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1 Backups and Auto-Saving

Backup files and auto-save files are two methods by which Emacs tries to protect the user from the consequences of crashes or of the user’s own errors. Auto-saving preserves the text from earlier in the current editing session; backup files preserve file contents prior to the current session.

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1.1 Backup Files

A backup file is a copy of the old contents of a file you are editing. Emacs makes a backup file the first time you save a buffer into its visited file. Thus, normally, the backup file contains the contents of the file as it was before the current editing session. The contents of the backup file normally remain unchanged once it exists.

Backups are usually made by renaming the visited file to a new name. Optionally, you can specify that backup files should be made by copying the visited file. This choice makes a difference for files with multiple names; it also can affect whether the edited file remains owned by the original owner or becomes owned by the user editing it.

By default, Emacs makes a single backup file for each file edited. You can alternatively request numbered backups; then each new backup file gets a new name. You can delete old numbered backups when you don’t want them any more, or Emacs can delete them automatically.

For performance, the operating system may not write the backup file’s contents to secondary storage immediately, or may alias the backup data with the original until one or the other is later modified. @xref{Files and Storage}.

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1.1.1 Making Backup Files

Function: backup-buffer

This function makes a backup of the file visited by the current buffer, if appropriate. It is called by save-buffer before saving the buffer the first time.

If a backup was made by renaming, the return value is a cons cell of the form (modes extra-alist backupname), where modes are the mode bits of the original file, as returned by file-modes (@pxref{Testing Accessibility}), extra-alist is an alist describing the original file’s extended attributes, as returned by file-extended-attributes (@pxref{Extended Attributes}), and backupname is the name of the backup.

In all other cases (i.e., if a backup was made by copying or if no backup was made), this function returns nil.

Variable: buffer-backed-up

This buffer-local variable says whether this buffer’s file has been backed up on account of this buffer. If it is non-nil, the backup file has been written. Otherwise, the file should be backed up when it is next saved (if backups are enabled). This is a permanent local; kill-all-local-variables does not alter it.

User Option: make-backup-files

This variable determines whether or not to make backup files. If it is non-nil, then Emacs creates a backup of each file when it is saved for the first time—provided that backup-inhibited is nil (see below).

The following example shows how to change the make-backup-files variable only in the Rmail buffers and not elsewhere. Setting it nil stops Emacs from making backups of these files, which may save disk space. (You would put this code in your init file.)

(add-hook 'rmail-mode-hook
          (lambda () (setq-local make-backup-files nil)))
Variable: backup-enable-predicate

This variable’s value is a function to be called on certain occasions to decide whether a file should have backup files. The function receives one argument, an absolute file name to consider. If the function returns nil, backups are disabled for that file. Otherwise, the other variables in this section say whether and how to make backups.

The default value is normal-backup-enable-predicate, which checks for files in temporary-file-directory and small-temporary-file-directory.

Variable: backup-inhibited

If this variable is non-nil, backups are inhibited. It records the result of testing backup-enable-predicate on the visited file name. It can also coherently be used by other mechanisms that inhibit backups based on which file is visited. For example, VC sets this variable non-nil to prevent making backups for files managed with a version control system.

This is a permanent local, so that changing the major mode does not lose its value. Major modes should not set this variable—they should set make-backup-files instead.

User Option: backup-directory-alist

This variable’s value is an alist of filename patterns and backup directories. Each element looks like

(regexp . directory)

Backups of files with names matching regexp will be made in directory. directory may be relative or absolute. If it is absolute, so that all matching files are backed up into the same directory, the file names in this directory will be the full name of the file backed up with all directory separators changed to ‘!’ to prevent clashes. This will not work correctly if your filesystem truncates the resulting name.

For the common case of all backups going into one directory, the alist should contain a single element pairing ‘"."’ with the appropriate directory.

If this variable is nil (the default), or it fails to match a filename, the backup is made in the original file’s directory.

On MS-DOS filesystems without long names this variable is always ignored.

User Option: make-backup-file-name-function

This variable’s value is a function to use for making backup file names. The function make-backup-file-name calls it. See section Naming Backup Files.

This could be buffer-local to do something special for specific files. If you change it, you may need to change backup-file-name-p and file-name-sans-versions too.

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1.1.2 Backup by Renaming or by Copying?

There are two ways that Emacs can make a backup file:

The first method, renaming, is the default.

The variable backup-by-copying, if non-nil, says to use the second method, which is to copy the original file and overwrite it with the new buffer contents. The variable file-precious-flag, if non-nil, also has this effect (as a sideline of its main significance). @xref{Saving Buffers}.

User Option: backup-by-copying

If this variable is non-nil, Emacs always makes backup files by copying. The default is nil.

The following three variables, when non-nil, cause the second method to be used in certain special cases. They have no effect on the treatment of files that don’t fall into the special cases.

User Option: backup-by-copying-when-linked

If this variable is non-nil, Emacs makes backups by copying for files with multiple names (hard links). The default is nil.

This variable is significant only if backup-by-copying is nil, since copying is always used when that variable is non-nil.

User Option: backup-by-copying-when-mismatch

If this variable is non-nil (the default), Emacs makes backups by copying in cases where renaming would change either the owner or the group of the file.

The value has no effect when renaming would not alter the owner or group of the file; that is, for files which are owned by the user and whose group matches the default for a new file created there by the user.

This variable is significant only if backup-by-copying is nil, since copying is always used when that variable is non-nil.

User Option: backup-by-copying-when-privileged-mismatch

This variable, if non-nil, specifies the same behavior as backup-by-copying-when-mismatch, but only for certain user-id values: namely, those less than or equal to a certain number. You set this variable to that number.

Thus, if you set backup-by-copying-when-privileged-mismatch to 0, backup by copying is done for the superuser only, when necessary to prevent a change in the owner of the file.

The default is 200.

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1.1.3 Making and Deleting Numbered Backup Files

If a file’s name is ‘foo’, the names of its numbered backup versions are ‘foo.~v~’, for various integers v, like this: ‘foo.~1~’, ‘foo.~2~’, ‘foo.~3~’, …, ‘foo.~259~’, and so on.

User Option: version-control

This variable controls whether to make a single non-numbered backup file or multiple numbered backups.


Make numbered backups if the visited file already has numbered backups; otherwise, do not. This is the default.


Do not make numbered backups.

anything else

Make numbered backups.

The use of numbered backups ultimately leads to a large number of backup versions, which must then be deleted. Emacs can do this automatically or it can ask the user whether to delete them.

User Option: kept-new-versions

The value of this variable is the number of newest versions to keep when a new numbered backup is made. The newly made backup is included in the count. The default value is 2.

User Option: kept-old-versions

The value of this variable is the number of oldest versions to keep when a new numbered backup is made. The default value is 2.

If there are backups numbered 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7, and both of these variables have the value 2, then the backups numbered 1 and 2 are kept as old versions and those numbered 5 and 7 are kept as new versions; backup version 3 is excess. The function find-backup-file-name (see section Naming Backup Files) is responsible for determining which backup versions to delete, but does not delete them itself.

User Option: delete-old-versions

If this variable is t, then saving a file deletes excess backup versions silently. If it is nil, that means to ask for confirmation before deleting excess backups. Otherwise, they are not deleted at all.

User Option: dired-kept-versions

This variable specifies how many of the newest backup versions to keep in the Dired command . (dired-clean-directory). That’s the same thing kept-new-versions specifies when you make a new backup file. The default is 2.

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1.1.4 Naming Backup Files

The functions in this section are documented mainly because you can customize the naming conventions for backup files by redefining them. If you change one, you probably need to change the rest.

Function: backup-file-name-p filename

This function returns a non-nil value if filename is a possible name for a backup file. It just checks the name, not whether a file with the name filename exists.

(backup-file-name-p "foo")
     ⇒ nil
(backup-file-name-p "foo~")
     ⇒ 3

The standard definition of this function is as follows:

(defun backup-file-name-p (file)
  "Return non-nil if FILE is a backup file \
name (numeric or not)..."
  (string-match "~\\'" file))

Thus, the function returns a non-nil value if the file name ends with a ‘~’. (We use a backslash to split the documentation string’s first line into two lines in the text, but produce just one line in the string itself.)

This simple expression is placed in a separate function to make it easy to redefine for customization.

Function: make-backup-file-name filename

This function returns a string that is the name to use for a non-numbered backup file for file filename. On Unix, this is just filename with a tilde appended.

The standard definition of this function, on most operating systems, is as follows:

(defun make-backup-file-name (file)
  "Create the non-numeric backup file name for FILE..."
  (concat file "~"))

You can change the backup-file naming convention by redefining this function. The following example redefines make-backup-file-name to prepend a ‘.’ in addition to appending a tilde:

(defun make-backup-file-name (filename)
    (concat "." (file-name-nondirectory filename) "~")
    (file-name-directory filename)))
(make-backup-file-name "backups.texi")
     ⇒ ".backups.texi~"

Some parts of Emacs, including some Dired commands, assume that backup file names end with ‘~’. If you do not follow that convention, it will not cause serious problems, but these commands may give less-than-desirable results.

Function: find-backup-file-name filename

This function computes the file name for a new backup file for filename. It may also propose certain existing backup files for deletion. find-backup-file-name returns a list whose CAR is the name for the new backup file and whose CDR is a list of backup files whose deletion is proposed. The value can also be nil, which means not to make a backup.

Two variables, kept-old-versions and kept-new-versions, determine which backup versions should be kept. This function keeps those versions by excluding them from the CDR of the value. See section Making and Deleting Numbered Backup Files.

In this example, the value says that ‘~rms/foo.~5~’ is the name to use for the new backup file, and ‘~rms/foo.~3~’ is an excess version that the caller should consider deleting now.

(find-backup-file-name "~rms/foo")
     ⇒ ("~rms/foo.~5~" "~rms/foo.~3~")
Function: file-newest-backup filename

This function returns the name of the most recent backup file for filename, or nil if that file has no backup files.

Some file comparison commands use this function so that they can automatically compare a file with its most recent backup.

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1.2 Auto-Saving

Emacs periodically saves all files that you are visiting; this is called auto-saving. Auto-saving prevents you from losing more than a limited amount of work if the system crashes. By default, auto-saves happen every 300 keystrokes, or after around 30 seconds of idle time. See Auto-Saving: Protection Against Disasters in The GNU Emacs Manual, for information on auto-save for users. Here we describe the functions used to implement auto-saving and the variables that control them.

Variable: buffer-auto-save-file-name

This buffer-local variable is the name of the file used for auto-saving the current buffer. It is nil if the buffer should not be auto-saved.

     ⇒ "/xcssun/users/rms/lewis/#backups.texi#"
Command: auto-save-mode arg

This is the mode command for Auto Save mode, a buffer-local minor mode. When Auto Save mode is enabled, auto-saving is enabled in the buffer. The calling convention is the same as for other minor mode commands (@pxref{Minor Mode Conventions}).

Unlike most minor modes, there is no auto-save-mode variable. Auto Save mode is enabled if buffer-auto-save-file-name is non-nil and buffer-saved-size (see below) is non-zero.

Function: auto-save-file-name-p filename

This function returns a non-nil value if filename is a string that could be the name of an auto-save file. It assumes the usual naming convention for auto-save files: a name that begins and ends with hash marks (‘#’) is a possible auto-save file name. The argument filename should not contain a directory part.

     ⇒ "/xcssun/users/rms/lewis/#backups.texi#"
(auto-save-file-name-p "#backups.texi#")
     ⇒ 0
(auto-save-file-name-p "backups.texi")
     ⇒ nil

The standard definition of this function is as follows:

(defun auto-save-file-name-p (filename)
  "Return non-nil if FILENAME can be yielded by..."
  (string-match "^#.*#$" filename))

This function exists so that you can customize it if you wish to change the naming convention for auto-save files. If you redefine it, be sure to redefine the function make-auto-save-file-name correspondingly.

Function: make-auto-save-file-name

This function returns the file name to use for auto-saving the current buffer. This is just the file name with hash marks (‘#’) prepended and appended to it. This function does not look at the variable auto-save-visited-file-name (described below); callers of this function should check that variable first.

     ⇒ "/xcssun/users/rms/lewis/#backups.texi#"

Here is a simplified version of the standard definition of this function:

(defun make-auto-save-file-name ()
  "Return file name to use for auto-saves \
of current buffer.."
  (if buffer-file-name
       (file-name-directory buffer-file-name)
       (file-name-nondirectory buffer-file-name)
     (concat "#%" (buffer-name) "#"))))

This exists as a separate function so that you can redefine it to customize the naming convention for auto-save files. Be sure to change auto-save-file-name-p in a corresponding way.

User Option: auto-save-visited-file-name

If this variable is non-nil, Emacs auto-saves buffers in the files they are visiting. That is, the auto-save is done in the same file that you are editing. Normally, this variable is nil, so auto-save files have distinct names that are created by make-auto-save-file-name.

When you change the value of this variable, the new value does not take effect in an existing buffer until the next time auto-save mode is reenabled in it. If auto-save mode is already enabled, auto-saves continue to go in the same file name until auto-save-mode is called again.

Note that setting this variable to a non-nil value does not change the fact that auto-saving is different from saving the buffer; e.g., the hooks described in @ref{Saving Buffers} are not run when a buffer is auto-saved.

Function: recent-auto-save-p

This function returns t if the current buffer has been auto-saved since the last time it was read in or saved.

Function: set-buffer-auto-saved

This function marks the current buffer as auto-saved. The buffer will not be auto-saved again until the buffer text is changed again. The function returns nil.

User Option: auto-save-interval

The value of this variable specifies how often to do auto-saving, in terms of number of input events. Each time this many additional input events are read, Emacs does auto-saving for all buffers in which that is enabled. Setting this to zero disables autosaving based on the number of characters typed.

User Option: auto-save-timeout

The value of this variable is the number of seconds of idle time that should cause auto-saving. Each time the user pauses for this long, Emacs does auto-saving for all buffers in which that is enabled. (If the current buffer is large, the specified timeout is multiplied by a factor that increases as the size increases; for a million-byte buffer, the factor is almost 4.)

If the value is zero or nil, then auto-saving is not done as a result of idleness, only after a certain number of input events as specified by auto-save-interval.

Variable: auto-save-hook

This normal hook is run whenever an auto-save is about to happen.

User Option: auto-save-default

If this variable is non-nil, buffers that are visiting files have auto-saving enabled by default. Otherwise, they do not.

Command: do-auto-save &optional no-message current-only

This function auto-saves all buffers that need to be auto-saved. It saves all buffers for which auto-saving is enabled and that have been changed since the previous auto-save.

If any buffers are auto-saved, do-auto-save normally displays a message saying ‘Auto-saving...’ in the echo area while auto-saving is going on. However, if no-message is non-nil, the message is inhibited.

If current-only is non-nil, only the current buffer is auto-saved.

Function: delete-auto-save-file-if-necessary &optional force

This function deletes the current buffer’s auto-save file if delete-auto-save-files is non-nil. It is called every time a buffer is saved.

Unless force is non-nil, this function only deletes the file if it was written by the current Emacs session since the last true save.

User Option: delete-auto-save-files

This variable is used by the function delete-auto-save-file-if-necessary. If it is non-nil, Emacs deletes auto-save files when a true save is done (in the visited file). This saves disk space and unclutters your directory.

Function: rename-auto-save-file

This function adjusts the current buffer’s auto-save file name if the visited file name has changed. It also renames an existing auto-save file, if it was made in the current Emacs session. If the visited file name has not changed, this function does nothing.

Variable: buffer-saved-size

The value of this buffer-local variable is the length of the current buffer, when it was last read in, saved, or auto-saved. This is used to detect a substantial decrease in size, and turn off auto-saving in response.

If it is -1, that means auto-saving is temporarily shut off in this buffer due to a substantial decrease in size. Explicitly saving the buffer stores a positive value in this variable, thus reenabling auto-saving. Turning auto-save mode off or on also updates this variable, so that the substantial decrease in size is forgotten.

If it is -2, that means this buffer should disregard changes in buffer size; in particular, it should not shut off auto-saving temporarily due to changes in buffer size.

Variable: auto-save-list-file-name

This variable (if non-nil) specifies a file for recording the names of all the auto-save files. Each time Emacs does auto-saving, it writes two lines into this file for each buffer that has auto-saving enabled. The first line gives the name of the visited file (it’s empty if the buffer has none), and the second gives the name of the auto-save file.

When Emacs exits normally, it deletes this file; if Emacs crashes, you can look in the file to find all the auto-save files that might contain work that was otherwise lost. The recover-session command uses this file to find them.

The default name for this file specifies your home directory and starts with ‘.saves-’. It also contains the Emacs process ID and the host name.

User Option: auto-save-list-file-prefix

After Emacs reads your init file, it initializes auto-save-list-file-name (if you have not already set it non-nil) based on this prefix, adding the host name and process ID. If you set this to nil in your init file, then Emacs does not initialize auto-save-list-file-name.

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1.3 Reverting

If you have made extensive changes to a file and then change your mind about them, you can get rid of them by reading in the previous version of the file with the revert-buffer command. See Reverting a Buffer in The GNU Emacs Manual.

Command: revert-buffer &optional ignore-auto noconfirm preserve-modes

This command replaces the buffer text with the text of the visited file on disk. This action undoes all changes since the file was visited or saved.

By default, if the latest auto-save file is more recent than the visited file, and the argument ignore-auto is nil, revert-buffer asks the user whether to use that auto-save instead. When you invoke this command interactively, ignore-auto is t if there is no numeric prefix argument; thus, the interactive default is not to check the auto-save file.

Normally, revert-buffer asks for confirmation before it changes the buffer; but if the argument noconfirm is non-nil, revert-buffer does not ask for confirmation.

Normally, this command reinitializes the buffer’s major and minor modes using normal-mode. But if preserve-modes is non-nil, the modes remain unchanged.

Reverting tries to preserve marker positions in the buffer by using the replacement feature of insert-file-contents. If the buffer contents and the file contents are identical before the revert operation, reverting preserves all the markers. If they are not identical, reverting does change the buffer; in that case, it preserves the markers in the unchanged text (if any) at the beginning and end of the buffer. Preserving any additional markers would be problematical.

Variable: revert-buffer-in-progress-p

revert-buffer binds this variable to a non-nil value while it is working.

You can customize how revert-buffer does its work by setting the variables described in the rest of this section.

User Option: revert-without-query

This variable holds a list of files that should be reverted without query. The value is a list of regular expressions. If the visited file name matches one of these regular expressions, and the file has changed on disk but the buffer is not modified, then revert-buffer reverts the file without asking the user for confirmation.

Some major modes customize revert-buffer by making buffer-local bindings for these variables:

Variable: revert-buffer-function

The value of this variable is the function to use to revert this buffer. It should be a function with two optional arguments to do the work of reverting. The two optional arguments, ignore-auto and noconfirm, are the arguments that revert-buffer received.

Modes such as Dired mode, in which the text being edited does not consist of a file’s contents but can be regenerated in some other fashion, can give this variable a buffer-local value that is a special function to regenerate the contents.

Variable: revert-buffer-insert-file-contents-function

The value of this variable specifies the function to use to insert the updated contents when reverting this buffer. The function receives two arguments: first the file name to use; second, t if the user has asked to read the auto-save file.

The reason for a mode to change this variable instead of revert-buffer-function is to avoid duplicating or replacing the rest of what revert-buffer does: asking for confirmation, clearing the undo list, deciding the proper major mode, and running the hooks listed below.

Variable: before-revert-hook

This normal hook is run by the default revert-buffer-function before inserting the modified contents. A custom revert-buffer-function may or may not run this hook.

Variable: after-revert-hook

This normal hook is run by the default revert-buffer-function after inserting the modified contents. A custom revert-buffer-function may or may not run this hook.

Emacs can revert buffers automatically. It does that by default for buffers visiting files. The following describes how to add support for auto-reverting new types of buffers.

First, such buffers must have a suitable revert-buffer-function and buffer-stale-function defined.

Variable: buffer-stale-function

The value of this variable specifies a function to call to check whether a buffer needs reverting. The default value only handles buffers that are visiting files, by checking their modification time. Buffers that are not visiting files require a custom function of one optional argument noconfirm. The function should return non-nil if the buffer should be reverted. The buffer is current when this function is called.

While this function is mainly intended for use in auto-reverting, it could be used for other purposes as well. For instance, if auto-reverting is not enabled, it could be used to warn the user that the buffer needs reverting. The idea behind the noconfirm argument is that it should be t if the buffer is going to be reverted without asking the user and nil if the function is just going to be used to warn the user that the buffer is out of date. In particular, for use in auto-reverting, noconfirm is t. If the function is only going to be used for auto-reverting, you can ignore the noconfirm argument.

If you just want to automatically auto-revert every auto-revert-interval seconds (like the Buffer Menu), use:

(setq-local buffer-stale-function
     #'(lambda (&optional noconfirm) 'fast))

in the buffer’s mode function.

The special return value ‘fast’ tells the caller that the need for reverting was not checked, but that reverting the buffer is fast. It also tells Auto Revert not to print any revert messages, even if auto-revert-verbose is non-nil. This is important, as getting revert messages every auto-revert-interval seconds can be very annoying. The information provided by this return value could also be useful if the function is consulted for purposes other than auto-reverting.

Once the buffer has a suitable revert-buffer-function and buffer-stale-function, several problems usually remain.

The buffer will only auto-revert if it is marked unmodified. Hence, you will have to make sure that various functions mark the buffer modified if and only if either the buffer contains information that might be lost by reverting, or there is reason to believe that the user might be inconvenienced by auto-reverting, because he is actively working on the buffer. The user can always override this by manually adjusting the modified status of the buffer. To support this, calling the revert-buffer-function on a buffer that is marked unmodified should always keep the buffer marked unmodified.

It is important to assure that point does not continuously jump around as a consequence of auto-reverting. Of course, moving point might be inevitable if the buffer radically changes.

You should make sure that the revert-buffer-function does not print messages that unnecessarily duplicate Auto Revert’s own messages, displayed if auto-revert-verbose is t, and effectively override a nil value for auto-revert-verbose. Hence, adapting a mode for auto-reverting often involves getting rid of such messages. This is especially important for buffers that automatically revert every auto-revert-interval seconds.

If the new auto-reverting is part of Emacs, you should mention it in the documentation string of global-auto-revert-non-file-buffers.

Similarly, you should document the additions in the Emacs manual.

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