An identifier consists of a nonempty sequence of Unicode characters that are not whitespace nor any of the following: ( ) [ ] { } ' ". Hy first tries to parse each identifier into a numeric literal, then into a keyword if that fails, and finally into a symbol if that fails.

numeric literals

In addition to regular numbers, standard notation from Python 3 for non-base 10 integers is used. 0x for Hex, 0o for Octal, 0b for Binary.

(print 0x80 0b11101 0o102 30)

Underscores and commas can appear anywhere in a numeric literal except the very beginning. They have no effect on the value of the literal, but they’re useful for visually separating digits.

(print 10,000,000,000 10_000_000_000)

Unlike Python, Hy provides literal forms for NaN and infinity: NaN, Inf, and -Inf.

string literals

Hy allows double-quoted strings (e.g., "hello"), but not single-quoted strings like Python. The single-quote character ' is reserved for preventing the evaluation of a form (e.g., '(+ 1 1)), as in most Lisps.

Python’s so-called triple-quoted strings (e.g., '''hello''' and """hello""") aren’t supported. However, in Hy, unlike Python, any string literal can contain newlines. Furthermore, Hy supports an alternative form of string literal called a “bracket string” similar to Lua’s long brackets. Bracket strings have customizable delimiters, like the here-documents of other languages. A bracket string begins with #[FOO[ and ends with ]FOO], where FOO is any string not containing [ or ], including the empty string. For example:

=> (print #[["That's very kind of yuo [sic]" Tom wrote back.]])
"That's very kind of yuo [sic]" Tom wrote back.
=> (print #[==[1 + 1 = 2]==])
1 + 1 = 2

A bracket string can contain newlines, but if it begins with one, the newline is removed, so you can begin the content of a bracket string on the line following the opening delimiter with no effect on the content. Any leading newlines past the first are preserved.

Plain string literals support a variety of backslash escapes. To create a “raw string” that interprets all backslashes literally, prefix the string with r, as in r"slash\not". Bracket strings are always raw strings and don’t allow the r prefix.

Whether running under Python 2 or Python 3, Hy treats all string literals as sequences of Unicode characters by default, and allows you to prefix a plain string literal (but not a bracket string) with b to treat it as a sequence of bytes. So when running under Python 3, Hy translates "foo" and b"foo" to the identical Python code, but when running under Python 2, "foo" is translated to u"foo" and b"foo" is translated to "foo".

Unlike Python, Hy only recognizes string prefixes (r, etc.) in lowercase.


An identifier headed by a colon, such as :foo, is a keyword. If a literal keyword appears in a function call, it’s used to indicate a keyword argument rather than passed in as a value. For example, (f :foo 3) calls the function f with the keyword argument named foo set to 3. Hence, trying to call a function on a literal keyword may fail: (f :foo) yields the error Keyword argument :foo needs a value. To avoid this, you can quote the keyword, as in (f ':foo), or use it as the value of another keyword argument, as in (f :arg :foo).


Symbols are identifiers that are neither legal numeric literals nor legal keywords. In most contexts, symbols are compiled to Python variable names. Some example symbols are hello, +++, 3fiddy, $40, just✈wrong, and 🦑.

Since the rules for Hy symbols are much more permissive than the rules for Python identifiers, Hy uses a mangling algorithm to convert its own names to Python-legal names. The rules are:

  • Convert all hyphens (-) to underscores (_). Thus, foo-bar becomes foo_bar.

  • If the name ends with ?, remove it and prepend is_. Thus, tasty? becomes is_tasty.

  • If the name still isn’t Python-legal, make the following changes. A name could be Python-illegal because it contains a character that’s never legal in a Python name, it contains a character that’s illegal in that position, or it’s equal to a Python reserved word.

    • Prepend hyx_ to the name.
    • Replace each illegal character with XfooX, where foo is the Unicode character name in lowercase, with spaces replaced by underscores and hyphens replaced by H. Replace X itself the same way. If the character doesn’t have a name, use U followed by its code point in lowercase hexadecimal.

    Thus, green☘ becomes hyx_greenXshamrockX and if becomes hyx_if.

  • Finally, any added hyx_ or is_ is added after any leading underscores, because leading underscores have special significance to Python. Thus, _tasty? becomes _is_tasty instead of is__tasty.

Mangling isn’t something you should have to think about often, but you may see mangled names in error messages, the output of hy2py, etc. A catch to be aware of is that mangling, as well as the inverse “unmangling” operation offered by the unmangle function, isn’t one-to-one. Two different symbols can mangle to the same string and hence compile to the same Python variable. The chief practical consequence of this is that - and _ are interchangeable in all symbol names, so you shouldn’t assign to the one-character name _ , or else you’ll interfere with certain uses of subtraction.

discard prefix

Hy supports the Extensible Data Notation discard prefix, like Clojure. Any form prefixed with #_ is discarded instead of compiled. This completely removes the form so it doesn’t evaluate to anything, not even None. It’s often more useful than linewise comments for commenting out a form, because it respects code structure even when part of another form is on the same line. For example:

=> (print "Hy" "cruel" "World!")
Hy cruel World!
=> (print "Hy" #_"cruel" "World!")
Hy World!
=> (+ 1 1 (print "Math is hard!"))
Math is hard!
Traceback (most recent call last):
TypeError: unsupported operand type(s) for +: 'int' and 'NoneType'
=> (+ 1 1 #_(print "Math is hard!"))