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Standard Exception Classes in Python 1.5

Standard Exception Classes in Python 1.5

(updated for Python 1.5.2 -baw)

User-defined Python exceptions can be either strings or Python classes. Since classes have many nice properties when used as exceptions, it is desirable to migrate to a situation where classes are used exclusively. Prior to Python 1.5 alpha 4, Python's standard exceptions (IOError, TypeError, etc.) were defined as strings. Changing these to classes posed some particularly nasty backward compatibility problems.

In Python versions 1.5 and later, the standard exceptions are Python classes, and a few new standard exceptions have been added. The obsolete AccessError exception has been deleted. Because it is possible (although unlikely) that this change broke existing code, the Python interpreter can be invoked the command line option -X to disable this feature, and use string exceptions like before. This option is a temporary measure - eventually the string-based standard exceptions will be removed from the language altogether. It hasn't been decided whether user-defined string exceptions will be allowed in Python 2.0.

The Standard Exception Hierarchy

Behold the standard exception hierarchy. It is defined in the new standard library module Exceptions that were new since Python 1.5 are marked with (*).

 +-- SystemExit
 +-- StandardError(*)
      +-- KeyboardInterrupt
      +-- ImportError
      +-- EnvironmentError(*)
      |    |
      |    +-- IOError
      |    +-- OSError(*)
      +-- EOFError
      +-- RuntimeError
      |    |
      |    +-- NotImplementedError(*)
      +-- NameError
      +-- AttributeError
      +-- SyntaxError
      +-- TypeError
      +-- AssertionError
      +-- LookupError(*)
      |    |
      |    +-- IndexError
      |    +-- KeyError
      +-- ArithmeticError(*)
      |    |
      |    +-- OverflowError
      |    +-- ZeroDivisionError
      |    +-- FloatingPointError
      +-- ValueError
      +-- SystemError
      +-- MemoryError

The root class for all exceptions is the new exception Exception. From this, two additional classes are derived, StandardError, which is the root class for all standard exceptions, and SystemExit. It is recommended that user-defined exceptions in new code be derived from Exception, although for backward compatibility reasons, this is not required. Eventually this rule will be tightened.

SystemExit is derived from Exception because while it is an exception, it is not an error.

Most standard exceptions are direct descendants of StandardError. Some related exceptions are grouped together using an intermediate class derived from StandardError; this makes it possible to catch several different exceptions in one except clause, without using the tuple notation.

We looked into introducing more groups of related exceptions, but couldn't decide on the best grouping. In a language as dynamic as Python, it's hard to say whether TypeError is a "program error", a "runtime error" or an "environmental error", so we decided to leave it undecided. It could be argued that NameError and AttributeError should be derived from LookupError, but this is questionable and depends entirely on the application.

Exception Class Definitions

The Python class definitions for the standard exceptions are imported from the standard module "exceptions". You can't change this file thinking that the changes will automatically show up in the standard exceptions; the builtin module expects the current hierarchy as defined in

Details on the standard exception classes are available in the Python library reference manual's entry for the exceptions module.

Changes to raise

The raise statement has been extended to allow raising a class exception without explicit instantiation. The following forms, called the "compatibility forms" of the raise statement, are allowed:

  • raise exception
  • raise exception, argument
  • raise exception, (argument, argument, ...)

When exception is a class, these are equivalent to the following forms:

  • raise exception()
  • raise exception(argument)
  • raise exception(argument, argument, ...)

Note that these are all examples of the form

  • raise instance

which in itself is a shorthand for

  • raise class, instance

where class is the class to which instance belongs. In Python 1.4, only the forms

  • raise class, instance and
  • raise instance

were allowed; in Python 1.5 (starting with 1.5a1) the forms

  • raise class and
  • raise class, argument(s)

were added. The allowable forms for string exceptions are unchanged.

For various reasons, passing None as the second argument to raise is equivalent to omitting it. In particular, the statement

  • raise class, None

is equivalent to

  • raise class()

and not to

  • raise class(None)

Likewise, the statement

  • raise class, value

where value happens to be a tuple is equivalent to passing the tuple's items as individual arguments to the class constructor, rather than passing value as a single argument (and an empty tuple calls the constructor without arguments). This makes a difference because there's a difference between f(a, b) and f((a, b)).

These are all compromises - they work well with the kind of arguments that the standard exceptions typically take (like a simple string). For clarity in new code, the form

  • raise class(argument, ...)

is recommended (i.e. make an explicit call to the constructor).

How Does This Help?

The motivation for introducing the compatibility forms was to allow backward compatibility with old code that raised a standard exception. For example, a __getattr__ hook might invoke the statement

  • raise AttributeError, attrname

when the desired attribute is not defined.

Using the new class exceptions, the proper exception to raise would be AttributeError(attrname); the compatibility forms ensure that the old code doesn't break. (In fact, new code that wants to be compatible with the -X option must use the compatibility forms, but this is highly discouraged.)

Changes to except

No user-visible changes were made to the except clause of the try statement.

Internally, a lot has changed. For example, class exceptions raised from C are instantiated when they are caught, not when they are raised. This is a performance hack so that exceptions raised and caught entirely in C never pay the penalty of instantiation. For example, iteration through a list in a for statement raises an IndexError at the end of the list by the list object, but the exception is caught in C and so never instantiated.

What Could Break?

The new design does its very best not to break old code, but there are some cases where it wasn't worth compromising the new semantics in order to avoid breaking code. In other words, some old code may break. That's why the -X switch is there; however this shouldn't be an excuse for not fixing your code.

There are two kinds of breakage: sometimes, code will print slightly funny error messages when it catches a class exception but expects a string exception. And sometimes, but much less often, code will actually crash or otherwise do the wrong thing in its error handling.

Non-fatal Breakage

An examples of the first kind of breakage is code that attempts to print the exception name, e.g.

    print "Sorry:", sys.exc_type, ":", sys.exc_value
With string-based exceptions, this would print something like
Sorry: ZeroDivisionError : integer division or modulo
With class-based exceptions, it will print
Sorry: exceptions.ZeroDivisionError : integer division or modulo
The funny exceptions.ZeroDivisionError occurs because when an exception type is a class it is printed as modulename.classname. This is handled internally by Python.

Fatal Breakage

More serious is breaking error handling code. This usually happens because the error handling code expects the exception or the value associated with the exception to have a particular type (usually string or tuple). With the new scheme, the type is a class and the value is a class instance. For example, the following code will break:

    raise Exception()
    print "Sorry:", sys.exc_type + ":", sys.exc_value
because it tries to concatenate the exception type (a class object) with a string. A fix (also for the previous example) would be to write
    raise Exception()
    etype = sys.exc_type       # Save it; try-except overwrites it!
        ename = etype.__name__ # Get class name if it is a class
    except AttributeError:
        ename = etype
    print "Sorry:", str(ename) + ":", sys.exc_value
Note how this example avoids an explicit type test! Instead, it simply catches the (new) exception raised when the __name__ attribute is not found. Just to be absolutely sure that we're concatenating a string, the built-in function str() is applied.

Another example involves code that assumes too much about the type of the value associated with the exception. For example:

except IOError, v:
    if type(v) == type(()) and len(v) == 2:
        (code, message) = v
        code = 0
        message = v
    print "I/O Error: " + message + " (" + str(code) + ")"
This code understands that IOError is often raised with a tuple of the form (errorcode, message), and sometimes with just a string. However, since it explicitly tests for tuple-ness of the value, it will crash when the value is an instance!

Again, the remedy is to just go ahead and try the tuple unpack, and if it fails, use the fallback strategy:

except IOError, v:
        (code, message) = v
        code = 0
        message = v
    print "I/O Error: " + str(message) + " (" + str(code) + ")"
This works because the tuple-unpack semantics have been loosened to work with any sequence on the right-hand size (see the section on Sequence Unpacking below), and the standard exception classes can be accessed like a sequence (by virtue of their __getitem__ method, see above).

Note that the second try-except statement does not specify the exception to catch - this is because with string exceptions, the exception raised is "TypeError: unpack non-tuple", while with class exceptions it is "ValueError: unpack sequence of wrong size". This is because a string is a sequence; we must assume that error messages are always more than two characters long!

(An alternative approach would be to use try-except to test for the presence of the errno attribute; in the future, this would make sense, but at the present time it would require even more code in order to be compatible with string exceptions.)

Changes to the C API

XXX To be described in more detail:

int PyErr_ExceptionMatches(PyObject *);
int PyErr_GivenExceptionMatches(PyObject *, PyObject *);
void PyErr_NormalizeException(PyObject**, PyObject**, PyObject**);

PyErr_ExceptionMatches(exception) should be used in preference over PyErr_Occurred()==exception, since the latter will return an incorrect result when the exception raised is a class derived from the exception tested for.

PyErr_GivenExceptionMatches(raised_exception, exception) performs the same test as PyErr_ExceptionMatches() but allows you to pass the raised exception in explicitly.

PyErr_NormalizeException() is mostly for internal use.

Other Changes

Some changes to the language were made as part of the same project.

New Builtin Functions

Two new intrinsic functions for class testing were introduced (since the functionality had to be implemented in the C API, there was no reason not to make it accessible to Python programmers).

issubclass(D, C) returns true iff class D is derived from class C, directly or indirectly. issubclass(C, C) always returns true. Both arguments must be class objects.

isinstance(x, C) returns true iff x is an instance of C or of a (direct or indirect) subclass of C. The first argument may hyave any type; if x is not an instance of any class, isinstance(x, C) always returns false. The second argument must be a class object.

Sequence Unpacking

Previous Python versions require an exact type match between the left hand and right hand side of "unpacking" assignments, e.g.

(a, b, c) = x
requires that x is a tuple with three items, while
[a, b, c] = x
requires that x is a list with three items.

As part of the same project, the right hand side of either statement can be any sequence with exactly three items. This makes it possible to extract e.g. the errno and strerror values from an IOError exception in a backwards compatible way:

    f = open(filename, mode)
except IOError, what:
    (errno, strerror) = what
    print "Error number", errno, "(%s)" % strerror

The same approach works for the SyntaxError exception, with the proviso that the info part is not always present:

    c = compile(source, filename, "exec")
except SyntaxError, what:
        message, info = what
        message, info = what, None
    if info:
        "...print source code info..."
    print "SyntaxError:", msg