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GNU Emacs Lisp has convenient on-line help facilities, most of which derive their information from the documentation strings associated with functions and variables. This chapter describes how to write good documentation strings for your Lisp programs, as well as how to write programs to access documentation.

Note that the documentation strings for Emacs are not the same thing as the Emacs manual. Manuals have their own source files, written in the Texinfo language; documentation strings are specified in the definitions of the functions and variables they apply to. A collection of documentation strings is not sufficient as a manual because a good manual is not organized in that fashion; it is organized in terms of topics of discussion.

Documentation Basics

A documentation string is written using the Lisp syntax for strings, with double-quote characters surrounding the text of the string. This is because it really is a Lisp string object. The string serves as documentation when it is written in the proper place in the definition of a function or variable. In a function definition, the documentation string follows the argument list. In a variable definition, the documentation string follows the initial value of the variable.

When you write a documentation string, make the first line a complete sentence (or two complete sentences) since some commands, such as apropos, print only the first line of a multi-line documentation string. Also, you should not indent the second line of a documentation string, if you have one, because that looks odd when you use C-h f (describe-function) or C-h v (describe-variable).

Documentation strings may contain several special substrings, which stand for key bindings to be looked up in the current keymaps when the documentation is displayed. This allows documentation strings to refer to the keys for related commands and be accurate even when a user rearranges the key bindings. (See section Access to Documentation Strings.)

Within the Lisp world, a documentation string is kept with the function or variable that it describes:

However, to save space, the documentation for preloaded functions and variables (including primitive functions and autoloaded functions) are stored in the `emacs/etc/DOC-version' file. The `emacs/etc/DOC-version' file can be accessed by both the documentation and the documentation-property functions, and the process is transparent to the user. In this case, the documentation string is replaced with an integer offset into the `emacs/etc/DOC-version' file. Keeping the documentation strings out of the Emacs core image saves a significant amount of space. See section Building Emacs.

For information on the uses of documentation strings, see section `Help' in The GNU Emacs Manual.

The `emacs/etc' directory contains two utilities that you can use to print nice-looking hardcopy for the file `emacs/etc/DOC-version'. These are `sorted-doc.c' and `digest-doc.c'.

Access to Documentation Strings

Function: documentation-property symbol property &optional verbatim

This function returns the documentation string that is recorded symbol's property list under property property. This uses the function get, but does more than that: it also retrieves the string from the file `emacs/etc/DOC-version' if necessary, and runs substitute-command-keys to substitute the actual (current) key bindings.

If verbatim is non-nil, that inhibits running substitute-command-keys. (The verbatim argument exists only as of Emacs 19.)

(documentation-property 'command-line-processed
     => "t once command line has been processed"
(symbol-plist 'command-line-processed)
     => (variable-documentation 188902)

Function: documentation function &optional verbatim

This function returns the documentation string of function. This function will access the documentation string if it is stored in the `emacs/etc/DOC-version' file.

In addition, documentation runs substitute-command-keys on the resulting string, so the value contains the actual (current) key bindings. (This is not done if verbatim is non-nil; the verbatim argument exists only as of Emacs 19.)

The function documentation signals a void-function error unless function has a function definition. However, function does not need to have a documentation string. If there is no documentation string, documentation returns nil.

Here is an example of using the two functions, documentation and documentation-property, to display the documentation strings for several symbols in a `*Help*' buffer.

(defun describe-symbols (pattern)
  "Describe the Emacs Lisp symbols matching PATTERN.
All symbols that have PATTERN in their name are described
in the `*Help*' buffer."
  (interactive "sDescribe symbols matching: ")
  (let ((describe-func
          (lambda (s)
            ;; Print description of symbol.
            (if (fboundp s)             ; It is a function.
                 (format "%s\t%s\n%s\n\n" s
                   (if (commandp s) 
                       (let ((keys (where-is-internal s)))
                         (if keys
                              "Keys: "
                              (mapconcat 'key-description 
                                         keys " "))
                           "Keys: none"))
                   (or (documentation s) 
                       "not documented"))))
            (if (boundp s)              ; It is a variable.
                 (format "%s\t%s\n%s\n\n" s
                   (if (user-variable-p s) 
                       "Option " "Variable")
                   (or (documentation-property 
                         s 'variable-documentation)
                       "not documented")))))))

    ;; Build a list of symbols that match pattern.
    (mapatoms (function 
               (lambda (sym)
                 (if (string-match pattern (symbol-name sym))
                     (setq sym-list (cons sym sym-list))))))

    ;; Display the data.
    (with-output-to-temp-buffer "*Help*"
      (mapcar describe-func (sort sym-list 'string<))

The describe-symbols function works like apropos, but provides more information.

(describe-symbols "goal")

---------- Buffer: *Help* ----------
goal-column     Option 
*Semipermanent goal column for vertical motion, as set by C-x C-n, or nil.

set-goal-column Command: C-x C-n
Set the current horizontal position as a goal for C-n and C-p.
Those commands will move to this position in the line moved to
rather than trying to keep the same horizontal position.
With a non-nil argument, clears out the goal column
so that C-n and C-p resume vertical motion.
The goal column is stored in the variable `goal-column'.

temporary-goal-column   Variable
Current goal column for vertical motion.
It is the column where point was
at the start of current run of vertical motion commands.
When the `track-eol' feature is doing its job, the value is 9999.
---------- Buffer: *Help* ----------

Function: Snarf-documentation filename

This function is used only during Emacs initialization, just before the runnable Emacs is dumped. It finds the file offsets of the documentation strings stored in the file filename, and records them in the in-core function definitions and variable property lists in place of the actual strings. See section Building Emacs.

Emacs finds the file filename in the `emacs/etc' directory. When the dumped Emacs is later executed, the same file is found in the directory data-directory. Usually filename is "DOC-version".

Variable: data-directory

This variable holds the name of the directory in which Emacs finds certain data files that come with Emacs or are built as part of building Emacs. (In older Emacs versions, this directory was the same as exec-directory.)

Substituting Key Bindings in Documentation

This function makes it possible for you to write a documentation string that enables a user to display information about the current, actual key bindings. if you call documentation with non-nil verbatim, you might later call this function to do the substitution that you prevented documentation from doing.

Function: substitute-command-keys string

This function returns string with certain special substrings replaced by the actual (current) key bindings. This permits the documentation to be displayed with accurate information about key bindings. (The key bindings may be changed by the user between the time Emacs is built and the time that the documentation is asked for.)

This table lists the forms of the special substrings and what they are replaced with:

is replaced either by a keystroke sequence that will invoke command, or by `M-x command' if command is not bound to any key sequence.

is replaced by a summary of the value of mapvar, taken as a keymap. (The summary is made by describe-bindings.)

makes this call to substitute-command-keys use the value of mapvar as the keymap for future `\[command]' substrings. This special string does not produce any replacement text itself; it only affects the replacements done later.

Please note: each `\' must be doubled when written in a string in Emacs Lisp.

Here are examples of the special substrings:

   "To abort recursive edit, type: \\[abort-recursive-edit]")

=> "To abort recursive edit, type: C-]"

   "The keys that are defined for the minibuffer here are:

=> "The keys that are defined for the minibuffer here are:

?               minibuffer-completion-help
SPC             minibuffer-complete-word
TAB             minibuffer-complete
LFD             minibuffer-complete-and-exit
RET             minibuffer-complete-and-exit
C-g             abort-recursive-edit

   "To abort a recursive edit from the minibuffer, type\
=> "To abort a recursive edit from the minibuffer, type C-g."

Describing Characters for Help Messages

These functions convert events, key sequences or characters to textual descriptions. These descriptions are useful for including arbitrary text characters or key sequences in messages, because they convert non-printing characters to sequences of printing characters. The description of a printing character is the character itself.

Function: key-description sequence

This function returns a string containing the Emacs standard notation for the input events in sequence. The argument sequence may be a string, vector or list. See section Input Events, for more information about valid events. See also the examples for single-key-description, below.

Function: single-key-description event

This function returns a string describing event in the standard Emacs notation for keyboard input. A normal printing character is represented by itself, but a control character turns into a string starting with `C-', a meta character turns into a string starting with `M-', and space, linefeed, etc. are transformed to `SPC', `LFD', etc. A function key is represented by its name. An event which is a list is represented by the name of the symbol in the CAR of the list.

(single-key-description ?\C-x)
     => "C-x"
(key-description "\C-x \M-y \n \t \r \f123")
     => "C-x SPC M-y SPC LFD SPC TAB SPC RET SPC C-l 1 2 3"
(single-key-description 'C-mouse-1)
     => "C-mouse-1"

Function: text-char-description character

This function returns a string describing character in the standard Emacs notation for characters that appear in text--like single-key-description, except that control characters are represented with a leading caret (which is how control characters in Emacs buffers are usually displayed).

(text-char-description ?\C-c)
     => "^C"
(text-char-description ?\M-m)
     => "M-m"
(text-char-description ?\C-\M-m)
     => "M-^M"

Help Functions

Emacs provides a variety of on-line help functions, all accessible to the user as subcommands of the prefix C-h. For more information about them, see section `Help' in The GNU Emacs Manual. Here we describe some program-level interfaces to the same information.

Command: apropos regexp &optional do-all predicate

This function finds all symbols whose names contain a match for the regular expression regexp, and returns a list of them. It also displays the symbols in a buffer named `*Help*', each with a one-line description.

If do-all is non-nil, then apropos also shows key bindings for the functions that are found.

If predicate is non-nil, it should be a function to be called on each symbol that has matched regexp. Only symbols for which predicate returns a non-nil value are listed or displayed.

In the first of the following examples, apropos finds all the symbols with names containing `exec'. In the second example, it finds and returns only those symbols that are also commands. (We don't show the output that results in the `*Help*' buffer.)

(apropos "exec")
     => (Buffer-menu-execute command-execute exec-directory
    exec-path execute-extended-command execute-kbd-macro
    executing-kbd-macro executing-macro)

(apropos "exec" nil 'commandp)
     => (Buffer-menu-execute execute-extended-command)

The command C-h a (command-apropos) calls apropos, but specifies a predicate to restrict the output to symbols that are commands. The call to apropos looks like this:

(apropos string t 'commandp)

Command: super-apropos regexp &optional do-all

This function differs from apropos in that it searches documentation strings as well as symbol names for matches for regexp. By default, it searches only the documentation strings, and only those of functions and variables that are included in Emacs when it is dumped. If do-all is non-nil, it scans the names and documentation strings of all functions and variables.

Command: help-command

This command is not a function, but rather a symbol which is equivalent to the keymap called help-map. It is defined in `help.el' as follows:

(define-key global-map "\C-h" 'help-command)
(fset 'help-command help-map)

Variable: help-map

The value of this variable is a local keymap for characters following the Help key, C-h.

Function: print-help-return-message &optional function

This function builds a string which is a message explaining how to restore the previous state of the windows after a help command. After building the message, it applies function to it if function is non-nil. Otherwise it calls message to display it in the echo area.

This function expects to be called inside a with-output-to-temp-buffer special form, and expects standard-output to have the value bound by that special form. For an example of its use, see the example in the section describing the documentation function (see section Access to Documentation Strings).

The constructed message will have one of the forms shown below.

---------- Echo Area ----------
Type C-x 1 to remove help window.
---------- Echo Area ----------

---------- Echo Area ----------
Type C-x 4 b RET to restore old contents of help window.
---------- Echo Area ----------

Variable: help-char

The value of this variable is the character that Emacs recognizes as meaning Help. When Emacs reads this character (which is usually 8, the value of C-h), Emacs evaluates (eval help-form), and displays the result if it is a string. If help-form's value is nil, this character is read normally.

Variable: help-form

The value of this variable is a form to execute when the character help-char is read. If the form returns a string, that string is displayed. If help-form is nil, then the help character is not recognized.

Entry to the minibuffer binds this variable to the value of minibuffer-help-form.

Variable: prefix-help-command

This variable holds a command that prints help for a prefix character. The command is run when the user types the help character after a prefix character. The default value of prefix-help-command is describe-prefix-bindings; that command uses this-command-keys to find what prefix character was used, then uses describe-bindings to describe it.

The following two functions are found in the library `helper'. They are for modes that want to provide help without relinquishing control, such as the "electric" modes. You must load that library with (require 'helper) in order to use them. Their names begin with `Helper' to distinguish them from the ordinary help functions.

Command: Helper-describe-bindings

This command pops up a window displaying a help buffer containing a listing of all of the key bindings from both the local and global keymaps. It works by calling describe-bindings.

Command: Helper-help

This command provides help for the current mode. It prompts the user in the minibuffer with the message `Help (Type ? for further options)', and then provides assistance in finding out what the key bindings are, and what the mode is intended for. It returns nil.

This can be customized by changing the map Helper-help-map.

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