Erlang/Elixir Syntax: A Crash Course

This is a quick introduction to the Elixir syntax for Erlang developers and vice-versa. It is the absolute minimum amount of knowledge you need in order to understand Elixir/Erlang code, support interoperability, read the docs, sample code, etc.

This page is divided into sections:

  1. Running Code
  2. Notable Differences
  3. Data Types
  4. Modules
  5. Function Syntax
  6. Control Flow
  7. Adding Elixir to existing Erlang programs
  8. Further reading

1 Running Code

Erlang

The fastest way to run some code is to launch the Erlang shell -- erl. Many code snippets on this page can be pasted directly into the shell. However, when you want to define a named function, Erlang expects it to be inside of a module, and modules have to be compiled. Here's a skeleton for a module:

-module(module_name).  % you may use some other name
-compile(export_all).

hello() ->
  io:format("~s~n", ["Hello world!"]).

Add your functions to it, save it to disk, run erl from the same directory and execute the compile command:

Eshell V5.9  (abort with ^G)
1> c(module_name).
ok
1> module_name:hello().
Hello world!
ok

You may keep the shell running while you're editing the file. Just don't forget to execute c(module_name) to load the latest changes. Note that the filename has to be the same as the one declared in the -module() directive, plus an extension .erl.

Elixir

Elixir too has an interactive shell called iex. Compiling Elixir code can be done with elixirc (which is similar to Erlang's erlc). Elixir also provides an executable named elixir to run Elixir code. The module defined above can be written in Elixir as:

# module_name.ex
defmodule ModuleName do
  def hello do
    IO.puts "Hello World"
  end
end

And compiled from iex:

Interactive Elixir
iex> c("module_name.ex")
[ModuleName]
iex> ModuleName.hello
Hello world!
:ok

However notice that in Elixir you don't need to create a file only to create a new module, Elixir modules can be defined directly in the shell:

defmodule MyModule do
  def hello do
    IO.puts "Another Hello"
  end
end

2 Notable Differences

This section goes over some of the syntactic differences between the two languages.

Operator Names

Some operators are spelled differently.

| Erlang         | Elixir         | Meaning                                 |
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
| and            | NOT AVAILABLE  | Logical 'and', evaluates both arguments |
| andalso        | and            | Logical 'and', short-circuits           |
| or             | NOT AVAILABLE  | Logical 'or', evaluates both arguments  |
| orelse         | or             | Logical 'or', short-circuits            |
| =:=            | ===            | A match operator                        |
| =/=            | !==            | A negative match                        |
| /=             | !=             | Not equals                              |
| =<             | <=             | Less than or equals                     |

Delimiters

Erlang expressions are terminated with a dot . and comma , is used to evaluates multiple expressions within one context (in a function definition, for instance). In Elixir, expressions are delimited by a line break or a semicolon ;.

Erlang

X = 2, Y = 3.
X + Y.

Elixir

x = 2; y = 3
x + y

Variable Names

Variables in Erlang can only be assigned once. The Erlang shell provides a special command f that allows you to erase the binding of a variable or all variables at once.

Elixir allows you to assign to a variable more than once. If you want to match against the value of a previously assigned variable, you should use ^:

Erlang

Eshell V5.9  (abort with ^G)
1> X = 10.
10
2> X = X + 1.
** exception error: no match of right hand side value 11
3> X1 = X + 1.
11
4> f(X).
ok
5> X = X1 * X1.
121
6> f().
ok
7> X.
* 1: variable 'X' is unbound
8> X1.
* 1: variable 'X1' is unbound

Elixir

iex> a = 1
1
iex> a = 2
2
iex> ^a = 3
** (MatchError) no match of right hand side value: 3

Calling Functions

Elixir allows you to omit parentheses in function calls, Erlang does not.

| Erlang            | Elixir         |
--------------------------------------
| some_function().  | some_function  |
| sum(A, B)         | sum a, b       |

Invoking a function from a module uses different syntax. In Erlang, you would write

orddict:new().

to invoke the new function from the orddict module. In Elixir, use the dot . in place of the colon :

Kernel.self

Note. Since Erlang modules are represented by atoms, you may invoke Erlang functions in Elixir as follows:

:lists.sort [3, 2, 1]

All of the Erlang built-ins reside in the :erlang module.

3 Data Types

Erlang and Elixir have the same data types for the most part, but there are a number of differences.

Atoms

In Erlang, an atom is any identifier that starts with a lowercase letter, e.g. ok, tuple, donut. Identifiers that start with a capital letters are always treated as variable names. Elixir, on the other hand, uses the former for naming variables, and the latter are treated as atom aliases. Atoms in Elixir always start with a colon :.

Erlang

im_an_atom.
me_too.

Im_a_var.
X = 10.

Elixir

:im_an_atom
:me_too

im_a_var
x = 10

Module  # this is called an atom alias; it expands to :'Elixir.Module'

It is also possible to create atoms that start with a character other than a lowercase letter. The syntax is different between the two languages:

Erlang

is_atom(ok).                %=> true
is_atom('0_ok').            %=> true
is_atom('Multiple words').  %=> true
is_atom('').                %=> true

Elixir

is_atom :ok                 #=> true
is_atom :'ok'               #=> true
is_atom :"Multiple words"   #=> true

Tuples

The syntax for tuples is the same in both languages, but the APIs are different. Elixir attempts to normalize Erlang libraries in a way that:

  1. The subject of the function is always the first argument.
  2. All data structures functions employ zero-based access.

That said, Elixir does not import the default element and setelement functions, but instead provides elem and setelem:

Erlang

element(1, { a, b, c })       %=> a
setelement(1, { a, b, c }, d) %=> { d, b, c }

Elixir

elem({ :a, :b, :c }, 0)        #=> :a
set_elem({ :a, :b, :c }, 0, :d) #=> { :d, :b, :c }

Lists and Binaries

Elixir has a shortcut syntax for binaries:

Erlang

is_list('Hello').        %=> false
is_list("Hello").        %=> true
is_binary(<<"Hello">>).  %=> true

Elixir

is_list 'Hello'          #=> true
is_binary "Hello"        #=> true
is_binary <<"Hello">>    #=> true
<<"Hello">> === "Hello"  #=> true

In Elixir, the word string means a utf-8 binary and there is a String module that works on such data. Elixir also expects your source files to be utf-8 encoded. On the other hand, string in Erlang refers to char lists and there is a :string module, that's not utf-8 aware and works mostly with char lists.

Elixir also supports multiline strings (also called heredocs):

is_binary """
This is a binary
spawning several
lines.
"""
#=> true

Regular expressions

Elixir supports a literal syntax for regular expressions. Such syntax allows regexes to be compiled at compilation time instead of runtime and does not require you to double escape special regex characters:

Erlang

{ ok, Pattern } = re:compile("abc\\s").
re:run("abc ", Pattern).
%=> { match, ["abc "] }

Elixir

Regex.run ~r/abc\s/, "abc "
#=> ["abc "]

Regexes are also supported in heredocs, which is convenient when defining multiline regexes:

is_regex ~r"""
This is a regex
spawning several
lines.
"""

Keyword list

Elixir offers a literal syntax for creating a list of two-item tuples where the first item in the tuple is an atom and calls them keyword lists:

Erlang

[{another_key,20},{key,10}]

Elixir

kw = [another_key: 20, key: 10]
kw[:another_key] #=> 20

Records

The syntax for records differs significantly between Erlang and Elixir. Please refer to this section in the Erlang book to read a detailed introduction to records in Erlang. And this chapter from Elixir's Getting Started guide provides a description of records in Elixir.

In order to translate Erlang records into Elixir records, use Record.extract(). For example, to use the ec2_instance_spec record from erlcloud:

defrecord :ec2_instance_spec, Record.extract(:ec2_instance_spec,
                                from: "deps/erlcloud/include/erlcloud_ec2.hrl")

new_host = :ec2_instance_spec.new(
    image_id:          "ami-6d3f9704",
    instance_type:     "t1.micro",
    availability_zone: "us-east-1b"
)

IO.puts inspect(new_host)

4 Modules

Each Erlang module lives in its own file which has the following structure:

-module(hello_module).
-export([some_fun/0, some_fun/1]).

% A "Hello world" function
some_fun() ->
  io:format('~s~n', ['Hello world!']).

% This one works only with lists
some_fun(List) when is_list(List) ->
  io:format('~s~n', List).

% Non-exported functions are private
priv() ->
  secret_info.

Here we create a module named hello_module. In it we define three functions, the first two are made available for other modules to call via the export directive at the top. It contains a list of functions, each of which is written in the format <function name>/<arity>. Arity stands for the number of arguments.

An Elixir equivalent to the Erlang above:

defmodule HelloModule do
  # A "Hello world" function
  def some_fun do
    IO.puts "Hello world!"
  end

  # This one works only with lists
  def some_fun(list) when is_list(list) do
    IO.inspect list
  end

  # A private function
  defp priv do
    :secret_info
  end
end

In Elixir, it is also possible to have multiple modules in one file, as well as nested modules:

defmodule HelloModule do
  defmodule Utils do
    def util do
      IO.puts "Utilize"
    end

    defp priv do
      :cant_touch_this
    end
  end

  # More on this in the Records section
  defrecord State, ponies: [:sally]

  def dummy do
    :ok
  end
end

defmodule ByeModule do
end

HelloModule.dummy
#=> :ok

HelloModule.Utils.util
#=> "Utilize"

HelloModule.Utils.priv
#=> ** (UndefinedFunctionError) undefined function: HelloModule.Utils.priv/0

HelloModule.State.new
#=> HelloModule.State[ponies: [:sally]]

5 Function Syntax

This chapter from the Erlang book provides a detailed description of pattern matching and function syntax in Erlang. Here, I'm briefly covering the main points and provide sample code both in Erlang and Elixir.

Pattern Matching

Pattern matching in Elixir is based on Erlang's implementation and in general is very similar:

Erlang

loop_through([H|T]) ->
  io:format '~p~n', [H],
  loop_through(T);

loop_through([]) ->
  ok.

Elixir

def loop_through([h|t]) do
  IO.inspect h
  loop_through t
end

def loop_through([]) do
  :ok
end

When defining a function with the same name multiple times, each such definition is called a clause. In Erlang, clauses always go side by side and are separated by a semicolon ;. The last clause is terminated by a dot ..

Elixir doesn't require punctuation to separate clauses, but they must be grouped together.

Identifying functions

In both Erlang and Elixir, a function is not identified only by its name, but by its name and arity. In both examples below, we are defining four different functions (all named sum, but with different arity):

Erlang

sum() -> 0;
sum(A) -> A;
sum(A, B) -> A + B;
sum(A, B, C) -> A + B + C.

Elixir

def sum, do: 0
def sum(a), do: a
def sum(a, b), do: a + b
def sum(a, b, c), do: a + b + c

Guard expressions provide a concise way to define functions that accept a limited set of values based on some condition.

Erlang

sum(A, B) when is_integer(A), is_integer(B) ->
  A + B;

sum(A, B) when is_list(A), is_list(B) ->
  A ++ B;

sum(A, B) when is_binary(A), is_binary(B) ->
  <<A/binary,  B/binary>>.

sum(1, 2).
%=> 3

sum([1], [2]).
%=> [1,2]

sum("a", "b").
%=> "ab"

Elixir

def sum(a, b) when is_integer(a) and is_integer(b) do
  a + b
end

def sum(a, b) when is_list(a) and is_list(b) do
  a ++ b
end

def sum(a, b) when is_binary(a) and is_binary(b) do
  a <> b
end

sum 1, 2
#=> 3

sum [1], [2]
#=> [1,2]

sum "a", "b"
#=> "ab"

In addition, Elixir allows for default values for arguments, whereas Erlang does not.

def mul_by(x, n \\ 2) do
  x * n
end

mul_by 4, 3 #=> 12
mul_by 4    #=> 8

Anonymous Functions

Anonymous functions are defined in the following way:

Erlang

Sum = fun(A, B) -> A + B end.
Sum(4, 3).
%=> 7

Square = fun(X) -> X * X end.
lists:map(Square, [1, 2, 3, 4]).
%=> [1, 4, 9, 16]

Elixir

sum = fn(a, b) -> a + b end
sum.(4, 3)
#=> 7

square = fn(x) -> x * x end
Enum.map [1, 2, 3, 4], square
#=> [1, 4, 9, 16]

It is possible to use pattern matching when defining anonymous functions, too.

Erlang

F = fun(Tuple = {a, b}) ->
        io:format("All your ~p are belong to us~n", [Tuple]);
        ([]) ->
        "Empty"
    end.

F([]).
%=> "Empty"

F({a, b}).
%=> "All your {a,b} are belong to us"

Elixir

f = fn
      {:a, :b} = tuple ->
        IO.puts "All your #{inspect tuple} are belong to us"
      [] ->
        "Empty"
    end

f.([])
#=> "Empty"

f.({:a, :b})
#=> "All your {:a,:b} are belong to us"

First-Class Functions

Anonymous functions are first-class values, so they can be passed as arguments to other functions and also can serve as a return value. There is a special syntax to allow named functions be treated in the same manner.

Erlang

-module(math).
-export([square/1]).

square(X) -> X * X.

lists:map(fun math:square/1, [1, 2, 3]).
%=> [1, 4, 9]

Elixir

defmodule Math do
  def square(x) do
    x * x
  end
end

Enum.map [1,2,3], &Math.square/1
#=> [1, 4, 9]

Partials in Elixir

Elixir supports partial application of functions which can be used to define anonymous functions in a concise way:

Enum.map [1, 2, 3, 4], &(&1 * 2)
#=> [2, 4, 6, 8]

List.foldl [1, 2, 3, 4], 0, &(&1 + &2)
#=> 10

Partials also allow us to pass named functions as arguments.

defmodule Math do
  def square(x) do
    x * x
  end
end

Enum.map [1,2,3], &Math.square/1

#=> [1, 4, 9]

6 Control Flow

The constructs if and case are actually expressions in both Erlang and Elixir, but may be used for control flow as in imperative languages.

Case

The case construct provides control flow based purely on pattern matching.

Erlang

case { X, Y } of
  { a, b } -> ok;
  { b, c } -> good;
  Else -> Else
end

Elixir

case { x, y } do
  { :a, :b } -> :ok
  { :b, :c } -> :good
  other -> other
end

If

Erlang

Test_fun = fun (X) ->
  if X > 10 ->
       greater_than_ten;
     X < 10, X > 0 ->
       less_than_ten_positive;
     X < 0; X =:= 0 ->
       zero_or_negative;
     true ->
       exactly_ten
  end
end.

Test_fun(11).
%=> greater_than_ten

Test_fun(-2).
%=> zero_or_negative

Test_fun(10).
%=> exactly_ten

Elixir

test_fun = fn(x) ->
  cond do
    x > 10 ->
      :greater_than_ten
    x < 10 and x > 0 ->
      :less_than_ten_positive
    x < 0 or x === 0 ->
      :zero_or_negative
    true ->
      :exactly_ten
  end
end

test_fun.(44)
#=> :greater_than_ten

test_fun.(0)
#=> :zero_or_negative

test_fun.(10)
#=> :exactly_ten

There are two important differences between Elixir's cond and Erlang's if:

1) cond allows any expression on the left side while Erlang allows only guard clauses;

2) cond uses Elixir's concepts of truthy and falsy values (everything is truthy except nil and false), Erlang's if expects strictly a boolean;

Elixir also provides an if function that resembles more imperative languages and is useful when you need to check if one clause is true or false:

if x > 10 do
  :greater_than_ten
else
  :not_greater_than_ten
end

Sending and Receiving Messages

The syntax for sending and receiving differs only slightly between Erlang and Elixir.

Erlang

Pid = self().

Pid ! { hello }.

receive
  { hello } -> ok;
  Other -> Other
after
  10 -> timeout
end.

Elixir

pid = Kernel.self

send pid, { :hello }

receive do
  { :hello } -> :ok
  other -> other
after
  10 -> :timeout
end

7 Adding Elixir to existing Erlang programs

Elixir compiles directly into BEAM byte code. This means that Elixir code can be called from Erlang and vice versa, without the need to write any bindings. All Elixir modules start with the Elixir. prefix followed by the regular Elixir name. For example, here is how to use the utf-8 aware String downcase from Elixir in Erlang:

-module(bstring).
-export([downcase/1]).

downcase(Bin) ->
  'Elixir.String':downcase(Bin).

Rebar integration

If you are using rebar, you should be able to include Elixir git repository as a dependency:

https://github.com/elixir-lang/elixir.git

Elixir is structured similar to Erlang's OTP. It is divided into applications that are placed inside the lib directory, as seen in its source code repository. Since rebar does not recognize such structure, we need to explicitly add to our rebar.config which Elixir apps we want to use, for example:

{lib_dirs, [
  "deps/elixir/lib"
]}.

This should be enough to invoke Elixir functions straight from your Erlang code. If you are also going to write Elixir code, you can install Elixir's rebar plugin for automatic compilation.

Manual integration

If you are not using rebar, the easiest approach to use Elixir in your existing Erlang software is to install Elixir using one of the different ways specified in the Getting Started guide and add the lib directory in your checkout to ERL_LIBS.

8 Further Reading

Erlang's official documentation site has a nice collection of programming examples. It can be a good exercise to translate them into Elixir. Erlang cookbook offers even more useful code examples.

Elixir also provides a Getting Started Guide and has documentation available online.