out how to resolve the issue, but the exact issue isn't relevant because the application can't meaningfully recover from the specifics of the situation, it could be useful to just give a single error.

When choosing between these, you should consider how the nature of the error will affect what the caller does in response.

Enumerated Errors


fn main() {
pub enum CopyError {

// std::fmt::Display is required by std::error::Error
impl std::fmt::Display for CopyError { .. }
impl std::error::Error for CopyError { .. }

All error types should implement the std::error::Error trait.

  • The Error trait has a method called Error::source, which is the mechanism for finding the underlying cause of an error.

All error types should implement the std::fmt::Display trait.

  • This is required anyway by the std::error::Error trait.
  • Display should give a one-line description of what went wrong that can be easily folded into other error messages.
  • It should be lowercase and without trailing punctuation so that it fits with other larger error reports.

All error types should implement the std::fmt::Debug trait.

  • This is required anyway by the std::error::Error trait.
  • Debug should provide a more descriptive error, with extra information to help track down issues.

Most (nearly all) error types should implement both Send and Sync so that they can be used in multi-threaded contexts.

Most (nearly all) error types should be 'static. Which means they don't hold references to other types unless those references are also &'static.

Opaque Errors

Example (type-erased):

fn main() {
Box<dyn Error + Send + Sync + 'static>


fn main() {
Result<SomeType, Box<dyn Error + Send + Sync + 'static>>

Example (struct):

fn main() {
struct MyError(String);

impl Display for MyError {
    fn fmt(&self, f: &mut Formatter<'_>) -> std::fmt::Result {

impl Error for MyError {}


fn main() {
Result<SomeType, MyError>

Opaque errors should implement Send, Debug, Display, and Error.

Otherwise, the world is your oyster for what type this error will be.

Benefits of making your errors opaque:

  1. If your errors are not useful to the end user anyway, then opaque errors avoid forcing you to pass info just to pass info.
  2. Type-erased errors often compose nicely. Functions with a return type of Box<dyn Error + ...> can just use ? almost indiscriminately and they'll get turned into that one common error type.
  3. Every variant of an enumerated Error type is part of your API. If you don't need them, you are just bloating your interface for no benefit.

The 'static bound on your error types gives you access to downcasting.

  • Downcasting is taking an item of type T to a more specific, subtype U.
  • In Rust, there is a narrow downcasting allowance where you can turn a dyn Error into a concrete underlying type when that dyn Error was originally of that type.
  • This is done using Error::downcast_ref, which returns an Option and users may match on its success/failure to do different things if the downcast was possible or not.
  • Error::downcast_ref only works if T: 'static


The ? operator means "unwrap or return early". It operates on values of Result<T, E>.

The ? operator performs type conversion using the From trait.

  • This means that in a function that returns Result<T, E> you may use the ? on any Result<T, U> where E: From<U>.

The ? operator is syntactic sugar for an unstable trait called Try.

  • Try defines a wrapper type whose state is either one where further computation is useful, or one where it is not, e.g., Result. Or monads.
  • Try generalizes to more than just Result. Option, for example, has the exact same pattern so in the future ? might work with Option and maybe others too.

There is an unstable feature feature try blocks, where the ? will break out of the block instead of returning from a function early. This allows you to have cleanup code after the ?.

fn main() {
// This is unstable as of August 2021.

fn foo() -> Result<(), Error> {
    let thing = Thing::setup()?;
    let r = try {
        // use thing and ? in here, if error it breaks and sets its error value to r