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5.8 Association Lists

An association list, or alist for short, records a mapping from keys to values. It is a list of cons cells called associations: the car of each cons cell is the key, and the cdr is the associated value.1

Here is an example of an alist. The key pine is associated with the value cones; the key oak is associated with acorns; and the key maple is associated with seeds.

     ((pine . cones)
      (oak . acorns)
      (maple . seeds))

Both the values and the keys in an alist may be any Lisp objects. For example, in the following alist, the symbol a is associated with the number 1, and the string "b" is associated with the list (2 3), which is the cdr of the alist element:

     ((a . 1) ("b" 2 3))

Sometimes it is better to design an alist to store the associated value in the car of the cdr of the element. Here is an example of such an alist:

     ((rose red) (lily white) (buttercup yellow))

Here we regard red as the value associated with rose. One advantage of this kind of alist is that you can store other related information—even a list of other items—in the cdr of the cdr. One disadvantage is that you cannot use rassq (see below) to find the element containing a given value. When neither of these considerations is important, the choice is a matter of taste, as long as you are consistent about it for any given alist.

The same alist shown above could be regarded as having the associated value in the cdr of the element; the value associated with rose would be the list (red).

Association lists are often used to record information that you might otherwise keep on a stack, since new associations may be added easily to the front of the list. When searching an association list for an association with a given key, the first one found is returned, if there is more than one.

In Emacs Lisp, it is not an error if an element of an association list is not a cons cell. The alist search functions simply ignore such elements. Many other versions of Lisp signal errors in such cases.

Note that property lists are similar to association lists in several respects. A property list behaves like an association list in which each key can occur only once. See Property Lists, for a comparison of property lists and association lists.

— Function: assoc key alist

This function returns the first association for key in alist, comparing key against the alist elements using equal (see Equality Predicates). It returns nil if no association in alist has a car equal to key. For example:

          (setq trees '((pine . cones) (oak . acorns) (maple . seeds)))
               ⇒ ((pine . cones) (oak . acorns) (maple . seeds))
          (assoc 'oak trees)
               ⇒ (oak . acorns)
          (cdr (assoc 'oak trees))
               ⇒ acorns
          (assoc 'birch trees)
               ⇒ nil

Here is another example, in which the keys and values are not symbols:

          (setq needles-per-cluster
                '((2 "Austrian Pine" "Red Pine")
                  (3 "Pitch Pine")
                  (5 "White Pine")))
          
          (cdr (assoc 3 needles-per-cluster))
               ⇒ ("Pitch Pine")
          (cdr (assoc 2 needles-per-cluster))
               ⇒ ("Austrian Pine" "Red Pine")

The function assoc-string is much like assoc except that it ignores certain differences between strings. See Text Comparison.

— Function: rassoc value alist

This function returns the first association with value value in alist. It returns nil if no association in alist has a cdr equal to value.

rassoc is like assoc except that it compares the cdr of each alist association instead of the car. You can think of this as reverse assoc, finding the key for a given value.

— Function: assq key alist

This function is like assoc in that it returns the first association for key in alist, but it makes the comparison using eq instead of equal. assq returns nil if no association in alist has a car eq to key. This function is used more often than assoc, since eq is faster than equal and most alists use symbols as keys. See Equality Predicates.

          (setq trees '((pine . cones) (oak . acorns) (maple . seeds)))
               ⇒ ((pine . cones) (oak . acorns) (maple . seeds))
          (assq 'pine trees)
               ⇒ (pine . cones)

On the other hand, assq is not usually useful in alists where the keys may not be symbols:

          (setq leaves
                '(("simple leaves" . oak)
                  ("compound leaves" . horsechestnut)))
          
          (assq "simple leaves" leaves)
               ⇒ nil
          (assoc "simple leaves" leaves)
               ⇒ ("simple leaves" . oak)
— Function: alist-get key alist &optional default remove

This function is like assq, but instead of returning the entire association for key in alist, (key . value), it returns just the value. If key is not found in alist, it returns default.

This is a generalized variable (see Generalized Variables) that can be used to change a value with setf. When using it to set a value, optional argument remove non-nil means to remove key from alist if the new value is eql to default.

— Function: rassq value alist

This function returns the first association with value value in alist. It returns nil if no association in alist has a cdr eq to value.

rassq is like assq except that it compares the cdr of each alist association instead of the car. You can think of this as reverse assq, finding the key for a given value.

For example:

          (setq trees '((pine . cones) (oak . acorns) (maple . seeds)))
          
          (rassq 'acorns trees)
               ⇒ (oak . acorns)
          (rassq 'spores trees)
               ⇒ nil

rassq cannot search for a value stored in the car of the cdr of an element:

          (setq colors '((rose red) (lily white) (buttercup yellow)))
          
          (rassq 'white colors)
               ⇒ nil

In this case, the cdr of the association (lily white) is not the symbol white, but rather the list (white). This becomes clearer if the association is written in dotted pair notation:

          (lily white) == (lily . (white))
— Function: assoc-default key alist &optional test default

This function searches alist for a match for key. For each element of alist, it compares the element (if it is an atom) or the element's car (if it is a cons) against key, by calling test with two arguments: the element or its car, and key. The arguments are passed in that order so that you can get useful results using string-match with an alist that contains regular expressions (see Regexp Search). If test is omitted or nil, equal is used for comparison.

If an alist element matches key by this criterion, then assoc-default returns a value based on this element. If the element is a cons, then the value is the element's cdr. Otherwise, the return value is default.

If no alist element matches key, assoc-default returns nil.

— Function: copy-alist alist

This function returns a two-level deep copy of alist: it creates a new copy of each association, so that you can alter the associations of the new alist without changing the old one.

          (setq needles-per-cluster
                '((2 . ("Austrian Pine" "Red Pine"))
                  (3 . ("Pitch Pine"))
                  (5 . ("White Pine"))))
          ⇒
          ((2 "Austrian Pine" "Red Pine")
           (3 "Pitch Pine")
           (5 "White Pine"))
          
          (setq copy (copy-alist needles-per-cluster))
          ⇒
          ((2 "Austrian Pine" "Red Pine")
           (3 "Pitch Pine")
           (5 "White Pine"))
          
          (eq needles-per-cluster copy)
               ⇒ nil
          (equal needles-per-cluster copy)
               ⇒ t
          (eq (car needles-per-cluster) (car copy))
               ⇒ nil
          (cdr (car (cdr needles-per-cluster)))
               ⇒ ("Pitch Pine")
          (eq (cdr (car (cdr needles-per-cluster)))
              (cdr (car (cdr copy))))
               ⇒ t

This example shows how copy-alist makes it possible to change the associations of one copy without affecting the other:

          (setcdr (assq 3 copy) '("Martian Vacuum Pine"))
          (cdr (assq 3 needles-per-cluster))
               ⇒ ("Pitch Pine")
— Function: assq-delete-all key alist

This function deletes from alist all the elements whose car is eq to key, much as if you used delq to delete each such element one by one. It returns the shortened alist, and often modifies the original list structure of alist. For correct results, use the return value of assq-delete-all rather than looking at the saved value of alist.

          (setq alist '((foo 1) (bar 2) (foo 3) (lose 4)))
               ⇒ ((foo 1) (bar 2) (foo 3) (lose 4))
          (assq-delete-all 'foo alist)
               ⇒ ((bar 2) (lose 4))
          alist
               ⇒ ((foo 1) (bar 2) (lose 4))
— Function: rassq-delete-all value alist

This function deletes from alist all the elements whose cdr is eq to value. It returns the shortened alist, and often modifies the original list structure of alist. rassq-delete-all is like assq-delete-all except that it compares the cdr of each alist association instead of the car.


Footnotes

[1] This usage of “key” is not related to the term “key sequence”; it means a value used to look up an item in a table. In this case, the table is the alist, and the alist associations are the items.