Veit's Blog

Scheme Macros V: Conditionals


It’s time for another blog post on Scheme macros! This time we’re going to look at conditionals, and as a bonus I’ll show you a cool trick on how to simulate if. If you want to go back to the list of posts on Scheme macros that have been written, check out this list!

The structure should by now be familiar: we think of an API, then we implement it, and then we reflect on what we just did. The code we will be writing will be written in zepto—we’ll be using mostly R5RS-compliant Scheme functionality—, and the code is online as always. Let’s go!


There are many conditionals in Scheme that we can try and reimplement. We will build our conditionals from the ground up, and first I’ll show you a little mindbending way of implementing if as a macro.

We want to support both if-then and if-then-else. Both of these forms should be familiar to you:

; if-then
(if condition then-clause)

; if-then-else
(if condition then-clause else-clause)
Fig. 1: The archetype of if.

So far, so simple. There are at least two other well-known conditionals that we can implement as macros on top of that, and that’s just what we’ll do! Enter cond and case:

; cond is a multi-clause if
; n.b. in scheme you’d have an extra set of
;      parentheses around the condition-clause
;      pairs
  condition1 clause1
  condition2 clause2
  ; ...
  conditionN clauseN
  else else-clause)

; case is a switch statement
(case expr-to-switch-on
  (comparator1 ... comparatorN) body
  (comparator1 ... comparatorN) body2
  ; ...
  else else-clause)
Fig. 2: The archetypes of cond and case.

These two forms are far more expressive than if, but also far more specialized. cond is great if you have a lot of clauses with different conditions, and case is useful for a situation in which you would reach for switch in C-like languages—but it works on arbitrary types.

And that’s all we will be doing today. Let’s jump right in!

Implementing Conditionals

If we want our own conditionals, we should probably start by implementing our own form of if.

Implementing if

Today I want to show you a weird way of defining if. To do this, we first need to implement our own boolean values, because we will mostly rely on those in our conditional. Behold our alternative booleans:

(define (my-true x y) (x))

(define (my-false x y) (y))

Fig. 3: true and false as contrived functions.

Alright, so this is already weird. Both booleans are functions that take two values, where true executes the first and throws away the second, and false does the inverse—and for collision avoidance purposes we prefix these names with my-. This might not make any sense yet, so let’s immediately follow them up with a macro implementing if, again prefixed:

(define-syntax my-if
  (syntax-rules ()
    ((_ condition tbody)
      (my-if condition tbody nil))
    ((_ condition tbody fbody)
        (lambda () tbody)
        (lambda () fbody)))))

Fig. 4: if as a macro.

Okay, so all if does is take a condition and either one or two forms. If we Provide it with only one, we provide nil as the default else clause. If we provide both, we call the condition with both expressions wrapped in anonymous functions. Wait, what?

Basically, what we’re doing here is outsourcing the behaviour of if to the booleans themselves1. This might still be a little puzzling, so let’s think of how we could use this and what it would do.

; what we would write:
(my-if my-true
  (write "yes") ; this branch gets executed
  (write "no"))

; what it would be turned into by macro expansion:
  (lambda () (write "yes"))
  (lambda () (write "no")))

Fig. 5: my-if before and after macro expansion.

Remember, booleans are just functions that take two other functions and pick which one to execute. This actually works out just fine!

The reason for wrapping the bodies in lambdas should also make a little more sense at this point. If we didn’t do this, both of the calls to write would be executed when we pass it into the booleans rather than, as we prefer, deferred until we know which of them to execute.

That was not a lot of code, but it’s fairly profound—or at least I felt that way when I first discovered this trick. So you might want to step back and think about this for a while before continuing.

UPDATE: I knew that I couldn’t possibly have been the first person to come up with this, and, embarassingly enough, it’s actually quite a famous encoding, as pointed out by Reddit user ghkbrew: it’s the Church encoding! I’m a little bummed that I didn’t recognize this, but oh well—you live and you learn.


One important caveat needs to be discussed before we move on: this version of if by itself is nifty, but useless. All of the comparators need to be reimplemented to return the two new boolean functions; if you want to go for something like this in your language, you have to integrate it more deeply with your language and libraries so that they return the right version of booleans.

Implementing cond and case

While this was fun, we’re going to step back for a second now and use regular if statements for the rest of this blog post. The reason for this is simple: we will use functions that return old-style booleans, and we would have to reimplement all of those to leverage our new macro.

Let’s start with cond.


On a fundamental level, cond is fairly simple. It is fairly similar to if-elif-else in a lot of other languages—Scheme just uses different terminology according to its tradition.

With that in mind, all we have to do is to implement a macro that rewrites the cond expression to be nested if special forms.

Let’s start with a skeleton:

(define-syntax my-cond
  (syntax-rules (else)
    ; cases
Fig. 6: A skeleton for cond.

So far, so simple. All we have to do is catch else as a keyword, because we will be using it as a literal.

Now we’ll implement our base cases, namely the else case or the last pair of condition and clause. Both of these can be at the end of our macro, so we’ll have to handle them.

(define-syntax my-cond
  (syntax-rules (else)
    ((_ else result) result)
    ((_ test result) (if test result))
    ; recursive case
Fig. 7: cond with base cases implemented.

Alright, that’s still pretty straightforward. All we do in the case of else is fill in the result we’re given, because it will always execute. In the case of a final conditional, we’ll make this a single-branched if. But what about the case when there are still multiple branches to go? We’ll have to use recursion!

(define-syntax my-cond
  (syntax-rules (else)
    ; base cases

    ((_ test result
        rest ...)
     (if test
       (my-cond rest ...)))
Fig. 8: The recursive case of cond.

That isn’t so bad! We’re compiling the recursive case into an if form in which the conditional is—well—the conditional, and the first clause is the clause that we paired with it. The other clause will be determined by the recursive expansion from the next call to my-cond.

Phew, that was fun! Now on to case, which is a little more complex, but—at least in theory—fairly similar.


At a first glance, case looks similar to the more well-known switch statements in other languages, sans break and with arbitray types. Our variation on the theme will always work with lists of comparators, to make implementing it a little more straightforward2. Extending it to single-value comparators is left as an exercise to the reader.

We’ll start with a skeleton that looks remarkably similar to the one that we made for cond in Figure 6.

(define-syntax my-case
  (syntax-rules (else)
    ; ...
Fig. 9: A skeleton for case.

Only the name of the macro has changed. If we go look at the base cases, however, we will already notice a few differences:

(define-syntax my-case
  (syntax-rules (else)
    ((_ key
       else result)
    ((_ key
       (atoms ...) result)
     (if (in? '(atoms ...) key)
    ; recursive case ...
Fig. 10: The base cases for case.

The rule for else has hardly changed, we’ve merely added the key. The other base case now checks whether key is in the list of atoms that we’ve been passed. The function in? is an addition by zepto that works on any collection, the equivalent in Scheme would be member.

With that out of the way, we can look at the recursive case again, which is really just the second base case with a little bit of recursion mixed in, similar to what we did in cond.

(define-syntax my-case
  (syntax-rules (else)
    ; base cases

    ((_ key
       (atoms ...) result
       clause clauses ...)
     (if (in? '(atoms ...) key)
       (my-case key clause clauses ...)))
Fig. 11: The recursive case for case.

All we’re doing differently in this case is, again, recursion. What’s different this time is that we keep passing down the key we’ve been given.

This was pretty simple! But with these two small macros we’ve added multi-branch conditionals and switch-style branching, which are fairly powerful constructs. Exciting!


Now it is time to dampen the excitement a little. While it’s true that we’ve added very powerful constructs to our arsenal with this post, it’s important to realize that, as shown in this post, they are actually incomplete.

First of all, none of them do any error checking! If the wrong number of arguments is passed, we’ll probably get very confusing errors—it’s hard to generate good errors from within the macro expander, and very few Lisp implementations do.

More importantly, there are a few subtle flaws. The way it is written right now, case will re-evaluate whatever is passed into it as key for every branch, for example. This is trivially fixable, but it’s not the only flaw that’s lurking in there. There are better, more powerful implementations in the wild that you should probably review before rolling your own solution. The implementations above are great as pedagogical tools, but maybe not for your next production system.

Similarly, you should evaluate what it means for your system to implement if in the way described above. I find it to be conceptually neat, but it might come at a runtime cost, depending on the system you build this on. It also means that you need to update all of your primitives that return booleans to return either of the functions we’ve defined above—there are a lot of moving parts involved in replacing a fundamental value like this.

That being said, noone says you can’t have fun with these constructs. Try adding to them! Some of the missing functionality was talked about above, and maybe you can think of more features to add to your new favorite conditionals!

You can also play around with syntax. As I noted above, case and cond usually have an extra set of parentheses around the condition-clause pairs. Maybe that’s not your thing, but you’d like to add => between them to add visual grouping? Or maybe you’d like to throw out the else special keyword, because strictly speaking it’s not necessary? All of that is possible, and not very hard to implement. Try it out and see for yourself!


In this blog post, we’ve implemented a bunch of conditionals, something that we might have thought of fundamental and necessarily provided by the language. With the power of macros, this needn’t be true. We can add our own abstractions, even on the boolean plane.

See you soon, and happy hacking!


1. Fun fact: this is exactly what Smalltalk does, but in an object-oriented rather than in a functional way. This is a nice example of how Lisp and Smalltalk often feel similar, with one being very functional/macro-oriented and the other doing everything with objects.

2. This is similar to writing a switch with multiple case labels leading to one execution path.