How to define Macro for a new Type?


So, I am playing around with a concept named “NewType” and I am taking inspiration from languages like F# and Scala.

My objective, for learning purposes mostly, is to build a macro that makes creating this abstraction something that takes no more than a single line of code.

Intended usage

I would like to create a macro that allows me to do something like this:

defmodule User do
  require NewType # an absolutely original name for the macro :D

  deftype Name, String.t() # Usage of said macro. Here I am defining a new type called "Name"

  @enforce_keys [:name, :age]
  defstruct [:name, :age]
  @type t :: %__MODULE__{
          name: Name.t,
          age: integer()

  @spec new(Name.t, integer) :: User.t
  def new(name, age), do: %User{name: name, age, age}  

And now, here is how I could create a User:

defmodule Test do
  alias User
  import User.Name

  @spec run :: User.t
  def run do
    name = Name("John"), 25)

How to implement this interface?

This interface might remind you a little of the Record interface. That’s because I think its API has some good ideas I would like to explore.

So, as a starting point I tried reading the source code for Record, but I was not really able to pick it up and use it to create an implementation for my use case, mainly because I don’t need/want to interface with Erlang records at all.

So, an implementation possibility would be to, under the hood, turn this into a tuple:

defmodule NewType do
  defmacro new(name, val) do
    quote do
      NewType.to_tuple(unquote(name), unquote(val))

  def to_tuple(name, val), do: {String.to_atom(name), val}

However, this is miles away from the interface I want to create …


  1. Using Elixir macros, is it possible to create the API I am aiming for?
  2. How can I change my code to achieve something like Name("John")?

Corresponding tweet for this thread:

Share link for this tweet.


Elixir doesn’t really have type dispatch though as it has no static type system, so I’m unsure what any kind of NewType could accomplish with this short of just {:mytype, values} or so as the purpose of NewType’s are to specify a unique set of functionality while hiding the original functionality of a specific type.


This is what I would ideally like to go for, but using a macro. The macro would convert this “type” to a tuple, and then Dialyzer would be able to pick up miss matches.

I understand the pattern of NewType as is commonly defined is mostly applicable to static languages, but that does not mean we can not learn good lessons from it and adapt to Elixir, in a way that accomplishes the same :smiley:


I’m not sure the macro brings any value then, as you can just use a tagged tuple anyway, including matching on it in headers and all, which with a macro would be far far more troublesome. ^.^;

1 Like

The value of the macro here would be:

  • it creates an abstraction that hides the implementation detail (using tuples is a detail)
  • it makes the code easier to read and write, by not forcing the user to manually duplicate code everywhere

To further expand, invoking deftype Name, String.t() would generate:

defmodule Name do
  @opaque t :: {:name, String.t()}

  @spec new(val :: String.t()) :: t
  def new(val) when is_binary(val), do: {:name, val}

  @spec extract(name :: t) :: String.t()
  def extract({:name, val}), do: val

  @spec name?(data :: any) :: boolean()
  def name?({:name, val}) when is_binary(val), do: true
  def name?(_data), do: false

  @spec is_name(data :: any) ::
          {:__block__ | {:., [], [:andalso | :erlang, ...]}, [],
           [{:= | {any, any, any}, [], [...]}, ...]}
  defguard is_name(value)
           when is_tuple(value) and elem(value, 0) == :name and is_binary(elem(value, 1))

While I could in theory define this set of functions for every tuple, I find it that a macro would help with that, while cutting on manual duplication.


This sounds like a parameterised __using__ macro.


@chriseyre2000 Do you know of any resources (Other than “Metaprogramming in Elixir”) that could explain how to achieve this?

I cannot agree nor disagree with your statement, I don’t know enough about the topic. But I am trying to get started.


There are plenty of examples of this in a typical phoenix application:


My Answer

After reading more about macros in Elixir, talking to the community and reading about NewType, I have refined my ideas. While the exact implementation of my original idea is not possible, with some changes you can still get the core benefit of NewType.

Changes to original idea

  • No usage of Name("John") syntax. As explained in this post this syntax is not valid in Elixir.
  • No defguard. Because the type is @opaque it is not possible to have a guard that analyses the internal structure of the data without having dialyzer complaining. Since the main goal here is to have Dialyzer help me detect issues, and since the internal structure of the opaque data can only be analyzed by functions that belong to the module itself, this means this idea is not possible.
  • No verification on data type when invoking new. Originally I thought about having some verification mechanism, but this is not necessary, since dialyzer will let the user know if the user is invoking new with an incorrect parameter.
  • No self-generated functions. Instead of having Age.age? or I have opted for the more general NewType.is_type?/2, which will accomplish the same and is more general.


With these changes in mind, this is the macro I came up with:

defmodule NewType do
  defmacro deftype(name, type) do
    quote do
      defmodule unquote(name) do
        @opaque t :: {unquote(name), unquote(type)}

        @spec new(value :: unquote(type)) :: t
        def new(value), do: {unquote(name), value}

        @spec extract(new_type :: t) :: unquote(type)
        def extract({unquote(name), value}), do: value

  @spec is_type?(data :: {atom, any}, new_type :: atom) :: boolean
  def is_type?({type, _data}, new_type) when type == new_type, do: true
  def is_type?(_data, _new_type), do: false

Which can be used like:


defmodule Type do
  import NewType

  deftype Name, String.t()


defmodule Test do
  alias Type.Name

  @spec print(Name.t()) :: binary
  def print(name), do: Name.extract(name)

  def run do
    arg = 1
    name = # dialyzer detects error !
    {:ok, name}

Sorry to comment on the previous idea – but that’s way too global. In a moderately big project you can have 5 different kinds of names. So to implement this properly you’d likely have to scope this somehow e.g. with module names (which are also atoms as you know):

defmodule MyApp.Types.Address.Name do
  def name?({__MODULE__, val}) when is_binary(val), do: true

In many languages, internally types get all sorts of fancy prefixes. That’s important. You don’t want only one Name to be ever allowed in your project.

Elixir offers an even neater way of doing this:

def is_type?({type, _data}, type), do: true # note the repeated `type` variable
def is_type?(_data, _new_type), do: false


is_type?({:x, "something"}, :x} # returns true
is_type?({:x, "something"}, :y} # returns false