Performing a non-local return in R

February 23, 2014
By

(This article was first published on The Shape of Code » R, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

In most languages return is a statement, but in R it is a function (in fact R does not really have statements, it only has expressions). This function-like behavior of return is useful for figuring out the order in which operations are performed, e.g., the value returned by return(1)+return(2) tells us that binary operators are evaluated left to right.

R also supports lazy evaluation, operands are only evaluated when their value is required. The question of when a value might be required is a very complicated rabbit hole. In R’s case arguments to function calls are lazy and in the following code:

ret_a_b=function(a, b)
{
if (runif(1, -1, 1) < 0)
   a
else
   b
}
 
helpless=function()
{
ret_a_b(return(3), return(4))
 
return(99)
}

a call to helpless results in either 3 or 4 being returned.

This ability to perform non-local returns is just what is needed to implement exception handling recovery, i.e., jumping out of some nested function to a call potentially much higher up in the call tree, without passing back up through the intervening function called, when something goes wrong.

Having to pass the return-blob to every function called would be a pain, using a global variable would make life much simpler and less error prone. Simply assigning to a global variable will not work because the value being assigned is evaluated (it does not have to be, but R chooses to not to be lazy here). My first attempt to get what I needed into a global variable involved delayedAssign, but that did not work out. The second attempt made use of the environment created by a nested function definition, as follows:

# Create an environment containing a return that can be evaluated later. 
set_up=function(the_ret)
{
ret_holder=function()
   {
   the_ret
   }
 
return(ret_holder)
}
 
# For simplicity this is not nested in some complicated way
do_stuff=function()
{
# if (something_gone_wrong)
     get_out_of_jail()
 
return("done")
}
 
get_out_of_jail=0  # Out friendly global variable
 
control_func=function(a)
{
# Set up what will get called
get_out_of_jail <<- set_up(return(a))
 
# do some work
do_stuff()
return(0)
}
 
control_func(11)

and has the desired effect :-)

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