Expansion is a relatively simple affair. At some point after the construction of the AST, but before the compiler begins constructing its semantic understanding of the program, it will expand all macros.

This involves traversing the AST, locating macro invocations and replacing them with their expansion. In the case of non-macro syntax extensions, how this happens is up to the particular syntax extension. That said, syntax extensions go through exactly the same process that macros do once their expansion is complete.

Once the compiler has run a syntax extension, it expects the result to be parseable as one of a limited set of syntax elements, based on context. For example, if you invoke a macro at module scope, the compiler will parse the result into an AST node that represents an item. If you invoke a macro in expression position, the compiler will parse the result into an expression AST node.

In fact, it can turn a syntax extension result into any of the following:

In other words, where you can invoke a macro determines what its result will be interpreted as.

The compiler will take this AST node and completely replace the macro's invocation node with the output node. This is a structural operation, not a textural one!

For example, consider the following:

fn main() { let eight = 2 * four!(); }
let eight = 2 * four!();

We can visualise this partial AST as follows:

│ Let         │
│ name: eight │   ┌─────────┐
│ init: ◌     │╶─╴│ BinOp   │
└─────────────┘   │ op: Mul │
                ┌╴│ lhs: ◌  │
     ┌────────┐ │ │ rhs: ◌  │╶┐ ┌────────────┐
     │ LitInt │╶┘ └─────────┘ └╴│ Macro      │
     │ val: 2 │                 │ name: four │
     └────────┘                 │ body: ()   │

From context, four!() must expand to an expression (the initialiser can only be an expression). Thus, whatever the actual expansion is, it will be interpreted as a complete expression. In this case, we will assume four! is defined such that it expands to the expression 1 + 3. As a result, expanding this invocation will result in the AST changing to:

│ Let         │
│ name: eight │   ┌─────────┐
│ init: ◌     │╶─╴│ BinOp   │
└─────────────┘   │ op: Mul │
                ┌╴│ lhs: ◌  │
     ┌────────┐ │ │ rhs: ◌  │╶┐ ┌─────────┐
     │ LitInt │╶┘ └─────────┘ └╴│ BinOp   │
     │ val: 2 │                 │ op: Add │
     └────────┘               ┌╴│ lhs: ◌  │
                   ┌────────┐ │ │ rhs: ◌  │╶┐ ┌────────┐
                   │ LitInt │╶┘ └─────────┘ └╴│ LitInt │
                   │ val: 1 │                 │ val: 3 │
                   └────────┘                 └────────┘

This can be written out like so:

fn main() { let eight = 2 * (1 + 3); }
let eight = 2 * (1 + 3);

Note that we added parens despite them not being in the expansion. Remember that the compiler always treats the expansion of a macro as a complete AST node, not as a mere sequence of tokens. To put it another way, even if you don't explicitly wrap a complex expression in parentheses, there is no way for the compiler to "misinterpret" the result, or change the order of evaluation.

It is important to understand that macro expansions are treated as AST nodes, as this design has two further implications:

There is one further thing to note about expansion: what happens when a syntax extension expands to something that contains another syntax extension invocation. For example, consider an alternative definition of four!; what happens if it expands to 1 + three!()?

fn main() { let x = four!(); }
let x = four!();

Expands to:

fn main() { let x = 1 + three!(); }
let x = 1 + three!();

This is resolved by the compiler checking the result of expansions for additional macro invocations, and expanding them. Thus, a second expansion step turns the above into:

fn main() { let x = 1 + 3; }
let x = 1 + 3;

The takeaway here is that expansion happens in "passes"; as many as is needed to completely expand all invocations.

Well, not quite. In fact, the compiler imposes an upper limit on the number of such recursive passes it is willing to run before giving up. This is known as the macro recursion limit and defaults to 32. If the 32nd expansion contains a macro invocation, the compiler will abort with an error indicating that the recursion limit was exceeded.

This limit can be raised using the #![recursion_limit="…"] attribute, though it must be done crate-wide. Generally, it is recommended to try and keep macros below this limit wherever possible.