Comparative Macrology

I used to think that macros were just a feature that a language included or lacked. In practice, there’s a huge design space of how macro systems can be implemented.

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at implementing the same two macros in different languages. We’ll look at both established macro systems and newer languages. We’ll compare readability, robustness and safety in each language.

There are other problems macro systems must solve that we won’t look at here. We won’t look at macro-expansion performance, how informative error messages are, or the readability of backtraces in macro-expanded code. We also won’t consider ensuring our editor correctly highlights and indents code using our macros.

The Macros

We’ll look at two macros, one that requires hygiene, and one that requires variable capture.

Hygiene is where we want to introduce a variable name that is not used anywhere in the program. Here’s a swap macro, and we will need to ensure that tmp is unused elsewhere:

// Using the macro:
swap(x, y);

// Should be equivalent to this:
var tmp = x;
x = y;
y = tmp;

For variable capture, we’ll create a each-it macro that sets it to the current value of the item in our array/list. This is an ‘anaphoric’ macro (‘anaphora’ just means ‘it’).

// Using the macro:
var myArray = [1, 2, 3];
eachIt(myArray) {

// Should be equivalent to this:
var myArray = [1, 2, 3];
for (var i=0; i<myArray.length; i++) {
    var it = myArray[i];

Note that our macros are being treated as first-class syntax. We want to use eachIt just the same way we would use a for loop.

If you’re interested in running this code, it’s all available in a git repo.

C (1972)

First, let’s look at C’s macro preprocessor. C’s macros are textual (rather than manipulating a parse tree), and the preprocessor only does one pass through the file. As a result, we can’t recurse (though co-recursion is possible), there are many things we can’t express, and they’re error prone.

#define SWAP(x, y) {                            \
        typeof (x) x##y = x;                    \
            x = y;                              \
            y = x##y;                           \

By using a nested scope, our macro is hygienic. To ensure our temporary variable is fresh, we concatenate the variable names. We’re also able to use typeof operator (a GCC extension) to ensure our SWAP macro works with any type.

#define EACH_IT(array)                                  \
    for (typeof(*array)* it = array;                    \
       it != array + sizeof(array)/sizeof(array[0]);    \

EACH_IT has no issues with being unhygienic, as the C preprocessor imposes no such restrictions on our output.

Other languages make use of similar preprocessors (C++, Haskell, OCaml), but those preprocessors are similarly limited. Let’s move on to some full-power macro systems.

Common Lisp (1984)

Common Lisp (CL) provides extensive macro facilities, and idiomatic code often uses macros.

Macros in CL are just functions that run at compile time, which makes their execution easy to reason about. CL also has a lightweight backquote syntax for building expressions. However, we have to be careful about our output, and manually generate fresh, uninterned symbols to avoid accidental variable capture.

(defmacro swap (x y)
  (let ((tmp-sym (gensym)))
    `(let ((,tmp-sym ,x))
       (setf ,x ,y)
       (setf ,y ,tmp-sym))))

This implementation has the nice property that setf understands place structures. This means we can write things like (swap (first my-list) (second my-list)).

However, we could be more defensive. Using gensym protects us from accidentally shadowing a local tmp variable, but we’re still assuming that the user hasn’t shadowed setf. Such code would be invalid according to the CL specification (and SBCL gives an error), but it still may occur in user code in macro expansions.

By contrast, the lack of hygiene works really well when we want to deliberately capture variables. each-it is very readable:

(defmacro each-it (list &rest body)
  `(mapc (lambda (it) ,@body) ,list))

newLisp (1991)

newLisp supports f-expressions. These are similar to macros, but they’re evaluated at runtime. A macro is a function that takes an abstract syntax tree (AST) and returns another AST. An f-expression is a runtime expression that can choose which of its arguments will be evaluated and when.

F-expressions have largely fallen out of favour today (the definitive criticism is this paper). With conventional macros, you can expand all your code and do static analysis, e.g. check for undefined variables. With f-expressions, you lose this ability (though it is an active research topic).

Recent versions of newLisp also support expansion macros, but let’s explore what f-expressions would look like.

;; swap is already defined in newlisp
(context 'my-swap)
(define-macro (my-swap:my-swap x y)
    (set 'tmp (eval x))
    (set x (eval y))
    (set y tmp))
(context MAIN)

newLisp’s f-expressions are challenging to write if you’ve only written normal macros. There’s no macroexpand, no quasiquotes and scoping is dynamic. We don’t have the same separation between runtime and compiletime, so we can just call set directly.

(define-macro (each-it lst)
    (let ((template (list 'dolist (list 'it lst))))
      ;; args holds all the arguments that we
      ;; haven't bound in our parameter list
      (extend template (args))
      (eval template)))

each-it also suffers from a lack of quasiquotes. newLisp is unhygienic, so we don’t need to do any extra work to capture it.

R5RS Scheme (1998)

A major selling point of Scheme’s macro system, in contrast to earlier systems, is that it’s hygienic by default. Instead of a function with quasiquotes, syntax-rules is a ‘pattern language’. This is declarative and slightly magical when you first encounter it.

(define-syntax swap!
  (syntax-rules ()
    ((swap x y)
     (let ((tmp x))
       (set! x y)
       (set! y tmp)))))

In this example, syntax-rules is able to work out that tmp is only used within the macro, so it should be renamed, but x and y should be substituted in. Unlike our CL macro, we’re even safe from the user adding a macro or function called set!.

R5RS provides no facilities to break hygiene. However, R6RS introduced syntax-case, which lets us write each-it. Unfortunately, R7RS does not include syntax-case, so we can’t guarantee that all conforming implementations will support our macro. In practice, syntax-case is widely implemented.

(define-syntax each-it
  (lambda (x)
    (syntax-case x ()
      ((_ lst body ...)
       (with-syntax ((it (datum->syntax x 'it)))
         #'(for-each (lambda (it) body ...) lst))))))

This has become significantly more complex than our Common Lisp implementation. We have explicit ‘syntax’ object wrapping, compile-time function calls and generally more code.

Scheme implementations are still experimenting with providing safe, readable macro systems. The most exciting system is Racket’s notion of a ‘syntax parameter’ (great paper here), which gives users fine grained control of where a parameter may be used. Syntax parameters have the amazing feature that you can write unhygienic macros that compose safely. That said, the linked paper gives a few examples where even syntax parameters aren’t enough, and you need to be fully unhygienic.

Clojure (2007)

Clojure’s macro system is closest in spirit to Common Lisp’s. However, we can’t write a direct equivalent to swap! as Clojure has strict limits on mutability. Instead, we’ll mutate refs, which are threadsafe shared mutable storage that can only be modified inside a transaction.

;; swap! already exists in Clojure.
(defmacro my-swap! [x y]
    (let [tmp# (deref ~x)]
      (ref-set ~x (deref ~y))
      (ref-set ~y tmp#))))

Working with the immutability has made this example a little more verbose, forcing us to add dosync and deref. Clojure’s surface syntax also differs from CL’s, which can make this macro confusing initially. Note that Clojure uses commas as whitespace, so users can write (1, 2, 3) or {1 2, 3 4}. This means commas cannot be used as to splice values into our quasiquote, so CL’s ,x is written ~x in Clojure. Finally, Clojure allows us to write tmp# to instruct the compiler to call gensym("tmp") and substitute it in.

(defmacro each-it [lst & body]
  `(doseq [~'it ~lst]

Clojure has a really interesting notion of hygiene. During macro expansion, all symbols are written in their fully qualified form (e.g. user.core/tmp). This makes accidental variable capture much harder. Furthermore, the language is compiled, and any references to undefined variables is a compile-time error. As a result, Clojure macro problems tend to be caught early.

For each-it, we have to unquote a quoted symbol to break this hygiene. Our resulting macro is still very readable.

sweet.js (2012)

sweet.js is a tool for writing macros in JavaScript (allowing some astounding syntax abuse). Whilst JS is interpreted, many JS projects have a ‘compilation’ workflow including concatenation and minification. This enables you to simply add sweet.js as another build step.

macro swap {
    rule { ($x, $y) } => {
        var tmp = $x;
        $x = $y;
        $y = tmp;

sweet.js macros are hygienic and reminiscent of syntax-case. The hygiene again means we can just use a symbol called tmp safely. By default, it’s over-aggressive about variable renaming, making the compiled output less readable. This is rarely an issue in practice as it supports source maps and has a --readable-names flag for ES5 implementations.

When using --readable-names, sweet.js produces impressively readable code. In the expansion of swap example, our variable tmp is not renamed unless the surrounding code defines a tmp variable! This is nicer than explicitly calling gensym, as that will always give us a random symbol name. sweet.js even preserves some comments in our macro template.

sweet.js also explicitly supports breaking hygiene, and the documentation helpfully includes examples. eachIt is written with case, which is very similar to Scheme’s syntax-case.

macro eachIt {
    case { $eachIt_name ($x) {$y...} } => {
        // Create an `it` variable using the lexical context
        // of `eachIt`.
        var it = makeIdent("it", #{$eachIt_name});
        letstx $it = [it];
        return #{
            for (var i=0; i<$x.length; i++) {
                (function($it) {

As with our Scheme macros, it’s more complex when we want to break hygiene. It’s also slightly more verbose because we have to use an anonymous function to introduce a new scope for it.

Rust (2012)

macro_rules is very experimental with a few annoying bugs and definitely scope for change (possibly arbitrarily large).

– Huon Wilson (Rust core dev) [source]

Much of Rust is still in flux, but these samples have all been tested against Rust 0.11.0. Since macros are still experimental, we have to explicitly enable the feature.


Rust’s macro system is again similar to Scheme’s syntax-rules. It has the additional constraint that you must declare what they’re expecting as each macro argument (identifier, expression, etc). This makes macros more explicit and enables better reporting when misused.

macro_rules! swap {
    ($x:expr, $y:expr) => {
            let tmp = $x;
            $x = $y;
            $y = tmp;

In this case, we’ve allowed $x and $y to be any expression, so we can use l-values (e.g. swap!(foo[0], foo[1]);). If want to limit our swap macro to simple variables, we would write ($x:ident, $y:ident) instead.

At time of writing, it’s not possible to break hygiene without writing a compiler plugin. At this point it’s not really a macro, and it’s beyond my Rust knowledge.

Julia (2012)

Julia has a lot of Lisp influences, offering a hygienic macro system that allows you to define syntax that is indistinguishable from the built-in syntax. However, macro calls have a @ prefix (e.g. @swap(x, y)) so readers can distinguish between user-defined macros and built-in functions/keywords.

Whilst this makes code more explicit, it does force some keywords into the Julia compiler that could otherwise live as macros in the standard library.

macro swap!(x, y)
        tmp = $(esc(x))
        $(esc(x)) = $(esc(y))
        $(esc(y)) = tmp

Julia uses $foo as variable interpolation (i.e. equivalent to CL’s ,foo). This is elegant as it is consistent with other parts of the language: string interpolation ("the value of x is $x") and command interpolation use the same syntax.

Since we’re accessing variables in the scope of macro call environment, we’re forced to use esc() to escape these variables. There are plans to improve this which will mean that we can just write $x and $y.

The hygiene still helps us with our tmp variable, as Julia sees we’re assigning to tmp and ensures it is renamed to be unique.

macro each_it(arr, body)
        for it in $arr

Surprisingly, Julia’s hygiene cheerfully allows variable capture. It renames it in both the loop header and in $body. It also saves us splicing in the $body, because we’re passing in a begin...end block when we use it.

@each_it my_array begin
    println("it: $it")


Designing a good macro system is really hard. It should allow templates that are visually similar to the expanded code, and provide convenient ways to substitute values in. The designer must strike a balance between hygiene that guarantees safety and hygiene that can be broken without hurting readability.

I think the lowest ceremony, quasiquote based macros are the most readable versions that I’ve shown here. The further your syntax is from s-expressions, the harder this is to achieve.

To make matters worse, a parse tree is never actually a nested list, making quasiquotes a convenient lie. A compiler’s parse tree will include metadata such as line numbers. Scheme actually exposes a separate ‘syntax’ datatype, and Clojure exposes &env and &form with metadata.

Finally, the ultimate measure of a macro system is its usage. How often do users write macros, and how robust is the resulting code? I had to cut a number of languages from early drafts of this post because their docs were so poor or I needed extensive knowledge of the grammar or even compiler itself!

If a language has a macro system, and if users use it, that’s a success in my book. I am always glad of the facility, even if I’m only using macros written by others.

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