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Pattern Matching vs. Destructuring… to the death!

Jan 12, 2011

In my post about unification vs. pattern matching I included a little footnote about how the creator of Matchure is probably often asked how pattern matching differs from Clojure’s destructuring. This footnote was an attempt to draw the elusive author out and comment on the subject. Since my attempt was a failure, I decided to throw this post together to explain1 it myself.

Imagine that you have a vector of numbers:

(def $ [1 2 3 4 5])

How might we bind a variable x to the number at the center of this vector? With destructuring this is simple:

(let [[_ _ x _ _] $] x)
;=> 3

However, what if you wanted to bind x based on the precise contents of the vector?

(when-let [[1 2 x 4 5] $] x)
; java.lang.Exception: Unsupported binding form: 1

We can’t do that with destructuring because it only cares about the “shape” or “outline” of the collection. However, using pattern matching we can indeed match in specific cases:

(when-match [[1 2 ?x 4 5] $] x)
;=> 3

(when-match [[1 2 ?x 400 500] $] x)
;=> nil

This is matching at its most precise, but Matchure also allows matching based on arbitrary functions:

(when-match [[(odd? ?) (even? ?) ?x _ _] $] x)
;=> 3

(when-match [[(even? ?) (odd? ?) ?x _ _] $] x)
;=> nil

(when-match [[_ _ ?x & (some #{5} ?)] $] x)
;=> 3

(when-match [[_ _ ?x & (some #{42} ?)] $] x)
;=> nil

Both destructuring and pattern matching let you draw a picture of the structure under observation and create bindings as a result. However, pattern matching subsumes destructuring because it allows you to draw at a finer levels of detail.


  1. This post refers to Matchure’s implementation and is not meant to stand in for every language implementation of pattern matching. However, it is likely mostly correct for said languages. 

4 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Hrm, this is still pretty fuzzy. The big difference is simple:

    Pattern matching is a conditional construct and destructuring isn’t.

  2. @rh

    I need to work on my skills in explaining Clojure-related topics in case I ever write a book…

    oh wait.

  3. This seems to me like it could be combined with clojure.xml to extract data and find patterns in XML a bit like XPath does, but in an idiomatic way. My problem is that from reading Matchure’s documentation, it isn’t immediately obvious how I would go about writing a patterns that would match elements at an arbitrary depth within the document (like //tag would do in XPath).

  4. SI Hayakawa

    Typo: “This is matching at it’s most precise” — should be possessive “its” (no apostrophe).

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