3  Data Types

3 Data Types

Erlang provides a number of data types, which are listed in this section.

Note that Erlang has no user defined types, only composite types (data structures) made of Erlang terms. This means that any function testing for a composite type, typically named is_type/1, might return true for a term that coincides with the chosen representation. The corresponding functions for built in types do not suffer from this.

A piece of data of any data type is called a term.

There are two types of numeric literals, integers and floats. Besides the conventional notation, there are two Erlang-specific notations:

  • $char
    ASCII value or unicode code-point of the character char.
  • base#value
    Integer with the base base, that must be an integer in the range 2..36.

Leading zeroes are ignored. Single underscore _ can be inserted between digits as a visual separator.


1> 42.
2> -1_234_567_890.
3> $A.
4> $\n.
5> 2#101.
6> 16#1f.
7> 16#4865_316F_774F_6C64.
8> 2.3.
9> 2.3e3.
10> 2.3e-3.
11> 1_234.333_333

When working with floats you may not see what you expect when printing or doing arithmetic operations. This is because floats are represented by a fixed number of bits in a base-2 system while printed floats are represented with a base-10 system. Erlang uses 64-bit floats. Here are examples of this phenomenon:

> 0.1+0.2.

The real numbers 0.1 and 0.2 cannot be represented exactly as floats.

> {36028797018963968.0, 36028797018963968 == 36028797018963968.0,
  36028797018963970.0, 36028797018963970 == 36028797018963970.0}.
{3.602879701896397e16, true,
 3.602879701896397e16, false}.

The value 36028797018963968 can be represented exactly as a float value but Erlang's pretty printer rounds 36028797018963968.0 to 3.602879701896397e16 (=36028797018963970.0) as all values in the range [36028797018963966.0, 36028797018963972.0] are represented by 36028797018963968.0.

For more information about floats and issues with them see:

If you need to work with decimal fractions, for instance if you need to represent money, then you should use a library that handles that or work in cents instead of euros so that you do not need decimal fractions.

An atom is a literal, a constant with name. An atom is to be enclosed in single quotes (') if it does not begin with a lower-case letter or if it contains other characters than alphanumeric characters, underscore (_), or @.


'phone number'

A bit string is used to store an area of untyped memory.

Bit strings are expressed using the bit syntax.

Bit strings that consist of a number of bits that are evenly divisible by eight, are called binaries


1> <<10,20>>.
2> <<"ABC">>.
1> <<1:1,0:1>>.

For more examples, see Programming Examples.

A term that is unique among connected nodes. A reference can be created by calling the make_ref/0 BIF. The is_reference/1 BIF can be used to test if a term is a reference.

A fun is a functional object. Funs make it possible to create an anonymous function and pass the function itself -- not its name -- as argument to other functions.


1> Fun1 = fun (X) -> X+1 end.
2> Fun1(2).

Read more about funs in Fun Expressions. For more examples, see Programming Examples.

A port identifier identifies an Erlang port.

open_port/2, which is used to create ports, returns a value of this data type.

Read more about ports in Ports and Port Drivers.

PID is an abbreviation for process identifier. Each process has a PID which identifies the process. PIDs are unique among processes that are alive on connected nodes. However, a PID of a terminated process may be reused as a PID for a new process after a while.

The BIF self/0 returns the PID of the calling process. When creating a new process, the parent process will be able to get the PID of the child process either via the return value, as is the case when calling the spawn/3 BIF, or via a message, which is the case when calling the spawn_request/5 BIF. A PID is typically used when when sending a process a signal. The is_pid/1 BIF can be used to test whether a term is a PID.



loop() ->
        who_are_you ->
            io:format("I am ~p~n", [self()]),

1> P = spawn(m, loop, []).
2> P ! who_are_you.
I am <0.58.0>

Read more about processes in Processes.

A tuple is a compound data type with a fixed number of terms:


Each term Term in the tuple is called an element. The number of elements is said to be the size of the tuple.

There exists a number of BIFs to manipulate tuples.


1> P = {adam,24,{july,29}}.
2> element(1,P).
3> element(3,P).
4> P2 = setelement(2,P,25).
5> tuple_size(P).
6> tuple_size({}).

A map is a compound data type with a variable number of key-value associations:


Each key-value association in the map is called an association pair. The key and value parts of the pair are called elements. The number of association pairs is said to be the size of the map.

There exists a number of BIFs to manipulate maps.


1> M1 = #{name=>adam,age=>24,date=>{july,29}}.
#{age => 24,date => {july,29},name => adam}
2> maps:get(name,M1).
3> maps:get(date,M1).
4> M2 = maps:update(age,25,M1).
#{age => 25,date => {july,29},name => adam}
5> map_size(M).
6> map_size(#{}).

A collection of maps processing functions can be found in maps manual page in STDLIB.

Read more about maps in Map Expressions.


Maps are considered to be experimental during Erlang/OTP R17.

A list is a compound data type with a variable number of terms.


Each term Term in the list is called an element. The number of elements is said to be the length of the list.

Formally, a list is either the empty list [] or consists of a head (first element) and a tail (remainder of the list). The tail is also a list. The latter can be expressed as [H|T]. The notation [Term1,...,TermN] above is equivalent with the list [Term1|[...|[TermN|[]]]].


[] is a list, thus
[c|[]] is a list, thus
[b|[c|[]]] is a list, thus
[a|[b|[c|[]]]] is a list, or in short [a,b,c]

A list where the tail is a list is sometimes called a proper list. It is allowed to have a list where the tail is not a list, for example, [a|b]. However, this type of list is of little practical use.


1> L1 = [a,2,{c,4}].
2> [H|T] = L1.
3> H.
4> T.
5> L2 = [d|T].
6> length(L1).
7> length([]).

A collection of list processing functions can be found in the lists manual page in STDLIB.

Strings are enclosed in double quotes ("), but is not a data type in Erlang. Instead, a string "hello" is shorthand for the list [$h,$e,$l,$l,$o], that is, [104,101,108,108,111].

Two adjacent string literals are concatenated into one. This is done in the compilation, thus, does not incur any runtime overhead.


"string" "42"

is equivalent to


A record is a data structure for storing a fixed number of elements. It has named fields and is similar to a struct in C. However, a record is not a true data type. Instead, record expressions are translated to tuple expressions during compilation. Therefore, record expressions are not understood by the shell unless special actions are taken. For details, see the shell(3) manual page in STDLIB).



-record(person, {name, age}).

new(Name, Age) ->
    #person{name=Name, age=Age}.

1> person:new(ernie, 44).

Read more about records in Records. More examples can be found in Programming Examples.

There is no Boolean data type in Erlang. Instead the atoms true and false are used to denote Boolean values.


1> 2 =< 3.
2> true or false.

Within strings and quoted atoms, the following escape sequences are recognized:

Sequence Description
\b Backspace
\d Delete
\e Escape
\f Form feed
\n Newline
\r Carriage return
\s Space
\t Tab
\v Vertical tab
\XYZ, \YZ, \Z Character with octal representation XYZ, YZ or Z
\xXY Character with hexadecimal representation XY
\x{X...} Character with hexadecimal representation; X... is one or more hexadecimal characters
Control A to control Z
\' Single quote
\" Double quote
\\ Backslash

Table 3.1:   Recognized Escape Sequences

There are a number of BIFs for type conversions.


1> atom_to_list(hello).
2> list_to_atom("hello").
3> binary_to_list(<<"hello">>).
4> binary_to_list(<<104,101,108,108,111>>).
5> list_to_binary("hello").
6> float_to_list(7.0).
7> list_to_float("7.000e+00").
8> integer_to_list(77).
9> list_to_integer("77").
10> tuple_to_list({a,b,c}).
11> list_to_tuple([a,b,c]).
12> term_to_binary({a,b,c}).
13> binary_to_term(<<131,104,3,100,0,1,97,100,0,1,98,100,0,1,99>>).
14> binary_to_integer(<<"77">>).
15> integer_to_binary(77).
16> float_to_binary(7.0).
17> binary_to_float(<<"7.000e+00">>).