Decoding Dialyzer - Part 1

Dialyzer can be a tricky tool to figure out, but it can also be really helpful in spotting bugs or inaccurate typespecs for us, so I’m going to go through a couple of the more common warnings that you’ll see in your daily use of Dialyzer to help understand what’s happening, some of the causes of those common warnings, and how you can resolve them.

For this series I’ll be using dialyxir 1.0.0-rc4, and I’m going to show both the new Elixir formatted warnings and the old Erlang formatted warnings for these cases. If you’re not using dialyxir 1.0.0 yet, I highly recommend it! The formatting of warnings is much more helpful than the original formatting.

Here’s the code that we’re going to be using for the examples today:

defmodule Test
  @spec concat(atom(), String.t()) :: String.t()
  def concat(first, second) do
    Atom.to_string(first) <> second

  @spec call_concat() :: String.t()
  def call_concat() do
    concat("string", :atom)

That small bit of code has one fairly obvious bug, but because of that bug Dialyzer gives us two warnings, and these two are among the more common (and important!) warnings you’ll see. One bug causing multiple warnings in Dialyzer is a fairly common situation, by the way, so when you’re looking at your Dialyzer output, trying to group things together can often give you much more information about how to resolve those warnings than trying to tackle one warning at a time.

Let’s start with arguably the most important - but also most confusing - warnings: no_return.


When we run Dialyzer on that very small program, one of the warnings we see looks like this with the new formatting:

Function call_concat/0 has no local return.

or like this with the old Dialyzer formatting:

lib/my_app/test.ex:8: Function call_concat/0 has no local return

This warning is telling us that the function call_concat/0 does not return. Basically, there is no way that you can call this function and have it do anything other than raise an exception.

This usually happens in two situations:

1) We’re always raising an exception on purpose 2) We’re always raising an exception even though we don’t intend to

If your function is intentionally raising an exception every time it’s called, you can resolve this warning by explicitly annotating that in the spec for that function like so: @spec call_concat() :: no_return().

But it’s that second case where Dialyzer is most helpful here. It’s screaming at us and saying “You have a serious bug here!”

It’s important to note here that Dialyzer can only tell us that we definitely have a bug here because it knows for a fact what the values of the variables in that example are because we have a string and atom literal. For example, if we have this code:

defmodule Test do
  @spec concat(atom(), String.t()) :: String.t()
  def concat(first, second) do
    Atom.to_string(first) <> second

  @spec call_concat(String.t(), atom()) :: String.t()
  def call_concat(string, atom) do
    concat(string, atom)

Then Dialyzer won’t give us a no_return warning. It gives us a different warning, but it can’t say for certain that there’s a function that will not return because an exception was raised. Only if call_concat/2 were called somewhere with something that Dialyzer can determine the type of with 100% confidence (usually a literal) will it give us the no_return warning.

So, Dialyzer says we have a bug, but unfortunately it’s not really telling us where that bug is in this warning. In order to resolve this warning we need to fix our bug, but that’s gonna be pretty tricky to find with just this information. Luckily, that’s where the next fairly common warning comes in.


The second warning that we get for that code is:

The call:
Test.concat("string", :atom)

will never return since the success typing is:
(atom(), binary()) :: binary()

and the contract is
(atom(), String.t()) :: String.t()


lib/test.ex:9: The call 'Elixir.PotionProxy.Client.MainWorker':concat(#{#<115>(8, 1, 'integer', ['unsigned', 'big']), #<116>(8, 1, 'integer', ['unsigned', 'big']), #<114>(8, 1, 'integer', ['unsigned', 'big']), #<105>(8, 1, 'integer', ['unsigned', 'big']), #<110>(8, 1, 'integer', ['unsigned', 'big']), #<103>(8, 1, 'integer', ['unsigned', 'big'])}#,'atom') will never return since the success typing is (atom(),binary()) -> binary() and the contract is (atom(),'Elixir.String':t()) -> 'Elixir.String':t()

This example really shows how much more helpful the new formatting is!

So, what this warning is telling us (and telling us much more clearly in the new formatting) is that we’re calling concat/2 with "string" and :atom as arguments, but that it will never return if we call it with those arguments.

Ok, now we’re getting somewhere - this looks like it’s the function call that’s causing our bug! The unfortunate thing here is that this warning is directly related to the no_return warning that we just went over, but there’s sadly no connection to that in the messages. In the message for no_return it was warning about call_concat, but now in the message for call it’s warning about concat. At first glance these two warnings don’t seem connected, and yet they are.

The one helpful thing that’s always good to keep in mind is that the warnings are grouped by file and ordered by line number, so if you see a no_return warning and then below that a call warning a couple lines down in the same file, there’s a good chance the two warnings are related somehow.

So, back to that warning. It’s saying that what we’re trying to do is never going to work. It then tells us what the success typing is for that concat/2 function, which in this case is (atom(), binary()) :: binary(), and the contract for that function which is slightly different (atom(), String.t()) :: String.t().

The difference between a success typing and a contract is the success typing is the absolute minimum requirement that Dialyzer has worked out that are necessary for that function to not fail, while the contract is the requirement for using that function that a human programmer has written. Because humans frequently make mistakes, and because Dialyzer’s success typing is sometimes not able to be as specific as a human, it’s generally a good idea to take whichever of the two options is more strict when you’re deciding on how to use a particular function. In this case, String.t() is more strict than just binary, so you should probably only call concat with strings and not any old binary.

So, how to resolve this warning? Well, you need to use the function according to how that function wants to be used! In this case, we need to change concat("string", :atom) to concat(:atom, "string") so the arguments are in the correct order. Once we’ve done that we can re-run Dialyzer and see that we now have no more warnings - bug found and fixed!