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GNU Emacs Lisp Reference Manual

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2.3.6.1 Dotted Pair Notation

Dotted pair notation is an alternative syntax for cons cells that represents the CAR and CDR explicitly. In this syntax, (a . b) stands for a cons cell whose CAR is the object a, and whose CDR is the object b. Dotted pair notation is therefore more general than list syntax. In the dotted pair notation, the list `(1 2 3)' is written as `(1 . (2 . (3 . nil)))'. For nil-terminated lists, you can use either notation, but list notation is usually clearer and more convenient. When printing a list, the dotted pair notation is only used if the CDR of a cons cell is not a list.

Here's an example using boxes to illustrate dotted pair notation. This example shows the pair (rose . violet):

 
    --- ---
   |   |   |--> violet
    --- ---
     |
     |
      --> rose

You can combine dotted pair notation with list notation to represent conveniently a chain of cons cells with a non-nil final CDR. You write a dot after the last element of the list, followed by the CDR of the final cons cell. For example, (rose violet . buttercup) is equivalent to (rose . (violet . buttercup)). The object looks like this:

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

The syntax (rose . violet . buttercup) is invalid because there is nothing that it could mean. If anything, it would say to put buttercup in the CDR of a cons cell whose CDR is already used for violet.

The list (rose violet) is equivalent to (rose . (violet)), and looks like this:

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

Similarly, the three-element list (rose violet buttercup) is equivalent to (rose . (violet . (buttercup))). It looks like this:

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


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