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Clojure: Destructuring and Optional Arguments

Published: August 24, 2019
Last Updated: December 5, 2020

I’m pretty lazy and even though writing code isn’t physically taxing, I still like to write as little of it as possible to accomplish what I want. I also like code that is easy to read and shows what it does in as simple a way as possible. I think this is one of the reasons the more I use Clojure the more I like it.

Destructuring let’s me be even lazier than I already am, and even though the first few times I saw it I struggled to see what it was doing, after working through it a bit I think it shows what it does fairly elegantly.

In this blog post I’m going to go over how to use destructuring with Clojure with a few examples. I’ll also show how you can use it to pass optional arguments to functions.


Destructuring allows you to easily bind symbols to values from a data structure.

Imagine you have a map, or a vector, or some data structure to represent something in your application. Then imagine you would like to refer to a property which is represented by an element in that map or vector to easily reference it. Destructuring allows you to do this in short order.

When I first saw it in Clojure code I semi-recognized it. It’s used fairly regularly it seems in books about Clojure and other code on the net, so I figured it was high time to get more acquainted with its use. There are a number of Clojurisms that show up in Clojure code. I’m slowly learning them.

Let’s look at the following code:

(def person ["Tyler Rhodes" "blue" 36 195 180])

(let [[name
  (println name "has" eye-color "eyes, is " age
           ", weighs " current-weight ", and would like to weigh" target-weight))

This code starts off by defining the person vector. Then it destructures that vector into its composite parts to more easily refer to them when it prints out the information.

The destructuring is achieved in the let expression. Where you would normally declare the symbols to be bound to values, you “describe the bindings” based upon their sequential ordering. The language “describe the bindings” is taken from Destructuring in Clojure.

Clojure’s destructuring is broken up into two categories, sequential and associative.

Sequential Destructuring

The above was an example of sequential destructuring, where a vector was destructured. This type of destructuring can be applied to anything that can produce a sequence.

For example, the following are also valid:

(defn positive-numbers
  ([] (positive-numbers 1))
  ([n] (lazy-seq (cons n (positive-numbers (inc n))))))
;; ex 1
(let [[two three four] (drop 1 (take 4 (positive-numbers)))]
  (println [two three four]))
;; [2 3 4]
;; ex 2
(let [[_ _ three] (take 3 (positive-numbers))]
  (println three))
;; 3
;; ex 3
(let [[one two three four] (take 2 (positive-numbers))]
  (println one two three four))
;; 1 2 nil nil
;; ex 4
(let [[one two three] (take 10 (positive-numbers))]
  (println one two three))
;; 1 2 3

For the examples I’ve used a simple function which produces a lazy sequence of positive numbers to show that any sequence can be destructured.

The first example shows an attempt at getting the second, third, and fourth values from the sequence. Here I’ve manipulated the values provided to the destructuring using drop and take to accomplish this. As expected, [2 3 4] is displayed in the output.

However, say you have a sequence where you want to grab one of the elements, or perhaps a number of them, while ignoring others. It’s easy to do this by binding them to a name you won’t use. Typically, the underscore is used for this, as shown in example two. This technique could have easily been used to accomplish the desired destructuring in the first example.

The third example shows what happens when the size of the sequence being desctructured is smaller than the bindings. In this case the extra symbols are bound to nil.

The fourth example shows what happens when the sequence is larger. Here they are ignored.

These are some simple examples of sequential destructuring. But it doesn’t stop here.

Let’s look at a few more examples.

;; ex 5
(let [[[a b] c] [['a 'b] 'c]]
  (printf "a: %s\nb: %s\nc: %s\n" a b c))
;; a: a
;; b: b
;; c: c

;; ex 6
(let [[one two three & nums] (take 10 (positive-numbers))]
  (println one two three)
  (println "rest:" (clojure.string/join "," nums)))
;; 1 2 3
;; rest: 4,5,6,7,8,9,10

;; ex 7
(let [[one two & nums :as all] (take 5 (positive-numbers))]
  (printf "one: %s\ntwo: %s\nnums: %s\nall: %s" one two nums (apply str all)))
;; one: 1
;; two: 2
;; nums: (3 4 5)
;; all: 12345

Example five shows that the destructuring operates recursively, and you can do nested sequential destructurings.

The next example shows how you can bind the remaining items in a sequence after first bindings are destructured.

And finally, example seven, displays how in addition binding the sequence to the named symbols, you can still bind the sequence as a whole by using :as and yet another named symbol. Fun times.

This makes possible doing something like this:

(def tr [["Tyler" "Rhodes"]
         (java.util.Date. "4/16/1983")
         ["Jurassic Park" "Programming C" "The Joy of Clojure"
          "Programming Clojure" "Fluent Python" "Common Sense Investing"]
         ["Pizza" "Steak" "Chicken Wings" "Burritos"]])

(let [[[first-name last-name]
       [favorite-book & books :as library]
       [favorite-food :as foods]]
  (println "Firstname: " first-name)
  (println "Lastname: " last-name)
  (println "Birthday: "
            (java.text.SimpleDateFormat. "MM/dd/yyy") birthday))
  (println "Favorite book: " favorite-book)
  (println "Rest of library: " (clojure.string/join ", " books))
  (println "Favorite food: " favorite-food)
  (println "Rest of diet: " (clojure.string/join ", " foods)))

Associative Destructuring

The other destructuring in Clojure is known as associative destructuring and applies to associative structures. Associative structures include things like maps, records, and vectors.

(def PC
  {:cpu "i7"
   :ram "64gb"
   :os "windows 10"
   :hard-drive "ssd"})

(let [{cpu :cup
       ram :ram
       os :os
       hard-drive :hard-drive} PC]
  (printf "CPU: %s\tRAM: %s\nOS: %s\tHard-drive: %s"
          cpu ram os hard-drive))

The example above is a simple one, and shows how associative destructuring works. The destructuring is a map instead of a vector and the keys are placed after the symbols to be bound to. In this case the keys are keywords, but the can be any key value.

Here are some more examples of associative destructuring:

;; ex 8
(let [{has-virus? :has-virus?} PC]
  (println "PC has virus? " has-virus?))
;; PC has virus? nil

;; ex 9
(let [{has-virus? :has-virus? :or {has-virus? "Unknown"}} PC]
  (println "PC has virus? " has-virus?))
;; PC has virus? Unknown

;; ex 10
(let [{:keys [cpu ram os hard-drive has-virus?]
       :or {has-virus? "Unknown"}} PC]
  (printf "CPU: %s\tRAM: %s\nOS: %s\tHard-drive: %s\nHas virus? %s\n"
          cpu ram os hard-drive has-virus?))
;; CPU: i7	RAM: 64gb
;; OS: windows 10	Hard-drive: ssd
;; Has virus? Unknown

;; ex 11
(let [{:keys [cpu ram os hard-drive has-virus?]
       :or {has-virus? "Unknown"}
       :as all} PC]
  (printf "CPU: %s\tRAM: %s\nOS: %s\tHard-drive: %s\nHas virus? %s\n"
          cpu ram os hard-drive has-virus?)
  (printf "PC: %s" all))
;; CPU: i7	RAM: 64gb
;; OS: windows 10	Hard-drive: ssd
;; Has virus? Unknown
;; PC: {:cpu "i7", :ram "64gb", :os "windows 10", :hard-drive "ssd"}

These examples are pretty self explanatory. Example nine shows how the :or key can be used to supply a default value.

Example 10 shows the :keys shortcut, which allows you to not have to specifiy the individual keywords. There are also :strs and :syms keywords which do the same as :keys, but for strings and symbols respectively.

Example 11 shows how to bind the entire map to a symbol in addition to destructuring individual values.

It’s possible of course to combine sequential and associative destructurings, and both forms of destructuring can be nested as needed.

Optional Arguments

Functions in Clojure allow for you to specify mulitple definitions for different arities. It also allows for variadic definitions of functions, where you can pass any number of arguments.

This gives us a few options for writing functions to accept optional arguments.

For example:

(defn manage-pc
   (manage-pc pc {}))
  ([pc options]
   (let [{:keys [os]} pc
         {:keys [scan] :or {scan false}} options]
     (printf "os: %s\nscan? %s\n" os scan))))

In this implementation we utilize a multi-arity function definition so that we can optionally pass a map to scan the PC. This works fine and is a simple way to support optional arguments.

Another way to accomplish this which doesn’t require a multi-arity definition is to define a variadic function, such as:

(defn manage-pc
  [pc & options]
  (let [{:keys [os]} pc
        {:keys [scan] :or {scan false}} (first options)]
    (printf "os: %s\nscan? %s\n" os scan)))

Either way works fine and accomplishes the same thing. The variadic approach allows for a little less typing, but just by a bit.

Another technique available is to pass keyword arguments. These function as optional arguments as well.

(defn manage-pc
  [{os :os} & {:keys [scan upgrade]
               :or {scan true upgrade false}}]
  (printf "os: %s\nscan: %s\nupgrade: %s\n"
          os scan upgrade))

(manage-pc {:os "windows"} :scan true :upgrade "maybe")
;; os: windows
;; scan: true
;; upgrade: maybe

The prior example also shows that you can specify destructurings on incoming parameters of functions as well. Wherever there is an implicit or explicit let binding destructuring can be used.


Destructuring allows us to add some brevity to our code, and I think enhances readability. I’m sure that in my Tetris clone it could have been used a number of times, and when I refactor it I plan on introducing it there.

One of the oft touted benefits of Clojure is how expressive a language it is, and how small the core language is. Destructuring is one of the ways to keep code short and readable.

Destructuring isn’t unique to Clojure. Languages like Python and JavaScript have it, and even C# has added it recently.

Coming from an object oriented language I find that in the Clojure I’ve written so far, my data structures are generally simple maps and vectors and destructuring obviouslly works well with these. Perhaps thankfully there are no more getters and setters to be found all over the place.

This post is basically just a reference for myself. More depth can be found at Destructuring in Clojure.

© Copyright 2021, Tyler Rhodes