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A Lisp program is composed mainly of Lisp functions. This chapter explains what functions are, how they accept arguments, and how to define them.
In a general sense, a function is a rule for carrying on a computation given several values called arguments. The result of the computation is called the value of the function. The computation can also have side effects: lasting changes in the values of variables or the contents of data structures.
Here are important terms for functions in Emacs Lisp and for other function-like objects.
append. These functions are also called built-in functions or subrs. (Special forms are also considered primitives.)
Usually the reason that a function is a primitives is because it is fundamental, or provides a low-level interface to operating system services, or because it needs to run fast. Primitives can be modified or added only by changing the C sources and recompiling the editor. See section Writing Emacs Primitives.
command-executecan invoke; it is a possible definition for a key sequence. Some functions are commands; a function written in Lisp is a command if it contains an interactive declaration (see section Defining Commands). Such a function can be called from Lisp expressions like other functions; in this case, the fact that the function is a command makes no difference.
Strings are commands also, even though they are not functions. A symbol is a command if its function definition is a command; such symbols can be invoked with M-x. The symbol is a function as well if the definition is a function. See section Command Loop Overview.
Function: subrp object
This function returns
t if object is a built-in function
(i.e. a Lisp primitive).
(subrp 'message) ;
messageis a symbol, => nil ; not a subr object. (subrp (symbol-function 'message)) => t
Function: byte-code-function-p object
This function returns
t if object is a byte-code
function. For example:
(byte-code-function-p (symbol-function 'next-line)) => t
A function written in Lisp is a list that looks like this:
(lambda (arg-variables...) [documentation-string] [interactive-declaration] body-forms...)
(Such a list is called a lambda expression for historical reasons, even though it is not really an expression at all--it is not a form that can be evaluated meaningfully.)
The first element of a lambda expression is always the symbol
lambda. This indicates that the list represents a function. The
reason functions are defined to start with
lambda is so that
other lists, intended for other uses, will not accidentally be valid as
The second element is a list of argument variable names (symbols). This is called the lambda list. When a Lisp function is called, the argument values are matched up against the variables in the lambda list, which are given local bindings with the values provided. See section Local Variables.
The documentation string is an actual string that serves to describe the function for the Emacs help facilities. See section Documentation Strings of Functions.
The interactive declaration is a list of the form
code-string). This declares how to provide arguments if the
function is used interactively. Functions with this declaration are called
commands; they can be called using M-x or bound to a key.
Functions not intended to be called in this way should not have interactive
declarations. See section Defining Commands, for how to write an interactive
The rest of the elements are the body of the function: the Lisp code to do the work of the function (or, as a Lisp programmer would say, "a list of Lisp forms to evaluate"). The value returned by the function is the value returned by the last element of the body.
Consider for example the following function:
(lambda (a b c) (+ a b c))
We can call this function by writing it as the CAR of an expression, like this:
((lambda (a b c) (+ a b c)) 1 2 3)
The body of this lambda expression is evaluated with the variable
a bound to 1,
b bound to 2, and
c bound to 3.
Evaluation of the body adds these three numbers, producing the result 6;
therefore, this call to the function returns the value 6.
Note that the arguments can be the results of other function calls, as in this example:
((lambda (a b c) (+ a b c)) 1 (* 2 3) (- 5 4))
Here all the arguments
(* 2 3), and
(- 5 4) are
evaluated, left to right. Then the lambda expression is applied to the
argument values 1, 6 and 1 to produce the value 8.
It is not often useful to write a lambda expression as the CAR of
a form in this way. You can get the same result, of making local
variables and giving them values, using the special form
(see section Local Variables). And
let is clearer and easier to use.
In practice, lambda expressions are either stored as the function
definitions of symbols, to produce named functions, or passed as
arguments to other functions (see section Anonymous Functions).
However, calls to explicit lambda expressions were very useful in the
old days of Lisp, before the special form
let was invented. At
that time, they were the only way to bind and initialize local
Our simple sample function,
(lambda (a b c) (+ a b c)),
specifies three argument variables, so it must be called with three
arguments: if you try to call it with only two arguments or four
arguments, you get a
It is often convenient to write a function that allows certain arguments
to be omitted. For example, the function
substring accepts three
arguments--a string, the start index and the end index--but the third
argument defaults to the end of the string if you omit it. It is also
convenient for certain functions to accept an indefinite number of
arguments, as the functions
To specify optional arguments that may be omitted when a function
is called, simply include the keyword
&optional before the optional
arguments. To specify a list of zero or more extra arguments, include the
&rest before one final argument.
Thus, the complete syntax for an argument list is as follows:
(required-vars... [&optional optional-vars...] [&rest rest-var])
The square brackets indicate that the
clauses, and the variables that follow them, are optional.
A call to the function requires one actual argument for each of the
required-vars. There may be actual arguments for zero or more of the
optional-vars, and there cannot be any more actual arguments than
&rest exists. In that case, there may be any number of
extra actual arguments.
If actual arguments for the optional and rest variables are omitted,
then they always default to
nil. However, the body of the function
is free to consider
nil an abbreviation for some other meaningful
value. This is what
nil as the third argument
means to use the length of the string supplied. There is no way for the
function to distinguish between an explicit argument of
an omitted argument.
Common Lisp note: Common Lisp allows the function to specify what default value to use when an optional argument is omitted; GNU Emacs Lisp always uses
For example, an argument list that looks like this:
(a b &optional c d &rest e)
b to the first two actual arguments, which are
required. If one or two more arguments are provided,
d are bound to them respectively; any arguments after the first
four are collected into a list and
e is bound to that list. If
there are only two arguments,
nil; if two or three
nil; if four arguments or fewer,
There is no way to have required arguments following optional
ones--it would not make sense. To see why this must be so, suppose
c in the example were optional and
d were required.
If three actual arguments are given; then which variable would the third
argument be for? Similarly, it makes no sense to have any more
arguments (either required or optional) after a
Here are some examples of argument lists and proper calls:
((lambda (n) (1+ n)) ; One required: 1) ; requires exactly one argument. => 2 ((lambda (n &optional n1) ; One required and one optional: (if n1 (+ n n1) (1+ n))) ; 1 or 2 arguments. 1 2) => 3 ((lambda (n &rest ns) ; One required and one rest: (+ n (apply '+ ns))) ; 1 or more arguments. 1 2 3 4 5) => 15
A lambda expression may optionally have a documentation string just after the lambda list. This string does not affect execution of the function; it is a kind of comment, but a systematized comment which actually appears inside the Lisp world and can be used by the Emacs help facilities. See section Documentation, for how the documentation-string is accessed.
It is a good idea to provide documentation strings for all commands, and for all other functions in your program that users of your program should know about; internal functions might as well have only comments, since comments don't take up any room when your program is loaded.
The first line of the documentation string should stand on its own,
apropos displays just this first line. It should consist
of one or two complete sentences that summarize the function's purpose.
The start of the documentation string is usually indented, but since these spaces come before the starting double-quote, they are not part of the string. Some people make a practice of indenting any additional lines of the string so that the text lines up. This is a mistake. The indentation of the following lines is inside the string; what looks nice in the source code will look ugly when displayed by the help commands.
You may wonder how the documentation string could be optional, since there are required components of the function that follow it (the body). Since evaluation of a string returns that string, without any side effects, it has no effect if it is not the last form in the body. Thus, in practice, there is no confusion between the first form of the body and the documentation string; if the only body form is a string then it serves both as the return value and as the documentation.
In most computer languages, every function has a name; the idea of a
function without a name is nonsensical. In Lisp, a function in the
strictest sense has no name. It is simply a list whose first element is
lambda, or a primitive subr-object.
However, a symbol can serve as the name of a function. This happens when you put the function in the symbol's function cell (see section Symbol Components). Then the symbol itself becomes a valid, callable function, equivalent to the list or subr-object that its function cell refers to. The contents of the function cell are also called the symbol's function definition. When the evaluator finds the function definition to use in place of the symbol, we call that symbol function indirection; see section Symbol Function Indirection.
In practice, nearly all functions are given names in this way and
referred to through their names. For example, the symbol
as a function and does what it does because the primitive subr-object
#<subr car> is stored in its function cell.
We give functions names because it is more convenient to refer to them
by their names in other functions. For primitive subr-objects such as
#<subr car>, names are the only way you can refer to them: there
is no read syntax for such objects. For functions written in Lisp, the
name is more convenient to use in a call than an explicit lambda
expression. Also, a function with a name can refer to itself--it can
be recursive. Writing the function's name in its own definition is much
more convenient than making the function definition point to itself
(something that is not impossible but that has various disadvantages in
Functions are often identified with the symbols used to name them. For
example, we often speak of "the function
car", not distinguishing
between the symbol
car and the primitive subr-object that is its
function definition. For most purposes, there is no need to distinguish.
Even so, keep in mind that a function need not have a unique name. While
a given function object usually appears in the function cell of only
one symbol, this is just a matter of convenience. It is easy to store
it in several symbols using
fset; then each of the symbols is
equally well a name for the same function.
A symbol used as a function name may also be used as a variable; these two uses of a symbol are independent and do not conflict.
We usually give a name to a function when it is first created. This
is called defining a function, and it is done with the
defun special form.
Special Form: defun name argument-list body-forms
defun is the usual way to define new Lisp functions. It
defines the symbol name as a function that looks like this:
(lambda argument-list . body-forms)
This lambda expression is stored in the function cell of name.
The value returned by evaluating the
defun form is name,
but usually we ignore this value.
As described previously (see section Lambda Expressions),
argument-list is a list of argument names and may include the
&rest. Also, the first two forms
in body-forms may be a documentation string and an interactive
Note that the same symbol name may also be used as a global variable, since the value cell is independent of the function cell.
Here are some examples:
(defun foo () 5) => foo (foo) => 5 (defun bar (a &optional b &rest c) (list a b c)) => bar (bar 1 2 3 4 5) => (1 2 (3 4 5)) (bar 1) => (1 nil nil) (bar) error--> Wrong number of arguments. (defun capitalize-backwards () "Upcase the last letter of a word." (interactive) (backward-word 1) (forward-word 1) (backward-char 1) (capitalize-word 1)) => capitalize-backwards
Be careful not to redefine existing functions unintentionally.
defun redefines even primitive functions such as
without any hesitation or notification. Redefining a function already
defined is often done deliberately, and there is no way to distinguish
deliberate redefinition from unintentional redefinition.
Defining functions is only half the battle. Functions don't do anything until you call them, i.e., tell them to run. This process is also known as invocation.
The most common way of invoking a function is by evaluating a list. For
example, evaluating the list
(concat "a" "b") calls the function
concat. See section Evaluation, for a description of evaluation.
When you write a list as an expression in your program, the function
name is part of the program. This means that the choice of which
function to call is made when you write the program. Usually that's
just what you want. Occasionally you need to decide at run time which
function to call. Then you can use the functions
Function: funcall function &rest arguments
funcall calls function with arguments, and returns
whatever function returns.
funcall is a function, all of its arguments, including
function, are evaluated before
funcall is called. This
means that you can use any expression to obtain the function to be
called. It also means that
funcall does not see the expressions
you write for the arguments, only their values. These values are
not evaluated a second time in the act of calling function;
funcall enters the normal procedure for calling a function at the
place where the arguments have already been evaluated.
The argument function must be either a Lisp function or a
primitive function. Special forms and macros are not allowed, because
they make sense only when given the "unevaluated" argument
funcall cannot provide these because, as we saw
above, it never knows them in the first place.
(setq f 'list) => list (funcall f 'x 'y 'z) => (x y z) (funcall f 'x 'y '(z)) => (x y (z)) (funcall 'and t nil) error--> Invalid function: #<subr and>
Compare this example with that of
Function: apply function &rest arguments
apply calls function with arguments, just like
funcall but with one difference: the last of arguments is a
list of arguments to give to function, rather than a single
argument. We also say that this list is appended to the other
apply returns the result of calling function. As with
funcall, function must either be a Lisp function or a
primitive function; special forms and macros do not make sense in
(setq f 'list) => list (apply f 'x 'y 'z) error--> Wrong type argument: listp, z (apply '+ 1 2 '(3 4)) => 10 (apply '+ '(1 2 3 4)) => 10 (apply 'append '((a b c) nil (x y z) nil)) => (a b c x y z)
An interesting example of using
apply is found in the description
mapcar; see the following section.
It is common for Lisp functions to accept functions as arguments or
find them in data structures (especially in hook variables and property
lists) and call them using
that accept function arguments are often called functionals.
Sometimes, when you call such a function, it is useful to supply a no-op function as the argument. Here are two different kinds of no-op function:
Function: identity arg
This function returns arg and has no side effects.
Function: ignore &rest args
This function ignores any arguments and returns
A mapping function applies a given function to each element of a
list or other collection. Emacs Lisp has three such functions;
mapconcat, which scan a list, are described
here. For the third mapping function,
section Creating and Interning Symbols.
Function: mapcar function sequence
mapcar applies function to each element of sequence in
turn. The results are made into a
The argument sequence may be a list, a vector or a string. The result is always a list. The length of the result is the same as the length of sequence.
For example: (mapcar 'car '((a b) (c d) (e f))) => (a c e) (mapcar '1+ [1 2 3]) => (2 3 4) (mapcar 'char-to-string "abc") => ("a" "b" "c") ;; Call each function in
my-hooks. (mapcar 'funcall my-hooks) (defun mapcar* (f &rest args) "Apply FUNCTION to successive cars of all ARGS, until one ends. Return the list of results." ;; If no list is exhausted, (if (not (memq 'nil args)) ;; Apply function to CARs. (cons (apply f (mapcar 'car args)) (apply 'mapcar* f ;; Recurse for rest of elements. (mapcar 'cdr args))))) (mapcar* 'cons '(a b c) '(1 2 3 4)) => ((a . 1) (b . 2) (c . 3))
Function: mapconcat function sequence separator
mapconcat applies function to each element of
sequence: the results, which must be strings, are concatenated.
Between each pair of result strings,
mapconcat inserts the string
separator. Usually separator contains a space or comma or
other suitable punctuation.
The argument function must be a function that can take one argument and returns a string.
(mapconcat 'symbol-name '(The cat in the hat) " ") => "The cat in the hat" (mapconcat (function (lambda (x) (format "%c" (1+ x)))) "HAL-8000" "") => "IBM.9111"
In Lisp, a function is a list that starts with
alternatively a primitive subr-object); names are "extra". Although
usually functions are defined with
defun and given names at the
same time, it is occasionally more concise to use an explicit lambda
expression--an anonymous function. Such a list is valid wherever a
function name is.
Any method of creating such a list makes a valid function. Even this:
(setq silly (append '(lambda (x)) (list (list '+ (* 3 4) 'x)))) => (lambda (x) (+ 12 x))
This computes a list that looks like
(lambda (x) (+ 12 x)) and
makes it the value (not the function definition!) of
Here is how we might call this function:
(funcall silly 1) => 13
(It does not work to write
(silly 1), because this function
is not the function definition of
silly. We have not given
silly any function definition, just a value as a variable.)
Most of the time, anonymous functions are constants that appear in
your program. For example, you might want to pass one as an argument
to the function
mapcar, which applies any given function to each
element of a list. Here we pass an anonymous function that multiplies
a number by two:
(defun double-each (list) (mapcar '(lambda (x) (* 2 x)) list)) => double-each (double-each '(2 11)) => (4 22)
In such cases, we usually use the special form
of simple quotation to quote the anonymous function.
Special Form: function function-object
This special form returns function-object without evaluating it.
In this, it is equivalent to
quote. However, it serves as a
note to the Emacs Lisp compiler that function-object is intended
to be used only as a function, and therefore can safely be compiled.
See section Quoting, for comparison.
function instead of
quote makes a difference
inside a function or macro that you are going to compile. For example:
(defun double-each (list) (mapcar (function (lambda (x) (* 2 x))) list)) => double-each (double-each '(2 11)) => (4 22)
If this definition of
double-each is compiled, the anonymous
function is compiled as well. By contrast, in the previous definition
quote is used, the argument passed to
mapcar is the precise list shown:
(lambda (arg) (+ arg 5))
The Lisp compiler cannot assume this list is a function, even though it
looks like one, since it does not know what
mapcar does with the
mapcar will check that the CAR of the third
element is the symbol
+! The advantage of
that it tells the compiler to go ahead and compile the constant
We sometimes write
function instead of
quoting the name of a function, but this usage is just a sort of
(function symbol) == (quote symbol) == 'symbol
documentation in section Access to Documentation Strings, for a
realistic example using
function and an anonymous function.
The function definition of a symbol is the object stored in the function cell of the symbol. The functions described here access, test, and set the function cell of symbols.
Function: symbol-function symbol
This returns the object in the function cell of symbol. If the
symbol's function cell is void, a
void-function error is
This function does not check that the returned object is a legitimate function.
(defun bar (n) (+ n 2)) => bar (symbol-function 'bar) => (lambda (n) (+ n 2)) (fset 'baz 'bar) => bar (symbol-function 'baz) => bar
If you have never given a symbol any function definition, we say that
that symbol's function cell is void. In other words, the function
cell does not have any Lisp object in it. If you try to call such a symbol
as a function, it signals a
Note that void is not the same as
nil or the symbol
void. The symbols
void are Lisp objects,
and can be stored into a function cell just as any other object can be
(and they can be valid functions if you define them in turn with
void is an object. A
void function cell contains no object whatsoever.
You can test the voidness of a symbol's function definition with
fboundp. After you have given a symbol a function definition, you
can make it void once more using
Function: fboundp symbol
t if the symbol has an object in its function cell,
nil otherwise. It does not check that the object is a legitimate
Function: fmakunbound symbol
This function makes symbol's function cell void, so that a
subsequent attempt to access this cell will cause a
error. (See also
makunbound, in section Local Variables.)
(defun foo (x) x) => x (fmakunbound 'foo) => x (foo 1) error--> Symbol's function definition is void: foo
Function: fset symbol object
This function stores object in the function cell of symbol. The result is object. Normally object should be a function or the name of a function, but this is not checked.
There are three normal uses of this function:
defun. See section Classification of List Forms, for an example of this usage.
defunwere not a primitive, it could be written in Lisp (as a macro) using
Here are examples of the first two uses:
firstthe same definition
carhas. (fset 'first (symbol-function 'car)) => #<subr car> (first '(1 2 3)) => 1 ;; Make the symbol
carthe function definition of
xfirst. (fset 'xfirst 'car) => car (xfirst '(1 2 3)) => 1 (symbol-function 'xfirst) => car (symbol-function (symbol-function 'xfirst)) => #<subr car> ;; Define a named keyboard macro. (fset 'kill-two-lines "\^u2\^k") => "\^u2\^k"
When writing a function that extends a previously defined function, the following idiom is often used:
(fset 'old-foo (symbol-function 'foo)) (defun foo () "Just like old-foo, except more so." (old-foo) (more-so))
This does not work properly if
foo has been defined to autoload.
In such a case, when
old-foo, Lisp attempts
old-foo by loading a file. Since this presumably
foo rather than
old-foo, it does not produce the
proper results. The only way to avoid this problem is to make sure the
file is loaded before moving aside the old definition of
See also the function
indirect-function in section Symbol Function Indirection.
You can define an inline function by using
defun. An inline function works just like an ordinary
function except for one thing: when you compile a call to the function,
the function's definition is open-coded into the caller.
Making a function inline makes explicit calls run faster. But it also has disadvantages. For one thing, it reduces flexibility; if you change the definition of the function, calls already inlined still use the old definition until you recompile them.
Another disadvantage is that making a large function inline can increase the size of compiled code both in files and in memory. Since the advantages of inline functions are greatest for small functions, you generally should not make large functions inline.
It's possible to define a macro to expand into the same code that an
inline function would execute. But the macro would have a limitation:
you can use it only explicitly--a macro cannot be called with
mapcar and so on. Also, it takes some work to
convert an ordinary function into a macro. (See section Macros.) To convert
it into an inline function is very easy; simply replace
Inline functions can be used and open coded later on in the same file, following the definition, just like macros.
Emacs versions prior to 19 did not have inline functions.
Here is a table of several functions that do things related to function calling and function definitions. They are documented elsewhere, but we provide cross references here.
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