Mehul Kar

Nov 20, 2017

stdout vs stderr

notes programming

I’m not sure where I first learned this, but I thought it was a non-discoverable piece of information that also changed how I thought about writing programs.

I’ve always thought that stderr for a program is to display errors and stdout is for “everything else”. But it turns out stdout is meant to be program output and stderr is meant to be… “everything else”. This was conceptually difficult for me until I thought of an example.

For example, in a calculator program, if I input 1 + 1, the output is 2. This should be printed to stdout. However, if there is internal logging, that should be printed to stderr. E.g. “Gathering input”, “initializing adding machine”, etc.

This understanding was paradigm-shifting for me in two ways:

  1. Not every program needs to print something to stdout.

    This is best illustrated by the “Command vs Query” Object Oriented principle that says that methods should either send a command or a query, but never both. If we extrapolate this to the program level, we can get a similar principle that says that if a program is a query, it should print to stdout, but if it’s a command, then it should print to stderr. For example, if I have a program that sends an email, a “Done” message is a progress update, not the output of the program and should be printed to stderr.

  2. Printing progress updates to stderr allows the user instead of the programmer to identify errors.

    As a programmer, it’s impossible to unilaterally determine what the user considers a bug and what they consider behavior1. I think stderr is a perfect illustration of this idealogy. All program status is displayed in a single stream and it is up to the user to determine what they consider an erroneous behavior. Additionally, this also provides a nice separation of concerns between what is an “exception” and what is an “error”. Note that, as a programmer, I may choose to handle exceptions and display that handling in stderr, but then my message should convey that I handled the exception, rather than that an exception occurred.

Understanding this difference between stdout and stderr has also allowed me to better frame the purpose of my programs and functions.

Footnotes

  1. There’s a whole other blog post in this statement.

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