Await before returning!

Posted on July 23, 2021

In JavaScript and related languages like TypeScript, we have the wonderful async/await syntax to make programming with promises more convenient. A promise is basically a box that gets filled in by an asynchronous operation, such as making an HTTP request or reading from a file. Promises support a natural form of chaining via the .then() method, which works like this, for example in TypeScript:

function logPromise(p: Promise<string>): Promise<void> {
    return p.then((msg) => console.log(msg));
const p: Promise<string> = Promise.resolve('hello world!');
p.then((msg) => console.log(msg));

What’s interesting about p.then(callback) is that the callback passed to it can itself return a promise! This is how promises can be chained together: the promise p resolves to a value, so the callback given to .then() uses this value to compute a new promise. We can then continue chaining calls to .then() in such a way that the level of indentation does not increase, thus avoiding the nested callbacks that lead to callback hell.

What the async/await syntax gives us is a way to avoid needing to write all these calls to .then()! We can rewrite the above example as this:

async function logPromise(p: Promise<string>): Pormise<void> {
    const msg = await p;

To await a promise effectively means to call .then() on it and move the rest of the function into the callback to .then().

What’s especially nice about async/await is that we can use the familiar try-catch syntax for dealing with exceptions, instead of calling .catch() on the promise.

function riskyBusiness() {
  return doAsyncThing().catch((e) => {
    console.log("sorry, no can do.");
    return Promise.reject();
  }).then((x) => doOtherAsyncThing(x)};

See how unpleasant that is? Instead, we could write something like:

async function riskyBusiness() {
  let x;

  try {
    x = await doAsyncThing();
  } catch(e) {
    console.log("Sorry, no can do.");
    throw e;

  return doOtherAsyncThing(x);

Now notice that I directly returned the result of doOtherAsyncThing(x), which judging from the function name, is a promise. I instead could have written return await doOtherAsyncThing(x), but there’s no difference: the function that calls riskyBusiness() will need to await whatever riskyBusiness() returns, so whether we await the promise returned by doOtherAsyncThing(x) inside riskyBusiness() or outside of it doesn’t matter.

Or does it?

There is in fact a situation where it crucially matters whether we put the await there. Consider a slight modification of riskyBusiness():

async function riskierBusiness() {
  try {
    return doOtherAsyncThing(await doAsyncThing());
  } catch(e) {
    console.log("Sorry, no can do.");
    throw e;

Question: what happens if doOtherAsyncThing() throws?

This seems like a stupid question, doesn’t it? Surely we end up inside the catch, since a function called in the try-block throws an exception.

And here’s precisely where the beauty of async/await breaks down somewhat. Merely calling doOtherAsyncThing() won’t actually cause the exception to be thrown, since doOtherAsyncThing() is asynchronous! The exception only ends up being thrown when we await the promise computed by doOtherAsyncThing(). So in order to properly capture the exception thrown by doOtherAsyncThing(), we absolutely must await the promise it computes inside the try block.

What’s especially confusing about this is that nothing changes from the point of view of the types. To take a simple example, let’s write an “async identity function”:

function id<T>(x: Promise<T>): Promise<T> {
  return x;

But there’s a second way we could write a function with the same type!

async function id2<T>(x: Promise<T>): Promise<T> {
  return await x;

Since x: Promise<T>, the expression await x has type T. When returning a value that isn’t a promise in an async function, the value is implicitly wrapped up in a promise that simply resolves to the value. Therefore, return await x “unwraps” the promise x just to wrap it back up again to be returned.

Hopefully this dive into some of the intricacies async/await helps you, as it helped me, to avoid writing subtly incorrect JavaScript.