Dylan offers sophisticated exception handling, allowing programs to recover smoothly from error conditions. Like C++, Dylan represents errors with objects. Dylan also supports advisory warnings and potentially correctable errors.

When something unusual happens, a program can signal a condition. Handlers specify how to react to various sorts of conditions.


Unlike the exceptions of C++ or Java, signaling a condition does not itself cause the current function or block to exit. Instead, calling the signal function is just like calling any other function. The signal function just locates an appropriate handler and calls it normally.

One consequence of this is that a handler can signal another condition in a very straightforward manner. For example, imagine a program that searches for a person by name, and if it cannot find one, it searches for a pet by the same name, and if it cannot find the pet either, it breaks into the debugger. Given an unknown name, you might see the following backtrace:

  1. break({condition <key-not-found-error>: "Toby"})
  2. handle-no-pet-found({condition <key-not-found-error>: "Toby"})
  3. signal({condition <key-not-found-error>: "Toby"})
  4. element(*pets*, "Toby")
  5. find-pet("Toby")
  6. handle-no-person-found({condition <key-not-found-error>: "Toby"})
  7. signal({condition <key-not-found-error>: "Toby"})
  8. element(*people*, "Toby")
  9. find-person-or-pet("Toby")

Here you can see that each failure signals a new condition, but the program never backs out of a function call; it just keeps going, leaving the history of conditions for you to examine.


A function establishes a handler with the let handler statement. The handler remains in effect until the function exits. Other functions called by the first can establish new handlers. When the signal function looks for a handler, it looks for the most recently established handler that fits the condition.

In the example above, there are two handlers: handle-no-person-found and handle-no-pet-found. Both handlers are for the <key-not-found-error> condition. Let us assume that the find-person-or-pet function established the handle-no-person-found handler and that the find-pet function established the handle-no-pet-found handler. Since handle-no-pet-found was established later, it was the one chosen and called by signal in frame 3.

The code to establish the handlers may have looked like this:

let handler <key-not-found-error> = handle-no-pet-found;

A handler can be a normal function, but it can also be a local method or bare method, complete with access to local variables.


Dylan’s condition system allows it to offer a couple of useful error recovery techniques.

Returning from signal

Because a signal call is just like any other function call, it can return values. It returns whatever values the handler function returns. In the above example, signal never returns because we break into the debugger, and the element function wouldn’t do anything with the value if it did return, but your own code could call signal and handle any return values appropriately.

This technique allows you to use conditions as a sort of callback. You can establish a condition handler that returns a rarely-needed value, and another deeply nested function could retrieve that value if needed by signaling that condition and then taking the return value of the signal function.

Restart handlers

You can recover from a problem by returning a fall-back value from the signal function, but that technique has limitations. It does not provide much encapsulation or allow for complicated recovery information, and the recovery information has to be processed locally.

Another way to return recovery information is through the use of a restart. A restart is a condition that includes recovery information. But unlike most conditions, this condition provides a solution instead of indicating a problem. A restart handler — which may be established anywhere useful — can use the information included in the restart to work around the problem.

For example, if the find-pet function above does not succeed, the handle-no-pet-found function could create a new goldfish object and signal a <possible-new-pet> restart, returning the goldfish. The callers of find-pet would establish a handler for that restart. The restart handler established by the find-person-or-pet function would probably ignore the goldfish and signal a different condition instead, but other callers may establish different restart handlers with the appropriate behavior.

Regardless, when the restart handler finishes, it returns, and then its caller returns, and so on until the original signal function returns, at which point the program resumes work where it left off. You cannot use restart handlers or conditions to escape the program’s normal flow of control. For that, Dylan offers blocks.


A block is a group of statements. As with other control structures, it may return a value. A simple block might appear as follows:

block ()
  1 + 1
end; // returns 2

But in addition to returning a value normally, a block can use a nonlocal exit. This allows the block to exit at any time, optionally returning a value. In some ways, it is similar to the goto statement, the break statement, or the POSIX longjmp function. To use a nonlocal exit, specify a name in the parentheses following a block statement. Dylan binds this name to an exit function which can be called from anywhere within the block or the functions it calls. The following block returns either "Weird!" or "All's well.", depending on the color of the sky.

block (finished)
  if (sky-is-green())
  "All's well."
end block;

Many programs need to dispose of resources or perform other cleanup work when exiting a block. The block may contain optional afterwards and cleanup clauses. Neither affects the block’s return value. The afterwards clause executes if the block ends normally without using its nonlocal exit, and the cleanup clause executes when the block ends whether it ends normally or via nonlocal exit.

let fd = open-input-file();
block (return)
  let (errorcode, data) = read-data(fd);
  if (errorcode)
  end if;

Blocks and conditions

In addition to the afterwards and cleanup clauses, a block may also contain any number of exception clauses. The exception clauses establish handlers for a condition much like the let handler statement, but before they run the handler calls the block’s exit procedure and takes a nonlocal exit. In other words, it takes a short cut out of the normal flow of control. The signal function that signaled the condition never returns to its caller. Instead, the program resumes execution after the block.

The end result is similar to the try...catch...finally statements of C++ or Java:

let fd = open-input-file();
block ()
  let data = read-data(fd);
exception (error :: <file-error>)

You can use a block with a restart to abort some work entirely and fall back to the data supplied by the restart object, neatly circumventing the problem mentioned at the end of the Restart handlers section above:

let fd = open-input-file();
block ()
  let data = read-data(fd);
exception (restart :: <fallback-data-restart>)