emulating exceptions in C

22 Aug 2015
tags: c, parsing, algorithms

case study: a recursive-descent parser

I recently stumbled across a practical use-case for simulated exceptions in C while writing a recursive-descent JSON parser for fun and profit. In this quick write-up, I’ll give a high-level overview of the problems that I ran into, why exceptions were ideal for error handling, and how I emulated them in C.

recursive-descent parsing

I won’t dwell on the details of the parser itself because this post is about the error-handling mechanism, but a minimal understanding of recursive-descent parsing is necessary to appreciate it. As with any kind of parsing, we start out with the formal grammar of our language/data format/whatever. A simple grammar for common programming language literals might look like:

value: string | number | boolean
string: '"' char* '"'
boolean: 'true' | 'false'
number: '-'? digit+ ('.' digit+)?
array: '[' value ']'

In fact, the JSON grammar that I used is fairly similar. Writing a recursive-descent parser for a grammar like the above is straightforward, because you simply map each rule onto a corresponding parse function. In pseudocode, we might have:

    # perform setup
    return parseValue()

    if nextIsString()
        return parseString()
    else if nextIsNumber()
        return parseNumber
    else if nextIsBoolean()
        return parseBoolean()
    else if nextIsArray()
        return parseArray()
        throw ParseError()

    string = readCharsUntil('"')
    return string

    if peekChar() == 't'
        return true
        return false

# and so on

The gist is that we have a bunch of mutually recursive parsing routines that ultimately rely on very primitive, low-level functions (like nextChar(), readCharsUntil(), matchChars(), etc. in the above example) that operate directly on the string being parsed.


Most of the errors that we need to worry about will occur in those primitives: nextChar() might fail to read a character because it hit the end of the input stream and matchChars() might find an unexpected character, for example. We may also want to manually signal an error in one of our high-level parsing routines, like we do in parseValue() when we can’t detect any valid values ahead. The key observations to make are that in a recursive-descent parser, the call stack will grow quite deep, and that errors are fatal; in other words, when one occurs, we need to return through many layers of function calls until we hit the parse() that started it all:

getNextChar()   # Error, hit EOF!
parse()         # The top-level parse routine that we need to jump back to.

How should we handle errors in C, then?

error codes

The idiomatic solution is to simply use error codes. If nextChar() fails, return -1 (which is suitable because character values can’t be negative), and make sure to actually check that return value every time you call it.

char chr = nextChar(parserState);
if(chr == -1){
    return -1;

Note that the parserState argument passed to nextChar() is a (pointer to a) struct containing the parser’s state: a pointer to the string being parsed, its length, the current index in that string, etc.

In practice, we’d probably settle for a more sophisticated solution that involves storing error information inside parserState, like a boolean indicating whether a failure occurred and an error message to accompany it, since it’s more flexible:

char chr = nextChar(parserState);
    puts(parserState->errMsg); // just an example
    return NULL;

Either way, the result is that we have to remember to manually check some error value after every call to a parse routine that carried the possibility of failure. It bloats your code with repetitive conditionals and prevents you from using the return value of a parse routine directly in an expression because, again, you need an explicit conditional. Can we do better?

exceptions, exceptions

An exception mechanism would be ideal here, since we want to jump back to an arbitrary point in the call stack (in our case, parse()) from any one function. While C doesn’t provide us with real exceptions, we can simulate them…

longjmp(), setjmp()

Enter longjmp() and setjmp(); like goto, but nuclear! From the manpage, these functions facilitate “nonlocal jumps to a saved stack context,” or, in other words, allow you to perform jumps across functions. Use with extreme caution. The gist is that setjmp() is used to initialize a jmp_buf, storing critical information about the current calling environment – it’s highly system-specific, but generally includes things like the stack pointer and current register values – and returns 0 (the first time it returns – this will be explained shortly). You can then pass that jmp_buf to longjmp() at any other point, and the program will rewind execution back to the setjmp() call. You’ll also need to pass a non-zero int to longjmp(), which will be the value that setjmp() returns this time around; this allows us to discriminate between the times that setjmp() returns a.) initially and b.) after a jump was performed. An example should set things straight:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <setjmp.h>

void bar(jmp_buf jmpBuf){
    puts("inside bar()");
    longjmp(jmpBuf, 1);
    puts("this should never run!");

void foo(void){
    jmp_buf jmpBuf;
        // This runs after `setjmp()` returns normally.
        puts("calling bar()");
        puts("this should never run!");
    else {
        // This runs after `setjmp()` returns from a `longjmp()`.
        puts("returned from bar()");

int main(){
	return 0;

When compiled and run, you should see:

calling bar()
inside bar()
returned from bar()

Notice how we wrap the call to setjmp() in a conditional, which allows us to selectively run different code after it returned regularly (returning 0) and then after a jump occurred (returning whatever argument was passed to longjmp(), or, in our case, 1). Continuing the exceptions analogy, this is similar to a try {} catch {}.

Also, note that jmp_buf is typedef‘d as an array of the actual jmp_buf structs with only one element – in other words, when you declare jmp_buf jmpBuf;, the struct inside jmpBuf lives entirely on the stack but jmpBuf will decay to a pointer if you pass it to a function. In my opinion that’s rather misleading and I would’ve preferred to manually, explicitly use pointer notation when necessary, but it is what it is.

integrating them into the parser

The idea is to initialize a jmp_buf in the parse() function with setjmp(), store it inside the parserState struct in a prevErrorTrap member (couldn’t think of a better name), and then longjmp() to it whenever an error occurs. If that were all, using this solution would be a no-brainer, but alas, there’s a complication: some of our parsing routines might need to perform cleanup before exiting, like free()ing temporarily allocated memory. For instance, the parseArray() function in my parser allocates a stretchy array to house all of the values that it successfully parses; if an error occurs in one of the parseValue() calls that it makes, it needs to deallocate all of the values parsed thus far and then the array itself. If we jump from the point where the error occurred to the very beginning of the parse, though, we don’t have any means of doing so.

intermediate cleanup

Two solutions come to mind:

I ultimately settled for the latter, and the idea’s the same as before: in functions like parseArray() and any others that allocate intermediate memory, create a copy of the current jump buffer (parserState->prevErrorTrap), and then set parserState->prevErrorTrap to a new jump buffer created with setjmp() – this one will get used by all of the parse routines called by the current one. If the parse succeeds, just restore parserState->prevErrorTrap to the original jump buffer before returning. If it fails, perform cleanup and jump directly to the original buffer. Here’s an example taken straight from the parser’s source, with irrelevant bits omitted:

static JsonArray_t JsonParser_parseArray(JsonParser_t *state){
     * Omitted: perform setup here.

    jmp_buf prevErrorTrap;
    copyJmpBuf(prevErrorTrap, state->errorTrap);

    // The stretchy array used to store parsed values. Read on
    // for why `volatile` is necessary.
    JsonVal_t *volatile values = NULL;


         * Omitted: parse values into `values` with repeated calls
         * to `parseValue()`.

        // If we get this far, then no error occurred, so restore the
        // original `prevErrorTrap`.
        copyJmpBuf(state->errorTrap, prevErrorTrap);

        return (JsonArray_t){
            .length = sb_count(values),
            .values = values
    else {
        // An error occurred! Deallocate all intermediate memory,
        // and then jump to the previous `prevErrorTrap`.
        for(int ind = 0; ind < sb_count(values); ind++){
        longjmp(prevErrorTrap, 1);

copyJmpBuf() is just a convenience wrapper for memcpy():

static void *copyJmpBuf(jmp_buf dest, const jmp_buf src){
    return memcpy(dest, src, sizeof(jmp_buf));

One other thing to note is that we declared the values pointer as volatile to prevent the compiler from placing it into a register. Why? The problem is that we modify values after the call to setjmp(), namely when we perform the initial allocation of a stretchy array and then whenever it gets resized and a realloc() changes the location of the items that it contains. When a long jump occurs, register values are restored from whatever they were at the time of the setjmp() call, since those are what it copied into the target jmp_buf; if the compiler decided to put values into a register, then after the jump, it would be set to NULL. To prevent that from happening, we use the volatile specifier. See this SO post for more; this is an example of the potentially very dangerous subtleties of long jumping. In fact, while writing my parser I forgot to add in the volatile specifier to values, and noticed that it was leaking memory (thank you valgrind!) whenever an error occurred even though the cleanup clause was getting run. It turns out that values would get put into a register and then consequently take on a value of NULL after the jump – since that’s what it was at the time of the original setjmp() – meaning that the only reference to the allocated memory was lost and it couldn’t possibly be deallocated. Moreover, when passed to free(), it wouldn’t blow up, because free() ignores NULL pointers1!

To wrap up the above example, all of the other parsing functions that set intermediate breakpoints have virtually the same layout, so you could even theoretically encapsulate the different statements in macros like try and catch for a full blown mimicry of exceptions in other languages – that’s too much magic for me, though.

in conclusion

longjmp() and setjmp() are tricky. They’re obscure, can give rise to subtle bugs, are highly platform-specific, and, if abused, will probably lead to awfully confusing code; a footcannon if I ever saw one. That being said, like goto, they do have valid uses and can be very powerful when used appropriately. In this case, I think they were superior to error codes and resulted in a slimmer, more readable implementation than what it otherwise would’ve been. If you’re interested in more reading, I recommend this comprehensive article. Also, here’s the thoroughly documented parser source code; check out src/json_parser.c.

  1. From man -s3 free: “If ptr is NULL, no operation is performed”