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2. Practicing Evaluation

Before learning how to write a function definition in Emacs Lisp, it is useful to spend a little time evaluating various expressions that have already been written. These expressions will be lists with the functions as their first (and often only) element. Since some of the functions associated with buffers are both simple and interesting, we will start with those. In this section, we will evaluate a few of these. In another section, we will study the code of several other buffer-related functions, to see how they were written.

How to Evaluate  Typing editing commands or C-x C-e causes evaluation.
2.1 Buffer Names  Buffers and files are different.
2.2 Getting Buffers  Getting a buffer itself, not merely its name.
2.3 Switching Buffers  How to change to another buffer.
2.4 Buffer Size and the Location of Point  Where point is located and the size of the buffer.
2.5 Exercise  

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How to Evaluate

Whenever you give an editing command to Emacs Lisp, such as the command to move the cursor or to scroll the screen, you are evaluating an expression, the first element of which is a function. This is how Emacs works.

When you type keys, you cause the Lisp interpreter to evaluate an expression and that is how you get your results. Even typing plain text involves evaluating an Emacs Lisp function, in this case, one that uses self-insert-command, which simply inserts the character you typed. The functions you evaluate by typing keystrokes are called interactive functions, or commands; how you make a function interactive will be illustrated in the chapter on how to write function definitions. See section Making a Function Interactive.

In addition to typing keyboard commands, we have seen a second way to evaluate an expression: by positioning the cursor after a list and typing C-x C-e. This is what we will do in the rest of this section. There are other ways to evaluate an expression as well; these will be described as we come to them.

Besides being used for practicing evaluation, the functions shown in the next few sections are important in their own right. A study of these functions makes clear the distinction between buffers and files, how to switch to a buffer, and how to determine a location within it.

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2.1 Buffer Names

The two functions, buffer-name and buffer-file-name, show the difference between a file and a buffer. When you evaluate the following expression, (buffer-name), the name of the buffer appears in the echo area. When you evaluate (buffer-file-name), the name of the file to which the buffer refers appears in the echo area. Usually, the name returned by (buffer-name) is the same as the name of the file to which it refers, and the name returned by (buffer-file-name) is the full path-name of the file.

A file and a buffer are two different entities. A file is information recorded permanently in the computer (unless you delete it). A buffer, on the other hand, is information inside of Emacs that will vanish at the end of the editing session (or when you kill the buffer). Usually, a buffer contains information that you have copied from a file; we say the buffer is visiting that file. This copy is what you work on and modify. Changes to the buffer do not change the file, until you save the buffer. When you save the buffer, the buffer is copied to the file and is thus saved permanently.

If you are reading this in Info inside of GNU Emacs, you can evaluate each of the following expressions by positioning the cursor after it and typing C-x C-e.



When I do this, `"introduction.texinfo"' is the value returned by evaluating (buffer-name), and `"/gnu/work/intro/introduction.texinfo"' is the value returned by evaluating (buffer-file-name). The former is the name of the buffer and the latter is the name of the file. (In the expressions, the parentheses tell the Lisp interpreter to treat buffer-name and buffer-file-name as functions; without the parentheses, the interpreter would attempt to evaluate the symbols as variables. See section 1.7 Variables.)

In spite of the distinction between files and buffers, you will often find that people refer to a file when they mean a buffer and vice-versa. Indeed, most people say, "I am editing a file," rather than saying, "I am editing a buffer which I will soon save to a file." It is almost always clear from context what people mean. When dealing with computer programs, however, it is important to keep the distinction in mind, since the computer is not as smart as a person.

The word `buffer', by the way, comes from the meaning of the word as a cushion that deadens the force of a collision. In early computers, a buffer cushioned the interaction between files and the computer's central processing unit. The drums or tapes that held a file and the central processing unit were pieces of equipment that were very different from each other, working at their own speeds, in spurts. The buffer made it possible for them to work together effectively. Eventually, the buffer grew from being an intermediary, a temporary holding place, to being the place where work is done. This transformation is rather like that of a small seaport that grew into a great city: once it was merely the place where cargo was warehoused temporarily before being loaded onto ships; then it became a business and cultural center in its own right.

Not all buffers are associated with files. For example, when you start an Emacs session by typing the command emacs alone, without naming any files, Emacs will start with the `*scratch*' buffer on the screen. This buffer is not visiting any file. Similarly, a `*Help*' buffer is not associated with any file.

If you switch to the `*scratch*' buffer, type (buffer-name), position the cursor after it, and type C-x C-e to evaluate the expression, the name "*scratch*" is returned and will appear in the echo area. "*scratch*" is the name of the buffer. However, if you type (buffer-file-name) in the `*scratch*' buffer and evaluate that, nil will appear in the echo area. nil is from the Latin word for `nothing'; in this case, it means that the `*scratch*' buffer is not associated with any file. (In Lisp, nil is also used to mean `false' and is a synonym for the empty list, ().)

Incidentally, if you are in the `*scratch*' buffer and want the value returned by an expression to appear in the `*scratch*' buffer itself rather than in the echo area, type C-u C-x C-e instead of C-x C-e. This causes the value returned to appear after the expression. The buffer will look like this:


You cannot do this in Info since Info is read-only and it will not allow you to change the contents of the buffer. But you can do this in any buffer you can edit; and when you write code or documentation (such as this book), this feature is very useful.

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2.2 Getting Buffers

The buffer-name function returns the name of the buffer; to get the buffer itself, a different function is needed: the current-buffer function. If you use this function in code, what you get is the buffer itself.

A name and the object or entity to which the name refers are different from each other. You are not your name. You are a person to whom others refer by name. If you ask to speak to George and someone hands you a card with the letters `G', `e', `o', `r', `g', and `e' written on it, you might be amused, but you would not be satisfied. You do not want to speak to the name, but to the person to whom the name refers. A buffer is similar: the name of the scratch buffer is `*scratch*', but the name is not the buffer. To get a buffer itself, you need to use a function such as current-buffer.

However, there is a slight complication: if you evaluate current-buffer in an expression on its own, as we will do here, what you see is a printed representation of the name of the buffer without the contents of the buffer. Emacs works this way for two reasons: the buffer may be thousands of lines long--too long to be conveniently displayed; and, another buffer may have the same contents but a different name, and it is important to distinguish between them.

Here is an expression containing the function:


If you evaluate the expression in the usual way, `#<buffer *info*>' appears in the echo area. The special format indicates that the buffer itself is being returned, rather than just its name.

Incidentally, while you can type a number or symbol into a program, you cannot do that with the printed representation of a buffer: the only way to get a buffer itself is with a function such as current-buffer.

A related function is other-buffer. This returns the most recently selected buffer other than the one you are in currently. If you have recently switched back and forth from the `*scratch*' buffer, other-buffer will return that buffer.

You can see this by evaluating the expression:


You should see `#<buffer *scratch*>' appear in the echo area, or the name of whatever other buffer you switched back from most recently(3).

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2.3 Switching Buffers

The other-buffer function actually provides a buffer when it is used as an argument to a function that requires one. We can see this by using other-buffer and switch-to-buffer to switch to a different buffer.

But first, a brief introduction to the switch-to-buffer function. When you switched back and forth from Info to the `*scratch*' buffer to evaluate (buffer-name), you most likely typed C-x b and then typed `*scratch*'(4) when prompted in the minibuffer for the name of the buffer to which you wanted to switch. The keystrokes, C-x b, cause the Lisp interpreter to evaluate the interactive function switch-to-buffer. As we said before, this is how Emacs works: different keystrokes call or run different functions. For example, C-f calls forward-char, M-e calls forward-sentence, and so on.

By writing switch-to-buffer in an expression, and giving it a buffer to switch to, we can switch buffers just the way C-x b does.

Here is the Lisp expression:

(switch-to-buffer (other-buffer))

The symbol switch-to-buffer is the first element of the list, so the Lisp interpreter will treat it as a function and carry out the instructions that are attached to it. But before doing that, the interpreter will note that other-buffer is inside parentheses and work on that symbol first. other-buffer is the first (and in this case, the only) element of this list, so the Lisp interpreter calls or runs the function. It returns another buffer. Next, the interpreter runs switch-to-buffer, passing to it, as an argument, the other buffer, which is what Emacs will switch to. If you are reading this in Info, try this now. Evaluate the expression. (To get back, type C-x b RET.)(5)

In the programming examples in later sections of this document, you will see the function set-buffer more often than switch-to-buffer. This is because of a difference between computer programs and humans: humans have eyes and expect to see the buffer on which they are working on their computer terminals. This is so obvious, it almost goes without saying. However, programs do not have eyes. When a computer program works on a buffer, that buffer does not need to be visible on the screen.

switch-to-buffer is designed for humans and does two different things: it switches the buffer to which Emacs' attention is directed; and it switches the buffer displayed in the window to the new buffer. set-buffer, on the other hand, does only one thing: it switches the attention of the computer program to a different buffer. The buffer on the screen remains unchanged (of course, normally nothing happens there until the command finishes running).

Also, we have just introduced another jargon term, the word call. When you evaluate a list in which the first symbol is a function, you are calling that function. The use of the term comes from the notion of the function as an entity that can do something for you if you `call' it--just as a plumber is an entity who can fix a leak if you call him or her.

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2.4 Buffer Size and the Location of Point

Finally, let's look at several rather simple functions, buffer-size, point, point-min, and point-max. These give information about the size of a buffer and the location of point within it.

The function buffer-size tells you the size of the current buffer; that is, the function returns a count of the number of characters in the buffer.


You can evaluate this in the usual way, by positioning the cursor after the expression and typing C-x C-e.

In Emacs, the current position of the cursor is called point. The expression (point) returns a number that tells you where the cursor is located as a count of the number of characters from the beginning of the buffer up to point.

You can see the character count for point in this buffer by evaluating the following expression in the usual way:


As I write this, the value of point is 65724. The point function is frequently used in some of the examples later in this book.

The value of point depends, of course, on its location within the buffer. If you evaluate point in this spot, the number will be larger:


For me, the value of point in this location is 66043, which means that there are 319 characters (including spaces) between the two expressions.

The function point-min is somewhat similar to point, but it returns the value of the minimum permissible value of point in the current buffer. This is the number 1 unless narrowing is in effect. (Narrowing is a mechanism whereby you can restrict yourself, or a program, to operations on just a part of a buffer. See section Narrowing and Widening.) Likewise, the function point-max returns the value of the maximum permissible value of point in the current buffer.

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2.5 Exercise

Find a file with which you are working and move towards its middle. Find its buffer name, file name, length, and your position in the file.

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