Unreachable Code and Exhaustiveness Checking

Sometimes it is necessary to write code that should never execute, and sometimes we write code that we expect to execute, but that is actually unreachable. The type checker can help in both cases.

In this guide, we’ll cover:

  • Never, the primitive type used for unreachable code

  • assert_never(), a helper for exhaustiveness checking

  • Directly marking code as unreachable

  • Detecting unexpectedly unreachable code

Never and NoReturn

Type theory has a concept of a bottom type, a type that has no values. Concretely, this can be used to represent the return type of a function that never returns, or the argument type of a function that may never be called. You can also think of the bottom type as a union with no members.

The Python type system has long provided a type called NoReturn. While it was originally meant only for functions that never return, this concept is naturally extended to the bottom type in general, and all type checkers treat NoReturn as a general bottom type.

To make the meaning of this type more explicit, Python 3.11 and typing-extensions 4.1 add a new primitive, Never. To type checkers, it has the same meaning as NoReturn.

In this guide, we’ll use Never for the bottom type, but if you cannot use it yet, you can always use typing.NoReturn instead.

assert_never() and Exhaustiveness Checking

The Never type can be leveraged to perform static exhaustiveness checking, where we use the type checker to make sure that we covered all possible cases. For example, this can come up when code performs a separate action for each member of an enum, or for each type in a union.

To have the type checker do exhaustiveness checking for us, we call a function with a parameter typed as Never. The type checker will allow this call only if it can prove that the code is not reachable.

As an example, consider this simple calculator:

import enum
from typing_extensions import Never

def assert_never(arg: Never) -> Never:
    raise AssertionError("Expected code to be unreachable")

class Op(enum.Enum):
    ADD = 1
    SUBTRACT = 2

def calculate(left: int, op: Op, right: int) -> int:
    match op:
        case Op.ADD:
            return left + right
        case Op.SUBTRACT:
            return left - right
        case _:

The match statement covers all members of the Op enum, so the assert_never() call is unreachable and the type checker will accept this code. However, if you add another member to the enum (say, MULTIPLY) but don’t update the match statement, the type checker will give an error saying that you are not handling the MULTIPLY case.

Because the assert_never() helper function is frequently useful, it is provided by the standard library as typing.assert_never starting in Python 3.11, and is also present in typing_extensions starting at version 4.1. However, it is also possible to define a similar function in your own code, for example if you want to customize the runtime error message.

You can also use assert_never() with a sequence of if statements:

def calculate(left: int, op: Op, right: int) -> int:
    if op is Op.ADD:
        return left + right
    elif op is Op.SUBTRACT:
        return left - right

Marking Code as Unreachable

Sometimes a piece of code is unreachable, but the type system is not powerful enough to recognize that. For example, consider a function that finds the lowest unused street number in a street:

import itertools

def is_used(street: str, number: int) -> bool:

def lowest_unused(street: str) -> int:
    for i in itertools.count(1):
        if not is_used(street, i):
            return i
    assert False, "unreachable"

Because itertools.count() is an infinite iterator, this function will never reach the assert False statement. However, there is no way for the type checker to know that, so without the assert False, the type checker will complain that the function is missing a return statement.

Note how this is different from assert_never():

  • If we used assert_never() in the lowest_unused() function, the type checker would produce an error, because the type checker cannot prove that the line is unreachable.

  • If we used assert False instead of assert_never() in the calculate() example above, we would not get the benefits of exhaustiveness checking. If the code is actually reachable, the type checker will not warn us and we could hit the assertion at runtime.

While assert False is the most idiomatic way to express this pattern, any statement that ends execution will do. For example, you could raise an exception or call a function that returns Never.

Detecting Unexpectedly Unreachable Code

Another possible problem is code that is supposed to execute, but that can actually be statically determined to be unreachable. Some type checkers have an option that enables warnings for code detected as unreachable (e.g., --warn-unreachable in mypy).