D - Macros

We’ve used macros, such as println!, throughout this book. This appendix will explain:

  • What macros are and how they differ from functions
  • How to define a declarative macro to do metaprogramming
  • How to define a procedural macro to create custom derive traits

Macros are covered in an appendix because they’re still evolving. They have changed and will change more than the rest of the language and standard library since Rust 1.0, so this section will likely get out of date more than the rest of this book. The code shown here will still continue to work due to Rust’s stability guarantees, but there may be additional capabilities or easier ways to write macros that aren’t available at the time of this publication.

Macros are More Flexible and Complex than Functions

Fundamentally, macros are a way of writing code that writes other code, which is known as metaprogramming. In the previous appendix, we discussed the derive attribute, which generates an implementation of various traits for you. We’ve also used the println! and vec! macros. All of these macros expand to produce more code than what you’ve written in your source code.

Metaprogramming is useful to reduce 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, as we discussed in Chapter 1. A function signature has to declare the number and type of parameters the function has. Macros 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, whereas a function can’t because a function gets called at runtime and a trait needs to be implemented at compile time.

The downside to implementing a macro rather than a function is that macro definitions are more complex than function definitions. You’re writing Rust code that writes Rust code, and macro definitions are generally more difficult to read, understand, and maintain than function definitions.

Another difference between macros and functions is that macro definitions aren’t namespaced within modules like function definitions are. In order to prevent unexpected name clashes when using a crate, when bringing an external crate into the scope of your project, you have to explicitly bring the macros into the scope of your project as well with the #[macro_use] annotation. This example would bring all the macros defined in the serde crate into the scope of the current crate:

extern crate serde;

If extern crate also brought macros into scope by default, you wouldn’t be allowed to use two crates that happened to define macros with the same name. In practice this conflict doesn’t come up much, but the more crates you use, the more likely it is.

One last important difference between macros and functions: macros must be defined or brought into scope before they’re called in a file. Unlike functions, where we can define a function at the bottom of a file yet call it at the top, we always have to define macros before we’re able to call them.

Declarative Macros with macro_rules! for General Metaprogramming

The first form of macros in Rust, and the one that’s most widely used, is called 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 choose the code specified with the matching pattern when the program runs. Macros also have a value that is compared to patterns that have code associated with them, but the value is the literal Rust code passed to the macro, the patterns match the structure of that source code, and the code associated with each pattern is the code that is generated to replace 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 taking a look at how the vec! macro is defined. Chapter 8 covered how we can use the vec! macro to create a new vector that holds particular values. For example, this macro creates a new vector with three integers inside:

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

We can also use vec! to make a vector of two integers or a vector of five string slices. Because we don’t know the number or type of values, we can’t define a function that is able to create a new vector with the given elements like vec! can.

Let’s take a look at a slightly simplified definition of the vec! macro:

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

Note: the actual definition of the vec! macro in the standard library also has code to pre-allocate the correct amount of memory up-front. That code is an optimization that we’ve chosen not to include here for simplicity.

The #[macro_export] annotation indicates that this macro should be made available when other crates import the crate in which we’re defining this macro. Without this annotation, even if someone depending on this crate uses the #[macro_use] annotation, this macro would not be brought into scope.

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

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

The pattern syntax valid in macro definitions is different than the pattern syntax covered in Chapter 18 because the patterns are for matching against Rust code structure rather than values. Let’s walk through what the pieces of the pattern used here mean; for the full macro pattern syntax, see the reference.

The $x:expr part of the pattern matches any Rust expression and gives the expression the name $x. The * specifies that the pattern matches zero or more of whatever precedes the *. In this case, * is preceded by $(), so this pattern matches zero or more of whatever is inside the parentheses, delimited by a comma. When we call this macro with vec![1, 2, 3];, the pattern matches the three expressions 1, 2, and 3.

In the body of the code associated with this arm, 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 in the code associated with the arm 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:

let mut temp_vec = Vec::new();

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.

Given that most Rust programmers will use macros more than write macros, that’s all we’ll discuss about macro_rules! in this book. 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 Custom derive

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. Today, the only thing you can define procedural macros for is to allow your traits to be implemented on a type by specifying the trait name in a derive annotation.

Let’s create a crate named hello-world that defines a trait named HelloWorld with one associated function named hello_world. Rather than making users of our crate implement the HelloWorld trait for each of their types, we’d like users to be able to annotate their type with #[derive(HelloWorld)] to get a default implementation of the hello_world function associated with their type. The default implementation will print Hello world, my name is TypeName! where TypeName is the name of the type on which this trait has been defined.

In other words, we’re going to write a crate that enables another programmer to write code that looks like Listing A4-1 using our crate:

Filename: src/main.rs

extern crate hello_world;
extern crate hello_world_derive;

use hello_world::HelloWorld;

struct Pancakes;

fn main() {

Listing A4-1: The code a user of our crate will be able to write when we’ve written the procedural macro

This code will print Hello world, my name is Pancakes! when we’re done. Let’s get started!

Let’s make a new library crate:

$ cargo new hello-world

First, we’ll define the HelloWorld trait and associated function:

Filename: src/lib.rs

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
pub trait HelloWorld {
    fn hello_world();

At this point, a user of our crate could implement the trait themselves to achieve the functionality we wanted to enable, like so:

extern crate hello_world;

use hello_world::HelloWorld;

struct Pancakes;

impl HelloWorld for Pancakes {
    fn hello_world() {
        println!("Hello world, my name is Pancakes!");

fn main() {

However, they would need to write out the implementation block for each type they wanted to be able to use with hello_world; we’d like to make using our trait more convenient for other programmers by saving them this work.

Additionally, we can’t provide a default implementation for the hello_world function that has the behavior we want of printing out the name of the type the trait is implemented on: Rust doesn’t have reflection capabilities, so we can’t look up the type’s name at runtime. We need a macro to generate code at compile time.

Defining Procedural Macros Requires a Separate Crate

The next step is to define the procedural macro. At the moment, procedural macros need to be in their own crate. Eventually, this restriction may be lifted, but for now, it’s required. As such, there’s a convention: for a crate named foo, a custom derive procedural macro crate is called foo-derive. Let’s start a new crate called hello-world-derive inside our hello-world project:

$ cargo new hello-world-derive

We’ve chosen to create the procedural macro crate within the directory of our hello-world crate because the two crates are tightly related: if we change the trait definition in hello-world, we’ll have to change the implementation of the procedural macro in hello-world-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. It’s possible to have the hello-world crate use hello-world-derive as a dependency and re-export the procedural macro code, but structuring the project this way makes it possible for programmers to easily decide they only want to use hello-world if they don’t want the derive functionality.

We need to declare that the hello-world-derive crate is a procedural macro crate. We also need to add dependencies on the syn and quote crates to get useful functionality for operating on Rust code. To do these two things, add the following to the Cargo.toml for hello-world-derive:

Filename: hello-world-derive/Cargo.toml

proc-macro = true

syn = "0.11.11"
quote = "0.3.15"

To start defining the procedural macro, place the code from Listing A4-2 in src/lib.rs for the hello-world-derive crate. Note that this won’t compile until we add a definition for the impl_hello_world function. We’ve split the code into functions in this way because the code in Listing A4-2 will be the same for almost every procedural macro crate; it’s code that makes writing a procedural macro more convenient. What you choose to do in the place where the impl_hello_world function is called will be different and depend on the purpose of your procedural macro.

Filename: hello-world-derive/src/lib.rs

extern crate proc_macro;
extern crate syn;
extern crate quote;

use proc_macro::TokenStream;

pub fn hello_world_derive(input: TokenStream) -> TokenStream {
    // Construct a string representation of the type definition
    let s = input.to_string();

    // Parse the string representation
    let ast = syn::parse_derive_input(&s).unwrap();

    // Build the impl
    let gen = impl_hello_world(&ast);

    // Return the generated impl

Listing A4-2: Code that most procedural macro crates will need to have for processing Rust code

We have introduced three new crates: proc_macro, syn, and quote. The proc_macro crate comes with Rust, so we didn’t need to add that to the dependencies in Cargo.toml. The proc_macro crate allows us to convert Rust code into a string containing that Rust code. The syn crate parses Rust code from a string into a data structure that we can perform operations on. The quote crate takes syn data structures and turns them back into Rust code. These crates make it much simpler to parse any sort of Rust code we might want to handle: writing a full parser for Rust code is no simple task.

The hello_world_derive function is the code that will get called when a user of our library specifies the #[derive(HelloWorld)] annotation on a type because we’ve annotated the hello_world_derive function here with proc_macro_derive and specified the same name, HelloWorld. This name matches our trait named HelloWorld; that’s the convention most procedural macros follow.

The first thing this function does is convert the input from a TokenStream to a String by calling to_string. This String is a string representation of the Rust code for which we are deriving HelloWorld. In the example in Listing A4-1, s will have the String value struct Pancakes; because that’s the Rust code we added the #[derive(HelloWorld)] annotation to.

At the moment, the only thing you can do with a TokenStream is convert it to a string. A richer API will exist in the future.

What we really need is to be able to parse the Rust code String into a data structure that we can then interpret and perform operations on. This is where syn comes to play. The parse_derive_input function in syn takes a String and returns a DeriveInput struct representing the parsed Rust code. Here’s the relevant parts of the DeriveInput struct we get from parsing the string struct Pancakes;:

DeriveInput {
    // --snip--

    ident: Ident(
    body: Struct(

The fields of this struct show that the Rust code we’ve parsed is a unit struct with the ident (identifier, meaning the name) of Pancakes. There are more fields on this struct for describing all sorts of Rust code; check the syn API docs for DeriveInput for more information.

We haven’t defined the impl_hello_world function; that’s where we’ll build the new Rust code we want to include. Before we get to that, the last part of this hello_world_derive function is using the quote crate’s parse function to turn the output of the impl_hello_world function back into a TokenStream. The returned TokenStream is added to the code that users of our crate write so that when they compile their crate, they get extra functionality we provide.

You may have noticed that we’re calling unwrap to panic if the calls to the parse_derive_input or parse functions fail because they’re unable to parse the TokenStream or generate a TokenStream. Panicking on errors is necessary in procedural macro code because proc_macro_derive functions must return TokenStream rather than Result in order to conform to the procedural macro API. We’ve chosen to keep this example simple by using unwrap; in production code you should provide more specific error messages about what went wrong by using expect or panic!.

Now that we have the code to turn the annotated Rust code from a TokenStream into a String and into a DeriveInput instance, let’s write the code that will generate the code implementing the HelloWorld trait on the annotated type:

Filename: hello-world-derive/src/lib.rs

fn impl_hello_world(ast: &syn::DeriveInput) -> quote::Tokens {
    let name = &ast.ident;
    quote! {
        impl HelloWorld for #name {
            fn hello_world() {
                println!("Hello, World! My name is {}", stringify!(#name));

We are able to get an Ident struct instance containing the name (identifier) of the annotated type using ast.ident. With the code from Listing A4-1, name will be Ident("Pancakes").

The quote! macro from the quote crate lets us write up the Rust code that we wish to return and convert it into quote::Tokens. The quote! macro lets us use some really cool templating mechanics; we can write #name and quote! will replace it with the value in the variable named name. You can even do some repetition similar to the way regular macros work. Check out the quote crate’s docs for a thorough introduction.

What we want to do for our procedural macro is generate an implementation of our HelloWorld trait for the type the user of our crate has annotated, which we can get by using #name. The trait implementation has one function, hello_world, and the function body contains the functionality we want to provide: printing Hello, World! My name is and then the name of the type the user of our crate has annotated. The stringify! macro used here is built into Rust. It takes a Rust expression, such as 1 + 2, and at compile time turns the expression into a string literal, such as "1 + 2". This is different than format! or println!, which evaluate the expression and then turn the result into a String. There’s a possibility that #name would be an expression that we would want to print out literally, and stringify! also saves an allocation by converting #name to a string literal at compile time.

At this point, cargo build should complete successfully in both hello-world and hello-world-derive. Let’s hook these crates up to the code in Listing A4-1 to see it in action! Create a new binary project in your projects directory with cargo new --bin pancakes. We need to add both hello-world and hello-world-derive as dependencies in the pancakes crate’s Cargo.toml. If you’ve chosen to publish your versions of hello-world and hello-world-derive to https://crates.io they would be regular dependencies; if not, you can specify them as path dependencies as follows:

hello_world = { path = "../hello-world" }
hello_world_derive = { path = "../hello-world/hello-world-derive" }

Put the code from Listing A4-1 into src/main.rs, and executing cargo run should print Hello, World! My name is Pancakes! The implementation of the HelloWorld trait from the procedural macro was included without the pancakes crate needing to implement it; the #[derive(HelloWorld)] took care of adding the trait implementation.

The Future of Macros

In the future, we’ll be expanding both declarative and procedural macros. A better declarative macro system will be used with the macro keyword, and we’ll add more types of procedural macros, for more powerful tasks than only derive. These systems are still under development at the time of publication; please consult the online Rust documentation for the latest information.