Functions and Imports

Welcome to the fifth Nix pill. In the previous fourth pill we touched the Nix language for a moment. We introduced basic types and values of the Nix language, and basic expressions such as if, with and let. I invite you to re-read about these expressions and play with them in the repl.

Functions help to build reusable components in a big repository like nixpkgs. The Nix manual has a great explanation of functions. Let's go: pill on one hand, Nix manual on the other hand.

I remind you how to enter the Nix environment: source ~/.nix-profile/etc/profile.d/

Nameless and single parameter

Functions are anonymous (lambdas), and only have a single parameter. The syntax is extremely simple. Type the parameter name, then ":", then the body of the function.

nix-repl> x: x*2

So here we defined a function that takes a parameter x, and returns x*2. The problem is that we cannot use it in any way, because it's unnamed... joke!

We can store functions in variables.

nix-repl> double = x: x*2
nix-repl> double
nix-repl> double 3

As usual, please ignore the special syntax for assignments inside nix repl. So, we defined a function x: x*2 that takes one parameter x, and returns x*2. This function is then assigned to the variable double. Finally we did our first function call: double 3.

Big note: it's not like many other programming languages where you write double(3). It really is double 3.

In summary: to call a function, name the variable, then space, then the argument. Nothing else to say, it's as easy as that.

More than one parameter

How do we create a function that accepts more than one parameter? For people not used to functional programming, this may take a while to grasp. Let's do it step by step.

nix-repl> mul = a: (b: a*b)
nix-repl> mul
nix-repl> mul 3
nix-repl> (mul 3) 4

We defined a function that takes the parameter a, the body returns another function. This other function takes a parameter b and returns a*b. Therefore, calling mul 3 returns this kind of function: b: 3*b. In turn, we call the returned function with 4, and get the expected result.

You don't have to use parentheses at all, Nix has sane priorities when parsing the code:

nix-repl> mul = a: b: a*b
nix-repl> mul
nix-repl> mul 3
nix-repl> mul 3 4
nix-repl> mul (6+7) (8+9)

Much more readable, you don't even notice that functions only receive one argument. Since the argument is separated by a space, to pass more complex expressions you need parentheses. In other common languages you would write mul(6+7, 8+9).

Given that functions have only one parameter, it is straightforward to use partial application:

nix-repl> foo = mul 3
nix-repl> foo 4
nix-repl> foo 5

We stored the function returned by mul 3 into a variable foo, then reused it.

Argument set

Now this is a very cool feature of Nix. It is possible to pattern match over a set in the parameter. We write an alternative version of mul = a: b: a*b first by using a set as argument, then using pattern matching.

nix-repl> mul = s: s.a*s.b
nix-repl> mul { a = 3; b = 4; }
nix-repl> mul = { a, b }: a*b
nix-repl> mul { a = 3; b = 4; }

In the first case we defined a function that accepts a single parameter. We then access attributes a and b from the given set. Note how the parentheses-less syntax for function calls is very elegant in this case, instead of doing mul({ a=3; b=4; }) in other languages.

In the second case we defined an argument set. It's like defining a set, except without values. We require that the passed set contains the keys a and b. Then we can use those a and b in the function body directly.

nix-repl> mul = { a, b }: a*b
nix-repl> mul { a = 3; b = 4; c = 6; }
error: anonymous function at (string):1:2 called with unexpected argument `c', at (string):1:1
nix-repl> mul { a = 3; }
error: anonymous function at (string):1:2 called without required argument `b', at (string):1:1

Only a set with exactly the attributes required by the function is accepted, nothing more, nothing less.

Default and variadic attributes

It is possible to specify default values of attributes in the argument set:

nix-repl> mul = { a, b ? 2 }: a*b
nix-repl> mul { a = 3; }
nix-repl> mul { a = 3; b = 4; }

Also you can allow passing more attributes (variadic) than the expected ones:

nix-repl> mul = { a, b, ... }: a*b
nix-repl> mul { a = 3; b = 4; c = 2; }

However, in the function body you cannot access the "c" attribute. The solution is to give a name to the given set with the @-pattern:

nix-repl> mul = s@{ a, b, ... }: a*b*s.c
nix-repl> mul { a = 3; b = 4; c = 2; }

That's it, you give a name to the whole parameter with name@ before the set pattern.

Advantages of using argument sets:

  • Named unordered arguments: you don't have to remember the order of the arguments.

  • You can pass sets, that adds a whole new layer of flexibility and convenience.


  • Partial application does not work with argument sets. You have to specify the whole attribute set, not part of it.

You may find similarities with Python **kwargs.


The import function is built-in and provides a way to parse a .nix file. The natural approach is to define each component in a .nix file, then compose by importing these files.

Let's start with the bare metal.






a: b: a*b
nix-repl> a = import ./a.nix
nix-repl> b = import ./b.nix
nix-repl> mul = import ./mul.nix
nix-repl> mul a b

Yes it's really that simple. You import a file, and it gets parsed as an expression. Note that the scope of the imported file does not inherit the scope of the importer.


nix-repl> let x = 5; in import ./test.nix
error: undefined variable `x' at /home/lethal/test.nix:1:1

So how do we pass information to the module? Use functions, like we did with mul.nix. A more complex example:


{ a, b ? 3, trueMsg ? "yes", falseMsg ? "no" }:
if a > b
  then builtins.trace trueMsg true
  else builtins.trace falseMsg false
nix-repl> import ./test.nix { a = 5; trueMsg = "ok"; }
trace: ok


  • In test.nix we return a function. It accepts a set, with default attributes b, trueMsg and falseMsg.

  • builtins.trace is a built-in function that takes two arguments. The first is the message to display, the second is the value to return. It's usually used for debugging purposes.

  • Then we import test.nix, and call the function with that set.

So when is the message shown? Only when it needs to be evaluated.

Next pill

...we will finally write our first derivation.