Recently, I started development of an emacs language mode called rubex-mode for supporting Rubex syntax highlighting in emacs. This took me to the ModeTutorial on the emacs wiki, which is a very detailed tutorial for learning how to write new emacs language modes. Before starting the tutorial I had no knowledge of Emacslisp or writing emacs language modes.

In this post I will share some of the important things that I learned about Emacslisp and some things that I think are important about writing language modes for Emacs.

Learning resources

Emacs lisp basics

Lisp evaluation

If you enable ‘lisp-interaction-mode’ in emacs you can evaluate lisp using the C-j shortcut. That will insert the result of the evaluation in the buffer. C-x C-e displays the same result in the minibuffer.


Programs are made of symbolic expressions (pre-fix notation), like (+ 2 2), this means ‘2 + 2’.

Expressions are made of atomic expressions or more symbolic expressions. In (+ 2 (+ 1 1)), 1 and 2 are atoms, (+ 2 (+ 1 1)) and (+ 1 1) are symbolic expressions.

Getting and setting variables

setq stores a value into a variable:

(setq my-name "sameer")

Variables can also be initialized using defvar. The emacswiki page is here. defvar is similar to setq, but the difference is that defvar will not set the variable if it already has a value.

Setting global constants

The defconst keyword is used for setting global constants. It informs a person reading your code that symbol has a standard global value, established here, that should not be changed by the user or by other programs. Note that symbol is not evaluated; the symbol to be defined must appear explicitly in the defconst.

For example:

(defconst pi 3.141592653589793 "The value of Pi.")

Above code initializes the variable pi to a value and sets a docstring.


Functions can be defined using the defun keyword. For example, to defined a function hello that accepts an argument name and inserts the variable with a string on the buffer:

(defun hello (name) (insert "Hello " name))

Fun fact: when evaluating elisp in a buffer, place the cursor at the bottom of the file otherwise emacs will only evaluate code until the cursor and throw unexpected output.

Combining expressions

You can use the progn form for evaluating a set of expressions one by one and returning the value of the last one. The preceding expressions are only evaluated for their side effects and their values are discarded.

All emacs commands are basically just elisp function calls. So you can call something like this:

  (switch-to-buffer-other-window "*scratch*")
  (hello "you"))

And it will switch the active window to the *scratch* buffer and print Hello you in the buffer.

A value can be bound to a local variable using let. This command can also be used for combining several sexps.

(let ((local-name "you"))
  (switch-to-buffer-other-window "*test*")
  (hello local-name))


quote is a special form in elisp that returns its single argument, without evaluating it. This provides a way to include constants and lists, which are not self-evaluating objects, in a program. This link talks about it in detail.

Its used so often that a short form of using a single quote is often used instead ('). This answer talks in detail about when to and when not to use it.

In general, if you are trying to use the variable itself, use the quoted form, otherwise directly use the variable name. For example, in the expression (mapcar 'hello list-of-names), we use a quoted hello because don’t actually want to call the function, we just want to pass a reference to it to the mapcar function which will then call hello at its own leisure.


A list of names can be stored like so:

(setq list-of-names '("Sarah" "Chloe" "Mathilde"))

The above expression is quoted because we want to set the whole expression as a list to list-of-names.

Use the car function for getting the first element of the list and cdr for getting all elements except the first element.

Cons cells

Lists are composed of cons cells. Each cons cell is a tuple of two lisp objects, the car and cdr. In the case of a list, the first slot of a cons cell holds the element of the list and the next part chains to the next element of the list. The cdr of the last cell of the list is nil. This helps in detecting the end of a list.

Dotted pair notation

A dotted pair notation is a general syntax for creating cons cells that represents the car and cdr explicitly. In this syntax, (a . b) stands for a cons cell whose car is the object a and whose cdr is the object b. Dotted pair notation is more general than list syntax because the cdr does not have to be a list.

Dotted pairs can be chained together to form a list. For example, (1 2 3) is written as (1 . (2 . (3 . nil))).

Simple matrix multplication

Writing an emacs major mode

Basic mode setup

There are certain variables that all modes must define. Here’s a list:

  • wpdl-mode-hook: allows the user to run their own code when your mode is run.
  • wpdl-mode-map: allows both you and your users to define their own keymaps.

In order to tell emacs that this mode must start when a particular file extension is detected, we add to a list called auto-mode-alist using the add-to-list function. For example:

(add-to-list 'auto-mode-alist '("\\.rubex\\'" . rubex-mode))

Protip: An alist is for historical reasons made of plain cons cells instead of full lists.

Syntax highlighting