53.3. Error Message Style Guide

This style guide is offered in the hope of maintaining a consistent, user-friendly style throughout all the messages generated by PostgreSQL.

What Goes Where

The primary message should be short, factual, and avoid reference to implementation details such as specific function names. “Short” means “should fit on one line under normal conditions”. Use a detail message if needed to keep the primary message short, or if you feel a need to mention implementation details such as the particular system call that failed. Both primary and detail messages should be factual. Use a hint message for suggestions about what to do to fix the problem, especially if the suggestion might not always be applicable.

For example, instead of:

IpcMemoryCreate: shmget(key=%d, size=%u, 0%o) failed: %m
(plus a long addendum that is basically a hint)


Primary:    could not create shared memory segment: %m
Detail:     Failed syscall was shmget(key=%d, size=%u, 0%o).
Hint:       the addendum

Rationale: keeping the primary message short helps keep it to the point, and lets clients lay out screen space on the assumption that one line is enough for error messages. Detail and hint messages can be relegated to a verbose mode, or perhaps a pop-up error-details window. Also, details and hints would normally be suppressed from the server log to save space. Reference to implementation details is best avoided since users aren't expected to know the details.


Don't put any specific assumptions about formatting into the message texts. Expect clients and the server log to wrap lines to fit their own needs. In long messages, newline characters (\n) can be used to indicate suggested paragraph breaks. Don't end a message with a newline. Don't use tabs or other formatting characters. (In error context displays, newlines are automatically added to separate levels of context such as function calls.)

Rationale: Messages are not necessarily displayed on terminal-type displays. In GUI displays or browsers these formatting instructions are at best ignored.

Quotation Marks

English text should use double quotes when quoting is appropriate. Text in other languages should consistently use one kind of quotes that is consistent with publishing customs and computer output of other programs.

Rationale: The choice of double quotes over single quotes is somewhat arbitrary, but tends to be the preferred use. Some have suggested choosing the kind of quotes depending on the type of object according to SQL conventions (namely, strings single quoted, identifiers double quoted). But this is a language-internal technical issue that many users aren't even familiar with, it won't scale to other kinds of quoted terms, it doesn't translate to other languages, and it's pretty pointless, too.

Use of Quotes

Use quotes always to delimit file names, user-supplied identifiers, and other variables that might contain words. Do not use them to mark up variables that will not contain words (for example, operator names).

There are functions in the backend that will double-quote their own output at need (for example, format_type_be()). Do not put additional quotes around the output of such functions.

Rationale: Objects can have names that create ambiguity when embedded in a message. Be consistent about denoting where a plugged-in name starts and ends. But don't clutter messages with unnecessary or duplicate quote marks.

Grammar and Punctuation

The rules are different for primary error messages and for detail/hint messages:

Primary error messages: Do not capitalize the first letter. Do not end a message with a period. Do not even think about ending a message with an exclamation point.

Detail and hint messages: Use complete sentences, and end each with a period. Capitalize the first word of sentences. Put two spaces after the period if another sentence follows (for English text; might be inappropriate in other languages).

Error context strings: Do not capitalize the first letter and do not end the string with a period. Context strings should normally not be complete sentences.

Rationale: Avoiding punctuation makes it easier for client applications to embed the message into a variety of grammatical contexts. Often, primary messages are not grammatically complete sentences anyway. (And if they're long enough to be more than one sentence, they should be split into primary and detail parts.) However, detail and hint messages are longer and might need to include multiple sentences. For consistency, they should follow complete-sentence style even when there's only one sentence.

Upper Case vs. Lower Case

Use lower case for message wording, including the first letter of a primary error message. Use upper case for SQL commands and key words if they appear in the message.

Rationale: It's easier to make everything look more consistent this way, since some messages are complete sentences and some not.

Avoid Passive Voice

Use the active voice. Use complete sentences when there is an acting subject (“A could not do B”). Use telegram style without subject if the subject would be the program itself; do not use “I” for the program.

Rationale: The program is not human. Don't pretend otherwise.

Present vs. Past Tense

Use past tense if an attempt to do something failed, but could perhaps succeed next time (perhaps after fixing some problem). Use present tense if the failure is certainly permanent.

There is a nontrivial semantic difference between sentences of the form:

could not open file "%s": %m


cannot open file "%s"

The first one means that the attempt to open the file failed. The message should give a reason, such as “disk full” or “file doesn't exist”. The past tense is appropriate because next time the disk might not be full anymore or the file in question might exist.

The second form indicates that the functionality of opening the named file does not exist at all in the program, or that it's conceptually impossible. The present tense is appropriate because the condition will persist indefinitely.

Rationale: Granted, the average user will not be able to draw great conclusions merely from the tense of the message, but since the language provides us with a grammar we should use it correctly.

Type of the Object

When citing the name of an object, state what kind of object it is.

Rationale: Otherwise no one will know what “foo.bar.baz” refers to.


Square brackets are only to be used (1) in command synopses to denote optional arguments, or (2) to denote an array subscript.

Rationale: Anything else does not correspond to widely-known customary usage and will confuse people.

Assembling Error Messages

When a message includes text that is generated elsewhere, embed it in this style:

could not open file %s: %m

Rationale: It would be difficult to account for all possible error codes to paste this into a single smooth sentence, so some sort of punctuation is needed. Putting the embedded text in parentheses has also been suggested, but it's unnatural if the embedded text is likely to be the most important part of the message, as is often the case.

Reasons for Errors

Messages should always state the reason why an error occurred. For example:

BAD:    could not open file %s
BETTER: could not open file %s (I/O failure)

If no reason is known you better fix the code.

Function Names

Don't include the name of the reporting routine in the error text. We have other mechanisms for finding that out when needed, and for most users it's not helpful information. If the error text doesn't make as much sense without the function name, reword it.

BAD:    pg_atoi: error in "z": cannot parse "z"
BETTER: invalid input syntax for integer: "z"

Avoid mentioning called function names, either; instead say what the code was trying to do:

BAD:    open() failed: %m
BETTER: could not open file %s: %m

If it really seems necessary, mention the system call in the detail message. (In some cases, providing the actual values passed to the system call might be appropriate information for the detail message.)

Rationale: Users don't know what all those functions do.

Tricky Words to Avoid

**Unable. ** “Unable” is nearly the passive voice. Better use “cannot” or “could not”, as appropriate.

**Bad. ** Error messages like “bad result” are really hard to interpret intelligently. It's better to write why the result is “bad”, e.g., “invalid format”.

**Illegal. ** “Illegal” stands for a violation of the law, the rest is “invalid”. Better yet, say why it's invalid.

**Unknown. ** Try to avoid “unknown”. Consider “error: unknown response”. If you don't know what the response is, how do you know it's erroneous? “Unrecognized” is often a better choice. Also, be sure to include the value being complained of.

BAD:    unknown node type
BETTER: unrecognized node type: 42

**Find vs. Exists. ** If the program uses a nontrivial algorithm to locate a resource (e.g., a path search) and that algorithm fails, it is fair to say that the program couldn't “find” the resource. If, on the other hand, the expected location of the resource is known but the program cannot access it there then say that the resource doesn't “exist”. Using “find” in this case sounds weak and confuses the issue.

**May vs. Can vs. Might. ** “May” suggests permission (e.g., "You may borrow my rake."), and has little use in documentation or error messages. “Can” suggests ability (e.g., "I can lift that log."), and “might” suggests possibility (e.g., "It might rain today."). Using the proper word clarifies meaning and assists translation.

**Contractions. ** Avoid contractions, like “can't”; use “cannot” instead.

Proper Spelling

Spell out words in full. For instance, avoid:

  • spec

  • stats

  • parens

  • auth

  • xact

Rationale: This will improve consistency.


Keep in mind that error message texts need to be translated into other languages. Follow the guidelines in Section 55.2.2 to avoid making life difficult for translators.