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10. Yanking Text Back

Whenever you cut text out of a buffer with a `kill' command in GNU Emacs, you can bring it back with a `yank' command. The text that is cut out of the buffer is put in the kill ring and the yank commands insert the appropriate contents of the kill ring back into a buffer (not necessarily the original buffer).

A simple C-y (yank) command inserts the first item from the kill ring into the current buffer. If the C-y command is followed immediately by M-y, the first element is replaced by the second element. Successive M-y commands replace the second element with the third, fourth, or fifth element, and so on. When the last element in the kill ring is reached, it is replaced by the first element and the cycle is repeated. (Thus the kill ring is called a `ring' rather than just a `list'. However, the actual data structure that holds the text is a list. See section Handling the Kill Ring, for the details of how the list is handled as a ring.)

10.1 Kill Ring Overview  The kill ring is a list.
10.2 The kill-ring-yank-pointer Variable  The kill-ring-yank-pointer variable.
10.3 Exercises with yank and nthcdr  

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10.1 Kill Ring Overview

The kill ring is a list of textual strings. This is what it looks like:

("some text" "a different piece of text" "yet more text")

If this were the contents of my kill ring and I pressed C-y, the string of characters saying `some text' would be inserted in this buffer where my cursor is located.

The yank command is also used for duplicating text by copying it. The copied text is not cut from the buffer, but a copy of it is put on the kill ring and is inserted by yanking it back.

Three functions are used for bringing text back from the kill ring: yank, which is usually bound to C-y; yank-pop, which is usually bound to M-y; and rotate-yank-pointer, which is used by the two other functions.

These functions refer to the kill ring through a variable called the kill-ring-yank-pointer. Indeed, the insertion code for both the yank and yank-pop functions is:

(insert (car kill-ring-yank-pointer))

To begin to understand how yank and yank-pop work, it is first necessary to look at the kill-ring-yank-pointer variable and the rotate-yank-pointer function.

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10.2 The kill-ring-yank-pointer Variable

kill-ring-yank-pointer is a variable, just as kill-ring is a variable. It points to something by being bound to the value of what it points to, like any other Lisp variable.

Thus, if the value of the kill ring is:

("some text" "a different piece of text" "yet more text")

and the kill-ring-yank-pointer points to the second clause, the value of kill-ring-yank-pointer is:

("a different piece of text" "yet more text")

As explained in the previous chapter (see section 9. How Lists are Implemented), the computer does not keep two different copies of the text being pointed to by both the kill-ring and the kill-ring-yank-pointer. The words "a different piece of text" and "yet more text" are not duplicated. Instead, the two Lisp variables point to the same pieces of text. Here is a diagram:

kill-ring     kill-ring-yank-pointer
    |               |
    |      ___ ___  |     ___ ___      ___ ___
     ---> |   |   |  --> |   |   |    |   |   |
          |___|___|----> |___|___|--> |___|___|--> nil
            |              |            |
            |              |            |
            |              |             --> "yet more text"
            |              |
            |               --> "a different piece of text
             --> "some text"

Both the variable kill-ring and the variable kill-ring-yank-pointer are pointers. But the kill ring itself is usually described as if it were actually what it is composed of. The kill-ring is spoken of as if it were the list rather than that it points to the list. Conversely, the kill-ring-yank-pointer is spoken of as pointing to a list.

These two ways of talking about the same thing sound confusing at first but make sense on reflection. The kill ring is generally thought of as the complete structure of data that holds the information of what has recently been cut out of the Emacs buffers. The kill-ring-yank-pointer on the other hand, serves to indicate--that is, to `point to'---that part of the kill ring of which the first element (the CAR) will be inserted.

The rotate-yank-pointer function changes the element in the kill ring to which the kill-ring-yank-pointer points; when the pointer is set to point to the next element beyond the end of the kill ring, it automatically sets it to point to the first element of the kill ring. This is how the list is transformed into a ring. The rotate-yank-pointer function itself is not difficult, but contains many details. It and the much simpler yank and yank-pop functions are described in an appendix. See section Handling the Kill Ring.

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10.3 Exercises with yank and nthcdr

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