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Elisp Cheat Sheet


  • define a symbol as variable and assign an (possibly calculated) initial value: (defvar sym &optional init “doc”)
  • do the same as defvar, but define sym as a constant variable:1) (defconst sym init “doc”)
  • declare a symbol as a customizable variable, with a default value init: (defcustom sym init “doc” &rest args)
  • assign a value to a symbol, also evaluating the symbol (not only the value): (set 'sym val)
  • assign values to variables (dependencies allowed, does not evaluate var): (setq var val …)
  • assign default values to variables (dependencies allowed): (setq-default var val …)
  • call a function with args, one after another: (apply fun &rest args)

(Not) Eval

  • temp. bind some variables (overwriting outer variables of same name), then evaluate body:2) let
  • do the same as letf, but dependencies between assigned (init) values in variable bindings are allowed: let*
  • evaluate body (multiple statements) as a single statement: (progn …)
  • return a (self-quoting, not evaluated) lambda expression: (lambda …)


  • if..else control structure: (if condition …)
  • and without an else path: (when condition …)
  • an equivalent to (when (not condition) …) is: (unless condition …)
  • try each clause until success: (cond …)

Simple Lists

  • make a list:
    • '(a b c d)
    • (quote a b c d)
    • (list a b c d)
    • (append a b '(c d))
  • add element elt to list lst: (add-to-list 'lst elt)
  • concatenate any number of lists: (nconc &rest lists)
  • is element elt a member of list lst: (member elt lst)
  • or, to get a true boolean value: (not (null (member elt lst)))
  • get the first element from a list: (car lst)
  • get a list starting from the second element of lst: (cdr lst)
  • get the second element (see prev. two lines): (car (cdr lst)), or (cadr lst)
  • get the n-th element: (nth n lst)
  • set the first element of a list to a new value: (setcar lst val)
  • number of elements in a list: (length lst)
  • iterate over all list elements: (dolist …)
  • stringify and concatenate all list elements: (mapconcat …)
  • apply a function to all list elements: (mapc fun seq)
  • apply a function to all elements of a sequence3) and make a list from the results: (mapcar fun seq)
  • find a key in car of list elements: (assoc key lst)

Association Lists (Alist)

Alists can be seen as simple lists with special elements (so called cons cells), representing an association between key and val.

  • make a cons cell for an association between key and val: (cons key val)
  • or, the same as above: '(key . val)
  • get the association for key in alst: (assq key alst)
  • get the (reverse) association for val in alst: (rassoc val alst)
  • make a copy of an alist (using cl-lib): (copy-alist alst)


  • test if object is a string: (stringp obj)
  • compare two strings: (string= str1 str2)
  • test if string matches a regular expression: (string-match-p regexp str)


  • test if symbols value is not void (symbol exist): (boundp sym)
  • test if symbols function definition is not void (function exist): (fboundp sym)
  • test if object is a function: (functionp obj)
  • quote a function name (for byte-compile):4) (function fun), or #'fun
  • call fun (this might be a variable, else quote it) with args: (funcall fun args..)
  • get the symbol name as string (symbol-name sym)
  • make/reference a symbol from a name (string): (intern name)
  • get function definition: (symbol-function sym)
  • set function definition: (fset sym def)
  • get symbol property:5) (get sym prop)
  • set symbol property: (put sym prop val)
  • remove property from symbol (using cl-lib): (remprop sym prop)


  • execute shell command: (shell-command …)
  • execute within modified environment
    (let ((process-environment ...))
      (shell-command ...))
  • execute with sudo
    (let ((default-directory "/sudo::"))
      (shell-command "ls"))


  • call interactive command with prefix argument programmatically
    (let ((current-prefix-arg '(4))) ; with C-u take symbol under point
      (call-interactively #'grep)))  ; autoloads `grep'
  • pass-through current-prefix-arg to interactively called command6)
    (defun my-interactive-command ()
       (call-interactively #'grep))
  • copy/re-use the interactive specification of another command
       `(defun rho/ispell-change-dictionary (dict &optional arg)
               "Do the same as original (advised) function `ispell-change-dictionary',
    but (in addition) update the Flyspell mode lighter with the current dictionary."
               ,(interactive-form 'ispell-change-dictionary) ; (interactive ...)

Major Modes

  • a sample mode, derived from c-mode:
;; sample-mode.el -*- coding: utf-8 -*-
;; Sample Mode
;; Copyright (C) 2017 Ralf Hoppe <>
(defvar sample-mode-hook nil)
(defconst sample-mode-syntax-table
  (let ((table (make-syntax-table)))
    (modify-syntax-entry ?\" "\"" table) ; string delimiter
    (modify-syntax-entry ?/ "<124" table)
    (modify-syntax-entry ?* "<23b" table)
    (modify-syntax-entry ?\n ">b" table) ; \n is comment end for (only) C++ style
    (modify-syntax-entry ?# "<" table)
(defconst sample-font-lock-keywords
  '(("\\(builtin1\\|builtin2\\)\\>" . font-lock-builtin-face)
    ("\\<\\(keyword1\\|keyword2\\)\\>" . font-lock-keyword-face)
    ("\\<\\(type1\\|type2\\)\\>" . font-lock-type-face)
    ("\\<Sample[0-9a-zA-Z_]*\\>" . font-lock-function-name-face)
    ("\\<\\(SAMPLE\\|Sample_\\)[0-9a-zA-Z_]*\\>" . font-lock-constant-face)
(define-derived-mode sample-mode c-mode "Sample" :syntax-table sample-mode-syntax-table
  (set (make-local-variable 'font-lock-defaults) '(sample-font-lock-keywords))
  (set (make-local-variable 'indent-line-function) 'c-indent-line)
  (setq-local comment-start "// ")
  (setq-local comment-end "")
  (run-hooks 'sample-mode-hook))
(add-to-list 'auto-mode-alist '("\\.sample\\'" . sample-mode))
(when (featurep 'speedbar)
  (speedbar-add-supported-extension ".sample"))
(provide 'sample-mode)
Citation from Emacs help: This declares that neither programs nor users should ever change the value. This constancy is not actually enforced by Emacs Lisp, but the symbol is marked as a special variable so that it is never lexically bound.
For details see the article by Artur Malabarba: Understanding letf and how it replaces flet.
A sequence may be a list, a vector, a bool-vector, or a string.
Strictly avoid using quote for that. For details see the article by Artur Malabarba: Get in the habit of using sharp quote.
For standard symbol properties (plist) see Emacs Lisp Manual.
There is nothing special todo in this case, because current-prefix-arg is retained during interactive command processing.
programming/elisp.txt · Last modified: 2023/08/06 14:34 by Ralf H.