Compile-time work with Elixir macros

Macros are a very common way to do metaprogramming in Elixir. There are many resources that explain what macros are and how to use them (much better than I could): there's the Macro chapter from the "Getting Started" guide on Elixir's website, an awesome series of articles by Saša Jurić, and even a book (Metaprogramming Elixir) by Chris McCord. In this article, I'll assume you are familiar with macros and how they work, and I'll talk about another use case of macros that is rarely examined: doing compile-time things in macros.

Macro expansion

Macros are often used as tools to manipulate the AST (Abstract Syntax Tree, the representation of Elixir code) and transform it into new AST. For example, the definition of the if macro looks something like this:

defmacro if(condition, do: do_block, else: else_block) do
  quote do
    case unquote(condition) do
      x when x in [false, nil] -> unquote(else_block)
      _                        -> unquote(do_block)

if just expands to a case statement that checks whether the condition is false-y (nil or false) or truthy (anything else), executing the correct block of code.

The key concept here is expansion: a macro call just gets transformed to other code. It's easy to see this process using Macro.expand/2 (or Macro.expand_once/2). Let's work with a simple macro so that our examples are straightforward:

defmodule SimpleMacro do
  defmacro plus(x, y) do
    quote do: unquote(x) + unquote(y)

Seeing the expansion of this macro is trivial:

iex> import SimpleMacro
iex> ast = quote do: plus(x, 23)
iex> ast |> Macro.expand(__ENV__) |> Macro.to_string
"x + 23"

Expanding a macro means executing the code inside the macro and replacing the macro call with the AST (the quoted code) it returns. This expansion step happens at compile time: a macro is executed at compile time and replaced with the code it returns, which is expanded recursively (searching for nested macros) but not executed until runtime. Turns out, we can take advantage of this! We can write macros that do not transform the AST they receive, but that perform some operation at compile time using this AST.

Working at compile time

Usually, macros are described as functions that take code instead of data and return code instead of data; in this description, we describe macros in terms of functions. However, we can also define functions in terms of macros: each function is just a macro that does nothing at compile time.

Say we have this code:

defmodule MacroPhilosophy do
  def hello(name) do
    "Hello #{name}!"
iex> hello "Elixir"
"Hello Elixir!"

We can turn hello/1 into a macro without changing any of the existing code that relies on it, except for having to require the MacroPhilosophy module. The only thing we have to change about the definition of hello/1 is that we have to return the quoted code instead of executing the code: luckily this change is trivial if we take advantage of the :bind_quoted option for quote.

defmodule MacroPhilosophy do
  defmacro hello(name) do
    quote bind_quoted: binding() do
      "Hello #{name}!"
iex> require MacroPhilosophy
iex> hello "Elixir"
"Hello Elixir"

As you can see, the actual body of the function (the string interpolation) is the same both in the function and in the macro.

This lets us see functions from a different perspective, but also highlights something about macros: they can be used to do work at compile time. We can execute any code inside the macro at compile time, as long as we return valid quoted code. Furthermore, the code we execute before returning the quoted code will just disappear at runtime. Poof!

A useless expression-counting macro

To stay true to the ancient tradition of making useless example with absolutely no connection to the real world, let's build a macro that logs the number of Elixir expressions (and sub-expressions) in some given code:

defmodule UselessExamplesAreFun do
  defmacro log_number_of_expressions(code) do
    {_, counter} = Macro.prewalk code, 0, fn(expr, counter) ->
      {expr, counter + 1}

    IO.puts "You passed me #{counter} expressions/sub-expressions"


Let's walk through the macro. First, we count the expressions and sub-expressions by using Macro.prewalk/3. Then, we print this number: this is our compile time work. Finally, we just return the argument code (which is already an AST). This macro effectively does nothing at runtime: in fact, it won't leave a trace in the compiled code. This is great for performance because, well, the compile-time logging code just disappears.

A real-world example (there is one this time!)

I realized macros can be used to do compile-time work after José Valim proposed to use this technique while we were building gettext for Elixir. Gettext provides a mix gettext.extract task which is used to extract translations from source files and write them to .po files. Translations are just calls to gettext macros with strings as arguments:

# in lib/greetings.ex
import MyApp.Gettext
gettext "Hello people of Gotham!", "fr"

Running mix gettext.extract results in a .po file with this content:

#: lib/greetings.ex:2
msgid "Hello people of Gotham!"
msgstr ""

What most gettext bindings for other languages (such as Python) do to extract translations is parsing the code and looking for calls to gettext() functions. In Elixir, instead, we just have to register the string to extract inside the macro, at compile-time, and then force-recompile the project to expand the macros and extract the translations. Awesome!

This is what the definition of gettext roughly looks like (and the actual implementation):

defmacro gettext(msgid, locale) do

  quote do
    translate(unquote(msgid), unquote(locale))

When we call extract/2, we register the msgid by pushing it to an agent that we started before recompiling. When the compilation is done, we just dump the state of this agent. This has no impact whatsoever on the expanded code that is executed at runtime: calls to gettext/2 are just calls to translate/2 at runtime.


Deeply understanding macros and how they work is fundamental in order to be able to meta-program, optimize, and understand Elixir code. In this article, we experimented with using macros to do compile-time work. We saw a non-real-world example and then a real-world example taken from the gettext Elixir library.