Parameter Lists in Common Lisp and Clojure

Parameter lists in Common Lisp, called lambda lists, are written in their own mini-language, making it convenient to write functions with a flexible call interface. A lambda list can specify optional parameters, optionally with default arguments, named (keyword) parameters, and whether or not the function is variadic. It’s something I miss a lot when using other languages, especially JavaScript.

Common Lisp Parameters

Here some some examples. This function, foo, has three required parameters, a, b, and c.

(defun foo (a b c)

To make b and c optional, place them after the symbol &optional,

(defun foo (a &optional b c)

If second and third arguments are not provided, b and c will be bound to nil. To provide a default argument, put that parameter inside a list. Below, when a third argument is not provided, c will be bound to "bar".

(defun foo (a &optional b (c "bar"))

To write a function that accepts any number of arguments, use &rest followed by the parameter to hold the list of the remaining arguments. Below, args will be a list of all arguments after the third. Note how this can be combined with &optional.

(defun foo (a &optional b c &rest args)

Often, the position of a parameter may be hard to remember or read, especially if there are many parameters. It may be more convenient to name them with &key. Below, the function has three named parameters, specified at the call site using keywords — special symbols from the keyword package that always evaluate to themselves.

(defun foo (&key a b c)

(foo :b "world" :a "hello")

Like optional parameters, when a parameter is not provided it is bound to nil. In the same way, it can be given a default argument.

(defun foo (&key (a "hello") (b "world") c)

&key can be combined with &optional and &rest. However, the &rest argument will be filled with all of key-value pairs, so it’s generally not useful to use them together.

Lambda lists are not exclusive to defun and can be used in any place that needs to receive values in parameters, such as flet (function let), defmethod, and so on.

Clojure Parameters

Clojure forgoes these complex lambda lists in preference for overloading by arity. When a function is being defined, multiple functions of different arities can be defined at once. This makes for optional parameters. Note how this leaves no room for a default argument of nil for unspecified optional arguments.

Here, b is an optional parameter for foo, defaulting to "bar" when not provided by the caller. The first definition has an arity of one and it calls the second definition with the optional argument filled in.

(defn foo
  ([a] (foo a "bar"))
  ([a b] ...))

Variadic functions are specified with &, similar to &rest in Common Lisp. Below, xs is a sequence of all of the arguments provided after the first.

(defn foo [x & xs]

As far as parameters are concerned, this is all Clojure has. However, Clojure’s parameter specification is actually more flexible than Common Lisp’s lambda lists in two important ways. One is that parameter position can vary with the number of provided arguments. The Clojure core functions use this a lot (ex. reduce).

The following in Common Lisp would require manually parsing the parameters on some level. The last parameter can be either second or third depending on whether a middle name was provided.

(defn make-name
  ([first last]
     (make-name first "Q" last))
  ([first middle last]
     {:first first, :middle middle, :last last}))

(make-name "John" "Public")
;; => {:first "John", :middle "Q", :last "Public"}

That covers optional parameters with default arguments and variadic functions. What about keyword parameters? Well, to cover that we need to talk about destructuring, which is another way that Clojure parameters are more powerful than lambda lists.


A powerful Lisp idiom is destructuring bindings. Variables can be bound to values in a structure by position in the structure. In Common Lisp there are three macros for making destructuring bindings, destructuring-bind, loop and with-slots (CLOS).

Below, in the body of the form, a, b, and c are bound to 1, 2, and 3 respectively. The form (a (b c)) is mapped into the quoted structure of the same shape to the right.

(destructuring-bind (a (b c)) '(1 (2 3))
  (+ a (* b c)))
;; => 7

Because of Common Lisp’s concept of cons cells, the cdr of a cell can be bound to a variable if that variable appears in the cdr position. This is similar to the &rest parameter (and is how Scheme does variadic functions). I like using this to match the head and tail of a list,

(destructuring-bind (x . xs) '(1 2 3 4 5)
  (list x xs))
;; => (1 (2 3 4 5))

Perhaps the neatest use of destructuring is in the loop macro. This loop walks over a list two at a time, binding a variable to each side of the pair,

(loop for (keyword value) on '(:a 1 :b 2 :c 3) by #'cddr
   collect keyword into keywords
   collect value into values
   finally (return (values keywords values)))
;; => (:A :B :C), (1 2 3)

Unfortunately destructuring in Common Lisp is limited to these few cases, or where ever else you write your own destructuring macros.

Clojure takes destructuring to its logical conclusion: destructuring can be used any place bindings are established! This includes parameter lists. It works on any core data structure, not just lists.

Below, I’m doing destructuring inside of a standard let form.

(defn greet-dr [fullname]
  (let [[first last] (clojure.string/split fullname #" +")]
    (str "Hello, Dr. " last ". "
         "It's good to see you again, " first ".")))

(greet-dr "John Doe")
;; "Hello, Dr. Doe. It's good to see you again, John."

Similarly, I could destructure an argument into my parameters. (Note the double square brackets.)

(defn greet-dr-2 [[first last]]

(greet-dr-2 ["John" "Doe"])

Because hashmaps are a core language feature in Clojure, they can also be destructured. The syntax is a bit like flipping the hashmap inside out. The variable is specified, then the key it’s mapped to.

(let [{a :a, b :b} {:a 1 :b 2}]
  (list a b))
;; => (1 2)

When variables and keys have the same name, there’s a shorthand with :keys.

(let [{:keys [a b]} {:a 1 :b 2}]

Variables default to nil when the corresponding key is not in the map. They can be given default values with :or.

(let [{a :a, b :b :or {a 0 b 0}} {}]
  (list a b))
;; => (0 0)

Now, here’s where it gets really neat. In Common Lisp, the &key part of a lambda list is a special case. In Clojure it comes for free as part of destructuring. Just destructure the rest argument!

(defn height-opinion [name & {height :height}]
  (if-not height
    (str "I have no opinion on " name ".")
    (if (< height 6)
      (str name " is short.")
      (str name " is tall."))))

(height-opinion "Chris" :height 6.25)
;; => "Chris is tall."

We can still access the entire rest argument at the same time, using :as, so it covers everything Common Lisp covers.

(defn foo [& {a :a, b :b :as args}]

(foo :b 10)
;; => {:b 10}

(A side note while we’re making comparisons: keywords in Clojure are not symbols, but rather a whole type of their own.)


Clojure parameter lists are simpler than Common Lisp’s lambda lists and, thanks to destructuring anywhere, they end up being more powerful at the same time. It’s a full super set of lambda lists, so there’s no practical trade-off.

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