This guide covers:

  • Clojure macros
  • the Clojure compilation process

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License (including images & stylesheets). The source is available on Github.

What Version of Clojure Does This Guide Cover?

This guide covers Clojure 1.11.

Before You Read This Guide

This is one of the most hardcore guides of the entire Clojure documentation project. It describes concepts that are relatively unique to the Lisp family of languages that Clojure belongs to. Understanding them may take some time for folks without a metaprogramming background. Don't let this learning curve discourage you.

If some parts are not clear, please ask for clarification in the #clojure-doc channel on Slack (self-signup at or file an issue on GitHub. We will work hard on making this guide easy to follow with edits and images to illustrate the concepts.


Clojure is a dialect of Lisp and while it departs from some features of "traditional" Lisps, the fundamentals are all there. One very powerful feature that comes with Lisps is macros, a way to do metaprogramming using the language itself. This is pretty different from other languages known for good metaprogramming capabilities (e.g. Ruby) in that in Clojure, metaprogramming does not mean string generation. Instead, it means constructing a tree [of S-expressions, or lists]. This enables very powerful DSLs (domain-specific languages).

Compile Time and Run Time

Clojure is a compiled language. The compiler reads source files or strings (of source code), produces data structures (aka the AST), and performs macroexpansion. Macros are evaluated at compile time and produce modified data structures that are compiled to the JVM bytecode. That bytecode is executed at run time.

Clojure code is compiled when it is loaded with clojure.core/require (or other, lower-level functions like clojure.core/load-file). Clojure code can also be compiled ahead of time (referred to as "AOT compilation") using tools such as, via the Clojure CLI, or Leiningen.

Clojure Reader

Reader is another name for parser. Unlike many other languages, the reader in Clojure can be extended in the language itself. It is also exposed to the language with clojure.core/read and clojure.core/read-string functions that return data structures:

(require '[cljs.reader :refer [read-string]])
(read-string "(if true :truth :false)")
;= (if true :truth :false)

Here we got back a list that is not evaluated.

The reader produces data structures (in part that's why "code is data" in what we refer to as "homoiconic languages") which are then evaluated:

  • Literals (e.g., strings, integers, vectors) evaluate to themselves
  • Lists evaluate to invocations (calls) of functions and so on
  • Symbols are resolved to a var value

Expressions that can be evaluated (invoked) are known as forms. Forms consist of:

  • Functions
  • Macros
  • Special forms

Special Forms

The reader parses some forms in special ways that are not consistent with the rest of Clojure's syntax.

Such forms are called special forms. Commonly used examples include:

  • def
  • if
  • do
  • let
  • loop
  • recur

See Special Forms in the official Clojure reference documentation for a complete list and more detail.

Some of these special forms are actually macros that expand to underlying special forms that the compiler implements directly, but that should be considered an implementation detail (loop is implemented as a macro on top of loop*, for example).

First Taste of Macros

Some programming languages include an unless expression (or statement) that is the opposite of if. Clojure is not one of them but it can be added by using a macro:

(require '[chivorcam.core :refer [defmacro defmacfn]])
(defmacro unless
  "Similar to if but negates the condition"
  [condition & forms]
  `(if (not ~condition)

Macros are defined using the clojure.core/defmacro function that takes macro name as a symbol, an optional documentation string, a vector of arguments and the macro body.

This macro can be used like similarly to the if form:

(unless (= 1 2)
  "one does not equal two"
  "one equals two. How come?")

Just like the if special form, this macro produces an expression that returns a value:

(unless (= 1 2)
  "one does not equal two"
  "one equals two. How come?")

in fact, this is because the macro piggybacks on the if form. To see what the macro expands to, we can use clojure.core/macroexpand-1:

(macroexpand-1 '(unless (= 1 2) true false))
;= (if (clojure.core/not (= 1 2)) true false)

Note: Clojure on the JVM would expand to a call to clojure.core/not here but the interactive examples use Klipse which runs as ClojureScript in the browser, so it expands to cljs.core/not instead.

This simplistic macro and the way we expanded it with macroexpand-1 demonstrates three features of the Clojure reader that are used when writing macros:

  • Quote (')
  • Syntax quote (`)
  • Unquote (~)
  • Unquote splicing (~@)


Quote suppresses evaluation of the form that follows it. In other words, instead of being treated as an invocation, it will be treated as a list.


;; this form is evaluated by calling the clojure.core/+ function
(+ 1 2 3)
;= 6
;; quote suppresses evaluation so the + is treated as a regular
;; list element
'(+ 1 2 3)
;= (+ 1 2 3)

Syntax Quote

Syntax quote also suppresses evaluation of the form that follows it but allows for substitution of parts of that form using unquote (~). It is similar to templating languages where parts of the template are "fixed" and parts are "inserted" (evaluated). The syntax quote makes the form that follows it "a template".

;; syntax quote suppresses evaluation but `~x` is evaluated:
(let [x 2] `(+ 1 ~x 3))
;= (clojure.core/+ 1 2 3)

Unquote is covered in more detail in the next section.


Unquote is how parts of the template are evaluated (like variables in templates in templating languages).

Let's take another look at the same unless macro:

(defmacro unless
  [condition & forms]
  `(if (not ~condition)

and how we invoke it:

(unless (= 1 2)
  "one does not equal two"
  "one equals two. How come?")

When the macro is expanded, the condition local in this example has the value of (= 1 2) (a list). We want to substitute the value of condition into the if form in our template, and that's what unquote (~) does as can be seen from macroexpansion:

(macroexpand-1 '(unless (= 1 2) true false))
;= (if (clojure.core/not (= 1 2)) true false)

Compare this with what the macro expands to when the unquote is removed:

;; incorrect, missing unquote!
(defmacro unless
  [condition & forms]
  `(if (not condition)

(macroexpand-1 '(unless (= 1 2) true false))
;= (if (clojure.core/not user/condition) true false)

Implementation Details

The unquote operator is replaced by the reader with a call to a core Clojure function, clojure.core/unquote.


Some macros take multiple forms. This is common in DSLs, for example. Each of those forms is often need to be quoted and concatenated.

The unquote-splicing operator (~@) is a convenient way to do it, unrolling a collection of forms into the expanded code:

(defmacro unsplice
        [& coll]
        `(do ~@coll))
(macroexpand-1 '(unsplice (def a 1) (def b 2)))
;= (do (def a 1) (def b 2))
(unsplice (def a 1) (def b 2))
;= #'user/b
;= 1
;= 2

Implementation Details

The unquote-splicing operator is replaced by the reader with a call to a core Clojure function, clojure.core/unquote-splicing.

Macro Hygiene and gensym

When writing a macro, there is a possibility that the macro will interact with vars or locals outside of it in unexpected ways, for example, by shadowing them. Such macros are known as unhygienic macros.

Clojure does not implement a full solution to hygienic macros but provides solutions to the biggest pitfalls of unhygienic macros:

  • Symbols within a syntax quoted form are namespace-qualified
  • Unique symbol name generation (aka gensyms)

Namespace Qualification Within Syntax Quote

To demonstrate this behavior of syntax quote, consider the following example that replaces values "yes" and "no" with true and false, respectively, at compile time:

(defmacro yes-no->boolean
  `(let [b (= ~val "yes")]
;= #'user/yes-no->boolean
(macroexpand-1 '(yes-no->boolean "yes"))
;= (clojure.core/let [user/b (clojure.core/= "yes" "yes")] user/b)

Macroexpansion demonstrates that the Clojure compiler makes the b symbol namespace-qualified (user is the default namespace in the Clojure REPL). This helps avoid var and local shadowing -- but let does not allow namespace-qualified symbol so this macro produces invalid code. We'll see how to avoid this in the next section.

Note: Special forms are not necessarily qualified. See section 'Special Forms in Detail'.

Generated Symbols (gensyms)

Automatic namespace generation is fine in some cases, but not every time. Sometimes a symbol name that is unique in the macro scope is necessary.

Unique symbols names can be generated with the clojure.core/gensym function that take an optional base string:

;= G__54
(gensym "base")
;= base57

There is a shortcut: if a symbol ends in # within a syntax quote form, it will be expanded by the compiler into a gensym (also known as an auto-gensym):

(defmacro yes-no->boolean
  `(let [b# (= ~val "yes")]
;= #'user/yes-no->boolean
(macroexpand-1 '(yes-no->boolean "yes"))
;= (clojure.core/let [b__148__auto__ (clojure.core/= "yes" "yes")] b__148__auto__)

The name that replaced b# was generated by the compiler to make unwanted variable capture very unlikely in practice, and impossible if all bindings are named with auto-gensym.

Theoretically, Clojure's approach to generating uncaptured gensyms (incrementing a global counter) can be circumvented via a mischievous macro or very bad luck.

Tip: Avoid code with __ in local binding names. This ensures auto-gensyms are never captured in unwanted ways.


During macro development, it is important to be able to test the macro and see what data structures the macro expands to. This can be done with two functions in the core Clojure library, and an additional one from clojure.walk:

  • clojure.core/macroexpand-1
  • clojure.core/macroexpand
  • clojure.walk/macroexpand-all

The difference between the first two is that macroexpand-1 will expand the macro only once. If the result contains calls to other macros, those won't be expanded. macroexpand, however, will continue expanding macros until the top level form is no longer a macro.

All of these macroexpansion functions take quoted forms.

Macro expansion functions can be used to find out that when is a macro implemented on top of the if special form, for example:

(macroexpand '(when true 1 42))

Neither macroexpand-1 nor macroexpand expand nested forms. To fully expand macros including those in nested forms, there is clojure.walk/macroexpand-all which can be useful for debugging macros but does not behave exactly the same way as the Clojure compiler.

Difference Between Quote and Syntax Quote

The key differences between quote (') and syntax quote (`) are that symbols within a syntax quoted form are automatically namespace-qualified, and unquote (~) only works in a syntax quoted form.

Security Considerations

clojure.core/read-string can execute arbitrary code and must not be used on inputs coming from untrusted sources. This behavior is controlled by the clojure.core/*read-eval* var, which defaults to true (unsafe), but can be set to false (safe) via binding.

*read-eval* can also be set via a property when starting the JVM:

See the *read-eval* documentation for more information.

When reading Clojure forms from untrusted sources, use clojure.edn/read-string, which is does not perform arbitrary code execution and is safer. clojure.edn/read-string implements the EDN format, a subset of Clojure syntax for data structures. clojure.edn was introduced in Clojure 1.5.

Special Forms in Detail

Special forms as symbols have some limitations on their use and cannot be used like other clojure.core functions in certain situations.

  • Special forms must be a list with a special name as the first element.

    A special name in a higher-order context is not a special form.

    ;; Syntax error compiling at (REPL:0:0).
    ;; Unable to resolve symbol: do in this context

    Macros have a similar restriction, but notice: the macro's var is identified in the error while special names have no meaning at all outside the first element of a list.

    ;; Syntax error compiling at (REPL:0:0).
    ;; Can't take value of a macro: #'clojure.core/dosync
  • Special form names are not namespace-qualified.

    Most special forms (all except clojure.core/import*) are not namespace qualified. The reader must circumvent syntax quote's policy of namespace-qualifying all symbols.

    ;; user/a
    ;; do
    user=> `if
    user=> `import
  • Special forms conflict with local scope.

    Never use special names as local binding or global variable names.

    (let [do 1] do)


    This includes destructuring:

    user=> (let [{:keys [do]} {:do 1}] do)

    Note: Be wary of maps with keyword keys with special names, they are more likely to be destructured this way.

Keep these special cases in mind as you work through the tutorial.