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1 Evaluation

The evaluation of expressions in Emacs Lisp is performed by the Lisp interpreter—a program that receives a Lisp object as input and computes its value as an expression. How it does this depends on the data type of the object, according to rules described in this chapter. The interpreter runs automatically to evaluate portions of your program, but can also be called explicitly via the Lisp primitive function eval.

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1.1 Introduction to Evaluation

The Lisp interpreter, or evaluator, is the part of Emacs that computes the value of an expression that is given to it. When a function written in Lisp is called, the evaluator computes the value of the function by evaluating the expressions in the function body. Thus, running any Lisp program really means running the Lisp interpreter.

A Lisp object that is intended for evaluation is called a form or expression(1). The fact that forms are data objects and not merely text is one of the fundamental differences between Lisp-like languages and typical programming languages. Any object can be evaluated, but in practice only numbers, symbols, lists and strings are evaluated very often.

In subsequent sections, we will describe the details of what evaluation means for each kind of form.

It is very common to read a Lisp form and then evaluate the form, but reading and evaluation are separate activities, and either can be performed alone. Reading per se does not evaluate anything; it converts the printed representation of a Lisp object to the object itself. It is up to the caller of read to specify whether this object is a form to be evaluated, or serves some entirely different purpose. @xref{Input Functions}.

Evaluation is a recursive process, and evaluating a form often involves evaluating parts within that form. For instance, when you evaluate a function call form such as (car x), Emacs first evaluates the argument (the subform x). After evaluating the argument, Emacs executes the function (car), and if the function is written in Lisp, execution works by evaluating the body of the function (in this example, however, car is not a Lisp function; it is a primitive function implemented in C). @xref{Functions}, for more information about functions and function calls.

Evaluation takes place in a context called the environment, which consists of the current values and bindings of all Lisp variables (@pxref{Variables}).(2) Whenever a form refers to a variable without creating a new binding for it, the variable evaluates to the value given by the current environment. Evaluating a form may also temporarily alter the environment by binding variables (@pxref{Local Variables}).

Evaluating a form may also make changes that persist; these changes are called side effects. An example of a form that produces a side effect is (setq foo 1).

Do not confuse evaluation with command key interpretation. The editor command loop translates keyboard input into a command (an interactively callable function) using the active keymaps, and then uses call-interactively to execute that command. Executing the command usually involves evaluation, if the command is written in Lisp; however, this step is not considered a part of command key interpretation. @xref{Command Loop}.

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1.2 Kinds of Forms

A Lisp object that is intended to be evaluated is called a form (or an expression). How Emacs evaluates a form depends on its data type. Emacs has three different kinds of form that are evaluated differently: symbols, lists, and all other types. This section describes all three kinds, one by one, starting with the other types, which are self-evaluating forms.

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1.2.1 Self-Evaluating Forms

A self-evaluating form is any form that is not a list or symbol. Self-evaluating forms evaluate to themselves: the result of evaluation is the same object that was evaluated. Thus, the number 25 evaluates to 25, and the string "foo" evaluates to the string "foo". Likewise, evaluating a vector does not cause evaluation of the elements of the vector—it returns the same vector with its contents unchanged.

'123               ; A number, shown without evaluation.
     ⇒ 123
123                ; Evaluated as usual---result is the same.
     ⇒ 123
(eval '123)        ; Evaluated "by hand"---result is the same.
     ⇒ 123
(eval (eval '123)) ; Evaluating twice changes nothing.
     ⇒ 123

It is common to write numbers, characters, strings, and even vectors in Lisp code, taking advantage of the fact that they self-evaluate. However, it is quite unusual to do this for types that lack a read syntax, because there’s no way to write them textually. It is possible to construct Lisp expressions containing these types by means of a Lisp program. Here is an example:

;; Build an expression containing a buffer object.
(setq print-exp (list 'print (current-buffer)))
     ⇒ (print #<buffer eval.texi>)
;; Evaluate it.
(eval print-exp)
     -| #<buffer eval.texi>
     ⇒ #<buffer eval.texi>

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1.2.2 Symbol Forms

When a symbol is evaluated, it is treated as a variable. The result is the variable’s value, if it has one. If the symbol has no value as a variable, the Lisp interpreter signals an error. For more information on the use of variables, see @ref{Variables}.

In the following example, we set the value of a symbol with setq. Then we evaluate the symbol, and get back the value that setq stored.

(setq a 123)
     ⇒ 123
(eval 'a)
     ⇒ 123
     ⇒ 123

The symbols nil and t are treated specially, so that the value of nil is always nil, and the value of t is always t; you cannot set or bind them to any other values. Thus, these two symbols act like self-evaluating forms, even though eval treats them like any other symbol. A symbol whose name starts with ‘:’ also self-evaluates in the same way; likewise, its value ordinarily cannot be changed. @xref{Constant Variables}.

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1.2.3 Classification of List Forms

A form that is a nonempty list is either a function call, a macro call, or a special form, according to its first element. These three kinds of forms are evaluated in different ways, described below. The remaining list elements constitute the arguments for the function, macro, or special form.

The first step in evaluating a nonempty list is to examine its first element. This element alone determines what kind of form the list is and how the rest of the list is to be processed. The first element is not evaluated, as it would be in some Lisp dialects such as Scheme.

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1.2.4 Symbol Function Indirection

If the first element of the list is a symbol then evaluation examines the symbol’s function cell, and uses its contents instead of the original symbol. If the contents are another symbol, this process, called symbol function indirection, is repeated until it obtains a non-symbol. @xref{Function Names}, for more information about symbol function indirection.

One possible consequence of this process is an infinite loop, in the event that a symbol’s function cell refers to the same symbol. Otherwise, we eventually obtain a non-symbol, which ought to be a function or other suitable object.

More precisely, we should now have a Lisp function (a lambda expression), a byte-code function, a primitive function, a Lisp macro, a special form, or an autoload object. Each of these types is a case described in one of the following sections. If the object is not one of these types, Emacs signals an invalid-function error.

The following example illustrates the symbol indirection process. We use fset to set the function cell of a symbol and symbol-function to get the function cell contents (@pxref{Function Cells}). Specifically, we store the symbol car into the function cell of first, and the symbol first into the function cell of erste.

;; Build this function cell linkage:
;;   -------------       -----        -------        -------
;;  | #<subr car> | <-- | car |  <-- | first |  <-- | erste |
;;   -------------       -----        -------        -------
(symbol-function 'car)
     ⇒ #<subr car>
(fset 'first 'car)
     ⇒ car
(fset 'erste 'first)
     ⇒ first
(erste '(1 2 3))   ; Call the function referenced by erste.
     ⇒ 1

By contrast, the following example calls a function without any symbol function indirection, because the first element is an anonymous Lisp function, not a symbol.

((lambda (arg) (erste arg))
 '(1 2 3))
     ⇒ 1

Executing the function itself evaluates its body; this does involve symbol function indirection when calling erste.

This form is rarely used and is now deprecated. Instead, you should write it as:

(funcall (lambda (arg) (erste arg))
         '(1 2 3))

or just

(let ((arg '(1 2 3))) (erste arg))

The built-in function indirect-function provides an easy way to perform symbol function indirection explicitly.

Function: indirect-function function &optional noerror

This function returns the meaning of function as a function. If function is a symbol, then it finds function’s function definition and starts over with that value. If function is not a symbol, then it returns function itself.

This function returns nil if the final symbol is unbound. It signals a cyclic-function-indirection error if there is a loop in the chain of symbols.

The optional argument noerror is obsolete, kept for backward compatibility, and has no effect.

Here is how you could define indirect-function in Lisp:

(defun indirect-function (function)
  (if (symbolp function)
      (indirect-function (symbol-function function))

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1.2.5 Evaluation of Function Forms

If the first element of a list being evaluated is a Lisp function object, byte-code object or primitive function object, then that list is a function call. For example, here is a call to the function +:

(+ 1 x)

The first step in evaluating a function call is to evaluate the remaining elements of the list from left to right. The results are the actual argument values, one value for each list element. The next step is to call the function with this list of arguments, effectively using the function apply (@pxref{Calling Functions}). If the function is written in Lisp, the arguments are used to bind the argument variables of the function (@pxref{Lambda Expressions}); then the forms in the function body are evaluated in order, and the value of the last body form becomes the value of the function call.

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1.2.6 Lisp Macro Evaluation

If the first element of a list being evaluated is a macro object, then the list is a macro call. When a macro call is evaluated, the elements of the rest of the list are not initially evaluated. Instead, these elements themselves are used as the arguments of the macro. The macro definition computes a replacement form, called the expansion of the macro, to be evaluated in place of the original form. The expansion may be any sort of form: a self-evaluating constant, a symbol, or a list. If the expansion is itself a macro call, this process of expansion repeats until some other sort of form results.

Ordinary evaluation of a macro call finishes by evaluating the expansion. However, the macro expansion is not necessarily evaluated right away, or at all, because other programs also expand macro calls, and they may or may not evaluate the expansions.

Normally, the argument expressions are not evaluated as part of computing the macro expansion, but instead appear as part of the expansion, so they are computed when the expansion is evaluated.

For example, given a macro defined as follows:

(defmacro cadr (x)
  (list 'car (list 'cdr x)))

an expression such as (cadr (assq 'handler list)) is a macro call, and its expansion is:

(car (cdr (assq 'handler list)))

Note that the argument (assq 'handler list) appears in the expansion.

@xref{Macros}, for a complete description of Emacs Lisp macros.

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1.2.7 Special Forms

A special form is a primitive function specially marked so that its arguments are not all evaluated. Most special forms define control structures or perform variable bindings—things which functions cannot do.

Each special form has its own rules for which arguments are evaluated and which are used without evaluation. Whether a particular argument is evaluated may depend on the results of evaluating other arguments.

If an expression’s first symbol is that of a special form, the expression should follow the rules of that special form; otherwise, Emacs’s behavior is not well-defined (though it will not crash). For example, ((lambda (x) x . 3) 4) contains a subexpression that begins with lambda but is not a well-formed lambda expression, so Emacs may signal an error, or may return 3 or 4 or nil, or may behave in other ways.

Function: special-form-p object

This predicate tests whether its argument is a special form, and returns t if so, nil otherwise.

Here is a list, in alphabetical order, of all of the special forms in Emacs Lisp with a reference to where each is described.


@pxref{Combining Conditions}


@pxref{Catch and Throw}




@pxref{Handling Errors}


@pxref{Defining Variables}


@pxref{Defining Variables}


@pxref{Anonymous Functions}




@pxref{Interactive Call}


@pxref{Lambda Expressions}


@pxref{Local Variables}


@pxref{Combining Conditions}




see section Quoting


@pxref{Current Buffer}






@pxref{Setting Variables}


@pxref{Creating Buffer-Local}


@pxref{Mouse Tracking}


@pxref{Nonlocal Exits}



Common Lisp note: Here are some comparisons of special forms in GNU Emacs Lisp and Common Lisp. setq, if, and catch are special forms in both Emacs Lisp and Common Lisp. save-excursion is a special form in Emacs Lisp, but doesn’t exist in Common Lisp. throw is a special form in Common Lisp (because it must be able to throw multiple values), but it is a function in Emacs Lisp (which doesn’t have multiple values).

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1.2.8 Autoloading

The autoload feature allows you to call a function or macro whose function definition has not yet been loaded into Emacs. It specifies which file contains the definition. When an autoload object appears as a symbol’s function definition, calling that symbol as a function automatically loads the specified file; then it calls the real definition loaded from that file. The way to arrange for an autoload object to appear as a symbol’s function definition is described in @ref{Autoload}.

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1.3 Quoting

The special form quote returns its single argument, as written, without evaluating it. This provides a way to include constant symbols and lists, which are not self-evaluating objects, in a program. (It is not necessary to quote self-evaluating objects such as numbers, strings, and vectors.)

Special Form: quote object

This special form returns object, without evaluating it.

Because quote is used so often in programs, Lisp provides a convenient read syntax for it. An apostrophe character (‘'’) followed by a Lisp object (in read syntax) expands to a list whose first element is quote, and whose second element is the object. Thus, the read syntax 'x is an abbreviation for (quote x).

Here are some examples of expressions that use quote:

(quote (+ 1 2))
     ⇒ (+ 1 2)
(quote foo)
     ⇒ foo
     ⇒ foo
     ⇒ (quote foo)
'(quote foo)
     ⇒ (quote foo)
     ⇒ [(quote foo)]

Other quoting constructs include function (@pxref{Anonymous Functions}), which causes an anonymous lambda expression written in Lisp to be compiled, and ‘`’ (see section Backquote), which is used to quote only part of a list, while computing and substituting other parts.

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1.4 Backquote

Backquote constructs allow you to quote a list, but selectively evaluate elements of that list. In the simplest case, it is identical to the special form quote (described in the previous section; see section Quoting). For example, these two forms yield identical results:

`(a list of (+ 2 3) elements)
     ⇒ (a list of (+ 2 3) elements)
'(a list of (+ 2 3) elements)
     ⇒ (a list of (+ 2 3) elements)

The special marker ‘,’ inside of the argument to backquote indicates a value that isn’t constant. The Emacs Lisp evaluator evaluates the argument of ‘,’, and puts the value in the list structure:

`(a list of ,(+ 2 3) elements)
     ⇒ (a list of 5 elements)

Substitution with ‘,’ is allowed at deeper levels of the list structure also. For example:

`(1 2 (3 ,(+ 4 5)))
     ⇒ (1 2 (3 9))

You can also splice an evaluated value into the resulting list, using the special marker ‘,@’. The elements of the spliced list become elements at the same level as the other elements of the resulting list. The equivalent code without using ‘`’ is often unreadable. Here are some examples:

(setq some-list '(2 3))
     ⇒ (2 3)
(cons 1 (append some-list '(4) some-list))
     ⇒ (1 2 3 4 2 3)
`(1 ,@some-list 4 ,@some-list)
     ⇒ (1 2 3 4 2 3)
(setq list '(hack foo bar))
     ⇒ (hack foo bar)
(cons 'use
  (cons 'the
    (cons 'words (append (cdr list) '(as elements)))))
     ⇒ (use the words foo bar as elements)
`(use the words ,@(cdr list) as elements)
     ⇒ (use the words foo bar as elements)

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1.5 Eval

Most often, forms are evaluated automatically, by virtue of their occurrence in a program being run. On rare occasions, you may need to write code that evaluates a form that is computed at run time, such as after reading a form from text being edited or getting one from a property list. On these occasions, use the eval function. Often eval is not needed and something else should be used instead. For example, to get the value of a variable, while eval works, symbol-value is preferable; or rather than store expressions in a property list that then need to go through eval, it is better to store functions instead that are then passed to funcall.

The functions and variables described in this section evaluate forms, specify limits to the evaluation process, or record recently returned values. Loading a file also does evaluation (@pxref{Loading}).

It is generally cleaner and more flexible to store a function in a data structure, and call it with funcall or apply, than to store an expression in the data structure and evaluate it. Using functions provides the ability to pass information to them as arguments.

Function: eval form &optional lexical

This is the basic function for evaluating an expression. It evaluates form in the current environment, and returns the result. The type of the form object determines how it is evaluated. See section Kinds of Forms.

The argument lexical specifies the scoping rule for local variables (@pxref{Variable Scoping}). If it is omitted or nil, that means to evaluate form using the default dynamic scoping rule. If it is t, that means to use the lexical scoping rule. The value of lexical can also be a non-empty alist specifying a particular lexical environment for lexical bindings; however, this feature is only useful for specialized purposes, such as in Emacs Lisp debuggers. @xref{Lexical Binding}.

Since eval is a function, the argument expression that appears in a call to eval is evaluated twice: once as preparation before eval is called, and again by the eval function itself. Here is an example:

(setq foo 'bar)
     ⇒ bar
(setq bar 'baz)
     ⇒ baz
;; Here eval receives argument foo
(eval 'foo)
     ⇒ bar
;; Here eval receives argument bar, which is the value of foo
(eval foo)
     ⇒ baz

The number of currently active calls to eval is limited to max-lisp-eval-depth (see below).

Command: eval-region start end &optional stream read-function

This function evaluates the forms in the current buffer in the region defined by the positions start and end. It reads forms from the region and calls eval on them until the end of the region is reached, or until an error is signaled and not handled.

By default, eval-region does not produce any output. However, if stream is non-nil, any output produced by output functions (@pxref{Output Functions}), as well as the values that result from evaluating the expressions in the region are printed using stream. @xref{Output Streams}.

If read-function is non-nil, it should be a function, which is used instead of read to read expressions one by one. This function is called with one argument, the stream for reading input. You can also use the variable load-read-function (@pxref{Definition of load-read-function,, How Programs Do Loading}) to specify this function, but it is more robust to use the read-function argument.

eval-region does not move point. It always returns nil.

Command: eval-buffer &optional buffer-or-name stream filename unibyte print

This is similar to eval-region, but the arguments provide different optional features. eval-buffer operates on the entire accessible portion of buffer buffer-or-name (see Narrowing in The GNU Emacs Manual). buffer-or-name can be a buffer, a buffer name (a string), or nil (or omitted), which means to use the current buffer. stream is used as in eval-region, unless stream is nil and print non-nil. In that case, values that result from evaluating the expressions are still discarded, but the output of the output functions is printed in the echo area. filename is the file name to use for load-history (@pxref{Unloading}), and defaults to buffer-file-name (@pxref{Buffer File Name}). If unibyte is non-nil, read converts strings to unibyte whenever possible.

eval-current-buffer is an alias for this command.

User Option: max-lisp-eval-depth

This variable defines the maximum depth allowed in calls to eval, apply, and funcall before an error is signaled (with error message "Lisp nesting exceeds max-lisp-eval-depth").

This limit, with the associated error when it is exceeded, is one way Emacs Lisp avoids infinite recursion on an ill-defined function. If you increase the value of max-lisp-eval-depth too much, such code can cause stack overflow instead. On some systems, this overflow can be handled. In that case, normal Lisp evaluation is interrupted and control is transferred back to the top level command loop (top-level). Note that there is no way to enter Emacs Lisp debugger in this situation. @xref{Error Debugging}.

The depth limit counts internal uses of eval, apply, and funcall, such as for calling the functions mentioned in Lisp expressions, and recursive evaluation of function call arguments and function body forms, as well as explicit calls in Lisp code.

The default value of this variable is 800. If you set it to a value less than 100, Lisp will reset it to 100 if the given value is reached. Entry to the Lisp debugger increases the value, if there is little room left, to make sure the debugger itself has room to execute.

max-specpdl-size provides another limit on nesting. @xref{Definition of max-specpdl-size,, Local Variables}.

Variable: values

The value of this variable is a list of the values returned by all the expressions that were read, evaluated, and printed from buffers (including the minibuffer) by the standard Emacs commands which do this. (Note that this does not include evaluation in ‘*ielm*’ buffers, nor evaluation using C-j, C-x C-e, and similar evaluation commands in lisp-interaction-mode.) The elements are ordered most recent first.

(setq x 1)
     ⇒ 1
(list 'A (1+ 2) auto-save-default)
     ⇒ (A 3 t)
     ⇒ ((A 3 t) 1 …)

This variable is useful for referring back to values of forms recently evaluated. It is generally a bad idea to print the value of values itself, since this may be very long. Instead, examine particular elements, like this:

;; Refer to the most recent evaluation result.
(nth 0 values)
     ⇒ (A 3 t)
;; That put a new element on,
;;   so all elements move back one.
(nth 1 values)
     ⇒ (A 3 t)
;; This gets the element that was next-to-most-recent
;;   before this example.
(nth 3 values)
     ⇒ 1

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It is sometimes also referred to as an S-expression or sexp, but we generally do not use this terminology in this manual.


This definition of “environment” is specifically not intended to include all the data that can affect the result of a program.

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