Error Not Error

Posted in Dev · 15 May, 2021

I stumbled on a piece of my old code of some CLI utility and remembered what a mess caused my unawareness of this specificity of UNIX streams (I'm not sure if it applies to Windows).

This is really counterintuitive but the stderr UNIX stream is not for errors only. It is for everything except the main result of a program.

  • Want to print a debug information? Send it to stderr.
  • Want to ask for a confirmation? Send it to stderr.
  • Want to print a progress? Send it to stderr.
  • Want to print a non-critical warning? Send it to stderr.
  • Want to print an error? Send it to stderr.

The only case when you should print to stdout is when you have the final result of your program and only this result should go there.

For example, if your program performs a file search, a list of the found files should go to stdout.

If your program uploads specified files to a server and you want to print an informational message that all files were successfully uploaded, it should go to stderr.

Why? Because users of your program should be able to pipe the results.

Let's say you built a CLI program answer that answers the "ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything" (in Rust, of course).

rust
println!("42"); // the main result, prints to stdout
eprintln!("Answered!"); // informational message, prints to stderr

When you run it and pipe the results to pbcopy (macOS utility that puts data into a clipboard):

sh
answer | pbcopy

In your terminal you will see:

Answered!

But in your clipboard, there will be 42. Because pbcopy received data from stdout of your program via its stdin and placed it into your clipboard.

©Alex Fedoseev2015—2021