28 Error constructors

28.1 What’s the pattern?

Following the rule of three, whenever you generate the same error in three or more places, you should extract it out into a common function, called an error constructor. This function should create a custom condition that contains components that can easily be tested and a conditionMessage() method that generates user friendly error messages.

(This is a new pattern that we are currently rolling out across the tidyverse; it’s currently found in few packages.)


28.2 Why is this important?

  • If you don’t use an custom condition, you can only check that your function has generated the correct error by matching the text of the error message with a regular expression. This is fragile because the text of error messages changes relatively frequently, causing spurious test failures.

  • You can use custom conditions for one-off errors, but generally the extra implementation work is not worth the pay off. That’s why we recommend only using an error constructor for repeated errors.

  • It gives more precise control over error handling with tryCatch(). This is particularly useful in packages because you may be able to give more useful high-level error mesasges by wrapping a specific low-level error.

  • As you start using this technique for more error messages you can create a hierarchy of errors that allows you to borrow behaviour, reducing the amount of code you need to write.

  • Once you have identified all the errors that can be thrown by a function, you can add a @section Throws: to the documentation that precisely describes the possible failure modes.

28.3 What does an error constructor do?

An error constructor is very similar to an S3 constructor, as its job is to extract out repeated code and generate a rich object that can easily be computed with. The primary difference is that instead of creating and returning a new object, it creates a custom error and immediately throws it with abort().

Here’s a simple imaginary error that might be thrown by fs if it couldn’t find a file:

stop_not_found <- function(path) {
    .subclass = "fs_error_not_found",
    path = path

Note the naming scheme:

  • The function should be called stop_{error_type}

  • The error class should be {package}_error_{error_type}.

The function should have one argument for each varying part of the error, and these argument should be passed onto abort() to be stored in the condition object.

To generate the error message shown to the user, provide a conditionMessage() method:

#' @export
conditionMessage.fs_error_not_found <- function(c) {
  glue::glue_data(c, "'{path}' not found")
#> Error: 'a.csv' not found

This method must be exported, because you are defining a method for a generic in another package, and it will often use glue::glue_data() to assemble the components of the condition into a string. See https://style.tidyverse.org/error-messages.html for advice on writing the error message.

28.4 How do I test?

#> Attaching package: 'testthat'
#> The following objects are masked from 'package:rlang':
#>     is_false, is_null, is_true

28.4.1 Test the constructor

Firstly, you should test the error constructor. The primary goal of this test is to ensure that the error constructor generates a message that is useful to humans, which you can not automate. This means that you can not use a unit test (because the desired output is not known) and instead you need to use a regression test, so you can ensure that the message does not change unexpectedly. For that reason the best approach is usually to use verify_output(), e.g.:

test_that("stop_not_found() generates useful error message", {
  verify_output(test_path("test-stop-not-found.txt"), {

This is useful for pull requests because verify_output() generates a complete error messages in a text file that can easily be read and reviewed.

If your error has multiple arguments, or your conditionMessage() method contains if statements, you should generally attempt to cover them all in a test case.

28.4.2 Test usage

Now that you have an error constructor, you’ll need to slightly change how you test your functions that use the error constructor. For example, take this imaginary example for reading a file into a single string:

read_lines <- function(x) {
  if (!file.exists(x)) {
  paste0(readLines(x), collapse = "\n")

Previously, you might have written:

expect_error(read_lines("missing-file.txt"), "not found")

But, now as you see, testthat gives you a warning that suggests you need to use the class argument instead:

expect_error(read_lines("missing-file.txt"), class = "fs_error_not_found")

This is less fragile because you can now change the error message without having to worry about breaking existing tests.

If you also want to check components of the error object, note that expect_error() returns it:

cnd <- expect_error(read_lines("missing-file.txt"), class = "fs_error_not_found")
expect_equal(cnd$path, "missing-file.txt")

I don’t think this level of testing is generally important, so you should only use it because the error generation code is complex conditions, or you have identified a bug.

28.5 Error hierarchies

As you start writing more and more error constructors, you may notice that you are starting to share code between them because the errors form a natural hierarchy. To take advantage of this hierarchy to reduce the amount of code you need to write, you can make the errors subclassable by adding ... and class arguments:

stop_not_found <- function(path, ..., class = character()) {
    .subclass = c(class, "fs_error_not_found"),
    path = path

Then the subclasses can call this constructor, and the problem becomes one of S3 class design. We currently have little experience with this, so use with caution.