Clojure from the ground up: macros

In Chapter 1, I asserted that the grammar of Lisp is uniform: every expression is a list, beginning with a verb, and followed by some arguments. Evaluation proceeds from left to right, and every element of the list must be evaluated before evaluating the list itself. Yet we just saw, at the end of Sequences, an expression which seemed to violate these rules.

Clearly, this is not the whole story.

Macroexpansion

There is another phase to evaluating an expression; one which takes place before the rules we’ve followed so far. That process is called macro-expansion. During macro-expansion, the code itself is restructured according to some set of rules–rules which you, the programmer, can define.

(defmacro ignore "Cancels the evaluation of an expression, returning nil instead." [expr] nil) user=> (ignore (+ 1 2)) nil

defmacro looks a lot like defn: it has a name, an optional documentation string, an argument vector, and a body–in this case, just nil. In this case, it looks like it simply ignored the expr (+ 1 2) and returned nil–but it’s actually deeper than that. (+ 1 2) was never evaluated at all.

user=> (def x 1) #'user/x user=> x 1 user=> (ignore (def x 2)) nil user=> x 1

def should have defined x to be 2 no matter what–but that never happened. At macroexpansion time, the expression (ignore (+ 1 2)) was replaced by the expression nil, which was then evaluated to nil. Where functions rewrite values, macros rewrite code.

To see these different layers in play, let’s try a macro which reverses the order of arguments to a function.

(defmacro rev [fun & args] (cons fun (reverse args)))

This macro, named rev, takes one mandatory argument: a function. Then it takes any number of arguments, which are collected in the list args. It constructs a new list, starting with the function, and followed by the arguments, in reverse order.

First, we macro-expand:

user=> (macroexpand '(rev str "hi" (+ 1 2))) (str (+ 1 2) "hi")

So the rev macro took str as the function, and "hi" and (+ 1 2) as the arguments; then constructed a new list with the same function, but the arguments reversed. When we evaluate that expression, we get:

user=> (eval (macroexpand '(rev str "hi" (+ 1 2)))) "3hi"

macroexpand takes an expression and returns that expression with all macros expanded. eval takes an expression and evaluates it. When you type an unquoted expression into the REPL, Clojure macroexpands, then evaluates. Two stages–the first transforming code, the second transforming values.

Across languages

Some languages have a metalanguage: a language for extending the language itself. In C, for example, macros are implemented by the C preprocessor, which has its own syntax for defining expressions, matching patterns in the source code’s text, and replacing that text with other text. But that preprocessor is not C–it is a separate language entirely, with special limitations. In Clojure, the metalanguage is Clojure itself–the full power of the language is available to restructure programs. This is called a procedural macro system. Some Lisps, like Scheme, use a macro system based on templating expressions, and still others use more powerful models like f-expressions–but that’s a discussion for a later time.

There is another key difference between Lisp macros and many other macro systems: in Lisp, the macros operate on expressions: the data structure of the code itself. Because Lisp code is written explicitly as a data structure, a tree made out of lists, this transformation is natural. You can see the structure of the code, which makes it easy to reason about its transformation. In the C preprocessor, macros operate only on text: there is no understanding of the underlying syntax. Even in languages like Scala which have syntactic macros, the fact that the code looks nothing like the syntax tree makes it cumbersome to truly restructure expressions.

When people say that Lisp’s syntax is “more elegant”, or “more beautiful”, or “simpler”, this is part of what they they mean. By choosing to represent the program directly as a a data structure, we make it much easier to define complex transformations of code itself.

Defining new syntax

What kind of transformations are best expressed with macros?

Most languages encode special syntactic forms–things like “define a function”, “call a function”, “define a local variable”, “if this, then that”, and so on. In Clojure, these are called special forms. if is a special form, for instance. Its definition is built into the language core itself; it cannot be reduced into smaller parts.

(if (< 3 x) "big" "small")

Or in Javascript:

if (3 < x) { return "big"; } else { return "small"; }

In Javascript, Ruby, and many other languages, these special forms are fixed. You cannot define your own syntax. For instance, one cannot define or in a language like JS or Ruby: it must be defined for you by the language author.

In Clojure, or is just a macro.

user=> (source or) (defmacro or "Evaluates exprs one at a time, from left to right. If a form returns a logical true value, or returns that value and doesn't evaluate any of the other expressions, otherwise it returns the value of the last expression. (or) returns nil." {:added "1.0"} ([] nil) ([x] x) ([x & next] `(let [or# ~x] (if or# or# (or ~@next))))) nil

That ` operator–that’s called syntax-quote. It works just like regular quote–preventing evaluation of the following list–but with a twist: we can escape the quoting rule and substitute in regularly evaluated expressions using unquote (~), and unquote-splice (~@). Think of a syntax-quoted expression like a template for code, with some parts filled in by evaluated forms.

user=> (let [x 2] `(inc x)) (clojure.core/inc user/x) user=> (let [x 2] `(inc ~x)) (clojure.core/inc 2)

See the difference? ~x substitutes the value of x, instead of using x as an unevaluated symbol. This code is essentially just shorthand for something like

user=> (let [x 2] (list 'clojure.core/inc x)) (inc 2)

… where we explicitly constructed a new list with the quoted symbol 'inc and the current value of x. Syntax quote just makes it easier to read the code, since the quoted and expanded expressions have similar shapes.

The ~@ unquote splice works just like ~, except it explodes a list into multiple expressions in the resulting form:

user=> `(foo ~[1 2 3]) (user/foo [1 2 3]) user=> `(foo ~@[1 2 3]) (user/foo 1 2 3)

~@ is particularly useful when a function or macro takes an arbitrary number of arguments. In the definition of or, it’s used to expand (or a b c) recursively.

user=> (pprint (macroexpand '(or a b c d))) (let* [or__3943__auto__ a] (if or__3943__auto__ or__3943__auto__ (clojure.core/or b c d)))

We’re using pprint (for “pretty print”) to make this expression easier to read. (or a b c d) is defined in terms of if: if the first element is truthy we return it; otherwise we evaluate (or b c d) instead, and so on.

The final piece of the puzzle here is that weirdly named symbol: or__3943__auto__. That variable was automatically generated by Clojure, to prevent conflicts with an existing variable name. Because macros rewrite code, they have to be careful not to interfere with local variables, or it could get very confusing. Whenever we need a new variable in a macro, we use gensym to generate a new symbol.

user=> (gensym "hi") hi326 user=> (gensym "hi") hi329 user=> (gensym "hi") hi332

Each symbol is different! If we tack on a # to the end of a symbol in a syntax-quoted expression, it’ll be expanded to a particular gensym:

user=> `(let [x# 2] x#) (clojure.core/let [x__339__auto__ 2] x__339__auto__)

Note that you can always escape this safety feature if you want to override local variables. That’s called symbol capture, or an anaphoric or unhygenic macro. To override local symbols, just use ~'foo instead of foo#.

With all the pieces on the board, let’s compare the or macro and its expansion:

(defmacro or "Evaluates exprs one at a time, from left to right. If a form returns a logical true value, or returns that value and doesn't evaluate any of the other expressions, otherwise it returns the value of the last expression. (or) returns nil." {:added "1.0"} ([] nil) ([x] x) ([x & next] `(let [or# ~x] (if or# or# (or ~@next))))) user=> (pprint (clojure.walk/macroexpand-all '(or (mossy? stone) (cool? stone) (wet? stone)))) (let* [or__3943__auto__ (mossy? stone)] (if or__3943__auto__ or__3943__auto__ (let* [or__3943__auto__ (cool? stone)] (if or__3943__auto__ or__3943__auto__ (wet? stone)))))

See how the macro’s syntax-quoted (let ... has the same shape as the resulting code? or# is expanded to a variable named or__3943__auto__, which is bound to the expression (mossy? stone). If that variable is truthy, we return it. Otherwise, we (and here’s the recursive part) rebind or__3943__auto__ to (cool? stone) and try again. If that fails, we fall back to evaluating (wet? stone)–thanks to the base case, the single-argument form of the or macro.

Control flow

We’ve seen that or is a macro written in terms of the special form if–and because of the way the macro is structured, it does not obey the normal execution order. In (or a b c), only a is evaluated first–then, only if it is false or nil, do we evaluate b. This is called short-circuiting, and it works for and as well.

Changing the order of evaluation in a language is called control flow, and lets programs make decisions based on varying circumstances. We’ve already seen if:

user=> (if (= 2 2) :a :b) :a

if takes a predicate and two expressions, and only evaluates one of them, depending on whether the predicate evaluates to a truthy or falsey value. Sometimes you want to evaluate more than one expression in order. For this, we have do.

user=> (if (pos? -5) (prn "-5 is positive") (do (prn "-5 is negative") (prn "Who would have thought?"))) "-5 is negative" "Who would have thought?" nil

prn is a function which has a side effect: it prints a message to the screen, and returns nil. We wanted to print two messages, but if only takes a single expression per branch–so in our false branch, we used do to wrap up two prns into a single expression, and evaluate them in order. do returns the value of the final expression, which happens to be nil here.

When you only want to take one branch of an if, you can use when:

user=> (when false (prn :hi) (prn :there)) nil user=> (when true (prn :hi) (prn :there)) :hi :there nil

Because there is only one path to take, when takes any number of expressions, and evaluates them only when the predicate is truthy. If the predicate evaluates to nil or false, when does not evaluate its body, and returns nil.

Both when and if have complementary forms, when-not and if-not, which simply invert the sense of their predicate.

user=> (when-not (number? "a string") :here) :here user=> (if-not (vector? (list 1 2 3)) :a :b) :a

Often, you want to perform some operation, and if it’s truthy, re-use that value without recomputing it. For this, we have when-let and if-let. These work just like when and let combined.

user=> (when-let [x (+ 1 2 3 4)] (str x)) "10" user=> (when-let [x (first [])] (str x)) nil

while evaluates an expression so long as its predicate is truthy. This is generally useful only for side effects, like prn or def; things that change the state of the world.

user=> (def x 0) #'user/x user=> (while (< x 5) #_=> (prn x) #_=> (def x (inc x))) 0 1 2 3 4 nil

cond (for “conditional”) is like a multiheaded if: it takes any number of test/expression pairs, and tries each test in turn. The first test which evaluates truthy causes the following expression to be evaluated; then cond returns that expression’s value.

user=> (cond #_=> (= 2 5) :nope #_=> (= 3 3) :yep #_=> (= 5 5) :cant-get-here #_=> :else :a-default-value) :yep

If you find yourself making several similar decisions based on a value, try condp, for “cond with predicate”. For instance, we might categorize a number based on some ranges:

(defn category "Determines the Saffir-Simpson category of a hurricane, by wind speed in meters/sec" [wind-speed] (condp <= wind-speed 70 :F5 58 :F4 49 :F3 42 :F2 :F1)) ; Default value user=> (category 10) :F1 user=> (category 50) :F3 user=> (category 100) :F5

condp generates code which combines the predicate <= with each number, and the value of wind-speed, like so:

(if (<= 70 wind-speed) :F5 (if (<= 58 wind-speed) :F4 (if (<= 49 wind-speed) :F3 (if (<= 42 wind-speed) :F2 :F1))))

Specialized macros like condp are less commonly used than if or when, but they still play an important role in simplifying repeated code. They clarify the meaning of complex expressions, making them easier to read and maintain.

Finally, there’s case, which works a little bit like a map of keys to values–only the values are code, to be evaluated. You can think of case like (condp = ...), trying to match an expression to a particular branch for which it is equal.

(defn with-tax "Computes the total cost, with tax, of a purchase in the given state." [state subtotal] (case state :WA (* 1.065 subtotal) :OR subtotal :CA (* 1.075 subtotal) ; ... 48 other states ... subtotal)) ; a default case

Unlike cond and condp, case does not evaluate its tests in order. It jumps immediately to the matching expression. This makes case much faster when there are many branches to take–at the cost of reduced generality.

Recursion

Previously, we defined recursive functions by having those functions call themselves explicitly.

(defn sum [numbers] (if-let [n (first numbers)] (+ n (sum (rest numbers))) 0)) user=> (sum (range 10)) 45

But this approach breaks down when we have the function call itself deeply, over and over again.

user=> (sum (range 100000)) StackOverflowError clojure.core/range/fn--4269 (core.clj:2664)

Every time you call a function, the arguments for that function are stored in memory, in a region called the stack. They remain there for as long as the function is being called–including any deeper function calls.

(+ n (sum (rest numbers)))

In order to add n and (sum (rest numbers)), we have to call sum first–while holding onto the memory for n and numbers. We can’t re-use that memory until every single recursive call has completed. Clojure complains, after tens of thousands of stack frames are in use, that it has run out of space in the stack and can allocate no more.

But consider this variation on sum:

(defn sum ([numbers] (sum 0 numbers)) ([subtotal numbers] (if-let [n (first numbers)] (recur (+ subtotal n) (rest numbers)) subtotal))) user=> (sum (range 100000)) 4999950000

We’ve added an additional parameter to the function. In its two-argument form, sum now takes an accumulator, subtotal, which represents the count so far. In addition, recur has taken the place of sum. Notice, however, that the final expression to be evaluated is not +, but sum (viz recur) itself. We don’t need to hang on to any of the variables in this function any more, because the final return value won’t depend on them. recur hints to the Clojure compiler that we don’t need to hold on to the stack, and can re-use that space for other things. This is called a tail-recursive function, and it requires only a single stack frame no matter how deep the recursive calls go.

Use recur wherever possible. It requires much less memory and is much faster than the explicit recursion.

You can also use recur within the context of the loop macro, where it acts just like an unnamed recursive function with initial values provided. Think of it, perhaps, like a recursive let.

user=> (loop [i 0 nums []] (if (< 10 i) nums (recur (inc i) (conj nums i)))) [0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10]

Laziness

In chapter 4 we mentioned that most of the sequences in Clojure, like map, filter, iterate, repeatedly, and so on, were lazy: they did not evaluate any of their elements until required. This too is provided by a macro, called lazy-seq.

(defn integers [x] (lazy-seq (cons x (integers (inc x))))) user=> (def xs (integers 0)) #'user/xs

This sequence does not terminate; it is infinitely recursive. Yet it returned instantaneously. lazy-seq interrupted that recursion and restructured it into a sequence which constructs elements only when they are requested.

user=> (take 10 xs) (0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9)

When using lazy-seq and its partner lazy-cat, you don’t have to use recur–or even be tail-recursive. The macros interrupt each level of recursion, preventing stack overflows.

You can also delay evaluation of some expressions until later, using delay and deref.

user=> (def x (delay (prn "computing a really big number!") (last (take 10000000 (iterate inc 0))))) #'user/x ; Did nothing, returned immediately user=> (deref x) "computing x!" ; Now we have to wait! 9999999

List comprehensions

Combining recursion and laziness is the list comprehension macro, for. In its simplest form, for works like map:

user=> (for [x (range 10)] (- x)) (0 -1 -2 -3 -4 -5 -6 -7 -8 -9)

Like let, for takes a vector of bindings. Unlike let, however, for binds its variables to each possible combination of elements in their corresponding sequences.

user=> (for [x [1 2 3] y [:a :b]] [x y]) ([1 :a] [1 :b] [2 :a] [2 :b] [3 :a] [3 :b])

“For each x in the sequence [1 2 3], and for each y in the sequence [:a :b], find all [x y] pairs.” Note that the rightmost variable y iterates the fastest.

Like most sequence functions, the for macro yields lazy sequences. You can filter them with take, filter, et al like any other sequence. Or you can use :while to tell for when to stop, or :when to filter out combinations of elements.

(for [x (range 5) y (range 5) :when (and (even? x) (odd? y))] [x y]) ([0 1] [0 3] [2 1] [2 3] [4 1] [4 3])

Clojure includes a rich smörgåsbord of control-flow constructs; we’ll meet new ones throughout the book.

The threading macros

Sometimes you want to thread a computation through several expressions, like a chain. Object-oriented languages like Ruby or Java are well-suited to this style:

1.9.3p385 :004 > (0..10).select(&:odd?).reduce(&:+) 25

Start with the range 0 to 10, then call select on that range, with the function odd?. Finally, take that sequence of numbers, and reduce it with the + function.

The Clojure threading macros do the same by restructuring a sequence of expressions, inserting each expression as the first (or final) argument in the next expression.

user=> (pprint (clojure.walk/macroexpand-all '(->> (range 10) (filter odd?) (reduce +)))) (reduce + (filter odd? (range 10))) user=> (->> (range 10) (filter odd?) (reduce +)) 25

->> took (range 10) and inserted it at the end of (filter odd?), forming (filter odd? (range 10)). Then it took that expression and inserted it at the end of (reduce +). In essence, ->> flattens and reverses a nested chain of operations.

->, by contrast, inserts each form in as the first argument in the following expression.

user=> (pprint (clojure.walk/macroexpand-all '(-> {:proton :fermion} (assoc :photon :boson) (assoc :neutrino :fermion)))) (assoc (assoc {:proton :fermion} :photon :boson) :neutrino :fermion) user=> (-> {:proton :fermion} (assoc :photon :boson) (assoc :neutrino :fermion)) {:neutrino :fermion, :photon :boson, :proton :fermion}

Clojure isn’t just function-oriented in its syntax; it can be object-oriented, and stack-oriented, and array-oriented, and so on–and mix all of these styles freely, in a controlled way. If you don’t like the way the language fits a certain problem, you can write a macro which defines a new language, specifically for that subproblem.

cond, condp and case, for example, express a language for branching based on predicates. ->, ->>, and doto express object-oriented and other expression-chaining languages.

  • core.match is a set of macros which express powerful pattern-matching and substitution languages.
  • core.logic expresses syntax for logic programming, for finding values which satisfy complex constraints.
  • core.async restructures Clojure code into asynchronous forms so they can do many things at once.
  • For those with a twisted sense of humor, Swiss Arrows extends the threading macros into evil–but delightfully concise!–forms.

We’ll see a plethora of macros, from simple to complex, through the course of this book. Each one shares the common pattern of simplifying code; reducing tangled or verbose expressions into something more concise, more meaningful, better suited to the problem at hand.

When to use macros

While it’s important to be aware of the purpose and behavior of the macro system, you don’t need to write your own macros to be productive with Clojure. For now, you’ll be just fine writing code which uses the existing macros in the language. When you do need to delve deeper, come back to this guide and experiment. It’ll take some time to sink in.

First, know that writing macros is tricky, even for experts. It requires you to think at two levels simultaneously, and to be mindful of the distinction between expression and underlying evaluation. Writing a macro is essentially extending the language, the compiler, the syntax and evaluation model of Clojure, by restructuring arbitrary expressions into ones the evaluation system understands. This is hard, and it’ll take practice to get used to.

In addition, Clojure macros come with some important restrictions. Because they’re expanded prior to evaluation, macros are invisible to functions. They can’t be composed functionally–you can’t (map or ...), for instance.

So in general, if you can solve a problem without writing a macro, don’t write one. It’ll be easier to debug, easier to understand, and easier to compose later. Only reach for macros when you need new syntax, or when performance demands the code be transformed at compile time.

When you do write a macro, consider its scope carefully. Keep the transformation simple; and do as much in normal functions as possible. Provide an escape hatch where possible, by doing most of the work in a function, and writing a small wrapper macro which calls that function. Finally, remember the distinction between code and what that code evaluates to. Use let whenever a value is to be re-used, to prevent it being evaluated twice by accident.

For a deeper exploration of Clojure macros in a real-world application, try Language Power.

Review

In Chapter 4, deeply nested expressions led to the desire for a simpler, more direct expression of a chain of sequence operations. We learned that the Clojure compiler first expands expressions before evaluating them, using macros–special functions which take code and return other code. We used macros to define the short-circuiting or operator, and followed that with a tour of basic control flow, recursion, laziness, list comprehensions, and chained expressions. Finally, we learned a bit about when and how to write our own macros.

Throughout this chapter we’ve brushed against the idea of side effects: things which change the outside world. We might change a var with def, or print a message to the screen with prn. Real languages must model a continually shifting universe, which leads us to Chapter Six: Side effects and state.

Problems

  1. Using the control flow constructs we’ve learned, write a schedule function which, given an hour of the day, returns what you’ll be doing at that time. (schedule 18), for me, returns :dinner.

  2. Using the threading macros, find how many numbers from 0 to 9999 are palindromes: identical when written forwards and backwards. 121 is a palindrome, as is 7447 and 5, but not 12 or 953.

  3. Write a macro id which takes a function and a list of args: (id f a b c), and returns an expression which calls that function with the given args: (f a b c).

  4. Write a macro log which uses a var, logging-enabled, to determine whether or not to print an expression to the console at compile time. If logging-enabled is false, (log :hi) should macroexpand to nil. If logging-enabled is true, (log :hi) should macroexpand to (prn :hi). Why would you want to do this check during compilation, instead of when running the program? What might you lose?

  5. (Advanced) Using the rationalize function, write a macro exact which rewrites any use of +, -, *, or / to force the use of ratios instead of floating-point numbers. (* 2452.45 100) returns 245244.99999999997, but (exact (* 2452.45 100)) should return 245245N

rptabo
rptabo, on

Kyle, this is fantastic stuff - your “blook” is the best Clojure resource I’ve found after lots of seeking, and I’ve enjoyed exploring some of your other posts.

I poked around your site but maybe I missed it: is there any way to sign up for email updates (or some other notification) when you make a new post? If I must resort to it, I will check back periodically, but ideally I’d love to be notified as soon as you post something so I can devour it immediately!

Again, great stuff…can’t wait for what comes next!

Aphyr
Aphyr, on

Thanks rptabo. Glad to hear these posts are working out well for you. :)

The index pages and tag pages have ATOM feeds, linked with the standard headers, but I think browsers have started to drift away from displaying those. If you’ve got an ATOM client, try http://aphyr.com/tags/Clojure-from-the-ground-up.atom, or http://aphyr.com/posts.atom for all the posts.

Wayne Conrad
Wayne Conrad, on

Perfectly paced–not too fast, not too slow, and your explanations are easy to understand. Thanks for writing these.

eigenlicht
eigenlicht, on

Hey Kyle, great post. You mentioned the -> and ->> threading macros. How about mentioning the as-> macro too? One situation where it comes in handy is for example this: http://dpassen1.github.io/software/2013/11/17/embracing-the-as–macro/

Also, situations where you’d wrap certain function calls in fn’s, because those one or two function calls don’t fit into the pattern of the others inside the ->/->> form.

x
x, on

+1 from me as well, looking forward to more.

Elf M. Sternberg
Elf M. Sternberg, on

Kyle, awesome explanation, but one thing is bothering me. The (defmacro or…) example doesn’t make sense to me. It shows three expressions in a row. If ‘or’ already existed, I would understand how the first two (the empty set and a single set) short circuit to their definitions, and the actual quasiquoted stuff doesn’t kick in until we get more than one expression to evaluate, but ‘or’ doesn’t exist, you’re defining it here.

Maybe my LISP is out of date (most of my Lisp experience is within Emacs), but I don’t see how this code resolves. Does ‘defmacro’ have some kind of pattern matching for resolving these zero-argument and one-argument cases before moving on to the multi-argument case?

Aphyr
Aphyr, on

Does ‘defmacro’ have some kind of pattern matching for resolving these zero-argument and one-argument cases before moving on to the multi-argument case?

You’re right, Elf, defmacro (like defn) have arity dispatch provided by the compiler. As for the recursive macro call, where or is defined in terms of itself, that’s also handled by the Clojure compiler. Inside (defn foo [] …), ‘foo is lexically bound to the function itself, by the compiler.

Fran Burstall
Fran Burstall, on

Great tutorial but a mistake in the delay/deref example: the string that is printed should match the string “computing a really big number!” in the definition of x.

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