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Programming in Emacs Lisp

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14.9.2 Making a List of Files

The recursive-lengths-list-many-files function requires a list of files as its argument. For our test examples, we constructed such a list by hand; but the Emacs Lisp source directory is too large for us to do for that. Instead, we will write a function to do the job for us. In this function, we will use both a while loop and a recursive call.

We did not have to write a function like this for older versions of GNU Emacs, since they placed all the `.el' files in one directory. Instead, we were able to use the directory-files function, which lists the names of files that match a specified pattern within a single directory.

However, recent versions of Emacs place Emacs Lisp files in sub-directories of the top level `lisp' directory. This re-arrangement eases navigation. For example, all the mail related files are in a `lisp' sub-directory called `mail'. But at the same time, this arrangement forces us to create a file listing function that descends into the sub-directories.

We can create this function, called files-in-below-directory, using familiar functions such as car, nthcdr, and substring in conjunction with an existing function called directory-files-and-attributes. This latter function not only lists all the filenames in a directory, including the names of sub-directories, but also their attributes.

To restate our goal: to create a function that will enable us to feed filenames to recursive-lengths-list-many-files as a list that looks like this (but with more elements):


The directory-files-and-attributes function returns a list of lists. Each of the lists within the main list consists of 13 elements. The first element is a string that contains the name of the file -- which, in GNU/Linux, may be a `directory file', that is to say, a file with the special attributes of a directory. The second element of the list is t for a directory, a string for symbolic link (the string is the name linked to), or nil.

For example, the first `.el' file in the `lisp/' directory is `abbrev.el'. Its name is `/usr/local/share/emacs/21.0.100/lisp/abbrev.el' and it is not a directory or a symbolic link.

This is how directory-files-and-attributes lists that file and its attributes:

(15019 32380)
(14883 48041)
(15214 49336)

On the other hand, `mail/' is a directory within the `lisp/' directory. The beginning of its listing looks like this:


(Look at the documentation of file-attributes to learn about the different attributes. Bear in mind that the file-attributes function does not list the filename, so its first element is directory-files-and-attributes's second element.)

We will want our new function, files-in-below-directory, to list the `.el' files in the directory it is told to check, and in any directories below that directory.

This gives us a hint on how to construct files-in-below-directory: within a directory, the function should add `.el' filenames to a list; and if, within a directory, the function comes upon a sub-directory, it should go into that sub-directory and repeat its actions.

However, we should note that every directory contains a name that refers to itself, called `.', ("dot") and a name that refers to its parent directory, called `..' ("double dot"). (In `/', the root directory, `..' refers to itself, since `/' has no parent.) Clearly, we do not want our files-in-below-directory function to enter those directories, since they always lead us, directly or indirectly, to the current directory.

Consequently, our files-in-below-directory function must do several tasks:

Let's write a function definition to do these tasks. We will use a while loop to move from one filename to another within a directory, checking what needs to be done; and we will use a recursive call to repeat the actions on each sub-directory. The recursive pattern is `accumulate' (see section Recursive Pattern: accumulate), using append as the combiner.

Here is the function:

(defun files-in-below-directory (directory)
  "List the .el files in DIRECTORY and in its sub-directories."
  ;; Although the function will be used non-interactively,
  ;; it will be easier to test if we make it interactive.
  ;; The directory will have a name such as
  ;;  "/usr/local/share/emacs/21.0.100/lisp/"
  (interactive "DDirectory name: ")
  (let (el-files-list
         (directory-files-and-attributes directory t)))
    ;; while we are in the current directory
    (while current-directory-list
       ;; check to see whether filename ends in `.el'
       ;; and if so, append its name to a list.
       ((equal ".el" (substring (car (car current-directory-list)) -3))
        (setq el-files-list
              (cons (car (car current-directory-list)) el-files-list)))
       ;; check whether filename is that of a directory
       ((eq t (car (cdr (car current-directory-list))))
        ;; decide whether to skip or recurse
            (equal (or "." "..")
                   (substring (car (car current-directory-list)) -1))
            ;; then do nothing if filename is that of
            ;;   current directory or parent
          ;; else descend into the directory and repeat the process
          (setq el-files-list
                  (car (car current-directory-list)))
      ;; move to the next filename in the list; this also
      ;; shortens the list so the while loop eventually comes to an end
      (setq current-directory-list (cdr current-directory-list)))
    ;; return the filenames

The files-in-below-directory directory-files function takes one argument, the name of a directory.

Thus, on my system,

 (files-in-below-directory "/usr/local/share/emacs/21.0.100/lisp/"))

tells me that my version 21.0.100 Lisp sources directory contains 754 `.el' files.

files-in-below-directory returns a list in reverse alphabetical order. An expression to sort the list in alphabetical order looks like this:

 (files-in-below-directory "/usr/local/share/emacs/21.0.100/lisp/")

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