View Source Optional syntax sheet

In the previous chapters, we learned that the Elixir syntax allows developers to omit delimiters in a few occasions to make code more readable. For example, we learned that parentheses are optional:

iex> length([1, 2, 3]) == length [1, 2, 3]

and that do-end blocks are equivalent to keyword lists:

# do-end blocks
iex> if true do
...>   :this
...> else
...>   :that
...> end

# keyword lists
iex> if true, do: :this, else: :that

Keyword lists use Elixir's regular notation for separating arguments, where we separate each key-value pair with commas, and each key is followed by :. In the do-blocks, we get rid of the colons, the commas, and separate each keyword by a newline. They are useful exactly because they remove the verbosity when writing blocks of code. Most of the time, we use the block syntax, but it is good to know they are equivalent.

Those conveniences, which we call here "optional syntax", allow the language syntax core to be small, without sacrificing the readability and expressiveness of your code. In this brief chapter, we will review the four rules provided by the language, using a short snippet as playground.


Take the following code:

if variable? do

Now let's remove the conveniences one by one:

  1. do-end blocks are equivalent to keywords:

    if variable?, do: Call.this(), else: Call.that()
  2. Keyword lists as last argument do not require square brackets, but let's add them:

    if variable?, [do: Call.this(), else: Call.that()]
  3. Keyword lists are the same as lists of two-element tuples:

    if variable?, [{:do, Call.this()}, {:else, Call.that()}]
  4. Finally, parentheses are optional on function calls, but let's add them:

    if(variable?, [{:do, Call.this()}, {:else, Call.that()}])

That's it! Those four rules outline the optional syntax available in Elixir.

To understand why these rules matter, we can briefly compare Elixir with many other programming languages. Most programming languages have several keywords for defining methods, functions, conditionals, loops, and so forth. Each of those keywords have their own syntax rules attached to them.

However, in Elixir, none of these language features require special "keywords", instead they all build from this small set of rules. The other benefit is that developers can also extend the language in a way that is consistent with the language itself, since the constructs for designing and extending the language are the same. We further explore this topic in the "Meta-programming" guide.

At the end of the day, those rules are what enables us to write:

defmodule Math do
  def add(a, b) do
    a + b

instead of:

defmodule(Math, [
  {:do, def(add(a, b), [{:do, a + b}])}

Whenever you have any questions, this quick walk-through has you covered.

Finally, if you are concerned about when to apply these rules, it's worth noting that the Elixir formatter handles those concerns for you. Most Elixir developers use the mix format task to format their codebases according to a well-defined set of rules defined by the Elixir team and the community. For instance, mix format will always add parentheses to function calls unless explicitly configured not to do so. This helps to maintain consistency across all codebases within organizations and the wider community.