Pattern Matching in Emacs Lisp

Pattern matching is invaluable in elisp. Lists are ubiquitous, and a small amount of pattern matching can often replace a ton of verbose list fiddling.

Since this is Lisp, we have lots of choices! In this post, we’ll compare cl.el, pcase.el, dash.el, and shadchen, so you can choose the best fit for your project. We’ll look at the most common use cases, and end with some recommendations.

For the sake of this post, we’ll consider both pattern matching and destructuring, as they’re closely related concepts.

A Simple List

Let’s get started with a list that always has three elements. All four of our libraries work here:

(cl-destructuring-bind (a b c) (list 1 2 3)
  (+ a b c))
(pcase (list 1 2 3)
  (`(,a ,b ,c) (+ a b c)))
;; Or:
(pcase-let ((`(,a ,b ,c) (list 1 2 3)))
  (+ a c b))
(require 'dash)
;; Using `-let' with a single value
(-let [(a b c) (list 1 2 3)]
  (+ a b c))

;; We can also use `-let' like the built-in `let',
;; which enables us to add other bindings (`pcase-let'
;; can do this too).
(-let (((a b c) (list 1 2 3)))
  (+ a b c))
(require 'shadchen)
(match (list 1 2 3)
  ((list a b c) (+ a b c)))
;; Shadchen also provides a `pcase-let' equivalent:
(match-let (((list a b c) (list 1 2 3)))
  (+ a b c))

Already, we can see some major syntactic differences. cl-destructuring-bind has a very lightweight syntax. -let is also lightweight, and has a definite Clojure influence. pcase uses a backquote syntax that’s familiar if you’ve written macros, and shadchen’s match uses patterns based on Racket’s pattern matcher.

Users often want to use patterns inside let bindings, so three of our libraries provide this too. It’s a little paren-heavy, but useful when you need it.

Lists of Different Lengths

It’s very common to have lists of different lengths, and pattern matching is a great fit here.

We can’t use cl-destructuring-bind, pcase-let or -let here, as they require a single matching pattern.

(pcase (list 1 2)
  (`() 0)
  (`(,a) a)
  (`(,a ,b) (+ a b)))
(require 'shadchen)
(match (list 1 2)
  ((list) 0)
  ((list a) a)
  ((list a b) (+ a b)))

pcase and match take different attitudes to a failing pattern match. If we pass in (list 1 2 3) to the code above, pcase just returns nil whereas match signals an error. If we want to ignore other cases with match, we have to handle it explicitly:

(match (list 1 2)
  ((list) 0)
  ((list a) a)
  ((list a b) (+ a b))
  (_ nil))

Skipping Elements

A full-featured pattern matching library should include the ability to skip elements, so naturally this is possible too:

(cl-destructuring-bind (a _ _ d) (list 1 2 3 4)
  (+ a d))
(pcase (list 1 2 3 4)
  (`(,a ,_ ,_ ,d) (+ a d)))
(require 'dash)
(-let [(a _ _ d) (list 1 2 3 4)]
  (+ a d))
(require 'shadchen)
(match (list 1 2 3 4)
  ((list a _ _ d) (+ a d)))

pcase, -let and match explicitly use _ for placeholders. cl-destructuring-bind doesn’t care and just binds _ like any other variable.

Values in Patterns

Pattern matching can really help when you’re expecting explicit values in certain places.

For literals, it’s straightforward:

(pcase (list 1 2)
  (`(0 ,b) b)
  (`(,a ,b) (+ a b)))
(require 'shadchen)
(match (list 0 0)
  ((list 0 b) b)
  ((list a b) (+ a b)))

If we want symbols, it takes a little more care with our quoting:

(pcase (list 'x 'y)
  (`(x ,b) "Starts with 'x")
  (`(y ,b) "Starts with 'y")
  (`(,a ,b) "Starts with something else"))
(require 'shadchen)
(match (list 'x 'y)
  ((list 'x b) "Starts with 'x")
  ((list 'y b) "Starts with 'y")
  ((list a b) "Starts with something else"))

Repeated Values

This is sometimes called ‘non-linear patterns’, and is less common in languages with pattern matching built-in (e.g. Haskell doesn’t support it). Since pattern matching is just a macro library, we can pick the library that provides this:

(pcase (list 0 1)
  (`(,a ,a) "Elements are equal according to eq")
  (`(,a ,b) "Elements are different"))

Cons Cells

If you have an explicit cons pair, it may not be a proper list. You can match on this instead:

;; The docstring for `cl-destructuring-bind' doesn't say
;; what's possible, but Info node `(cl) Macros' informs
;; us that the syntax is the same as `cl-defmacro'.
(cl-destructuring-bind (a . b) (cons 1 2)
  (+ a b))
(pcase (cons 1 2)
  (`(,a . ,b) (+ a b)))
(require 'dash)
(-let [(a . b) (cons 1 2)]
  (+ a b))
(require 'shadchen)
(match (cons 1 2)
  ((cons a b) (+ a b)))

Where Clauses

Testing values against a predicate isn’t really pattern matching, but it’s a popular feature in languages with built-in pattern matching. We can do this too:

(pcase (list 1 2)
  ((and `(,a ,b) (guard (oddp a)))
   "Two element list starting with an odd number")
  (`(,a ,b)
   "Other two element list."))
(match (list 1 2)
  ((list (? #'oddp a) b)
   "Two element list starting with an odd number")
  ((list a b)
   "Other two element list."))


Shadchen is very powerful, and even allows recursing with match-let or function declaration with defun-match. However, it’s not namespaced and the documentation isn’t as good.

dash.el doesn’t let you use multiple patterns, nor can it match on literal values. The syntax is very readable though and it has excellent docstrings. You can also use its patterns with the other dash binding macros, such as -if-let.

pcase.el has both excellent docstrings and examples in the info manual, which makes up for slightly noisier syntax. It’s also widely used in Emacs core and some popular Emacs packages, such as magit and use-package.

Now we’ve seen some examples, which should you pick? If you’re already using dash.el in your projects, it’s a no-brainer: use -let. If not, give pcase a try: it’s built-in, it’s used extensively in core, and it’s the only library that worked in every scenario we looked at.

Recent Posts

Difftastic, the Fantastic Diff

The Siren Song of Little Languages

How High Are Your Tests?

Helpful: One Year On

The Emacs Guru Guide to Key Bindings