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2.3 Switching Buffers

The other-buffer function actually provides a buffer when it is used as an argument to a function that requires one. We can see this by using other-buffer and switch-to-buffer to switch to a different buffer.

But first, a brief introduction to the switch-to-buffer function. When you switched back and forth from Info to the *scratch* buffer to evaluate (buffer-name), you most likely typed C-x b and then typed *scratch*1 when prompted in the minibuffer for the name of the buffer to which you wanted to switch. The keystrokes, C-x b, cause the Lisp interpreter to evaluate the interactive function switch-to-buffer. As we said before, this is how Emacs works: different keystrokes call or run different functions. For example, C-f calls forward-char, M-e calls forward-sentence, and so on.

By writing switch-to-buffer in an expression, and giving it a buffer to switch to, we can switch buffers just the way C-x b does:

     (switch-to-buffer (other-buffer))

The symbol switch-to-buffer is the first element of the list, so the Lisp interpreter will treat it as a function and carry out the instructions that are attached to it. But before doing that, the interpreter will note that other-buffer is inside parentheses and work on that symbol first. other-buffer is the first (and in this case, the only) element of this list, so the Lisp interpreter calls or runs the function. It returns another buffer. Next, the interpreter runs switch-to-buffer, passing to it, as an argument, the other buffer, which is what Emacs will switch to. If you are reading this in Info, try this now. Evaluate the expression. (To get back, type C-x b <RET>.)2

In the programming examples in later sections of this document, you will see the function set-buffer more often than switch-to-buffer. This is because of a difference between computer programs and humans: humans have eyes and expect to see the buffer on which they are working on their computer terminals. This is so obvious, it almost goes without saying. However, programs do not have eyes. When a computer program works on a buffer, that buffer does not need to be visible on the screen.

switch-to-buffer is designed for humans and does two different things: it switches the buffer to which Emacs's attention is directed; and it switches the buffer displayed in the window to the new buffer. set-buffer, on the other hand, does only one thing: it switches the attention of the computer program to a different buffer. The buffer on the screen remains unchanged (of course, normally nothing happens there until the command finishes running).

Also, we have just introduced another jargon term, the word call. When you evaluate a list in which the first symbol is a function, you are calling that function. The use of the term comes from the notion of the function as an entity that can do something for you if you `call' it—just as a plumber is an entity who can fix a leak if you call him or her.


Footnotes

[1] Or rather, to save typing, you probably only typed RET if the default buffer was *scratch*, or if it was different, then you typed just part of the name, such as *sc, pressed your TAB key to cause it to expand to the full name, and then typed RET.

[2] Remember, this expression will move you to your most recent other buffer that you cannot see. If you really want to go to your most recently selected buffer, even if you can still see it, you need to evaluate the following more complex expression:

     (switch-to-buffer (other-buffer (current-buffer) t))

In this case, the first argument to other-buffer tells it which buffer to skip—the current one—and the second argument tells other-buffer it is OK to switch to a visible buffer. In regular use, switch-to-buffer takes you to an invisible window since you would most likely use C-x o (other-window) to go to another visible buffer.