Fixing My #1 Annoyance With Emacs Lisp


Ah, Emacs Lisp. There are many reasons for loving and hating it. I disagree with most people name when they argue why the language sucks[1], for me it’s mostly two things that end up mattering in practice:

  1. The APIs are terrible. Font-locking is an enigma. It’s common for packages to use synchronous APIs because it’s far easier to do than The Right Thing™. Moving through buffers and editing them makes for incomprehensible and stateful code. I could go on, but most of these can be mitigated by writing your own APIs as you figure things out. This is not what this blog post is about.
  2. There is no namespace or module system. This means that every global identifier could end up clashing with another one unless you emulate namespacing by adding a unique prefix. While this could be fixed, it’s unlikely to happen[2]. Interestingly enough this situation is similar to C, but worse as there’s no visibility control, only the convention of using a double dash for global identifiers not considered public. This annoys me as I have to type out a potentially long prefix every time. This is what this blog post is about.

I initially considered one of the namespace packages. It would make for as little typing as possible, however this would require an additional dependency and break my existing workflows. Therefore I went for the alternative route, writing a command that inserts the package prefix of the current buffer at point. Bind that command to an easily reachable key binding and you’d save nearly as much effort with typing.

(defvar-local my-current-package-prefix nil)

(defun my-ensure-trailing-dash (string)
  (if (and (not (zerop (length string)))
           (not (= (aref string (1- (length string))) ?-)))
      (concat string "-")

(defun my-guess-current-package-prefix (arg)
    (goto-char (point-min))
    (if (and (not arg)
             (re-search-forward "^(defgroup \\(\\w+\\)" nil t))
        (setq my-current-package-prefix
              (my-ensure-trailing-dash (match-string 1)))
      (setq my-current-package-prefix
             (read-string "Package prefix: "

(defun my-insert-current-package-prefix (arg)
  (interactive "P")
  (when (or (not my-current-package-prefix) arg)
    (my-guess-current-package-prefix arg))
  (insert my-current-package-prefix))

(with-eval-after-load 'elisp-mode
  (define-key emacs-lisp-mode-map (kbd "C-.")

Guessing the prefix is done by looking for a (defgroup ...) form which is a good enough indicator for a prefix[3]. In case it’s not given, the above code prompts for a prefix and allows resetting it with a prefix argument. The trickiest part is ensuring the prefix ends with a dash. You could optimize this even further by looking whether a prefix has already been inserted, but honestly, undoing the change is simple enough.

Let’s see whether this reignites my drive to write more Emacs packages…

[1]Who cares if it’s slow? Who cares about the lack of regex literals? Yes, it’s not <insert your favorite language>. Despite all of this people wrote lots of it, far more than any of the haters would. Feel free to dream about an Emacs rewritten in something else, but it’s going to stay a pipe dream if that’s all you do. The topic deserves a separate blog post because it’s a common phenomenon in the Emacs community to place irrational hopes in a re-implementation to succeed the status quo.
[2]The topic came up on emacs-devel before, the main problem is that the tooling would need to be updated. Simple workflows the core team is used to (such as grepping the qualified name) would completely break apart.
[3]An even better indicator would be the :prefix option inside (defgroup ...), but let’s not go overboard.