Macro Overview

The offical paper describing the mechanics behind Lean 4's macro system can be found in Beyond Notations: Hygienic Macro Expansion for Theorem Proving Languages by Sebastian Ullrich and Leonardo de Moura, and the accompanying repo with example code can be found in the paper's code supplement. The supplement also includes a working implementation of the macro expander, so it's a good case study for people interested in the details.

What is a macro in Lean?

A macro is a function that takes in a syntax tree and produces a new syntax tree. Macros are useful for many reasons, but two of the big ones are a) allowing users to extend the language with new syntactic constructs without having to actually expand the core language, and b) allowing users to automate tasks that would otherwise be extremely repetitive, time-consuming, and/or error-prone.

A motivating example is set builder notation. We would like to be able to write the set of natural numbers 0, 1, and 2 as just {0, 1, 2}. However, Lean does not natively support this syntax, and the actual definition of a set in Mathlib does not let us just declare sets in this manner; naively using the set API would force us to write Set.insert 1 (Set.insert 2 (Set.singleton 3)). Instead, we can teach Lean's macro system to recognize {0, 1, 2} as a shorthand for a composition of existing methods and let it do the repetitive work of creating the Set.insert... invocation for us. In this way, we can have our more readable and more convenient syntax without having to extend Lean itself, and while retaining the simple insert/singleton API.

How macros are handled

The general procedure is as follows:

  1. Lean parses a command, creating a Lean syntax tree which contains any unexpanded macros.

  2. Lean repeats the cycle (elaboration ~> (macro hygiene and expansion) ~> elaboration...)

The cycle in step 2 repeats until there are no more macros which need to be expanded, and elaboration can finish normally. This repetition is required since macros can expand to other macros, and may expand to code that needs information from the elaborator. As you can see, the process of macro parsing and expansion is interleaved with the parsing and elaboration of non-macro code.

By default, macros in Lean are hygienic, which means the system avoids accidental name capture when reusing the same name inside and outside the macro. Users may occasionally want to disable hygiene, which can be accomplished with the command set_option hygiene false. More in-depth information about hygiene and how it's implemented in the official paper and supplement linked at the top of this guide.

Elements of "a" macro (important types)

In the big picture, a macro has two components that must be implemented by the user, parsers and syntax transformers, where the latter is a function that says what the input syntax should expand to. There is a third component, syntax categories, such as term, tactic, and command, but declaring a new syntax category is not always necessary. When we say "parser" in the context of a macro, we refer to the core type Lean.ParserDescr, which parses elements of type Lean.Syntax, where Lean.Syntax represents elements of a Lean syntax tree. Syntax transformers are functions of type Syntax -> MacroM Syntax. Lean has a synonym for this type, which is simply Macro. MacroM is a monad that carries state needed for macro expansion to work nicely, including the info needed to implement hygiene.

As an example, we again refer to Mathlib's set builder notation:

/- Declares a parser -/
syntax (priority := high) "{" term,+ "}" : term

/- Declares two expansions/syntax transformers -/
  | `({$x}) => `(Set.singleton $x)
  | `({$x, $xs:term,*}) => `(Set.insert $x {$xs,*})

/- Provided `Set` has been imported (from Mathlib4), these are all we need for `{1, 2, 3}` to be valid notation to create a literal set -/

This example should also make clear the reason why macros (and pretty much all of Lean 4's metaprogramming facilities) are functions that take an argument of type Syntax e.g. Syntax -> MacroM Syntax; the leading syntax element is the thing that actually triggers the macro expansion by matching with the declared parser, and as a user, you will almost always be interested in inspecting and transforming that initial syntax element (though there are cases in which it can just be ignored, as in the parameter-less exfalso tactic).

Returning briefly to the API provided by Lean, Lean.Syntax, is pretty much what you would expect a basic syntax tree type to look like. Below is a slightly simplified representation which omits details in the atom and ident constructors; users can create atoms and idents which comport with this simplified representation using the mkAtom and mkIdent methods provided in the Lean namespace.

open Lean
inductive Syntax where
  | missing : Syntax
  | node (kind : SyntaxNodeKind) (args : Array Syntax) : Syntax
  | atom : String -> Syntax
  | ident : Name -> Syntax

For those interested, MacroM is a ReaderT:

open Lean
abbrev MacroM := ReaderT Macro.Context (EStateM Macro.Exception Macro.State)

The other relevant components are defined as follows:

open Lean
structure Context where
  methods        : MethodsRef
  mainModule     : Name
  currMacroScope : MacroScope
  currRecDepth   : Nat := 0
  maxRecDepth    : Nat := defaultMaxRecDepth
  ref            : Syntax

inductive Exception where
  | error             : Syntax → String → Exception
  | unsupportedSyntax : Exception

structure State where
  macroScope : MacroScope
  traceMsgs  : List (Prod Name String) := List.nil
  deriving Inhabited

As a review/checklist, the three (sometimes only two depending on whether you need a new syntax category) components users need to be concerned with are:

  1. You may or may not need to declare a new syntax category using declare_syntax_cat
  2. Declare a parser with either syntax or macro
  3. Declare an expansion/syntax transformer with either macro_rules or macro

Parsers and syntax transformers can be declared manually, but use of the pattern language and syntax, macro_rules, and macro is recommended.

syntax categories with declare_syntax_cat

declare_syntax_cat declares a new syntax category, like command, tactic, or mathlib4's binderterm. These are the different categories of things that can be referred to in a quote/antiquote. declare_syntax_cat results in a call to registerParserCategory and produces a new parser descriptor:

set_option trace.Elab.definition true in
declare_syntax_cat binderterm


[Elab.definition.body] binderterm.quot : Lean.ParserDescr :=
Lean.ParserDescr.node `Lean.Parser.Term.quot 1024
  (Lean.ParserDescr.binary `andthen (Lean.ParserDescr.symbol "`(binderterm|")
    (Lean.ParserDescr.binary `andthen ( `binderterm 0)
      (Lean.ParserDescr.symbol ")")))

Declaring a new syntax category like this one automatically declares a quotation operator `(binderterm| ...). These pipe prefixes <thing>| are used in syntax quotations to say what category a given quotation is expected to be an element of. The pipe prefixes are not used for elements in the term and command categories (since they're considered the default), but need to be used for everything else.

Parsers and the syntax keyword

Internally, elements of type Lean.ParserDescr are implemented as parser combinators. However, Lean offers the ability to write parsers using the macro/pattern language by way of the syntax keyword. This is the recommended means of writing parsers. As an example, the parser for the rwa (rewrite, then use assumption) tactic is:

open Lean.Parser.Tactic
set_option trace.Elab.definition true in
syntax "rwa " rwRuleSeq (location)? : tactic

which expands to:
[Elab.definition.body] tacticRwa__ : Lean.ParserDescr :=
Lean.ParserDescr.node `tacticRwa__ 1022
  (Lean.ParserDescr.binary `andthen
    (Lean.ParserDescr.binary `andthen (Lean.ParserDescr.nonReservedSymbol "rwa " false) Lean.Parser.Tactic.rwRuleSeq)
    (Lean.ParserDescr.unary `optional Lean.Parser.Tactic.location))


Literals are written as double-quoted strings ("rwa " expects the literal sequence of characters rwa, while the trailing space provides a hint to the formatter that it should add a space after rwa when pretty printing this syntax); rwRuleSeq and location are themselves ParserDescrs, and we finish with : tactic specifying that the preceding parser is for an element in the tactic syntax category. The parentheses around (location)? are necessary (rather than location?) because Lean 4 allows question marks to be used in identifiers, so location? is one single identifier that ends with a question mark, which is not what we want.

The name tacticRwa__ is automatically generated. You can name parser descriptors declared with the syntax keyword like so:

set_option trace.Elab.definition true in
syntax (name := introv) "introv " (colGt ident)* : tactic

[Elab.definition.body] introv : Lean.ParserDescr :=
Lean.ParserDescr.node `introv 1022
  (Lean.ParserDescr.binary `andthen (Lean.ParserDescr.nonReservedSymbol "introv " false)
    (Lean.ParserDescr.unary `many
      (Lean.ParserDescr.binary `andthen (Lean.ParserDescr.const `colGt) (Lean.ParserDescr.const `ident))))

The pattern language

Available quantifiers are ? (one or zero occurrences, see note below), * (zero or more occurrences), and + (one or more occurrences).

Keep in mind that Lean makes ? available for use in identifiers, so if we want a parser to look for an optional location, we would need to write (location)? with parenthesis acting as a separator, since location? would look for something under the identifier location? (where the ? is part of the identifier).

Parentheses can be used as delimiters.

Separated lists can be constructed like so: $ts,* for a comma separated list.

"extended splices" can be constructed as $[..]. See the official paper (p. 12) for more details.

Literals are written as double-quoted strings. A literal may use trailing whitespace (see e.g. the rwa or introv tactics) to tell the pretty-printer how it should be displayed, but such whitespace will not prevent a literal with no trailing whitespace from matching. The spaces are relevant, but not interpreted literally. When the ParserDescr is turned into a Parser, the actual token matcher uses the .trim of the provided string, but the generated formatter uses the spaces as specified, that is, turning the atom "rwa" in the syntax into the string rwa as part of the pretty printed output.

Syntax expansions with macro_rules, and how it desugars.

macro_rules lets you declare expansions for a given Syntax element using a syntax simlar to a match statement. The left-hand side of a match arm is a quotation (with a leading <cat>| for categories other than term and command) in which users can specify the pattern they'd like to write an expansion for. The right-hand side returns a syntax quotation which is the output the user wants to expand to.

A feature of Lean's macro system is that if there are multiple expansions for a particular match, Lean will try the most recently declared expansion first, and will retry with other matching expansions if the previous attempt failed. This is particularly useful for extending existing tactics.

The following example shows both the retry behavior, and the fact that macros declared using the shorthand macro syntax can still have additional expansions declared with macro_rules. This transitivity tactic is implemented such that it will work for either Nat.le or The version was declared "most recently", so it will be tried first, but if it fails (for example, if the actual term in question is Nat.le) the next potential expansion will be tried:

macro "transitivity" e:(colGt term) : tactic => `(tactic| apply Nat.le_trans (m := $e))
  | `(tactic| transitivity $e) => `(tactic| apply Nat.lt_trans (m := $e))

example (a b c : Nat) (h0 : a < b) (h1 : b < c) : a < c := by
  transitivity b <;>

example (a b c : Nat) (h0 : a <= b) (h1 : b <= c) : a <= c := by
  transitivity b <;>

/- This will fail, but is interesting in that it exposes the "most-recent first" behavior, since the
  error message complains about being unable to unify mvar1 <= mvar2, rather than mvar1 < mvar2. -/
example (a b c : Nat) (h0 : a <= b) (h1 : b <= c) : False := by
  transitivity b <;>

To see the desugared definition of the actual expansion, we can again use set_option trace.Elab.definition true in and observe the output of the humble exfalso tactic defined in Mathlib4:

set_option trace.Elab.definition true in
macro "exfalso" : tactic => `(tactic| apply False.elim)

Results in the expansion:

[Elab.definition.body] _aux___macroRules_tacticExfalso_1 : Lean.Macro :=
fun x =>
  let discr := x;
  /- This is where Lean tries to actually identify that it's an invocation of the exfalso tactic -/
  if Lean.Syntax.isOfKind discr `tacticExfalso = true then
    let discr := Lean.Syntax.getArg discr 0;
    let x := discr;
      /- Lean getting scope/meta info from the macro monad -/
      let info ← Lean.MonadRef.mkInfoFromRefPos
      let scp ← Lean.getCurrMacroScope
      let mainModule ← Lean.getMainModule
          (Lean.Syntax.node Lean.SourceInfo.none `Lean.Parser.Tactic.seq1
            #[Lean.Syntax.node Lean.SourceInfo.none `null
                #[Lean.Syntax.node Lean.SourceInfo.none `Lean.Parser.Tactic.apply
                    #[Lean.Syntax.atom info "apply",
                      Lean.Syntax.ident info (String.toSubstring "False.elim")
                        (Lean.addMacroScope mainModule `False.elim scp) [(`False.elim, [])]]]])
    /- If this wasn't actually an invocation of the exfalso tactic, throw the "unsupportedSyntax" error -/
    let discr := x;
    throw Lean.Macro.Exception.unsupportedSyntax

We can also create the syntax transformer declaration ourselves instead of using macro_rules. We'll need to name our parser and use the attribute @[macro myExFalsoParser] to associate our declaration with the parser:

open Lean
syntax (name := myExfalsoParser) "myExfalso" : tactic

-- remember that `Macro` is a synonym for `Syntax -> TacticM Unit`
@[macro myExfalsoParser] def implMyExfalso : Macro :=
fun stx => `(tactic| apply False.elim)

example (p : Prop) (h : p) (f : p -> False) : 3 = 2 := by
  exact f h

In the above example, we're still using the sugar Lean provides for creating quotations, as it feels more intuitive and saves us some work. It is possible to forego the sugar altogether:

syntax (name := myExfalsoParser) "myExfalso" : tactic

@[macro myExfalsoParser] def implMyExfalso : Lean.Macro :=
  fun stx => pure (Lean.mkNode `Lean.Parser.Tactic.apply
    #[Lean.mkAtomFrom stx "apply", Lean.mkCIdentFrom stx ``False.elim])

example (p : Prop) (h : p) (f : p -> False) : 3 = 2 := by
  exact f h

The macro keyword

macro is a shortcut which allows users to declare both a parser and an expansion at the same time as a matter of convenience. Additional expansions for the parser generated by the macro invocation can be added with a separate macro_rules block (see the example in the macro_rules section).


TODO; for now, see the unexpander in Mathlib.Set for an example.

More illustrative examples:

The Tactic.Basic file in Mathlib4 contains many good examples to learn from.

Practical tips:

You can observe the output of commands and functions that in some way use the macro system by setting this option to true : set_option trace.Elab.definition true

Lean also offers the option of limiting the region in which option is set with the syntax set_option ... in):

Hygiene can be disabled with the command option set_option hygiene false