This post isn’t about the first macro I wrote in the Julia programming language, but it can be about your first macro.

## Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What are macros in Julia?

Answer: Macros are sort of functions which take as input unevaluated expressions (Expr) and return as output another expression, whose code is then regularly evaluated at runtime. This post isn’t a substitute for reading the section about macros in the Julia documentation, it’s more complementary to it, a light tutorial for newcomers, but I warmly suggest reading the manual to learn more about them.

Calls to macros are different from calls to regular functions because you need to prepend the name of the macro with the at-sign @ sign: @view A[4, 1:5] is a call to the @view macro, view(A, 4, 1:5) is a call to the view function. There are a couple of important reasons why macro calls are visually distinct from function calls (which sometimes upsets Lisp purists):

• the arguments of function calls are always evaluated before entering the body of the function: in f(g(2, 5.6)), we know that the function g(2, 5.6) will always be evaluated before calling f on its result. Instead, the expression which is given as input to a macro can in principle be discarded and never taken into account and the macro can be something completely different: in @f g(2, 5.6), the expression g(2, 5.6) is taken unevaluated and rewritten into something else. The function g may actually never be called, or it may be called with different arguments, or whatever the macro @f has been designed to rewrite the given expression;
• nested macro calls are evaluated left-to-right, while nested function calls are evaluated right-to-left: in the expression f(g()), the function g() is first called and then fed into f, instead in @f @g x the macro @f will first rewrite the unevaluated expression @g x, and then, if it is still there after the expression-rewrite operated by @f (remember the previous point?), the macro @g is expanded.

Writing a macro can also be an unpleasant experience the first times you try it, because a macro operates on a new level (expressions, which you want to turn into other expressions) and you need to get familiar with new concepts, like hygiene (more on this below), which can be tricky to get initially right. However it may help remembering that the Expr macros operate on are regular Julia objects, which you can access and modify like any other Julia structure. So you can think of a macro as a regular function which operates on Expr objects, to return a new Expr. This isn’t a simplification: many macros are actually defined to only call a regular function which does all the expression rewriting business.

Q: Should I write a macro?

A: If you’re asking yourself this question, the answer is likely “no”. Steven G. Johnson gave an interesting keynote speech at JuliaCon 2019 about metaprogramming (not just in Julia), explaining when to use it, and more importantly when not to use it.

Also, macros don’t compose very well: remember that any macro can rewrite an expression in a completely arbitrary way, so nesting macros can sometimes have unexpected results, if the outermost macro doesn’t anticipate the possibility the expressions it operates on may contain another macro which expects a specific expression. In practice, this is less of a problem than it may sound, but it can definitely happens if you overuse many complicated macros. This is one more reason why you should not write a macro in your code unless it’s really necessary to substantially simplify the code.

Q: So, what’s the deal with macros?

A: Macros are useful to programmatically generate code which would be tedious, or very complicated, to type manually. Keep in mind that the goal of a macro is to eventually get a new expression, which is run when the macro is called, so the generated code will be executed regularly, no shortcut about that, which is sometimes a misconception. There is very little that plain (i.e. not using macros) Julia code cannot do that macros can.

Q: Why I should keep reading this post?

A: Writing a simple macro can still be a useful exercise to learn how it works, and understand when they can be useful.

## Our first macro: @stable

Globals in Julia are usually a major performance hit, when their type is not constant, because the compiler have no idea what’s their actual type. When you don’t need to reassign a global variable, you can mark it as constant with the const keyword, which greatly improves performance of accessing a global variable, because the compiler will know its type and can reason about it.

Julia v1.8 introduces a new way to have non-horribly-slow global variables: you can annotate the type of a global variable, to say that its type won’t change:

julia> x::Float64 = 3.14
3.14

julia> x = -4.2
-4.2

julia> x = 10
10

julia> x
10.0

julia> x = nothing
ERROR: MethodError: Cannot convert an object of type Nothing to an object of type Float64
Closest candidates are:
convert(::Type{T}, ::T) where T<:Number at number.jl:6
convert(::Type{T}, ::Number) where T<:Number at number.jl:7
convert(::Type{T}, ::Base.TwicePrecision) where T<:Number at twiceprecision.jl:273
...


This is different from a const variable, because you can reassign a type-annotated global variable to another value with the same type (or convertible to the annotated type), while reassigning a const variable isn’t possible (nor recommended). But the type would still be constant, which helps the compiler optimising code which accesses this global variable. Note that x = 10 returns 10 (an Int) but the actual value of x is 10.0 (a Float64) because assignment returns the right-hand side but the value 10 is converted to Float64 before assigning it to x.

Wait, there is no macro so far! Right, we’ll get there soon. The problem with type-annotated globals is that in the expression x::Float64 = 3.14 it’s easy to predict the type we want to attach to x, but if you want to make x = f() a type-annotated global variable and the type of f() is much more involved than Float64, perhaps a type with few parameters, then doing the type annotation can be annoying. Mind, not impossible, just tedious. So, that’s where a macro could come in handy!

The idea is to have a macro, which we’ll call @stable, which operates like this:

@stable x = 2


will automatically run something like

x::typeof(2) = 2


so that we can automatically infer the type of x from the expression on the right-hand side, without having to type it ourselves. A useful tool when dealing with macros is Meta.@dump (another macro, yay!).

julia> Meta.@dump x = 2
Expr
head: Symbol =
args: Array{Any}((2,))
1: Symbol x
2: Int64 2


This tells us how the expression x = 2 is parsed into an Expr, when it’s fed into a macro. So, this means that our @stable x = 2 macro will see an Expr whose ex.args[1] field is the name of the variable we want to create and ex.args[2] is the value we want to assign to it, which means the expression we want to generate will be something like ex.args[1]::typeof(ex.args[2]) = ex.args[2], but remember that you need to interpolate variables inside a quoted expression:

julia> macro stable(ex::Expr)
return :( $(ex.args[1])::typeof($(ex.args[2])) = $(ex.args[2]) ) end @stable (macro with 1 method) julia> @stable x = 2 2  Well, that was easy, it worked at the first try! Now we can use our brand-new type-stable x! Let’s do it! julia> x ERROR: UndefVarError: x not defined  Waaat! What happened to our x, we just defined it above! Didn’t we? Well, let’s use yet another macro, @macroexpand, to see what’s going on: julia> @macroexpand @stable x = 2 :(var"#2#x"::Main.typeof(2) = 2)  Uhm, that looks weird, we were expecting the expression to be x::typeof(2), what’s that var"#2#x"? Let’s see: julia> var"#2#x" ERROR: UndefVarError: #2#x not defined  Another undefined variable, I’m more and more confused. What if that 2 in there is a global counter? Maybe we need to try with 1: julia> var"#1#x" 2 julia> var"#1#x" = 5 5 julia> var"#1#x" 5 julia> var"#1#x" = nothing ERROR: MethodError: Cannot convert an object of type Nothing to an object of type Int64 Closest candidates are: convert(::Type{T}, ::T) where T<:Number at number.jl:6 convert(::Type{T}, ::Number) where T<:Number at number.jl:7 convert(::Type{T}, ::Base.TwicePrecision) where T<:Number at twiceprecision.jl:273 ...  Hey, here is our variable, and it’s working as we expected! But this isn’t as convenient as calling the variable x as we wanted. I don’t like that. what’s happening? Alright, we’re now running into hygiene, which we mentioned above: this isn’t about washing your hands, but about the fact macros need to make sure the variables in the returned expression don’t accidentally clash with variables in the scope they expand to. This is achieved by using the gensym function to automatically generate unique identifiers (in the current module) to avoid clashes with local variables. What happened above is that our macro generated a variable with a gensym-ed name, instead of the name we used in the expression, because macros in Julia are hygienic by default. To opt out of this mechanism, we can use the esc function. A rule of thumb is that you should apply esc on input arguments if they contain variables or identifiers from the scope of the calling site that you need use as they are, but for more details do read the section about hygiene in the Julia manual. Note also that the pattern var"#N#x", with increasing N at every macro call, in the gensym-ed variable name is an implementation detail which may change in future versions of Julia, don’t rely on it. Now we should know how to fix the @stable macro: julia> macro stable(ex::Expr) return :($(esc(ex.args[1]))::typeof($(esc(ex.args[2]))) =$(esc(ex.args[2])) )
end
@stable (macro with 1 method)

julia> @stable x = 2
2

julia> x
2

julia> x = 4.0
4.0

julia> x
4

julia> x = "hello world"
ERROR: MethodError: Cannot convert an object of type String to an object of type Int64
Closest candidates are:
convert(::Type{T}, ::T) where T<:Number at number.jl:6
convert(::Type{T}, ::Number) where T<:Number at number.jl:7
convert(::Type{T}, ::Base.TwicePrecision) where T<:Number at twiceprecision.jl:273
...

julia> @macroexpand @stable x = 2
:(x::Main.typeof(2) = 2)


Cool, this is all working as expected! Are we done now? Yes, we’re heading into the right direction, but no, we aren’t quite done yet. Let’s consider a more sophisticated example, where the right-hand side is a function call and not a simple literal number, which is why we started all of this. For example, let’s define a new type-stable variable with a rand() value, and let’s print it with one more macro, @show, just to be sure:

julia> @stable y = @show(rand())
rand() = 0.19171602949009747
rand() = 0.5007039099074341
0.5007039099074341

julia> y
0.5007039099074341


Ugh, that doesn’t look good. We’re calling rand() twice and getting two different values? Let’s ask again our friend @macroexpand what’s going on (no need to use @show this time):

julia> @macroexpand @stable y = rand()
:(y::Main.typeof(rand()) = rand())


Oh, I think I see it now: the way we defined the macro, the same expression, rand(), is used twice: once inside typeof, and then on the right-hand side of the assignment, but this means we’re actually calling that function twice, even though the expression is the same. Correct! And this isn’t good for at least two reasons:

• the expression on the right-hand side of the assignment can be expensive to run, and calling it twice wouldn’t be a good outcome: we wanted to create a macro to simply things, not to spend twice as much time;
• the expression on the right-hand side of the assignment can have side effects, which is precisely the case of the rand() function: every time you call rand() you’re advancing the mutable state of the random number generator, but if you call it twice instead of once, you’re doing something unexpected. By simply looking at the code @stable y = rand(), someone would expect that rand() is called exactly once, it’d be bad if users of your macro would experience undesired side effects, which can make for hard-to-debug issues.

In order to avoid double evaluation of the expression, we can assign it to another temporary variable, and then use its value in the assignment expression:

julia> macro stable(ex::Expr)
quote
tmp = $(esc(ex.args[2]))$(esc(ex.args[1]))::typeof(tmp) = tmp
end
end
@stable (macro with 1 method)

julia> @stable y = @show(rand())
rand() = 0.5954734423582769
0.5954734423582769


This time rand() was called only once! That’s good, isn’t it? It is indeed, but I think we can still improve the macro a little bit. For example, let’s look at the list of all names defined in the current module with names. Can you spot anything strange?

julia> names(@__MODULE__; all=true)
13-element Vector{Symbol}:
Symbol("##meta#58")
Symbol("#1#2")
Symbol("#1#x")
Symbol("#5#tmp")
Symbol("#@stable")
Symbol("@stable")
:Base
:Core
:InteractiveUtils
:Main
:ans
:x
:y


I have a baad feeling about that Symbol("#5#tmp"). Are we leaking the temporary variable in the returned expression? Correct! Admittedly, this isn’t a too big of a deal, the variable is gensym-ed and so it won’t clash with any other local variables thanks to hygiene, many people would just ignore this minor issue, but I believe it’d still be nice to avoid leaking it in the first place, if possible. We can do that by sticking the local keyword in front of the temporary variable:

julia> macro stable(ex::Expr)
quote
local tmp = $(esc(ex.args[2]))$(esc(ex.args[1]))::typeof(tmp) = tmp
end
end
@stable (macro with 1 method)

julia> @stable y = rand()
0.7029553059625194

julia> @stable y = rand()
0.04552255224129409

julia> names(@__MODULE__; all=true)
13-element Vector{Symbol}:
Symbol("##meta#58")
Symbol("#1#2")
Symbol("#1#x")
Symbol("#5#tmp")
Symbol("#@stable")
Symbol("@stable")
:Base
:Core
:InteractiveUtils
:Main
:ans
:x
:y


Yay, no other leaked temporary variables! Are we done now? Not yet, we can still make it more robust. At the moment we’re assuming that the expression fed into our @stable macro is an assignment, but what if it isn’t the case?

julia> @stable x * 12
4

julia> x
4


Uhm, it doesn’t look like anything happened, x is still 4, maybe we can ignore also this case and move on. Not so fast:

julia> 1 * 2
ERROR: MethodError: objects of type Int64 are not callable
Maybe you forgot to use an operator such as *, ^, %, / etc. ?


Aaargh! What does that even mean?!? Let’s ask our dear friends Meta.@dump and @macroexpand:

julia> Meta.@dump x * 2
Expr
head: Symbol call
args: Array{Any}((3,))
1: Symbol *
2: Symbol x
3: Int64 2

julia> @macroexpand @stable x * 12
quote
var"#5#tmp" = x
(*)::Main.typeof(var"#5#tmp") = var"#5#tmp"
end

julia> *
4


Let me see if I follow: with @stable x * 12 we’re assigning x (which is now ex.args[2]) to the temporary variable, and then the assignment is basically * = 4, because ex.args[1] is now *. Ooops. Brilliant! In particular we’re shadowing * in the current scope (for example the Main module in the REPL, if you’re following along in the REPL) with the number 4, the expression 1 * 2 is actually equivalent to *(1, 2), and since * is 4

julia> 4(1, 2)
ERROR: MethodError: objects of type Int64 are not callable
Maybe you forgot to use an operator such as *, ^, %, / etc. ?


Gotcha! So we should validate the input? Indeed, we should make sure the expression passed to the macro is what we expect, that is an assignment. We’ve already seen before that this means ex.head should be the symbol =. We should also make sure the left-hand side is only a variable name, we don’t want to mess up with indexing expressions like A[1] = 2:

julia> Meta.@dump A[1] = 2
Expr
head: Symbol =
args: Array{Any}((2,))
1: Expr
head: Symbol ref
args: Array{Any}((2,))
1: Symbol A
2: Int64 1
2: Int64 2


Right, so ex.head should be only = and ex.args[1] should only be another symbol. In the other cases we should throw a useful error message. You’re getting the hang of it!

julia> macro stable(ex::Expr)
(ex.head === :(=) && ex.args[1] isa Symbol) || throw(ArgumentError("@stable: $(ex) is not an assigment expression.")) quote tmp =$(esc(ex.args[2]))
\$(esc(ex.args[1]))::typeof(tmp) = tmp
end
end
@stable (macro with 1 method)

julia> @stable x * 12
ERROR: LoadError: ArgumentError: @stable: x * 12 is not an assigment expression.

julia> @stable A[1] = 2
ERROR: LoadError: ArgumentError: @stable: A[1] = 2 is not an assigment expression.


Awesome, I think I’m now happy with my first macro! Love it! Yes, now it works pretty well and it has also good handling of errors! Nice job!

## Conclusions

I hope this post was instructive to learn how to write a very basic macro in Julia. In the end, the macro we wrote is quite short and not very complicated, but we ran into many pitfalls along the way: hygiene, thinking about corner cases of expressions, avoiding repeated undesired evaluations and introducing extra variables in the scope of the macro’s call-site. This also shows the purpose of macros: rewriting expressions into other ones, to simplify writing more complicated expressions or programmatically write more code.

This post is inspired by a macro which I wrote some months ago for the Seven Lines of Julia thread on JuliaLang Discourse.

This was cool! Where can I learn more about macros? Good to hear! I hope now you aren’t going to abuse macros though! But if you do want to learn something more about macros, in addition to the official documentation, some useful resources are: