A feature which seems to be getting more requests recently is support for seeing the return value of a function in the debugger without the need to assign it into a temporary. C++’s had this feature for some time but it’s been lacking in managed debugging scenarios. James Manning recently dedicated a couple of blog posts to the subject and noted that the feature appears to already partially exist for VB.Net

“With VB.NET, the function name shows up as an entry in ‘Locals’ and the debugger shows us the value it’s returning! The C# debugger has no such support, though - at the same ‘end of method’ breakpoint, only the parameter passed in is shown. So, clearly the CLR has enough support for the VB.NET debugger to support this feature, which would seem to be a pretty strong argument that the C# debugger certainly could implement this feature.”

Indeed C# could implement this feature but it’s not a CLR debugging feature that VB.Net is relying on but is rather an issue of VB6 legacy support. The VB6 language didn’t have a return statement. Instead values were returned by assigning the value to be returned to the name of the function. For example

Function IsEven(ByVal i As Integer)
    If i Mod 2 = 0 Then 
        IsEven = True 
        IsEven = False 
    End If 
End Function 

While VB.Net added a Return statement it still supports this legacy syntax (and it allows the two to be mixed within a single function). The compiler models this by having a local of the same name of the function which is used to store the return value. Returns from the function are rewritten as assignments to this local and then a return of the same local. The debugger understands this hidden local and displays it during the debugging session. This gives VB.Net the appearance of supporting Return value display when in reality it’s just a positive side effect of legacy support.

Quick Note: In my experience when users ask for return value support in the debugger they typically want to see both

  1. The return value of the current function they’re stepping through
  2. The return value of functions which are stepped over (more heavily requested)

VB.Net supports only the first one (via the described method) and C# supports neither.

I do agree it would be really nice if both languages supported #2 (it’s an incredibly useful feature in C++). It is possible to do without CLR support but it involves the compiler generating a temporary for every function / property evaluated in a statement and lots of copying values around. This can have a non-trivial impact on program performance even when not debugging and hence I think is unlikely to be done. If #2 does come around it will likely be through the CLR debugger APIs providing access to the return values much in the way it provides access to the current exception.


Starting with Visual Studio 2013 there will be return value debugging support for all managed languages in a uniform manner. It will be exposed in the same way that C++ exposes function return values. More details are available here


Share Post


comments powered by Disqus