Macros

We’ve used macros like println! throughout this book, but we haven’t fully explored what a macro is and how it works. Macros refers to a family of features in Rust:

  • Declarative macros with macro_rules!
  • Procedural macros, which come in three kinds:
    • Custom #[derive] macros
    • Attribute-like macros
    • Function-like macros

We’ll talk about each of these in turn, but first, why do we even need macros when we already have functions?

The Difference Between Macros and Functions

Fundamentally, macros are a way of writing code that writes other code, which is known as metaprogramming. In Appendix C, we discuss the derive attribute, which generates an implementation of various traits for you. We’ve also used the println! and vec! macros throughout the book. All of these macros expand to produce more code than the code you’ve written manually.

Metaprogramming is useful for reducing the amount of code you have to write and maintain, which is also one of the roles of functions. However, macros have some additional powers that functions don’t have.

A function signature must declare the number and type of parameters the function has. Macros, on the other hand, can take a variable number of parameters: we can call println!("hello") with one argument or println!("hello {}", name) with two arguments. Also, macros are expanded before the compiler interprets the meaning of the code, so a macro can, for example, implement a trait on a given type. A function can’t, because it gets called at runtime and a trait needs to be implemented at compile time.

The downside to implementing a macro instead of a function is that macro definitions are more complex than function definitions because you’re writing Rust code that writes Rust code. Due to this indirection, macro definitions are generally more difficult to read, understand, and maintain than function definitions.

There is one last important difference between macros and functions: you must define or bring macros into scope before you call them in a file, whereas you can define functions anywhere and call them anywhere.

Declarative Macros with macro_rules! for General Metaprogramming

The most widely used form of macros in Rust are declarative macros. These are also sometimes referred to as “macros by example”, “macro_rules! macros”, or just plain “macros”. At their core, declarative macros allow you to write something similar to a Rust match expression. As discussed in Chapter 6, match expressions are control structures that take an expression, compare the resulting value of the expression to patterns, and then run the code associated with the matching pattern. Macros also compare a value to patterns that have code associated with them; in this situation, the value is the literal Rust source code passed to the macro, the patterns are compared with the structure of that source code, and the code associated with each pattern is the code that replaces the code passed to the macro. This all happens during compilation.

To define a macro, you use the macro_rules! construct. Let’s explore how to use macro_rules! by looking at how the vec! macro is defined. Chapter 8 covered how we can use the vec! macro to create a new vector with particular values. For example, the following macro creates a new vector with three integers inside:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
let v: Vec<u32> = vec![1, 2, 3];
#}

We could also use the vec! macro to make a vector of two integers or a vector of five string slices. We wouldn’t be able to use a function to do the same because we wouldn’t know the number or type of values up front.

Let’s look at a slightly simplified definition of the vec! macro in Listing 19-36.

Filename: src/lib.rs


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
#[macro_export]
macro_rules! vec {
    ( $( $x:expr ),* ) => {
        {
            let mut temp_vec = Vec::new();
            $(
                temp_vec.push($x);
            )*
            temp_vec
        }
    };
}
#}

Listing 19-36: A simplified version of the vec! macro definition

Note: The actual definition of the vec! macro in the standard library includes code to preallocate the correct amount of memory up front. That code is an optimization that we don’t include here to make the example simpler.

The #[macro_export] annotation indicates that this macro should be made available whenever the crate in which we’re defining the macro is brought into scope. Without this annotation, the macro can’t be brought into scope.

We then start the macro definition with macro_rules! and the name of the macro we’re defining without the exclamation mark. The name, in this case vec, is followed by curly brackets denoting the body of the macro definition.

The structure in the vec! body is similar to the structure of a match expression. Here we have one arm with the pattern ( $( $x:expr ),* ), followed by => and the block of code associated with this pattern. If the pattern matches, the associated block of code will be emitted. Given that this is the only pattern in this macro, there is only one valid way to match; any other will be an error. More complex macros will have more than one arm.

Valid pattern syntax in macro definitions is different than the pattern syntax covered in Chapter 18 because macro patterns are matched against Rust code structure rather than values. Let’s walk through what the pieces of the pattern in Listing D-1 mean; for the full macro pattern syntax, see the reference.

First, a set of parentheses encompasses the whole pattern. Next comes a dollar sign ($) followed by a set of parentheses, which captures values that match the pattern within the parentheses for use in the replacement code. Within $() is $x:expr, which matches any Rust expression and gives the expression the name $x.

The comma following $() indicates that a literal comma separator character could optionally appear after the code that matches the code captured in $(). The * following the comma specifies that the pattern matches zero or more of whatever precedes the *.

When we call this macro with vec![1, 2, 3];, the $x pattern matches three times with the three expressions 1, 2, and 3.

Now let’s look at the pattern in the body of the code associated with this arm: the temp_vec.push() code within the $()* part is generated for each part that matches $() in the pattern, zero or more times depending on how many times the pattern matches. The $x is replaced with each expression matched. When we call this macro with vec![1, 2, 3];, the code generated that replaces this macro call will be the following:

let mut temp_vec = Vec::new();
temp_vec.push(1);
temp_vec.push(2);
temp_vec.push(3);
temp_vec

We’ve defined a macro that can take any number of arguments of any type and can generate code to create a vector containing the specified elements.

There are some strange corners with macro_rules!. In the future, there will be a second kind of declarative macro with the macro keyword that will work in a similar fashion but fix some of these edge cases. After that is done, macro_rules! will be effectively deprecated. With this in mind, as well as the fact that most Rust programmers will use macros more than write macros, we won’t discuss macro_rules! any further. To learn more about how to write macros, consult the online documentation or other resources, such as “The Little Book of Rust Macros”.

Procedural Macros for Generating Code from Attributes

The second form of macros is called procedural macros because they’re more like functions (which are a type of procedure). Procedural macros accept some Rust code as an input, operate on that code, and produce some Rust code as an output rather than matching against patterns and replacing the code with other code as declarative macros do.

There are three kinds of procedural macros, but they all work in a similar fashion. First, the definitions must reside in their own crate with a special crate type. This is for complex technical reasons that we hope to eliminate in the future.

Second, using any of these kinds of macros takes on a form like the code shown in Listing 19-37, where some_attribute is a placeholder for using a specific macro.

Filename: src/lib.rs

use proc_macro;

#[some_attribute]
pub fn some_name(input: TokenStream) -> TokenStream {
}

Listing 19-37: An example of using a procedural macro

Procedural macros consist of a function, which is how they get their name: “procedure” is a synonym for “function.” Why not call them “functional macros”? Well, one of the types is “function-like,” and that would get confusing. Anyway, the function defining a procedural macro takes a TokenStream as an input and produces a TokenStream as an output. This is the core of the macro: the source code that the macro is operating on makes up the input TokenStream, and the code the macro produces is the output TokenStream. Finally, the function has an attribute on it; this attribute says which kind of procedural macro we’re creating. We can have multiple kinds of procedural macros in the same crate.

Given that the kinds of macros are so similar, we’ll start with a custom derive macro. Then we’ll explain the small differences that make the other forms different.

How to Write a Custom derive Macro

Let’s create a crate named hello_macro that defines a trait named HelloMacro with one associated function named hello_macro. Rather than making our crate users implement the HelloMacro trait for each of their types, we’ll provide a procedural macro so users can annotate their type with #[derive(HelloMacro)] to get a default implementation of the hello_macro function. The default implementation will print Hello, Macro! My name is TypeName! where TypeName is the name of the type on which this trait has been defined. In other words, we’ll write a crate that enables another programmer to write code like Listing 19-38 using our crate.

Filename: src/main.rs

use hello_macro::HelloMacro;
use hello_macro_derive::HelloMacro;

#[derive(HelloMacro)]
struct Pancakes;

fn main() {
    Pancakes::hello_macro();
}

Listing 19-38: The code a user of our crate will be able to write when using our procedural macro

This code will print Hello, Macro! My name is Pancakes! when we’re done. The first step is to make a new library crate, like this:

$ cargo new hello_macro --lib

Next, we’ll define the HelloMacro trait and its associated function:

Filename: src/lib.rs


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
pub trait HelloMacro {
    fn hello_macro();
}
#}

We have a trait and its function. At this point, our crate user could implement the trait to achieve the desired functionality, like so:

use hello_macro::HelloMacro;

struct Pancakes;

impl HelloMacro for Pancakes {
    fn hello_macro() {
        println!("Hello, Macro! My name is Pancakes!");
    }
}

fn main() {
    Pancakes::hello_macro();
}

However, they would need to write the implementation block for each type they wanted to use with hello_macro; we want to spare them from having to do this work.

Additionally, we can’t yet provide a default implementation for the hello_macro function that will print the name of the type the trait is implemented on: Rust doesn’t have reflection capabilities, so it can’t look up the type’s name at runtime. We need a macro to generate code at compile time.

The next step is to define the procedural macro. At the time of this writing, procedural macros need to be in their own crate. Eventually, this restriction might be lifted. The convention for structuring crates and macro crates is as follows: for a crate named foo, a custom derive procedural macro crate is called foo_derive. Let’s start a new crate called hello_macro_derive inside our hello_macro project:

$ cargo new hello_macro_derive --lib

Our two crates are tightly related, so we create the procedural macro crate within the directory of our hello_macro crate. If we change the trait definition in hello_macro, we’ll have to change the implementation of the procedural macro in hello_macro_derive as well. The two crates will need to be published separately, and programmers using these crates will need to add both as dependencies and bring them both into scope. We could instead have the hello_macro crate use hello_macro_derive as a dependency and reexport the procedural macro code. But the way we’ve structured the project makes it possible for programmers to use hello_macro even if they don’t want the derive functionality.

We need to declare the hello_macro_derive crate as a procedural macro crate. We’ll also need functionality from the syn and quote crates, as you’ll see in a moment, so we need to add them as dependencies. Add the following to the Cargo.toml file for hello_macro_derive:

Filename: hello_macro_derive/Cargo.toml

[lib]
proc-macro = true

[dependencies]
syn = "0.14.4"
quote = "0.6.3"

To start defining the procedural macro, place the code in Listing 19-39 into your src/lib.rs file for the hello_macro_derive crate. Note that this code won’t compile until we add a definition for the impl_hello_macro function.

Filename: hello_macro_derive/src/lib.rs