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GNU Emacs Lisp Reference Manual

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2.3.6 Cons Cell and List Types

A cons cell is an object that consists of two slots, called the CAR slot and the CDR slot. Each slot can hold or refer to any Lisp object. We also say that "the CAR of this cons cell is" whatever object its CAR slot currently holds, and likewise for the CDR.

A note to C programmers: in Lisp, we do not distinguish between "holding" a value and "pointing to" the value, because pointers in Lisp are implicit.

A list is a series of cons cells, linked together so that the CDR slot of each cons cell holds either the next cons cell or the empty list. See section 5. Lists, for functions that work on lists. Because most cons cells are used as part of lists, the phrase list structure has come to refer to any structure made out of cons cells.

The names CAR and CDR derive from the history of Lisp. The original Lisp implementation ran on an IBM 704 computer which divided words into two parts, called the "address" part and the "decrement"; CAR was an instruction to extract the contents of the address part of a register, and CDR an instruction to extract the contents of the decrement. By contrast, "cons cells" are named for the function cons that creates them, which in turn was named for its purpose, the construction of cells.

Because cons cells are so central to Lisp, we also have a word for "an object which is not a cons cell". These objects are called atoms.

The read syntax and printed representation for lists are identical, and consist of a left parenthesis, an arbitrary number of elements, and a right parenthesis.

Upon reading, each object inside the parentheses becomes an element of the list. That is, a cons cell is made for each element. The CAR slot of the cons cell holds the element, and its CDR slot refers to the next cons cell of the list, which holds the next element in the list. The CDR slot of the last cons cell is set to hold nil.

A list can be illustrated by a diagram in which the cons cells are shown as pairs of boxes, like dominoes. (The Lisp reader cannot read such an illustration; unlike the textual notation, which can be understood by both humans and computers, the box illustrations can be understood only by humans.) This picture represents the three-element list (rose violet buttercup):

    --- ---      --- ---      --- ---
   |   |   |--> |   |   |--> |   |   |--> nil
    --- ---      --- ---      --- ---
     |            |            |
     |            |            |
      --> rose     --> violet   --> buttercup

In this diagram, each box represents a slot that can hold or refer to any Lisp object. Each pair of boxes represents a cons cell. Each arrow represents a reference to a Lisp object, either an atom or another cons cell.

In this example, the first box, which holds the CAR of the first cons cell, refers to or "holds" rose (a symbol). The second box, holding the CDR of the first cons cell, refers to the next pair of boxes, the second cons cell. The CAR of the second cons cell is violet, and its CDR is the third cons cell. The CDR of the third (and last) cons cell is nil.

Here is another diagram of the same list, (rose violet buttercup), sketched in a different manner:

 ---------------       ----------------       -------------------
| car   | cdr   |     | car    | cdr   |     | car       | cdr   |
| rose  |   o-------->| violet |   o-------->| buttercup |  nil  |
|       |       |     |        |       |     |           |       |
 ---------------       ----------------       -------------------

A list with no elements in it is the empty list; it is identical to the symbol nil. In other words, nil is both a symbol and a list.

Here are examples of lists written in Lisp syntax:

(A 2 "A")            ; A list of three elements.
()                   ; A list of no elements (the empty list).
nil                  ; A list of no elements (the empty list).
("A ()")             ; A list of one element: the string "A ()".
(A ())               ; A list of two elements: A and the empty list.
(A nil)              ; Equivalent to the previous.
((A B C))            ; A list of one element
                     ;   (which is a list of three elements).

Here is the list (A ()), or equivalently (A nil), depicted with boxes and arrows:

    --- ---      --- ---
   |   |   |--> |   |   |--> nil
    --- ---      --- ---
     |            |
     |            |
      --> A        --> nil Dotted Pair Notation  An alternative syntax for lists. Association List Type  A specially constructed list.

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