Recoverable errors in Haskell

In Haskell, I sometimes have IO-based actions that may produce failures. The IO aspect is usually incidental; because I need logging or metrics generation.

When not using a free monad or a fancy effect-system–just plain IO–I like to follow a mental model similar to Rust’s definition of error handling, which splits them into recoverable vs unrecoverable errors.

In Rust, when a function can fail with a recoverable error, it returns a Result, like:

Result<OutputType, ErrorType>

which the caller can pattern-match on. Let’s compare recoverable errors in Haskell.

Have the IO action throw a runtime exception

Our code might look like:

do constraints <- constrainRenamed renamed
   solved <- solveConstraints constraints
   generalised <- generaliseSolved solved
   resolveGeneralised generalised

And each of these steps may throw an exception. We leave it up to code above in the call chain to remember to catch them.

The trouble with exceptions is that they’re not mentioned in the type system. They’re also handled not at the call site, when for recoverable errors, that is usually the most straight-forward place to handle them.

It’s simply very easy–and it happens all the time–that you either throw the wrong exception type in the wrong place, or you forget to catch exceptions at the right place.

Verdict: Too dangerous.

Make the IO action return Either

A more direct approach, which is a bit like Rust, is to simply have the function return Either ErrorType OutputType and then pattern match on the result to find out whether everything went fine.

Now our code looks like this:

do constraints <- constrainRenamed renamed
   case constraints of
     Left err -> return (Left err)
     Right constraints' -> do
       solved <- solveConstraints constraints
       case solved of
         Left err -> return (Left err)
         Right solved' -> do
           generalised <- generaliseSolved solved'
           case generalised of
             Left err -> return (Left err)
             Right generalised' -> do
              resolveGeneralised generalised'

This is tedious to write, there’s all that repetition on the Left case. Reading it, you also can’t immediately tell whether there’s any extra logic going on here.

Verdict: Too much code.

Wrap your IO code up in ExceptT

One way to solve this issue is to wrap up these actions in the ExceptT monad transformer. We have to make each of the actions now live in the ExceptT monad, so

IO (Either ErrorType OutputType)


ExceptT ErrorType IO OutputType

And our code goal is clean again:

  (do constraints <- constrainRenamed renamed
      solved <- solveConstraints constraints
      generalised <- generaliseSolved solved
      resolveGeneralised generalised)

The runExceptT produces an IO (Either ErrorType OutputType).

However, ExceptT cannot be an instance of MonadUnliftIO – because it necessarily requires multiple exit points. See this discussion which should give you an idea of how hairy and unpredictable this can be.

This is a big deal.

Essentially, if a monad is unliftio-able, then:

  1. The regular exception system will work as normal. This is important, because you do want regular exceptions to be thrown upwards.
  2. Concurrent programming works as usual: you can use async with UnliftIO.Async and get predictable results.
  3. Resource clean-up is also straight-forward.

So, ExceptT has to be thrown out too, sadly.

Verdict: Not compatible.


I previously explored in another post about, which I’ve decided against in favor of…

I have since written a GHC compiler plugin to implement an alternative ?-based syntax for early return. I prefer that one than use of, because it doesn’t require any type magic or special instances, and the ? is more readable.