Why do Clojure variable arity args get different types depending on use?

In answering another question I came across something I didn't expect with Clojure's variable arity function args:

user=> (defn wtf [& more] (println (type more)) :ok)
#'user/wtf

;; 1)
user=> (wtf 1 2 3 4)
clojure.lang.ArraySeq
:ok

;; 2)
user=> (let [x (wtf 1 2 3 4)] x)
clojure.lang.ArraySeq
:ok

;; 3)
user=> (def x (wtf 1 2 3 4))
clojure.lang.PersistentVector$ChunkedSeq
#'user/x
user=> x
:ok

Why is the type ArraySeq in 1) and 2), but PersistentVector$ChunkedSeq in 3)?

Answers


Short answer: It's an obscure implementation detail of Clojure. The only thing guaranteed by the language is that the rest-param of a variadic function will be passed as an instance of clojure.lang.ISeq, or nil if there are no additional arguments. You should code accordingly.

Long answer: It has to do with whether the function call is compiled or simply evaluated. Without going into a full dissertation on the difference between evaluation and compilation, it should be sufficient to know that Clojure code gets parsed into an AST. Depending on the context, expressions in the AST could get evaluated directly (something akin to interpretation), or could get compiled into Java bytecode as part of a dynamically-generated class. The typical case where the latter happens is in the body of a lambda expression, which will evaluate to an instance of a dynamically generated class that implements the IFn interface. See the Clojure documentation for a more detailed explanation of evaluation.

The vast majority of the time, the difference between compiled and evaluated code will be invisible to your program; they will behave in exactly the same way. This is one of those rare corner cases where compilation and evaluation result in subtly different behavior. It's important to point out, though, that both behaviors are correct in that they conform to the promises made by the language.

Function calls in Clojure code get parsed into an instance of InvokeExpr in clojure.lang.Compiler. If the code is being compiled, then the compiler emits bytecode that will call the invoke method on an IFn object using an appropriate arity (Compiler.java, line 3650). If the code is just being evaluated and not compiled, then the function arguments are bundled up in a PersistentVector and passed to the applyTo method on the IFn object (Compiler.java, line 3553).

Clojure functions that have a variadic arg list are compiled into subclasses of the clojure.lang.RestFn class. This class implements all the methods of IFn, gathers arguments, and dispatches to the appropriate doInvoke arity. You can see in the implementation of applyTo that, in the case of 0 required args (as is the case in your wtf function), the input seq is passed through to the doInvoke method and visible to the function implementation. The 4-arg version of invoke, meanwhile, bundles up the arguments in an ArraySeq and passes this to the doInvoke method, so now your code sees an ArraySeq.

To complicate matters, the implementation of Clojure's eval function (which is what the REPL is calling) will internally wrap a list form being evaluated inside a thunk (an anoymous, no-arg function), then compile and execute the thunk. So almost all invocations are using compiled calls to the invoke method, rather than being interpreted directly by the compiler. There's a special case for def forms that explicitly evaluates the code without compiling, which accounts for the different behavior you're seeing there.

The implementation of clojure.core/apply also calls the applyTo method, and by this logic whatever list type passed to apply should be seen the the function body. Indeed:

user=> (apply wtf [1 2 3 4])
clojure.lang.PersistentVector$ChunkedSeq
:ok

user=> (apply wtf (list 1 2 3 4))
clojure.lang.PersistentList
:ok

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