Inline functions in Clojure

EDIT: In the comment section Alex Miller advised against using inline functions for now as they are subject to change in the future version of Clojure.

Clojure's inline functions is one of the rarely discovered features. Unlike any other concept that you can introduce via macros they are important enough to be treated specially by the compiler. But still many Clojure users have never heard about inlines let alone used them.

In this post I investigate what is an inline function, how is it different from macros and when either should be used.

NB: This post is a rewrite of this Gorilla session (you should definitely check Gorilla REPL out, it's awesome).

Introduction to inlines

Let's see what Clojure says about inline functions.

=> (doc definline)

([name & decl])
  Experimental - like defmacro, except defines a named function whose
  body is the expansion, calls to which may be expanded inline as if
  it were a macro. Cannot be used with variadic (&) args.

OK, that is a start. Inline function is like a macro, but it is a function. We can try both out on a simple example — a debugging function that takes any value (or a symbol, or a form) and returns it as well as printing the result.

(defmacro debug-macro [x]
     (println '~x "=" ~x)

=> (debug-macro (+ 1 2))

stdout: Value of (+ 1 2) : 3

And with inlines:

(definline debug-fn [x]
     (println '~x "=" ~x)

=> (debug-fn (+ 1 2))

stdout: Value of (+ 1 2) : 3

So far we see no differences between macros and inlines. Both take arguments by name rather than by value, and return arbitrary form that is then executed.

Going deeper

Macros are expanded as soon as they are spotted by the compiler, and they can arbitrarily modify the enclosed forms. When you pass some function calls to the macro you have no gurantee that they will be executed. Let's take this example:

(defn bar [x y]
  (* x y))

=> (bar 4 6)

(defmacro foo [arg]
  `(+ ~@(rest arg)))

=> (foo (bar 4 6))

In the example function bar multiplies two numbers, and macro foo returns a form that sums all but first elements in the list you pass to it. Hence, in the second test bar is never executed as foo just takes second and third element from the list and adds them.

But what if we try to do the same with an inline?

(definline foo-fn [arg]
  `(+ ~@(rest arg)))

IllegalArgumentException Don't know how to create ISeq from:
clojure.lang.Symbol clojure.lang.RT.seqFrom (

Oops! Let's try another way:

(defn foo-fn
  {:inline (fn [arg] `(+ ~@(rest arg)))}

=> (foo-fn (bar 4 6))

And it works! What we did is we created a function with :inline metadata. It doesn't matter what the function itself returns because when it is called directly, the inline version is used. In this case, we achieved the same behavior as with macros.

So, what's the point?

It appears that the only significant difference between macros and inline functions is that the latter do not support variadic arguments. Then why would you need the language to have both? To find out the answers we can check how Clojure itself uses inline functions by taking a look at one of them:

(defn pos?
  "Returns true if num is greater than zero, else false"
  {:inline (fn [x] `(. clojure.lang.Numbers (isPos ~x)))
   :added "1.0"}
  [x] (. clojure.lang.Numbers (isPos x)))

This function has both the function body and the inline part, but why? You'll understand immediately if you see the bytecode generated for this code:

(pos? 6)

(map pos? [1 -3 8])

Below is the relevant part of the decompiled class:

Numbers.isPos(6L) ? Boolean.TRUE : Boolean.FALSE;
((IFn)const__5.getRawRoot()).invoke(const__3.getRawRoot(), const__9);
const__3 = (Var)RT.var("clojure.core", "pos?");
const__5 = (Var)RT.var("clojure.core", "map");
const__9 = (AFn)RT.vector(new Object[] {
            Long.valueOf(1L), Long.valueOf(-3L), Long.valueOf(8L) });

Now it is clear. When direct call occurs, the compiler inlines the call, but if the function is passed as an argument and later used, function is evaluated normally.


From what we've seen today, inline functions and macros are very much similar. This doesn't mean that you should start using inlines in place of macros. Actually it is a bad idea to write an inline function that changes the computation flow like a macro (because noone expects such thing from a function). But if you feel that you can increase your performance with some compile-time precomputation/unrolling and you don't want to sacrifice the ability to pass the function around as a first-class object — then inline functions can be an excellent tool for that.