LoLClojure – Chapter 3

Chapter three of Land of Lisp is all about Lisp syntax. This post will be sort of scattered as far as content goes, since the chapter covered a lot. Many things are the same in Clojure, but there are some serious differences. The first is how to define a function.

Defining Functions

In Lisp, you use defun, but in Clojure, it’s defn. Here’s a square function in Lisp.

(defun square (n) 
  (* n n))

And here’s the same function in Clojure. Notice that the function arguments are enclosed in square brackets (it’s a vector), instead of parens.

(defn square
  "Returns the square of the passed-in number"
  (* n n))

That string is known as the docstring. It stays with the function, and is available in the REPL by running the doc function, like this (doc square). Lisp also supports docstrings in functions, but it comes after the argument list, instead of before. While docstrings are optional, I highly encourage you to include them. They can span multiple lines, and since they stay with your function, they are useful from the REPL.


In Lisp, there are may functions for determining equality, and you have to choose the right one for any given circumstance. Among these are eq, equal, equalp, and a few others. In Clojure, there’s just =. If you’re coming from Java, you know = by itself is assignment, not an equality check. For that, you have to use ==, but even that only computes reference equality, and is not always what you want. In Clojure, = does everything you want, in every circumstance. It is your friend.


Starting on page 34, there are a few examples using the expt function, which raises its first argument to the power of its second. This is a built-in function in CL, but Clojure doesn’t have one. You could use Math.pow from Java, but this only works with doubles, and once the numbers get really large, it switches to scientific notation.

(Math/pow 2 2)       ; 4.0
(Math/pow 2 3)       ; 8.0
(Math/pow 2.0 3)     ; 8.0
(Math/pow 2 10)      ; 1024.0
(Math/pow 53N 53)    ; 2.4356848165022712E91

(In case you haven’t seen it, appending an N to a number literal causes the number to be of type clojure.lang.BigInt. Appending an M makes it a java.math.BigDecimal.)

You can write your own exponentiation function that gives better results than using the one from Java. Here are two different ways to write it. Both versions are tail-recursive, which means they won’t exhaust the stack, but the first uses a nested function, while the second is recursive on a loop. Here’s the nested function version

(defn expt
  "Raise x to the nth power"
  [x n]
  (letfn [(rexpt [n acc]
                 (if (zero? n)
                   (recur (dec n) (* acc x))))]
    (rexpt n 1)))

Notice the letfn that contains a local function called rexpt. This function does all the work, and is called as the last line of the main function. It takes a parameter to be used as an accumulator, and this is returned once the exponent is decremented to zero. This nested function is also a closure, because the value of x is referenced directly. We don’t need to change it like we do n, so we just use its name.

Now, here is the version that uses loop. While CL has a loop macro, Clojure’s loop is completely different. All it does is provide a recursion point. This means that when you use the recur function later, execution will jump back to where the loop call is, instead of back to the beginning of the function. The locals declared in the loop’s vector are rebound with the values specified by the recur call. I think this version is easier to understand than the first one.

(defn expt
  "Raise x to the nth power"
  [x n]
  (loop [n n
         acc 1]
    (if (zero? n)
      (recur (dec n) (* acc x)))))

Notice that the code inside the loop is identical to that in the rexpt local function from the previous example. It’s just not wrapped inside another function. Also of note is in the let we assign n to n. This is a common technique, and will result in a local called n being assigned the value of the passed-in n. The local n can then be decremented with each recursion, without affecting the outer n.

Both of these function provide identical results.

(expt 2 2)       ; 4
(expt 2 3)       ; 8
(expt 2.0 3)     ; 8.0
(expt 2 10)      ; 1024
(expt 53N 53)    ; 24356848165022712132477606520104725518533453128685640844505130879576720609150223301256150373

Notice that passing in an integer results in an integer. Passing in a double results in a double. And passing in a BigInt results in a very large number (Hint: scroll horizontally… it goes on for a while).

Printing Things

CL uses (princ), (prin1), (print), etc., to output things to the console. In Clojure, you use (print) and (println).

(print "He yelled \"Stop that thief!\" from the busy street.") ; no newline
(println "He yelled \"Stop that thief!\" from the busy street.") ; newline

(print) outputs the string, but does not append a newline. (println) appends a newline, as you would expect, given its name.

To Be Continued…

This has gotten very long, so I will stop now, and continue in another post. Stay tuned for Chapter Three, Part Two.