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GNU Emacs Lisp Reference Manual

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11.10.1 Introduction to Buffer-Local Variables

A buffer-local variable has a buffer-local binding associated with a particular buffer. The binding is in effect when that buffer is current; otherwise, it is not in effect. If you set the variable while a buffer-local binding is in effect, the new value goes in that binding, so its other bindings are unchanged. This means that the change is visible only in the buffer where you made it.

The variable's ordinary binding, which is not associated with any specific buffer, is called the default binding. In most cases, this is the global binding.

A variable can have buffer-local bindings in some buffers but not in other buffers. The default binding is shared by all the buffers that don't have their own bindings for the variable. (This includes all newly-created buffers.) If you set the variable in a buffer that does not have a buffer-local binding for it, this sets the default binding (assuming there are no frame-local bindings to complicate the matter), so the new value is visible in all the buffers that see the default binding.

The most common use of buffer-local bindings is for major modes to change variables that control the behavior of commands. For example, C mode and Lisp mode both set the variable paragraph-start to specify that only blank lines separate paragraphs. They do this by making the variable buffer-local in the buffer that is being put into C mode or Lisp mode, and then setting it to the new value for that mode. See section 23.1 Major Modes.

The usual way to make a buffer-local binding is with make-local-variable, which is what major mode commands typically use. This affects just the current buffer; all other buffers (including those yet to be created) will continue to share the default value unless they are explicitly given their own buffer-local bindings.

A more powerful operation is to mark the variable as automatically buffer-local by calling make-variable-buffer-local. You can think of this as making the variable local in all buffers, even those yet to be created. More precisely, the effect is that setting the variable automatically makes the variable local to the current buffer if it is not already so. All buffers start out by sharing the default value of the variable as usual, but setting the variable creates a buffer-local binding for the current buffer. The new value is stored in the buffer-local binding, leaving the default binding untouched. This means that the default value cannot be changed with setq in any buffer; the only way to change it is with setq-default.

Warning: When a variable has buffer-local values in one or more buffers, you can get Emacs very confused by binding the variable with let, changing to a different current buffer in which a different binding is in effect, and then exiting the let. This can scramble the values of the buffer-local and default bindings.

To preserve your sanity, avoid using a variable in that way. If you use save-excursion around each piece of code that changes to a different current buffer, you will not have this problem (see section 30.3 Excursions). Here is an example of what to avoid:

(setq foo 'b)
(set-buffer "a")
(make-local-variable 'foo)
(setq foo 'a)
(let ((foo 'temp))
  (set-buffer "b")
foo => 'a      ; The old buffer-local value from buffer `a'
               ;   is now the default value.
(set-buffer "a")
foo => 'temp   ; The local let value that should be gone
               ;   is now the buffer-local value in buffer `a'.

But save-excursion as shown here avoids the problem:

(let ((foo 'temp))
    (set-buffer "b")

Note that references to foo in body access the buffer-local binding of buffer `b'.

When a file specifies local variable values, these become buffer-local values when you visit the file. See section `File Variables' in The GNU Emacs Manual.

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