What Makes Pattern Matching in Elixir So Nice?

Many people pick pattern matching as one of the nicest features of Elixir. But it’s hard to explain why or how it is nice - it’s something experiential that arises from the combination of pattern matching and other characteristics of Elixir.

In this post I will present a few examples of pattern matching in Elixir to describe why it is such a great feature. The target audience of this post is people with experience in object-oriented programming (OOP) but without much exposure to functional programming (FP). The post is not about an in-depth comparison between pattern matching in Elixir and pattern matching in other languages.

Let’s get started.

Pattern Matching? What Is That?

Other people have already written good explanations about pattern matching, so I will skip explaining what it is in this post. Since we’re talking about Elixir, I’ll post two links to Elixir resources. Here’s one from the official Elixir language guide, and another one from Elixir School. Read them if you are not familiar with pattern matching. In this post I will focus on the actual code you would read and write.

Real World Example of Pattern Matching

At first glance, pattern matching might look like a slightly more complicated switch statement. But it’s much more powerful than that. Let’s take a look at an example of typical Elixir code that uses pattern matching.

This is a function in Enum module from Elixir core library. As its name suggests, it returns a random element from the given enumerable. It first calls the Enumerable.count/1 function, which returns a two-element tuple of {:ok, value} or {:error, message}, following a common convention in Elixir. Then it pattern matches that return value and calls appropriate functions based on the match.

Let’s look at the first case. {:ok, 0} matches to only one tuple: the one with :ok as the first element and 0 as the second element.

The second case {:ok, count} matches to all two-element tuples that have :ok as the first element, except for {:ok, 0}, which would have been matched in the previous case and would never reach this case. At the same time, the case binds the second element to a variable called count.

The third case {:error, _} matches to all two-element tuples with :error as the first element, regarldess of the value of the second element.

Pattern Matching = Destructuring + Control Flow

That one pattern matching in 9 lines are doing a lot of things in an incredibly concise way. Let’s look at what it’s doing.

First, it’s checking the structure of the input data. All three cases match against two-element tuples.

Second, it’s accessing and checking the values contained in the data. The cases check whether the two-element tuples have :ok or :error as their first elements.

Third, it’s binding the value it accessed from the data. This happens in the second case, where it’s binding the second element of the matched tuple to a variable.

These three operations together are simply called destructuring or deconstructing in FP.

Fourth, it’s specifying how to respond to matched cases. Each case is followed by subsequent operations that can use the variable you have bound through destructuring.

In summary, pattern matching can specify the data structure you want, extract values from it, then pass those extracted values to other functions. These are operations that you do over and over again in the process of implementing more abstract logic. Pattern matching allows an incredibly succint way to efficiently write those codes with little boilerplate code.

But it doesn’t stop there.

If you are interested in a theoretical discussion about OOP and FP regarding pattern matching, I have written an optional section at the end of the post.

Multi-clause Functions for Code Organization

A useful syntactic sugar for pattern matching is multi-clause function. The full definition of the Enum.random/1 function I’ve introduced above actually looks like this:

The first two lines are type specifications for the function, so they are not relevant for this post. Let’s look at the rest of the function definition.

You can see that there are two function definitions with identical names. It is a syntactic sugar to separate pattern matching cases into multi-clause function. In fact, the above function definition is equivalent to the following code:

If you compare the two versions, you can see it’s just splitting the outermost pattern matching into multiple function clauses. So what’s so great about this seemingly mundane feature? Multi-clause functions are great because they provide a visually discernible way to break down functions into smaller parts. Such a separation reduces the amount of code you must hold in your head to understand the function, making it much easier to write and understand functions.

Remember that pattern matching is already being used to destructure data and manipulate control flow. On top of that, it can be also used for structuring the codebase.

Recursion and Pattern Matching

Let’s take a look at another practical example of pattern matching. Recursion is a basic building block of functional programming, and it works seamlessly well with pattern matching. Here’s Enum.reverse/1 function from Elixir core library, which takes an enumerable and returns a list with elements in reverse order.

The following code is the same function written without using multi-clause function.

Notice how multiple clauses make the base case, the first three cases in this example, more discernible. Considering that understanding the base case is crucial to understanding a recursive function, such a visual assistance through pattern matching is definitely helpful.

Elixir Uses Simple Data Types

As a dynamically typed language, Elixir has limited support for building an elaborate type system. You can define custom types, specify function signatures, and run static code analysis using tools like dialyzer, but it’s not as powerful as that of statically typed languages like Haskell.

But the tradeoff is that Elixir is much simpler to read and write. In FP, the syntax for destructuring a data structure is identical to the syntax for creating it. And Elixir programmers mostly use just the basic types provided by the language. This means that once you learn how to work with several data structures, you are set to work with Elixir program using pattern matching. In contrast, statically typed languages require you to learn ever-increasing number of custom types and their interfaces.

This makes working with Elixir program feel quite effortless and freeing.

Pattern Matching Is in the Leading Role

But if you actually think about it, none of the capabilities of pattern matching that I’ve described above is new.

Switch statement has existed for decades in imperative languages for manipulating control flow. Destructuring is now supported in OO languages that have more aggressively introduced elements of FP, such as Ruby, Swift, and ES6 JavaScript. Still, pattern matching in those languages have limited power and is relegated to a secondary role because of its incompatibility with some OO principles and methodologies.

In Elixir, pattern matching plays the leading role. The entire language feels like it’s built around pattern matching, allowing it to show its full potential. And I think that’s what makes using pattern matching feel so nice in Elixir.

In practice, this means that you can think about a lot of things in terms of pattern matching. Destructuring? Use pattern matching. Control flow? Use pattern matching. Code organization? Use pattern matching. It creates an uninterrupted flow of writing and organizing code without stopping to think about which tool to use for each particular case.

Conclusion

The experience of using pattern matching in Elixir cannot be described just in terms of its technical capabilities. It’s the harmony between the characteristics of the language and the tool that makes it such a pleasant experience. If you haven’t tried Elixir, I recommend you to at least take a look at it to see how pattern matching works in it.


No Encapsulation and More Explicit Control Flow

Destructuring gives you a free access into the internal values of data structures, which might look like a total disregard for encapsulation. It is. Except that encapsulation does not exist in FP.

One of the key reasons for encapsulation in OOP is to control who can access the data. Only the object that holds the data is permitted to read and write those data. Any other entity must request that object to handle the data. This is to ensure consistency and integrity of the data.

FP, in contrast, solves the writing permission problem in a completely different way. All data are immutable, so no one can write to them.

Since there’s no more need to control writing permission, there’s no need to encapsulate data within objects to control access. So FP separates data and methods that would have been encapsulated in objects into data types and function modules. In OOP terms, that could be described as splitting objects into simpler data transfer objects and service objects.

As for reading permission, each FP language handles it differently. Dynamically typed languages, such as Erlang/Elixir and Closure, handle most of data using the data types provided by the language. It is obvious that programmers would know how to handle those basic types, which means that they know how to interface with almost all data. In other words, programmers have something akin to universal reading permission in those languages.

On the other hand, statically typed languages, such as Haskell/ML family languages, leverage powerful custom types. Programmers define and use their own types that are suited to the logic they are implementing. So unless you know the interface for those types, you cannot read data from those types. This works as practical reading permission.

Multi-paradigm languages that leverage elements from both OOP and FP paradigms go around the encapsulation problem in different ways. Scala provides extractor objects for defining interfaces for destructuring operation without compromising object encapsulation. Ruby core library provides convenient syntax and methods for destructuring commonly used data objects, but separates control flow from them. Swift limits destructuring to tuples, while supporting Swift-specific features such as unwrapping optionals or validating type casting. ES6 JavaScript provides powerful destructuring functionality, but separates it from control flow.

Pattern matching also allows you to explicitly state how you want to process the data based on its structure. This might look like manual method dispatch in OOP, which means using control flow statements against the type of an object to choose what to do with it. Such a practice is frowned upon in OOP, which prefers delegating such a choice to objects using techniques like function overloading and subtype polymorphism. In contrast, FP prefers explicitly handling this at function level.

But you should think about it in a different way. Switch statement in OOP is about instructing what to do in certain situations. This is characteristic of its imperative heritage. In contrast, pattern matching in FP is about establishing rules for handling different cases. This is characteristic of its declarative heritage.