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1 Control Structures

A Lisp program consists of a set of expressions, or forms (@pxref{Forms}). We control the order of execution of these forms by enclosing them in control structures. Control structures are special forms which control when, whether, or how many times to execute the forms they contain.

The simplest order of execution is sequential execution: first form a, then form b, and so on. This is what happens when you write several forms in succession in the body of a function, or at top level in a file of Lisp code—the forms are executed in the order written. We call this textual order. For example, if a function body consists of two forms a and b, evaluation of the function evaluates first a and then b. The result of evaluating b becomes the value of the function.

Explicit control structures make possible an order of execution other than sequential.

Emacs Lisp provides several kinds of control structure, including other varieties of sequencing, conditionals, iteration, and (controlled) jumps—all discussed below. The built-in control structures are special forms since their subforms are not necessarily evaluated or not evaluated sequentially. You can use macros to define your own control structure constructs (@pxref{Macros}).


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1.1 Sequencing

Evaluating forms in the order they appear is the most common way control passes from one form to another. In some contexts, such as in a function body, this happens automatically. Elsewhere you must use a control structure construct to do this: progn, the simplest control construct of Lisp.

A progn special form looks like this:

(progn a b c …)

and it says to execute the forms a, b, c, and so on, in that order. These forms are called the body of the progn form. The value of the last form in the body becomes the value of the entire progn. (progn) returns nil.

In the early days of Lisp, progn was the only way to execute two or more forms in succession and use the value of the last of them. But programmers found they often needed to use a progn in the body of a function, where (at that time) only one form was allowed. So the body of a function was made into an implicit progn: several forms are allowed just as in the body of an actual progn. Many other control structures likewise contain an implicit progn. As a result, progn is not used as much as it was many years ago. It is needed now most often inside an unwind-protect, and, or, or in the then-part of an if.

Special Form: progn forms…

This special form evaluates all of the forms, in textual order, returning the result of the final form.

(progn (print "The first form")
       (print "The second form")
       (print "The third form"))
     -| "The first form"
     -| "The second form"
     -| "The third form"
⇒ "The third form"

Two other constructs likewise evaluate a series of forms but return different values:

Special Form: prog1 form1 forms…

This special form evaluates form1 and all of the forms, in textual order, returning the result of form1.

(prog1 (print "The first form")
       (print "The second form")
       (print "The third form"))
     -| "The first form"
     -| "The second form"
     -| "The third form"
⇒ "The first form"

Here is a way to remove the first element from a list in the variable x, then return the value of that former element:

(prog1 (car x) (setq x (cdr x)))
Special Form: prog2 form1 form2 forms…

This special form evaluates form1, form2, and all of the following forms, in textual order, returning the result of form2.

(prog2 (print "The first form")
       (print "The second form")
       (print "The third form"))
     -| "The first form"
     -| "The second form"
     -| "The third form"
⇒ "The second form"

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1.2 Conditionals

Conditional control structures choose among alternatives. Emacs Lisp has four conditional forms: if, which is much the same as in other languages; when and unless, which are variants of if; and cond, which is a generalized case statement.

Special Form: if condition then-form else-forms…

if chooses between the then-form and the else-forms based on the value of condition. If the evaluated condition is non-nil, then-form is evaluated and the result returned. Otherwise, the else-forms are evaluated in textual order, and the value of the last one is returned. (The else part of if is an example of an implicit progn. See section Sequencing.)

If condition has the value nil, and no else-forms are given, if returns nil.

if is a special form because the branch that is not selected is never evaluated—it is ignored. Thus, in this example, true is not printed because print is never called:

(if nil
    (print 'true)
  'very-false)
⇒ very-false
Macro: when condition then-forms…

This is a variant of if where there are no else-forms, and possibly several then-forms. In particular,

(when condition a b c)

is entirely equivalent to

(if condition (progn a b c) nil)
Macro: unless condition forms…

This is a variant of if where there is no then-form:

(unless condition a b c)

is entirely equivalent to

(if condition nil
   a b c)
Special Form: cond clause…

cond chooses among an arbitrary number of alternatives. Each clause in the cond must be a list. The CAR of this list is the condition; the remaining elements, if any, the body-forms. Thus, a clause looks like this:

(condition body-forms…)

cond tries the clauses in textual order, by evaluating the condition of each clause. If the value of condition is non-nil, the clause succeeds; then cond evaluates its body-forms, and returns the value of the last of body-forms. Any remaining clauses are ignored.

If the value of condition is nil, the clause fails, so the cond moves on to the following clause, trying its condition.

A clause may also look like this:

(condition)

Then, if condition is non-nil when tested, the cond form returns the value of condition.

If every condition evaluates to nil, so that every clause fails, cond returns nil.

The following example has four clauses, which test for the cases where the value of x is a number, string, buffer and symbol, respectively:

(cond ((numberp x) x)
      ((stringp x) x)
      ((bufferp x)
       (setq temporary-hack x) ; multiple body-forms
       (buffer-name x))        ; in one clause
      ((symbolp x) (symbol-value x)))

Often we want to execute the last clause whenever none of the previous clauses was successful. To do this, we use t as the condition of the last clause, like this: (t body-forms). The form t evaluates to t, which is never nil, so this clause never fails, provided the cond gets to it at all. For example:

(setq a 5)
(cond ((eq a 'hack) 'foo)
      (t "default"))
⇒ "default"

This cond expression returns foo if the value of a is hack, and returns the string "default" otherwise.

Any conditional construct can be expressed with cond or with if. Therefore, the choice between them is a matter of style. For example:

(if a b c)
≡
(cond (a b) (t c))

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1.2.1 Pattern matching case statement

The cond form lets you choose between alternatives using predicate conditions that compare values of expressions against specific values known and written in advance. However, sometimes it is useful to select alternatives based on more general conditions that distinguish between broad classes of values. The pcase macro allows you to choose between alternatives based on matching the value of an expression against a series of patterns. A pattern can be a literal value (for comparisons to literal values you’d use cond), or it can be a more general description of the expected structure of the expression’s value.

Macro: pcase expression &rest clauses

Evaluate expression and choose among an arbitrary number of alternatives based on the value of expression. The possible alternatives are specified by clauses, each of which must be a list of the form (pattern body-forms…). pcase tries to match the value of expression to the pattern of each clause, in textual order. If the value matches, the clause succeeds; pcase then evaluates its body-forms, and returns the value of the last of body-forms. Any remaining clauses are ignored. If no clauses match, then the pcase form evaluates to nil.

The pattern part of a clause can be of one of two types: QPattern, a pattern quoted with a backquote; or a UPattern, which is not quoted. UPatterns are simpler, so we describe them first.

Note: In the description of the patterns below, we use “the value being matched” to refer to the value of the expression that is the first argument of pcase.

A UPattern can have the following forms:

'val

Matches if the value being matched is equal to val.

atom

Matches any atom, which can be a keyword, a number, or a string. (These are self-quoting, so this kind of UPattern is actually a shorthand for 'atom.) Note that a string or a float matches any string or float with the same contents/value.

_

Matches any value. This is known as don’t care or wildcard.

symbol

Matches any value, and additionally let-binds symbol to the value it matched, so that you can later refer to it, either in the body-forms or also later in the pattern.

(pred predfun)

Matches if the predicate function predfun returns non-nil when called with the value being matched as its argument. predfun can be one of the possible forms described below.

(guard boolean-expression)

Matches if boolean-expression evaluates to non-nil. This allows you to include in a UPattern boolean conditions that refer to symbols bound to values (including the value being matched) by previous UPatterns. Typically used inside an and UPattern, see below. For example, (and x (guard (< x 10))) is a pattern which matches any number smaller than 10 and let-binds the variable x to that number.

(let upattern expression)

Matches if the specified expression matches the specified upattern. This allows matching a pattern against the value of an arbitrary expression, not just the expression that is the first argument to pcase. (It is called let because upattern can bind symbols to values using the symbol UPattern. For example: ((or `(key . ,val) (let val 5)) val).)

(app function upattern)

Matches if function applied to the value being matched returns a value that matches upattern. This is like the pred UPattern, except that it tests the result against upattern, rather than against a boolean truth value. The function call can use one of the forms described below.

(or upattern1 upattern2…)

Matches if one the argument UPatterns matches. As soon as the first matching UPattern is found, the rest are not tested. For this reason, if any of the UPatterns let-bind symbols to the matched value, they should all bind the same symbols.

(and upattern1 upattern2…)

Matches if all the argument UPatterns match.

The function calls used in the pred and app UPatterns can have one of the following forms:

function symbol, like integerp

In this case, the named function is applied to the value being matched.

lambda-function (lambda (arg) body)

In this case, the lambda-function is called with one argument, the value being matched.

(func args…)

This is a function call with n specified arguments; the function is called with these n arguments and an additional n+1-th argument that is the value being matched.

Here’s an illustrative example of using UPatterns:

(pcase (get-return-code x)
  ('success       (message "Done!"))
  ('would-block   (message "Sorry, can't do it now"))
  ('read-only     (message "The shmliblick is read-only"))
  ('access-denied (message "You do not have the needed rights"))
  (code           (message "Unknown return code %S" code)))

In addition, you can use backquoted patterns that are more powerful. They allow matching the value of the expression that is the first argument of pcase against specifications of its structure. For example, you can specify that the value must be a list of 2 elements whose first element is a specific string and the second element is any value with a backquoted pattern like `("first" ,second-elem).

Backquoted patterns have the form `qpattern where qpattern can have the following forms:

(qpattern1 . qpattern2)

Matches if the value being matched is a cons cell whose car matches qpattern1 and whose cdr matches qpattern2. This readily generalizes to backquoted lists as in (qpattern1 qpattern2 …).

[qpattern1 qpattern2qpatternm]

Matches if the value being matched is a vector of length m whose 0..(m-1)th elements match qpattern1, qpattern2qpatternm, respectively.

atom

Matches if corresponding element of the value being matched is equal to the specified atom.

,upattern

Matches if the corresponding element of the value being matched matches the specified upattern.

Note that uses of QPatterns can be expressed using only UPatterns, as QPatterns are implemented on top of UPatterns using pcase-defmacro, described below. However, using QPatterns will in many cases lead to a more readable code.

Here is an example of using pcase to implement a simple interpreter for a little expression language (note that this example requires lexical binding, @pxref{Lexical Binding}):

(defun evaluate (exp env)
  (pcase exp
    (`(add ,x ,y)       (+ (evaluate x env) (evaluate y env)))
    (`(call ,fun ,arg)  (funcall (evaluate fun env) (evaluate arg env)))
    (`(fn ,arg ,body)   (lambda (val)
                          (evaluate body (cons (cons arg val) env))))
    ((pred numberp)     exp)
    ((pred symbolp)     (cdr (assq exp env)))
    (_                  (error "Unknown expression %S" exp))))

Here `(add ,x ,y) is a pattern that checks that exp is a three-element list starting with the literal symbol add, then extracts the second and third elements and binds them to the variables x and y. Then it evaluates x and y and adds the results. The call and fn patterns similarly implement two flavors of function calls. (pred numberp) is a pattern that simply checks that exp is a number and if so, evaluates it. (pred symbolp) matches symbols, and returns their association. Finally, _ is the catch-all pattern that matches anything, so it’s suitable for reporting syntax errors.

Here are some sample programs in this small language, including their evaluation results:

(evaluate '(add 1 2) nil)                 ;=> 3
(evaluate '(add x y) '((x . 1) (y . 2)))  ;=> 3
(evaluate '(call (fn x (add 1 x)) 2) nil) ;=> 3
(evaluate '(sub 1 2) nil)                 ;=> error

Additional UPatterns can be defined using the pcase-defmacro macro.

Macro: pcase-defmacro name args &rest body

Define a new kind of UPattern for pcase. The new UPattern will be invoked as (name actual-args). The body should describe how to rewrite the UPattern name into some other UPattern. The rewriting will be the result of evaluating body in an environment where args are bound to actual-args.


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1.3 Constructs for Combining Conditions

This section describes three constructs that are often used together with if and cond to express complicated conditions. The constructs and and or can also be used individually as kinds of multiple conditional constructs.

Function: not condition

This function tests for the falsehood of condition. It returns t if condition is nil, and nil otherwise. The function not is identical to null, and we recommend using the name null if you are testing for an empty list.

Special Form: and conditions…

The and special form tests whether all the conditions are true. It works by evaluating the conditions one by one in the order written.

If any of the conditions evaluates to nil, then the result of the and must be nil regardless of the remaining conditions; so and returns nil right away, ignoring the remaining conditions.

If all the conditions turn out non-nil, then the value of the last of them becomes the value of the and form. Just (and), with no conditions, returns t, appropriate because all the conditions turned out non-nil. (Think about it; which one did not?)

Here is an example. The first condition returns the integer 1, which is not nil. Similarly, the second condition returns the integer 2, which is not nil. The third condition is nil, so the remaining condition is never evaluated.

(and (print 1) (print 2) nil (print 3))
     -| 1
     -| 2
⇒ nil

Here is a more realistic example of using and:

(if (and (consp foo) (eq (car foo) 'x))
    (message "foo is a list starting with x"))

Note that (car foo) is not executed if (consp foo) returns nil, thus avoiding an error.

and expressions can also be written using either if or cond. Here’s how:

(and arg1 arg2 arg3)
≡
(if arg1 (if arg2 arg3))
≡
(cond (arg1 (cond (arg2 arg3))))
Special Form: or conditions…

The or special form tests whether at least one of the conditions is true. It works by evaluating all the conditions one by one in the order written.

If any of the conditions evaluates to a non-nil value, then the result of the or must be non-nil; so or returns right away, ignoring the remaining conditions. The value it returns is the non-nil value of the condition just evaluated.

If all the conditions turn out nil, then the or expression returns nil. Just (or), with no conditions, returns nil, appropriate because all the conditions turned out nil. (Think about it; which one did not?)

For example, this expression tests whether x is either nil or the integer zero:

(or (eq x nil) (eq x 0))

Like the and construct, or can be written in terms of cond. For example:

(or arg1 arg2 arg3)
≡
(cond (arg1)
      (arg2)
      (arg3))

You could almost write or in terms of if, but not quite:

(if arg1 arg1
  (if arg2 arg2
    arg3))

This is not completely equivalent because it can evaluate arg1 or arg2 twice. By contrast, (or arg1 arg2 arg3) never evaluates any argument more than once.


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1.4 Iteration

Iteration means executing part of a program repetitively. For example, you might want to repeat some computation once for each element of a list, or once for each integer from 0 to n. You can do this in Emacs Lisp with the special form while:

Special Form: while condition forms…

while first evaluates condition. If the result is non-nil, it evaluates forms in textual order. Then it reevaluates condition, and if the result is non-nil, it evaluates forms again. This process repeats until condition evaluates to nil.

There is no limit on the number of iterations that may occur. The loop will continue until either condition evaluates to nil or until an error or throw jumps out of it (see section Nonlocal Exits).

The value of a while form is always nil.

(setq num 0)
     ⇒ 0
(while (< num 4)
  (princ (format "Iteration %d." num))
  (setq num (1+ num)))
     -| Iteration 0.
     -| Iteration 1.
     -| Iteration 2.
     -| Iteration 3.
     ⇒ nil

To write a repeat-until loop, which will execute something on each iteration and then do the end-test, put the body followed by the end-test in a progn as the first argument of while, as shown here:

(while (progn
         (forward-line 1)
         (not (looking-at "^$"))))

This moves forward one line and continues moving by lines until it reaches an empty line. It is peculiar in that the while has no body, just the end test (which also does the real work of moving point).

The dolist and dotimes macros provide convenient ways to write two common kinds of loops.

Macro: dolist (var list [result]) body…

This construct executes body once for each element of list, binding the variable var locally to hold the current element. Then it returns the value of evaluating result, or nil if result is omitted. For example, here is how you could use dolist to define the reverse function:

(defun reverse (list)
  (let (value)
    (dolist (elt list value)
      (setq value (cons elt value)))))
Macro: dotimes (var count [result]) body…

This construct executes body once for each integer from 0 (inclusive) to count (exclusive), binding the variable var to the integer for the current iteration. Then it returns the value of evaluating result, or nil if result is omitted. Here is an example of using dotimes to do something 100 times:

(dotimes (i 100)
  (insert "I will not obey absurd orders\n"))

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1.5 Generators

A generator is a function that produces a potentially-infinite stream of values. Each time the function produces a value, it suspends itself and waits for a caller to request the next value.

Macro: iter-defun name args [doc] [declare] [interactive] body…

iter-defun defines a generator function. A generator function has the same signature as a normal function, but works differently. Instead of executing body when called, a generator function returns an iterator object. That iterator runs body to generate values, emitting a value and pausing where iter-yield or iter-yield-from appears. When body returns normally, iter-next signals iter-end-of-sequence with body’s result as its condition data.

Any kind of Lisp code is valid inside body, but iter-yield and iter-yield-from cannot appear inside unwind-protect forms.

Macro: iter-lambda args [doc] [interactive] body…

iter-lambda produces an unnamed generator function that works just like a generator function produced with iter-defun.

Macro: iter-yield value

When it appears inside a generator function, iter-yield indicates that the current iterator should pause and return value from iter-next. iter-yield evaluates to the value parameter of next call to iter-next.

Macro: iter-yield-from iterator

iter-yield-from yields all the values that iterator produces and evaluates to the value that iterator’s generator function returns normally. While it has control, iterator receives values sent to the iterator using iter-next.

To use a generator function, first call it normally, producing a iterator object. An iterator is a specific instance of a generator. Then use iter-next to retrieve values from this iterator. When there are no more values to pull from an iterator, iter-next raises an iter-end-of-sequence condition with the iterator’s final value.

It’s important to note that generator function bodies only execute inside calls to iter-next. A call to a function defined with iter-defun produces an iterator; you must drive this iterator with iter-next for anything interesting to happen. Each call to a generator function produces a different iterator, each with its own state.

Function: iter-next iterator value

Retrieve the next value from iterator. If there are no more values to be generated (because iterator’s generator function returned), iter-next signals the iter-end-of-sequence condition; the data value associated with this condition is the value with which iterator’s generator function returned.

value is sent into the iterator and becomes the value to which iter-yield evaluates. value is ignored for the first iter-next call to a given iterator, since at the start of iterator’s generator function, the generator function is not evaluating any iter-yield form.

Function: iter-close iterator

If iterator is suspended inside an unwind-protect’s bodyform and becomes unreachable, Emacs will eventually run unwind handlers after a garbage collection pass. (Note that iter-yield is illegal inside an unwind-protect’s unwindforms.) To ensure that these handlers are run before then, use iter-close.

Some convenience functions are provided to make working with iterators easier:

Macro: iter-do (var iterator) body …

Run body with var bound to each value that iterator produces.

The Common Lisp loop facility also contains features for working with iterators. See See Loop Facility in Common Lisp Extensions.

The following piece of code demonstrates some important principles of working with iterators.

(require 'generator)
(iter-defun my-iter (x)
  (iter-yield (1+ (iter-yield (1+ x))))
   ;; Return normally
  -1)

(let* ((iter (my-iter 5))
       (iter2 (my-iter 0)))
  ;; Prints 6
  (print (iter-next iter))
  ;; Prints 9
  (print (iter-next iter 8))
  ;; Prints 1; iter and iter2 have distinct states
  (print (iter-next iter2 nil))

  ;; We expect the iter sequence to end now
  (condition-case x
      (iter-next iter)
    (iter-end-of-sequence
      ;; Prints -1, which my-iter returned normally
      (print (cdr x)))))

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1.6 Nonlocal Exits

A nonlocal exit is a transfer of control from one point in a program to another remote point. Nonlocal exits can occur in Emacs Lisp as a result of errors; you can also use them under explicit control. Nonlocal exits unbind all variable bindings made by the constructs being exited.


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1.6.1 Explicit Nonlocal Exits: catch and throw

Most control constructs affect only the flow of control within the construct itself. The function throw is the exception to this rule of normal program execution: it performs a nonlocal exit on request. (There are other exceptions, but they are for error handling only.) throw is used inside a catch, and jumps back to that catch. For example:

(defun foo-outer ()
  (catch 'foo
    (foo-inner)))

(defun foo-inner ()
  …
  (if x
      (throw 'foo t))
  …)

The throw form, if executed, transfers control straight back to the corresponding catch, which returns immediately. The code following the throw is not executed. The second argument of throw is used as the return value of the catch.

The function throw finds the matching catch based on the first argument: it searches for a catch whose first argument is eq to the one specified in the throw. If there is more than one applicable catch, the innermost one takes precedence. Thus, in the above example, the throw specifies foo, and the catch in foo-outer specifies the same symbol, so that catch is the applicable one (assuming there is no other matching catch in between).

Executing throw exits all Lisp constructs up to the matching catch, including function calls. When binding constructs such as let or function calls are exited in this way, the bindings are unbound, just as they are when these constructs exit normally (@pxref{Local Variables}). Likewise, throw restores the buffer and position saved by save-excursion (@pxref{Excursions}), and the narrowing status saved by save-restriction. It also runs any cleanups established with the unwind-protect special form when it exits that form (see section Cleaning Up from Nonlocal Exits).

The throw need not appear lexically within the catch that it jumps to. It can equally well be called from another function called within the catch. As long as the throw takes place chronologically after entry to the catch, and chronologically before exit from it, it has access to that catch. This is why throw can be used in commands such as exit-recursive-edit that throw back to the editor command loop (@pxref{Recursive Editing}).

Common Lisp note: Most other versions of Lisp, including Common Lisp, have several ways of transferring control nonsequentially: return, return-from, and go, for example. Emacs Lisp has only throw. The ‘cl-lib’ library provides versions of some of these. See Blocks and Exits in Common Lisp Extensions.

Special Form: catch tag body…

catch establishes a return point for the throw function. The return point is distinguished from other such return points by tag, which may be any Lisp object except nil. The argument tag is evaluated normally before the return point is established.

With the return point in effect, catch evaluates the forms of the body in textual order. If the forms execute normally (without error or nonlocal exit) the value of the last body form is returned from the catch.

If a throw is executed during the execution of body, specifying the same value tag, the catch form exits immediately; the value it returns is whatever was specified as the second argument of throw.

Function: throw tag value

The purpose of throw is to return from a return point previously established with catch. The argument tag is used to choose among the various existing return points; it must be eq to the value specified in the catch. If multiple return points match tag, the innermost one is used.

The argument value is used as the value to return from that catch.

If no return point is in effect with tag tag, then a no-catch error is signaled with data (tag value).


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1.6.2 Examples of catch and throw

One way to use catch and throw is to exit from a doubly nested loop. (In most languages, this would be done with a goto.) Here we compute (foo i j) for i and j varying from 0 to 9:

(defun search-foo ()
  (catch 'loop
    (let ((i 0))
      (while (< i 10)
        (let ((j 0))
          (while (< j 10)
            (if (foo i j)
                (throw 'loop (list i j)))
            (setq j (1+ j))))
        (setq i (1+ i))))))

If foo ever returns non-nil, we stop immediately and return a list of i and j. If foo always returns nil, the catch returns normally, and the value is nil, since that is the result of the while.

Here are two tricky examples, slightly different, showing two return points at once. First, two return points with the same tag, hack:

(defun catch2 (tag)
  (catch tag
    (throw 'hack 'yes)))
⇒ catch2
(catch 'hack
  (print (catch2 'hack))
  'no)
-| yes
⇒ no

Since both return points have tags that match the throw, it goes to the inner one, the one established in catch2. Therefore, catch2 returns normally with value yes, and this value is printed. Finally the second body form in the outer catch, which is 'no, is evaluated and returned from the outer catch.

Now let’s change the argument given to catch2:

(catch 'hack
  (print (catch2 'quux))
  'no)
⇒ yes

We still have two return points, but this time only the outer one has the tag hack; the inner one has the tag quux instead. Therefore, throw makes the outer catch return the value yes. The function print is never called, and the body-form 'no is never evaluated.


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1.6.3 Errors

When Emacs Lisp attempts to evaluate a form that, for some reason, cannot be evaluated, it signals an error.

When an error is signaled, Emacs’s default reaction is to print an error message and terminate execution of the current command. This is the right thing to do in most cases, such as if you type C-f at the end of the buffer.

In complicated programs, simple termination may not be what you want. For example, the program may have made temporary changes in data structures, or created temporary buffers that should be deleted before the program is finished. In such cases, you would use unwind-protect to establish cleanup expressions to be evaluated in case of error. (See section Cleaning Up from Nonlocal Exits.) Occasionally, you may wish the program to continue execution despite an error in a subroutine. In these cases, you would use condition-case to establish error handlers to recover control in case of error.

Resist the temptation to use error handling to transfer control from one part of the program to another; use catch and throw instead. See section Explicit Nonlocal Exits: catch and throw.


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1.6.3.1 How to Signal an Error

Signaling an error means beginning error processing. Error processing normally aborts all or part of the running program and returns to a point that is set up to handle the error (see section How Emacs Processes Errors). Here we describe how to signal an error.

Most errors are signaled automatically within Lisp primitives which you call for other purposes, such as if you try to take the CAR of an integer or move forward a character at the end of the buffer. You can also signal errors explicitly with the functions error and signal.

Quitting, which happens when the user types C-g, is not considered an error, but it is handled almost like an error. @xref{Quitting}.

Every error specifies an error message, one way or another. The message should state what is wrong (“File does not exist”), not how things ought to be (“File must exist”). The convention in Emacs Lisp is that error messages should start with a capital letter, but should not end with any sort of punctuation.

Function: error format-string &rest args

This function signals an error with an error message constructed by applying format-message (@pxref{Formatting Strings}) to format-string and args.

These examples show typical uses of error:

(error "That is an error -- try something else")
     error--> That is an error -- try something else
(error "Invalid name `%s'" "A%%B")
     error--> Invalid name ‘A%%B’

error works by calling signal with two arguments: the error symbol error, and a list containing the string returned by format-message.

Typically grave accent and apostrophe in the format translate to matching curved quotes, e.g., "Missing ‘%s’" might result in "Missing ‘foo’". @xref{Text Quoting Style}, for how to influence or inhibit this translation.

Warning: If you want to use your own string as an error message verbatim, don’t just write (error string). If string string contains ‘%’, ‘`’, or ‘'’ it may be reformatted, with undesirable results. Instead, use (error "%s" string).

Function: signal error-symbol data

This function signals an error named by error-symbol. The argument data is a list of additional Lisp objects relevant to the circumstances of the error.

The argument error-symbol must be an error symbol—a symbol defined with define-error. This is how Emacs Lisp classifies different sorts of errors. See section Error Symbols and Condition Names, for a description of error symbols, error conditions and condition names.

If the error is not handled, the two arguments are used in printing the error message. Normally, this error message is provided by the error-message property of error-symbol. If data is non-nil, this is followed by a colon and a comma separated list of the unevaluated elements of data. For error, the error message is the CAR of data (that must be a string). Subcategories of file-error are handled specially.

The number and significance of the objects in data depends on error-symbol. For example, with a wrong-type-argument error, there should be two objects in the list: a predicate that describes the type that was expected, and the object that failed to fit that type.

Both error-symbol and data are available to any error handlers that handle the error: condition-case binds a local variable to a list of the form (error-symbol . data) (see section Writing Code to Handle Errors).

The function signal never returns.

(signal 'wrong-number-of-arguments '(x y))
     error--> Wrong number of arguments: x, y
(signal 'no-such-error '("My unknown error condition"))
     error--> peculiar error: "My unknown error condition"
Function: user-error format-string &rest args

This function behaves exactly like error, except that it uses the error symbol user-error rather than error. As the name suggests, this is intended to report errors on the part of the user, rather than errors in the code itself. For example, if you try to use the command Info-history-back (l) to move back beyond the start of your Info browsing history, Emacs signals a user-error. Such errors do not cause entry to the debugger, even when debug-on-error is non-nil. @xref{Error Debugging}.

Common Lisp note: Emacs Lisp has nothing like the Common Lisp concept of continuable errors.


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1.6.3.2 How Emacs Processes Errors

When an error is signaled, signal searches for an active handler for the error. A handler is a sequence of Lisp expressions designated to be executed if an error happens in part of the Lisp program. If the error has an applicable handler, the handler is executed, and control resumes following the handler. The handler executes in the environment of the condition-case that established it; all functions called within that condition-case have already been exited, and the handler cannot return to them.

If there is no applicable handler for the error, it terminates the current command and returns control to the editor command loop. (The command loop has an implicit handler for all kinds of errors.) The command loop’s handler uses the error symbol and associated data to print an error message. You can use the variable command-error-function to control how this is done:

Variable: command-error-function

This variable, if non-nil, specifies a function to use to handle errors that return control to the Emacs command loop. The function should take three arguments: data, a list of the same form that condition-case would bind to its variable; context, a string describing the situation in which the error occurred, or (more often) nil; and caller, the Lisp function which called the primitive that signaled the error.

An error that has no explicit handler may call the Lisp debugger. The debugger is enabled if the variable debug-on-error (@pxref{Error Debugging}) is non-nil. Unlike error handlers, the debugger runs in the environment of the error, so that you can examine values of variables precisely as they were at the time of the error.


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1.6.3.3 Writing Code to Handle Errors

The usual effect of signaling an error is to terminate the command that is running and return immediately to the Emacs editor command loop. You can arrange to trap errors occurring in a part of your program by establishing an error handler, with the special form condition-case. A simple example looks like this:

(condition-case nil
    (delete-file filename)
  (error nil))

This deletes the file named filename, catching any error and returning nil if an error occurs. (You can use the macro ignore-errors for a simple case like this; see below.)

The condition-case construct is often used to trap errors that are predictable, such as failure to open a file in a call to insert-file-contents. It is also used to trap errors that are totally unpredictable, such as when the program evaluates an expression read from the user.

The second argument of condition-case is called the protected form. (In the example above, the protected form is a call to delete-file.) The error handlers go into effect when this form begins execution and are deactivated when this form returns. They remain in effect for all the intervening time. In particular, they are in effect during the execution of functions called by this form, in their subroutines, and so on. This is a good thing, since, strictly speaking, errors can be signaled only by Lisp primitives (including signal and error) called by the protected form, not by the protected form itself.

The arguments after the protected form are handlers. Each handler lists one or more condition names (which are symbols) to specify which errors it will handle. The error symbol specified when an error is signaled also defines a list of condition names. A handler applies to an error if they have any condition names in common. In the example above, there is one handler, and it specifies one condition name, error, which covers all errors.

The search for an applicable handler checks all the established handlers starting with the most recently established one. Thus, if two nested condition-case forms offer to handle the same error, the inner of the two gets to handle it.

If an error is handled by some condition-case form, this ordinarily prevents the debugger from being run, even if debug-on-error says this error should invoke the debugger.

If you want to be able to debug errors that are caught by a condition-case, set the variable debug-on-signal to a non-nil value. You can also specify that a particular handler should let the debugger run first, by writing debug among the conditions, like this:

(condition-case nil
    (delete-file filename)
  ((debug error) nil))

The effect of debug here is only to prevent condition-case from suppressing the call to the debugger. Any given error will invoke the debugger only if debug-on-error and the other usual filtering mechanisms say it should. @xref{Error Debugging}.

Macro: condition-case-unless-debug var protected-form handlers…

The macro condition-case-unless-debug provides another way to handle debugging of such forms. It behaves exactly like condition-case, unless the variable debug-on-error is non-nil, in which case it does not handle any errors at all.

Once Emacs decides that a certain handler handles the error, it returns control to that handler. To do so, Emacs unbinds all variable bindings made by binding constructs that are being exited, and executes the cleanups of all unwind-protect forms that are being exited. Once control arrives at the handler, the body of the handler executes normally.

After execution of the handler body, execution returns from the condition-case form. Because the protected form is exited completely before execution of the handler, the handler cannot resume execution at the point of the error, nor can it examine variable bindings that were made within the protected form. All it can do is clean up and proceed.

Error signaling and handling have some resemblance to throw and catch (see section Explicit Nonlocal Exits: catch and throw), but they are entirely separate facilities. An error cannot be caught by a catch, and a throw cannot be handled by an error handler (though using throw when there is no suitable catch signals an error that can be handled).

Special Form: condition-case var protected-form handlers…

This special form establishes the error handlers handlers around the execution of protected-form. If protected-form executes without error, the value it returns becomes the value of the condition-case form; in this case, the condition-case has no effect. The condition-case form makes a difference when an error occurs during protected-form.

Each of the handlers is a list of the form (conditions body…). Here conditions is an error condition name to be handled, or a list of condition names (which can include debug to allow the debugger to run before the handler); body is one or more Lisp expressions to be executed when this handler handles an error. Here are examples of handlers:

(error nil)

(arith-error (message "Division by zero"))

((arith-error file-error)
 (message
  "Either division by zero or failure to open a file"))

Each error that occurs has an error symbol that describes what kind of error it is, and which describes also a list of condition names (see section Error Symbols and Condition Names). Emacs searches all the active condition-case forms for a handler that specifies one or more of these condition names; the innermost matching condition-case handles the error. Within this condition-case, the first applicable handler handles the error.

After executing the body of the handler, the condition-case returns normally, using the value of the last form in the handler body as the overall value.

The argument var is a variable. condition-case does not bind this variable when executing the protected-form, only when it handles an error. At that time, it binds var locally to an error description, which is a list giving the particulars of the error. The error description has the form (error-symbol . data). The handler can refer to this list to decide what to do. For example, if the error is for failure opening a file, the file name is the second element of data—the third element of the error description.

If var is nil, that means no variable is bound. Then the error symbol and associated data are not available to the handler.

Sometimes it is necessary to re-throw a signal caught by condition-case, for some outer-level handler to catch. Here’s how to do that:

  (signal (car err) (cdr err))

where err is the error description variable, the first argument to condition-case whose error condition you want to re-throw. See Definition of signal.

Function: error-message-string error-descriptor

This function returns the error message string for a given error descriptor. It is useful if you want to handle an error by printing the usual error message for that error. See Definition of signal.

Here is an example of using condition-case to handle the error that results from dividing by zero. The handler displays the error message (but without a beep), then returns a very large number.

(defun safe-divide (dividend divisor)
  (condition-case err
      ;; Protected form.
      (/ dividend divisor)
    ;; The handler.
    (arith-error                        ; Condition.
     ;; Display the usual message for this error.
     (message "%s" (error-message-string err))
     1000000)))
⇒ safe-divide
(safe-divide 5 0)
     -| Arithmetic error: (arith-error)
⇒ 1000000

The handler specifies condition name arith-error so that it will handle only division-by-zero errors. Other kinds of errors will not be handled (by this condition-case). Thus:

(safe-divide nil 3)
     error--> Wrong type argument: number-or-marker-p, nil

Here is a condition-case that catches all kinds of errors, including those from error:

(setq baz 34)
     ⇒ 34
(condition-case err
    (if (eq baz 35)
        t
      ;; This is a call to the function error.
      (error "Rats!  The variable %s was %s, not 35" 'baz baz))
  ;; This is the handler; it is not a form.
  (error (princ (format "The error was: %s" err))
         2))
-| The error was: (error "Rats!  The variable baz was 34, not 35")
⇒ 2
Macro: ignore-errors body…

This construct executes body, ignoring any errors that occur during its execution. If the execution is without error, ignore-errors returns the value of the last form in body; otherwise, it returns nil.

Here’s the example at the beginning of this subsection rewritten using ignore-errors:

  (ignore-errors
   (delete-file filename))
Macro: with-demoted-errors format body…

This macro is like a milder version of ignore-errors. Rather than suppressing errors altogether, it converts them into messages. It uses the string format to format the message. format should contain a single ‘%’-sequence; e.g., "Error: %S". Use with-demoted-errors around code that is not expected to signal errors, but should be robust if one does occur. Note that this macro uses condition-case-unless-debug rather than condition-case.


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1.6.3.4 Error Symbols and Condition Names

When you signal an error, you specify an error symbol to specify the kind of error you have in mind. Each error has one and only one error symbol to categorize it. This is the finest classification of errors defined by the Emacs Lisp language.

These narrow classifications are grouped into a hierarchy of wider classes called error conditions, identified by condition names. The narrowest such classes belong to the error symbols themselves: each error symbol is also a condition name. There are also condition names for more extensive classes, up to the condition name error which takes in all kinds of errors (but not quit). Thus, each error has one or more condition names: error, the error symbol if that is distinct from error, and perhaps some intermediate classifications.

Function: define-error name message &optional parent

In order for a symbol to be an error symbol, it must be defined with define-error which takes a parent condition (defaults to error). This parent defines the conditions that this kind of error belongs to. The transitive set of parents always includes the error symbol itself, and the symbol error. Because quitting is not considered an error, the set of parents of quit is just (quit).

In addition to its parents, the error symbol has a message which is a string to be printed when that error is signaled but not handled. If that message is not valid, the error message ‘peculiar error’ is used. See Definition of signal.

Internally, the set of parents is stored in the error-conditions property of the error symbol and the message is stored in the error-message property of the error symbol.

Here is how we define a new error symbol, new-error:

(define-error 'new-error "A new error" 'my-own-errors)

This error has several condition names: new-error, the narrowest classification; my-own-errors, which we imagine is a wider classification; and all the conditions of my-own-errors which should include error, which is the widest of all.

The error string should start with a capital letter but it should not end with a period. This is for consistency with the rest of Emacs.

Naturally, Emacs will never signal new-error on its own; only an explicit call to signal (see Definition of signal) in your code can do this:

(signal 'new-error '(x y))
     error--> A new error: x, y

This error can be handled through any of its condition names. This example handles new-error and any other errors in the class my-own-errors:

(condition-case foo
    (bar nil t)
  (my-own-errors nil))

The significant way that errors are classified is by their condition names—the names used to match errors with handlers. An error symbol serves only as a convenient way to specify the intended error message and list of condition names. It would be cumbersome to give signal a list of condition names rather than one error symbol.

By contrast, using only error symbols without condition names would seriously decrease the power of condition-case. Condition names make it possible to categorize errors at various levels of generality when you write an error handler. Using error symbols alone would eliminate all but the narrowest level of classification.

@xref{Standard Errors}, for a list of the main error symbols and their conditions.


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1.6.4 Cleaning Up from Nonlocal Exits

The unwind-protect construct is essential whenever you temporarily put a data structure in an inconsistent state; it permits you to make the data consistent again in the event of an error or throw. (Another more specific cleanup construct that is used only for changes in buffer contents is the atomic change group; @ref{Atomic Changes}.)

Special Form: unwind-protect body-form cleanup-forms…

unwind-protect executes body-form with a guarantee that the cleanup-forms will be evaluated if control leaves body-form, no matter how that happens. body-form may complete normally, or execute a throw out of the unwind-protect, or cause an error; in all cases, the cleanup-forms will be evaluated.

If body-form finishes normally, unwind-protect returns the value of body-form, after it evaluates the cleanup-forms. If body-form does not finish, unwind-protect does not return any value in the normal sense.

Only body-form is protected by the unwind-protect. If any of the cleanup-forms themselves exits nonlocally (via a throw or an error), unwind-protect is not guaranteed to evaluate the rest of them. If the failure of one of the cleanup-forms has the potential to cause trouble, then protect it with another unwind-protect around that form.

The number of currently active unwind-protect forms counts, together with the number of local variable bindings, against the limit max-specpdl-size (@pxref{Definition of max-specpdl-size,, Local Variables}).

For example, here we make an invisible buffer for temporary use, and make sure to kill it before finishing:

(let ((buffer (get-buffer-create " *temp*")))
  (with-current-buffer buffer
    (unwind-protect
        body-form
      (kill-buffer buffer))))

You might think that we could just as well write (kill-buffer (current-buffer)) and dispense with the variable buffer. However, the way shown above is safer, if body-form happens to get an error after switching to a different buffer! (Alternatively, you could write a save-current-buffer around body-form, to ensure that the temporary buffer becomes current again in time to kill it.)

Emacs includes a standard macro called with-temp-buffer which expands into more or less the code shown above (@pxref{Definition of with-temp-buffer,, Current Buffer}). Several of the macros defined in this manual use unwind-protect in this way.

Here is an actual example derived from an FTP package. It creates a process (@pxref{Processes}) to try to establish a connection to a remote machine. As the function ftp-login is highly susceptible to numerous problems that the writer of the function cannot anticipate, it is protected with a form that guarantees deletion of the process in the event of failure. Otherwise, Emacs might fill up with useless subprocesses.

(let ((win nil))
  (unwind-protect
      (progn
        (setq process (ftp-setup-buffer host file))
        (if (setq win (ftp-login process host user password))
            (message "Logged in")
          (error "Ftp login failed")))
    (or win (and process (delete-process process)))))

This example has a small bug: if the user types C-g to quit, and the quit happens immediately after the function ftp-setup-buffer returns but before the variable process is set, the process will not be killed. There is no easy way to fix this bug, but at least it is very unlikely.


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