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Lesson 4-2 - Adding Custom Functions To Emacs


In order to run custom eLisp functions it is necessary to have them loaded into Emacs at run time.

On load time emacs executes a startup file. In Emacs-23 on Ubuntu 10.10 this is a file called .emacs in your home directory.

This file may or may not exist. Emacs is quite happy for it not to exist. If you change any settings using the Options menu and then save them, the results will be written to the .emacs file.

A Simple Custom Function

Open the .emacs file (or create it if it doesn't exist) and add the following function:

(defun doodlebug ()
 "Nonce function"
 (message "Howdie-doodie fella"))

The first time you do this, edit the .emacs file and then open Emacs. If you edit it in Emacs you will need to quit and restart.

On starting Emacs all the code in .emacs is reloaded and evaluated.

This function can be run simply. The command [Alt][x] is used to a run a function interactively. Typing [Alt][x] switches the focus in Emacs to the minibuffer - if you then type in a function name it will be executed. To run doodlebug simply type [Alt][x] and then doodlebug.

You should then see the output in the minibuffer:

Howdie-doodie fella

Look carefully at the function definition. The third parameter of the list is the expression (interactive) - this is necessary if we are to invoke the function from either a key-binding or the minibuffer.

A Custom Function With User Input

Lets edit the function to take some parameters:

(defun doodlebug (a b c)
  "Nonce function"
  (interactive "sAdjective: \nsNoun: \nsExclamation: \n")
  (message "Its a %s thing, this %s, so it is, %s" a b c))

You can't reload the .emacs file, but you can manually re-evaluated by using the command Emacs-Lisp -> Evaluate Buffer in the .emacs buffer.

When you run this version of the function with [Alt][x]doodlebug it will offer up three prompts, to wit:


As you type in a string at each prompt (ending with [Return]) each of the strings wll be bound to the variables a, b and c in turn.

This behaviour in enabled by the new form of the interactive expresion. The string which has been added to that expression consists of 6 seperate components:

Adjective: \n
Noun: \n
Exclamation: \n

The 2nd, 4th and 6th parts are the prompts which will be shown in the minibuffer. The three s's are Interactive Codes which refer to strings (ie key sequences terminated with [Return] which are entered at the prompt. There are a range of other Interative Codes, some of which are:

a - a function name
b - the name of an existing buffer
B - the name of a buffer which may or may not exist
c - a character
C - a command
etc, etc

You can read the full list of Interactive Codes in the reference manual

Binding The Custom Function To A Key Sequence

To bind the custom function to a key sequence add the following line to the .emacs file.

(global-set-key [f5] 'doodlebug)

This expression will bind the function doodlebug to the F5 function key. Once you have re-evaluated the .emacs buffer you will be able to fire the function with the F5 key.

We can identify which function is bound to which key with the command:

(lookup-key (current-global-map) [f5])

The rules for binding keys are a bit complex. We can use the operator kbd to generate the appropriate input to global-set-key and lookup-key, for instance:

(global-set-key (kbd "C-c a") 'doodlebug)
(lookup-key (current-global-map) (kbd "C-c a"))

The expression (kbd "C-c a") generates the appropriate keymap for the key sequence [C-c][a].

What You Have Learned

You have learned:

  • a way to load a new function into emacs
  • how to make the function take interactive paramters
  • how to invoke that command - via the command line and via a custom key

Additional Reading

There is a good discussion of keybindings in your .emacs file in the Emacs Lisp Introduction.

The whole process of binding keys to functions in emacs is quite complex and is covered in the Keymaps section of the manual

Extra Activities

What happens if you try and run a function which doesn't include the expression (interactive)?

Experiment with other Interactive Codes in your functions.

Bind and unbind some keys to functions in your .emacs file.

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