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GNU Emacs Lisp Reference Manual

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1.3.2 nil and t

In Lisp, the symbol nil has three separate meanings: it is a symbol with the name `nil'; it is the logical truth value false; and it is the empty list--the list of zero elements. When used as a variable, nil always has the value nil.

As far as the Lisp reader is concerned, `()' and `nil' are identical: they stand for the same object, the symbol nil. The different ways of writing the symbol are intended entirely for human readers. After the Lisp reader has read either `()' or `nil', there is no way to determine which representation was actually written by the programmer.

In this manual, we use () when we wish to emphasize that it means the empty list, and we use nil when we wish to emphasize that it means the truth value false. That is a good convention to use in Lisp programs also.

 
(cons 'foo ())                ; Emphasize the empty list
(not nil)                     ; Emphasize the truth value false

In contexts where a truth value is expected, any non-nil value is considered to be true. However, t is the preferred way to represent the truth value true. When you need to choose a value which represents true, and there is no other basis for choosing, use t. The symbol t always has the value t.

In Emacs Lisp, nil and t are special symbols that always evaluate to themselves. This is so that you do not need to quote them to use them as constants in a program. An attempt to change their values results in a setting-constant error. The same is true of any symbol whose name starts with a colon (`:'). See section 11.2 Variables that Never Change.


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