void versus [[noreturn]]

Yesterday someone on the cpplang Slack evinced confusion over the following code:

int divide1(int a, int b) {
    if (b != 0) {
        return a / b;
    } else {
        throw std::runtime_error("div by zero");

void throw_error() {
    throw std::runtime_error("div by zero");
int divide2(int a, int b) {
    if (b != 0) {
        return a / b;
    } else {

All compiler vendors agree that divide2 should produce a warning along the lines of “control reaches end of non-void function,” but divide1 is totally fine. Our newbie was confused by this behavior. In the case of divide1, we return a value in the if branch but not in the else branch; the compiler is fine with this, because it knows throw means “this branch doesn’t return anything; it throws.” In divide2 we do the same thing, but just hidden inside the throw_error helper function. Suddenly the compiler is not okay with this.

An expert advised to mark throw_error with the [[noreturn]] attribute, to show the compiler that throw_error really never returns and therefore it can be treated the same as a throw. Our newbie replied:

I don’t understand why that should change things. throw_error’s return type being void already means it never returns anything.

This reminded me of the classic exchange from Act III of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (see also the scene from the 1990 movie version).

ROS.  Do you think death could possibly be a boat?

GUIL.  No. Death is… not. Death isn’t. You take my meaning? Death is… not-being. You can’t not-be on a boat.

ROS.  I’ve frequently not-been on boats.

GUIL.  No, no, no. What you’ve done is been not-on-boats.

A function that is declared void is saying (by default) that it does return not-a-value. A function that is declared [[noreturn]] is saying (with even higher priority) that it does not return at all — that it throws, or terminates the program, or loops forever, or some combination of these, but that it definitely never returns.

The C++ versions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Strousencrantz and Guildenstrup?) might have said something like

GUIL.  A function can’t not-return an int.

ROS.  I frequently write functions that don’t-return an int.

GUIL.  No, no, no. What you’ve written are functions that return not-an-int.

Mind you, this analogy is so inexact that I’d argue Guildenstrup’s first statement is flatly wrong. In C++, syntactically, as a matter of the language grammar, every function must specify a return type, even when that function is also marked [[noreturn]]. So in C++, we can indeed write a function that doesn’t-return an int, or doesn’t-return a string, or doesn’t-return void:

[[noreturn]] int f() { throw "oops"; }
[[noreturn]] std::string g() { while (true); }
[[noreturn]] void h() { abort(); }

And this difference is meaningful within the language, because we can observe the type of an expression f() without actually executing f() (whereas Rosencrantz cannot observe the on-a-boatness of himself without actually being himself).

static_assert(std::same_as<decltype(f()), int>);
static_assert(!std::same_as<decltype(g()), int>);

Vice versa, we cannot observe the [[noreturn]]-ness of a function from within C++, because attributes like [[noreturn]] don’t participate in the type system. This was probably a mistake, but C++ is stuck with it for the foreseeable future. We actually ran into that issue previously on this blog; see “Classically polymorphic visit replaces some uses of dynamic_cast (2020-09-29).

In short:

  • void f() means “f returns not-a-value.”

  • [[noreturn]] void g() means “g does not return at all; it does something else instead of returning.”

  • In C++, a function’s return type and its noreturn-ness are independently controllable. Usually there’s no reason to make a [[noreturn]] function with a non-void return type, but in unusual cases you might need to.

Posted 2022-06-29