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GNU Emacs Lisp Reference Manual

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10.2 Conditionals

Conditional control structures choose among alternatives. Emacs Lisp has four conditional forms: if, which is much the same as in other languages; when and unless, which are variants of if; and cond, which is a generalized case statement.

Special Form: if condition then-form else-forms...
if chooses between the then-form and the else-forms based on the value of condition. If the evaluated condition is non-nil, then-form is evaluated and the result returned. Otherwise, the else-forms are evaluated in textual order, and the value of the last one is returned. (The else part of if is an example of an implicit progn. See section 10.1 Sequencing.)

If condition has the value nil, and no else-forms are given, if returns nil.

if is a special form because the branch that is not selected is never evaluated--it is ignored. Thus, in the example below, true is not printed because print is never called.

(if nil 
    (print 'true) 
=> very-false

Macro: when condition then-forms...
This is a variant of if where there are no else-forms, and possibly several then-forms. In particular,

(when condition a b c)

is entirely equivalent to

(if condition (progn a b c) nil)

Macro: unless condition forms...
This is a variant of if where there is no then-form:

(unless condition a b c)

is entirely equivalent to

(if condition nil
   a b c)

Special Form: cond clause...
cond chooses among an arbitrary number of alternatives. Each clause in the cond must be a list. The CAR of this list is the condition; the remaining elements, if any, the body-forms. Thus, a clause looks like this:

(condition body-forms...)

cond tries the clauses in textual order, by evaluating the condition of each clause. If the value of condition is non-nil, the clause "succeeds"; then cond evaluates its body-forms, and the value of the last of body-forms becomes the value of the cond. The remaining clauses are ignored.

If the value of condition is nil, the clause "fails", so the cond moves on to the following clause, trying its condition.

If every condition evaluates to nil, so that every clause fails, cond returns nil.

A clause may also look like this:


Then, if condition is non-nil when tested, the value of condition becomes the value of the cond form.

The following example has four clauses, which test for the cases where the value of x is a number, string, buffer and symbol, respectively:

(cond ((numberp x) x)
      ((stringp x) x)
      ((bufferp x)
       (setq temporary-hack x) ; multiple body-forms
       (buffer-name x))        ; in one clause
      ((symbolp x) (symbol-value x)))

Often we want to execute the last clause whenever none of the previous clauses was successful. To do this, we use t as the condition of the last clause, like this: (t body-forms). The form t evaluates to t, which is never nil, so this clause never fails, provided the cond gets to it at all.

For example,

(setq a 5)
(cond ((eq a 'hack) 'foo)
      (t "default"))
=> "default"

This cond expression returns foo if the value of a is hack, and returns the string "default" otherwise.

Any conditional construct can be expressed with cond or with if. Therefore, the choice between them is a matter of style. For example:

(if a b c)
(cond (a b) (t c))

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