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In The Joy of Clojure (TJoC) destructuring is described as a mini-language within Clojure. It’s not essential to learn this mini-language; however, as the authors of TJoC point out, destructuring facilitates concise, elegant code.

Making Code More Understandable

One of the scariest things for those who are just now learning how to do some coding is the fact that they have to try to figure out what a seemingly impossible set of rules and structures means for the work that they are trying to do. It is not easy at all, and many people struggle with it in big ways. 

Fortunately, there are some people who are going about the process of destructuring code so that it may be broken into smaller and more manageable chunks. If this is to happen, then one can easily see how they can potentially get a lot more value from the process of coding, and even how they can contribute to it for themselves in the future. 

We need to be as encouraging of the next generation of coders as we possibly can because there is no question that they will ultimately have an outsized impact on how the future of coding is decided. If they are best set up to understand coding and to make sense of its many intricacies, then they will be able to handle it without problems. However, we need to support and encourage them along the way, and that all begins by making coding easier to understand in general.

What is destructuring?

Clojure supports abstract structural binding, often called destructuring, in let binding lists, fn parameter lists, and any macro that expands into a let or fn. — http://clojure.org/special_forms

The simplest example of destructuring is assigning the values of a vector.

user=> (def point [5 7])
#'user/point

user=> (let [[x y] point]
         (println "x:" x "y:" y))
x: 5 y: 7

note: I’m using let for my examples of destructuring; however, in practice, I tend to use destructuring in function parameter lists at least as often, if not more often.

I’ll admit that I can’t remember ever using destructuring like the first example, but it’s a good starting point. A more realistic example is splitting a vector into a head and a tail. When defining a function with an arglist** you use an ampersand. The same is true in destructuring.

user=> (def indexes [1 2 3])
#'user/indexes

user=> (let [[x & more] indexes]
         (println "x:" x "more:" more))
x: 1 more: (2 3)

It’s also worth noting that you can bind the entire vector to a local using the :as directive.

user=> (def indexes [1 2 3])
#'user/indexes

user=> (let [[x & more :as full-list] indexes]
         (println "x:" x "more:" more "full list:" full-list))
x: 1 more: (2 3) full list: [1 2 3]

Vector examples are the easiest; however, in practice I find myself using destructuring with maps far more often.

Simple destructuring on a map is as easy as choosing a local name and providing the key.

user=> (def point {:x 5 :y 7})
#'user/point

user=> (let [{the-x :x the-y :y} point]
         (println "x:" the-x "y:" the-y))
x: 5 y: 7

As the example shows, the values of 😡 and :y are bound to locals with the names the-x and the-y. In practice we would never prepend “the-” to our local names; however, using different names provides a bit of clarity for our first example. In production code you would be much more likely to want locals with the same name as the key. This works perfectly well, as the next example shows.

user=> (def point {:x 5 :y 7})
#'user/point

user=> (let [{x :x y :y} point]
         (println "x:" x "y:" y))
x: 5 y: 7

While this works perfectly well, creating locals with the same name as the keys become tedious and annoying (especially when your keys are longer than one letter). Clojure anticipates this frustration and provides :keys directive that allows you to specify keys that you would like as locals with the same name.

user=> (def point {:x 5 :y 7})
#'user/point

user=> (let [{:keys [x y]} point]
         (println "x:" x "y:" y))
x: 5 y: 7

There are a few directives that work while destructuring maps. The above example shows the use of :keys. In practice I end up using :keys the most; however, I’ve also used the :as directive while working with maps.

The following example illustrates the use of an :as directive to bind a local with the entire map.

user=> (def point {:x 5 :y 7})
#'user/point

user=> (let [{:keys [x y] :as the-point} point]
         (println "x:" x "y:" y "point:" the-point))
x: 5 y: 7 point: {:x 5, :y 7}

We’ve now seen the :as directive used for both vectors and maps. In both cases, the locale is always assigned to the entire expression that is being destructured.

For completeness I’ll document the :or directive; however, I must admit that I’ve never used it in practice. The :or directive is used to assign default values when the map being destructured doesn’t contain a specified key.

user=> (def point {:y 7})
#'user/point
 
user=> (let [{:keys [x y] :or {x 0 y 0}} point]
         (println "x:" x "y:" y))
x: 0 y: 7

Lastly, it’s also worth noting that you can destructure nested maps, vectors and a combination of both.

The following example destructures a nested map

user=> (def book {:name "SICP" :details {:pages 657 :isbn-10 "0262011530"}})
#'user/book

user=> (let [{name :name {pages :pages isbn-10 :isbn-10} :details} book]
         (println "name:" name "pages:" pages "isbn-10:" isbn-10))
name: SICP pages: 657 isbn-10: 0262011530

As you would expect, you can also use directives while destructuring nested maps.

user=> (def book {:name "SICP" :details {:pages 657 :isbn-10 "0262011530"}})
#'user/book
user=> 
user=> (let [{name :name {:keys [pages isbn-10]} :details} book]
         (println "name:" name "pages:" pages "isbn-10:" isbn-10))
name: SICP pages: 657 isbn-10: 0262011530

Destructuring nested vectors is also very straight-forward, as the following example illustrates

user=> (def numbers [[1 2][3 4]])
#'user/numbers

user=> (let [[[a b][c d]] numbers]
  (println "a:" a "b:" b "c:" c "d:" d))
a: 1 b: 2 c: 3 d: 4

Since binding forms can be nested within one another arbitrarily, you can pull apart just about anything — http://clojure.org/special_forms

The following example destructures a map and a vector at the same time.

user=> (def golfer {:name "Jim" :scores [3 5 4 5]})
#'user/golfer

user=> (let [{name :name [hole1 hole2] :scores} golfer] 
         (println "name:" name "hole1:" hole1 "hole2:" hole2))
name: Jim hole1: 3 hole2: 5

The same example can be rewritten using a function definition to show the simplicity of using destructuring in parameter lists.

user=> (defn print-status [{name :name [hole1 hole2] :scores}] 
  (println "name:" name "hole1:" hole1 "hole2:" hole2))
#'user/print-status

user=> (print-status {:name "Jim" :scores [3 5 4 5]})
name: Jim hole1: 3 hole2: 5

There are other (less used) directives and deeper explanations available on http://clojure.org/special_forms and in The Joy of Clojure. I recommend both.

**(defn do-something [x y & more] … )

 



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