View Source Records

Records and Tuples

The main advantage of using records rather than tuples is that fields in a record are accessed by name, whereas fields in a tuple are accessed by position. To illustrate these differences, suppose that you want to represent a person with the tuple {Name, Address, Phone}.

To write functions that manipulate this data, remember the following:

  • The Name field is the first element of the tuple.
  • The Address field is the second element.
  • The Phone field is the third element.

For example, to extract data from a variable P that contains such a tuple, you can write the following code and then use pattern matching to extract the relevant fields:

Name = element(1, P),
Address = element(2, P),

Such code is difficult to read and understand, and errors occur if the numbering of the elements in the tuple is wrong. If the data representation of the fields is changed, by re-ordering, adding, or removing fields, all references to the person tuple must be checked and possibly modified.

Records allow references to the fields by name, instead of by position. In the following example, a record instead of a tuple is used to store the data:

-record(person, {name, phone, address}).

This enables references to the fields of the record by name. For example, if P is a variable whose value is a person record, the following code access the name and address fields of the records:

Name =,
Address = P#person.address,

Internally, records are represented using tagged tuples:

{person, Name, Phone, Address}

Defining a Record

This following definition of a person is used in several examples in this section. Three fields are included, name, phone, and address. The default values for name and phone is "" and [], respectively. The default value for address is the atom undefined, since no default value is supplied for this field:

-record(person, {name = "", phone = [], address}).

The record must be defined in the shell to enable use of the record syntax in the examples:

> rd(person, {name = "", phone = [], address}).

This is because record definitions are only available at compile time, not at runtime. For details on records in the shell, see the shell manual page in STDLIB.

Creating a Record

A new person record is created as follows:

> #person{phone=[0,8,2,3,4,3,1,2], name="Robert"}.
#person{name = "Robert",phone = [0,8,2,3,4,3,1,2],address = undefined}

As the address field was omitted, its default value is used.

From Erlang 5.1/OTP R8B, a value to all fields in a record can be set with the special field _. _ means "all fields not explicitly specified".


> #person{name = "Jakob", _ = '_'}.
#person{name = "Jakob",phone = '_',address = '_'}

It is primarily intended to be used in ets:match/2 and mnesia:match_object/3, to set record fields to the atom '_'. (This is a wildcard in ets:match/2.)

Accessing a Record Field

The following example shows how to access a record field:

> P = #person{name = "Joe", phone = [0,8,2,3,4,3,1,2]}.
#person{name = "Joe",phone = [0,8,2,3,4,3,1,2],address = undefined}

Updating a Record

The following example shows how to update a record:

> P1 = #person{name="Joe", phone=[1,2,3], address="A street"}.
#person{name = "Joe",phone = [1,2,3],address = "A street"}
> P2 = P1#person{name="Robert"}.
#person{name = "Robert",phone = [1,2,3],address = "A street"}

Type Testing

The following example shows that the guard succeeds if P is record of type person:

foo(P) when is_record(P, person) -> a_person;
foo(_) -> not_a_person.

Pattern Matching

Matching can be used in combination with records, as shown in the following example:

> P3 = #person{name="Joe", phone=[0,0,7], address="A street"}.
#person{name = "Joe",phone = [0,0,7],address = "A street"}
> #person{name = Name} = P3, Name.

The following function takes a list of person records and searches for the phone number of a person with a particular name:

find_phone([#person{name=Name, phone=Phone} | _], Name) ->
    {found,  Phone};
find_phone([_| T], Name) ->
    find_phone(T, Name);
find_phone([], Name) ->

The fields referred to in the pattern can be given in any order.

Nested Records

The value of a field in a record can be an instance of a record. Retrieval of nested data can be done stepwise, or in a single step, as shown in the following example:

-record(name, {first = "Robert", last = "Ericsson"}).
-record(person, {name = #name{}, phone}).

demo() ->
  P = #person{name= #name{first="Robert",last="Virding"}, phone=123},
  First = (

Here, demo() evaluates to "Robert".

A Longer Example

Comments are embedded in the following example:

%% File: person.hrl

%% Data Type: person
%% where:
%%    name:  A string (default is undefined).
%%    age:   An integer (default is undefined).
%%    phone: A list of integers (default is []).
%%    dict:  A dictionary containing various information
%%           about the person.
%%           A {Key, Value} list (default is the empty list).
-record(person, {name, age, phone = [], dict = []}).
-compile(export_all). % For test purposes only.

%% This creates an instance of a person.
%%   Note: The phone number is not supplied so the
%%         default value [] will be used.

make_hacker_without_phone(Name, Age) ->
   #person{name = Name, age = Age,
           dict = [{computer_knowledge, excellent},
                   {drinks, coke}]}.

%% This demonstrates matching in arguments

print(#person{name = Name, age = Age,
              phone = Phone, dict = Dict}) ->
  io:format("Name: ~s, Age: ~w, Phone: ~w ~n"
            "Dictionary: ~w.~n", [Name, Age, Phone, Dict]).

%% Demonstrates type testing, selector, updating.

birthday(P) when is_record(P, person) ->
   P#person{age = P#person.age + 1}.

register_two_hackers() ->
   Hacker1 = make_hacker_without_phone("Joe", 29),
   OldHacker = birthday(Hacker1),
   % The central_register_server should have
   % an interface function for this.
   central_register_server ! {register_person, Hacker1},
   central_register_server ! {register_person,
             OldHacker#person{name = "Robert",
                              phone = [0,8,3,2,4,5,3,1]}}.