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Tim Bradshaw



Destructuring match

Common Lisp doesn't have any pattern-matching facilities in the language. A number have been written: CLiki has a list: Marco Antoniotti's CL-UNIFICATION is my favourite, as I used to be interested in unification grammars. Many of these systems are quite general: they seek to be able to match very general objects to be extensible and to have very good performance. This causes inevitable hair in their implementations, and also means that they often make doing something rather simple much harder than it needs to be.

The simple thing that should be easy is providing a generalised version of destructuring-bindor, equivalently[^1], macro argument lists. That's what dsm does, and that's all it does: if you understand destructuring-bind and case you can pretty much stop reading now: destructuring-match is pretty much case except that the cases are lambda lists for destructuring-bind.

dsm's whole purpose in life is to allow you to pattern match against source code: it does not, for instance, support matching against instances of general classes, because instances of general classes do not occur in source code. It is a tool to make doing what Lisp does best easier: implementing programming languages built on Lisp. And that is all it does. Because this is all it is meant to do,dsm cares about correctness, but it does not care at all about performance: the performance of macroexpansion never matters[^2].

An example

As an example, let's consider a macro where there are a few possible variations on the syntax:

(with-foo x ... use x ...)
(with-foo (x a) ... use x ...)
(with-foo (x a b) ... use x ...)
(with-foo ((x y) a b) ...)

Well, to write a reasonably error-protected version of this you end up with code like, for instance

(defmacro with-foo (binding &body forms)
  (typecase binding
     (destructuring-bind (thing . more) binding
       (typecase thing
         (symbol ...)
          (unless (= (length thing) 2)
            (error ...))
          (destructuring-bind (var opt) thing
         (t (error ...)))))
    (t (error ...))))

And this is just horrible.

This can be improved with, for instance, a system like my simple pattern matcher, spam:

(defmacro with-foo (binding &body forms)
  (matching binding
      (list-matches (var) (any))
      (list-matches (var) (any) (any)))
     (destructuring-bind (var &optional a1 a2) binding
      (list-matches (list-matches (var) (any)) (any))
      (list-matches (list-matches (var) (any)) (any) (any)))
     (destructuring-bind ((var opt) &optional a1 a2) binding
     (error ...))))

This is a lot better.

The underlying problem here is that, before you can use destructuring-bind you need to wrap numerous guards around it, and this is especially true if you want to allow variations in syntax which don't match the same lambda list. What would be nice is something that did what destructuring-bind does, but which could also try several possibilities. Like this:

(defmacro with-foo (binding &rest forms)
  (destructuring-match binding
     (:when (symbolp var))
    ((var &optional a1 a2)
     (:when (symbolp var))
    (((var opt) &optional a1 a2)
     (:when (symbolp var))
     (error ...))))

This is what dsm lets you do: it provides a macro, destructuring-match, which understands lambda lists similar to destructuring-binds although slightly extended, except that it also matches against many possible lambda lists, and that matches can have 'guard clauses' which allow arbitrary additional tests before a match succeeds.

Again,dsm is not intended as a general-purpose pattern matcher: all it does is allow matching against many possible lambda lists, succeeding on the first match. Guard clauses allow some additional tests before a match succeeds, but that's it. The best way to understand dsm is that it's a tool for writing macros: it's not anything more general than that. But as a tool for writing macros it can make your life a lot easier. It would be relatively simple to implement, on top of destructuring-match, a pattern-matching macro language like Scheme's syntax-rulesalthough without hygiene of course[^3].

The interface

dsm provides a single macro: destructuring-match.

destructuring-match is a macro which combines something like case with a slightly extendeddestructuring-bind.

(destructuring-match <expression>
  <clause> ...)
  • <expression> is any expression.
  • <clause> is one of
    • (<lambda-list> [<guard>] ...);
    • (otherwise ...);
    • (t ...).
  • For <lambda-list> see below.
  • <guard> is a form like (<when/unless) expression ...), where <when/unless> is :when or :unless.

The lambda lists understood by destructuring-match are[^4] the same as the lambda lists understood by destructuring-bind, extended in two ways:

  1. a 'lambda list' which is a symbol binds the whole value of the expression, in the same way that (lambda x ...) does in Scheme;
  2. any variable whose name is _, regardless of package, is a 'blank', and is turned into an anonymous variable which is ignored, with each occurrence of such a variable being distinct.

The guards specified by a guard clause may be repeated, so (:when ... :unless ... :when ...) is perfectly legal. Guards are evaluated after variables are bound but before the match is committed. If the guards fail the next clause is tried.

Clauses which beginotherwise and t are the same: they're the default case, and bind no variables.


In addition, dsm exposes three condition classes:

dsm-error is the condition type of all errors that dsm knowingly signals.

dsm-error/yours is the type of errors signalled by dsm which it considers to be your fault: things like botched lambda lists and so on.

dsm-error/mine is the type of errors signalled by dsm which it considers to be its fault. Please report any of these.

Of course, other errors may occur which it has not foreseen: report these also.

Some simple examples

(defmacro bind (v/v &body forms)
  (destructuring-match v/v
     (:when (symbolp var))
     `(let ((,var nil)) ,@forms))
    ((var val)
     (:when (symbolp var))
     `(let ((,var ,val)) ,@forms))
     (error "bad binding ~S" v/v))))

is a trivial version of let which binds only one variable.

(defmacro bind* (bindings &body forms)
  (destructuring-match bindings
     `(locally ,@forms))
    (((var &optional (val nil)))
     (:when (symbolp var))
     `((lambda (,var) ,@forms) ,val))
     (:when (symbolp var))
     `((lambda (,var) ,@forms) nil))
    (((var &optional (val nil)) . more)
     (:when (symbolp var))
     `((lambda (,var) (bind* ,more ,@forms)) ,val))
    ((var . more)
     (:when (symbolp var))
     `((lambda (,var) (bind* ,more ,@forms)) nil))
     (error "what even is this?"))))

is a more elaborate version of let*.

An example of blank variables: this function will extract a list of keyword variable names from the various possible keyword argument specifications allowed by CL:

(defun keyword-variable-names (keyword-argument-specifications)
  (mapcar (lambda (spec)
            (destructuring-match spec
               (:when (symbolp v))
              ((v _ &optional _)
               (:when (symbolp v))
              (((_ v) _ &optional _)
               (:when (symbolp v))
               (error "not a keyword argument specification"))))

Without blank variables, something like this would need to be covered in explicitignore declarations.

Another example: define-destructuring-macro

destructuring-match was designed for writing macros, and it's easy to use it to write this[^5]:

(defmacro define-matching-macro (name &body clauses)
  (let ((<whole> (make-symbol "WHOLE"))
        (<junk> (make-symbol "JUNK")))
    (destructuring-match clauses
      ((doc . the-clauses)
       (:when (stringp doc))
       `(defmacro ,name (&whole ,<whole> &rest ,<junk>)
          (destructuring-match ,<whole> ,@the-clauses)))
       `(defmacro ,name (&whole ,<whole> &rest ,<junk>)
          (destructuring-match ,<whole> ,@the-clauses))))))

This can then be used, for instance, like this:

(define-matching-macro with-scrot
 ((_ (s) &body forms)
  (:when (symbolp s))
  `(call-with-simple-scrot (lambda (,s) ,@forms)))
 ((_ (s v) &body forms)
  (:when (symbolp s))
  `(call-with-general-scrot (lambda (,s) ,@forms) (ensure-scrot ,v)))
  (error "~S is a bad bad thing" badness)))

So now it's very easy to write macros which accept several argument patterns and which can also report syntax errors usefully.

A final example: destructuring-bind

My friend Zyni[^6] pointed out to me that, of course, destructuring-match can implement destructuring-bind. This implementation (due to her) may not be completely correct but it gets the point across:

(defmacro destructuring-bind (ll form &body decls/forms)
  (multiple-value-bind (decls forms) (parse-simple-body decls/forms)
    `(destructuring-match ,form
        (progn ,@forms)))
    (otherwise (error "fleașcă"))))

(The reason to parse the declarations out like this is so you don't have to think about bodies which look like ((:when ...) ...) and worry about whether:whenor :unless are legal operator names. parse-simple-body comes from org.tfeb.hax.utilities.)

Notes on the implementation

Lambda lists

dsm has to implement its own parsing and compilation of lambda lists. It is intended to be compatible with destructuring-bind with the extension of 'lambda lists' which are a symbol. However there are many corner cases, especially around keyword handling: I think it gets these right, but there may be bugs remaining: please let me know if you find any.

There is a fairly extensive test-suite included with dem which tests quite a lot of the corner cases, but it is not completely comprehensive, and I may also just not understand a lot of the corner cases of lambda list parsing.

Structure sharing

When dsm binds a variable to an object which is part of the structure of the lambda list, that object will actually be part of that structure. So, for instance

(let ((l '(a b c)))
  (destructuring-match l
    ((&rest r)
     (eq l r))))

will be true.

&rest lists may not be

A lambda list like (a &rest b) just peels off the first element of the thing it's matching for a and then puts everything else in b: that may not be a proper list or even a cons. In particular

thisis the same as this
(a b ... &rest c)(a b ... . c)
(&rest r)r

and so on. Checking that &rest lists are in fact proper lists is expensive and probably not actually useful since it would make cyclic structures impossible to match, so dsm does not waste time doing so.


Declarations are 'raised' to where they belong by the compiler, so something like

(destructuring-match x
  ((&key y)
   (:when (evenp y))
   (declare (type integer y))

Will do the right thing, and the guard clause will be within the scope of the declaration.

However, no attempt is made to recognise the alternative form of type declarations: (declare (integer y)) is simply not recognised at all. That's because it's essentially not possible to reliably recognise that declarations of the form (<something> ...) are in fact type declarations at all because CL has no 'is this a type specifier?' predicate. So if you want to declare types, use the long form[^7].

Other declaration types which affect variable bindings, such as ignore, dynamic-extent and so on, are also raised.

Dead code

dsm can generate code like this as a particular case (this often happens when using &rest lists in particular):

(let ((x '()))
  (if (not (null x))
      (fail ...)

This can cause SBCL at least to mutter about eliminating dead code: I decided that the additional complexity to deal with this special case wasn't worth it: probably any serious compiler will work it out and remove the test.

The lambda list parser & compiler

dsm contains the seeds of what could be a general-purpose lambda list parser & compiler, which could, in theory, be taught how to parse & compile other sorts of lambda lists, including lambda lists not native to CL. At present these are not well-separated from the code that recognizes and compiles destructuring-bind-style lambda lists, but they might one day be.


Since dsm is intended for use in macros I made no real attempt to worry about performance. There is a small set of rudimentary benchmarks which compare its performance with destructuring-bind for various cases: the results are obviously implementation-dependent, but generally it seems to be between about 1/2 and 1/10 the speed. Given that it's portable code I'm happy with this[^8].


dsm contains an 'implementation' layer which has its own package, and which may one day expose more of it with some documented interface. Currently this interface is entirely internal to dsm and may change at any time.

Other notes

'Lambda lists' which are symbols happened by mistake (there's what is essentially an error in the recognizer where it's looking for dotted lambda lists), but they are in fact so useful that I decided this was a feature, not a bug.

Lost futures

dsm contains a lambda list parser and compiler which, in principle, are fairly general. Cleaning up and exposing their interfaces was too exhausting when I was writing dsm but might happen in future.

What constitutes a blank variable is parameterized internally and could be made user-configurable. On the other hand everybody elsr uses _, so I am not sure any useful purpose would be served by doing so.

Package, module, feature, dependencies

dsm lives in org.tfeb.dsm and provides :org.tfeb.dsm. There is an ASDF system definition for both it and its tests.

dsm depends on a fair number of other things I have written: if you have a recent Quicklisp distribution then it should know about all of them. At least, by the time dsm makes it into Quicklisp it should. If not, you need at least version 5 of my CL hax, and at least version 8 of my CL tools.

Destructuring match is copyright 2022 by Tim Bradshaw. See LICENSE for the license.

[^1]: Almost equivalently: neither destructuring-bind not destructuring-match support the &environment lambda list keyword.

[^2]: Once, perhaps, it did, but that was most of a lifetime ago.

[^3]: A toy version of a macro to define pattern-matching macros like this is included as an example.

[^4]: Or should be!

[^5]: Note that this is 12 lines, 6 of which is code to handle docstrings.

[^6]: Not her real name.

[^7]: I think you should always do this, anyway.

[^8]: Apocryphally it also outperforms some of those hairy pattern matchers which obsess about performance, although they obviously do a lot more than dsm does.

Dependencies (3)

  • parachute
  • tfeb-lisp-hax
  • tfeb-lisp-tools

Dependents (0)

    • GitHub
    • Quicklisp