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9 Preprocessor

9.1  File Inclusion

A file can be included as follows:


File, a string, is to point out a file. The contents of this file are included as is, at the position of the directive.

Include files are typically used for record and macro definitions that are shared by several modules. It is recommended to use the file name extension .hrl for include files.

File can start with a path component $VAR, for some string VAR. If that is the case, the value of the environment variable VAR as returned by os:getenv(VAR) is substituted for $VAR. If os:getenv(VAR) returns false, $VAR is left as is.

If the filename File is absolute (possibly after variable substitution), the include file with that name is included. Otherwise, the specified file is searched for in the following directories, and in this order:

  • The current working directory
  • The directory where the module is being compiled
  • The directories given by the include option

For details, see the erlc(1) manual page in ERTS and compile(3) manual page in Compiler.



include_lib is similar to include, but is not to point out an absolute file. Instead, the first path component (possibly after variable substitution) is assumed to be the name of an application.



The code server uses code:lib_dir(kernel) to find the directory of the current (latest) version of Kernel, and then the subdirectory include is searched for the file file.hrl.

9.2  Defining and Using Macros

A macro is defined as follows:

-define(Const, Replacement).
-define(Func(Var1,...,VarN), Replacement).

A macro definition can be placed anywhere among the attributes and function declarations of a module, but the definition must come before any usage of the macro.

If a macro is used in several modules, it is recommended that the macro definition is placed in an include file.

A macro is used as follows:


Macros are expanded during compilation. A simple macro ?Const is replaced with Replacement.


-define(TIMEOUT, 200).
call(Request) ->
    server:call(refserver, Request, ?TIMEOUT).

This is expanded to:

call(Request) ->
    server:call(refserver, Request, 200).

A macro ?Func(Arg1,...,ArgN) is replaced with Replacement, where all occurrences of a variable Var from the macro definition are replaced with the corresponding argument Arg.


-define(MACRO1(X, Y), {a, X, b, Y}).
bar(X) ->
    ?MACRO1(a, b),
    ?MACRO1(X, 123)

This is expanded to:

bar(X) ->

It is good programming practice, but not mandatory, to ensure that a macro definition is a valid Erlang syntactic form.

To view the result of macro expansion, a module can be compiled with the 'P' option. compile:file(File, ['P']). This produces a listing of the parsed code after preprocessing and parse transforms, in the file File.P.

9.3  Predefined Macros

The following macros are predefined:

The name of the current module.
The name of the current module, as a string.
The file name of the current module.
The current line number.
The machine name, 'BEAM'.

9.4  Macros Overloading

It is possible to overload macros, except for predefined macros. An overloaded macro has more than one definition, each with a different number of arguments.

The feature was added in Erlang 5.7.5/OTP R13B04.

A macro ?Func(Arg1,...,ArgN) with a (possibly empty) list of arguments results in an error message if there is at least one definition of Func with arguments, but none with N arguments.

Assuming these definitions:

-define(F0(), c).
-define(F1(A), A).
-define(C, m:f).

the following does not work:

f0() ->
    ?F0. % No, an empty list of arguments expected.

f1(A) ->
    ?F1(A, A). % No, exactly one argument expected.

On the other hand,

f() ->

is expanded to

f() ->

9.5  Flow Control in Macros

The following macro directives are supplied:

Causes the macro to behave as if it had never been defined.
Evaluate the following lines only if Macro is defined.
Evaluate the following lines only if Macro is not defined.
Only allowed after an ifdef or ifndef directive. If that condition is false, the lines following else are evaluated instead.
Specifies the end of an ifdef or ifndef directive.

The macro directives cannot be used inside functions.



-define(LOG(X), io:format("{~p,~p}: ~p~n", [?MODULE,?LINE,X])).
-define(LOG(X), true).


When trace output is desired, debug is to be defined when the module m is compiled:

% erlc -Ddebug m.erl


1> c(m, {d, debug}).

?LOG(Arg) is then expanded to a call to io:format/2 and provide the user with some simple trace output.

9.6  Stringifying Macro Arguments

The construction ??Arg, where Arg is a macro argument, is expanded to a string containing the tokens of the argument. This is similar to the #arg stringifying construction in C.

The feature was added in Erlang 5.0/OTP R7.


-define(TESTCALL(Call), io:format("Call ~s: ~w~n", [??Call, Call])).


results in

io:format("Call ~s: ~w~n",["myfunction ( 1 , 2 )",myfunction(1,2)]),
io:format("Call ~s: ~w~n",["you : function ( 2 , 1 )",you:function(2,1)]).

That is, a trace output, with both the function called and the resulting value.