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4.8 Custom Format Strings

Sometimes it is useful to allow users and Lisp programs alike to control how certain text is generated via custom format control strings. For example, a format string could control how to display someone’s forename, surname, and email address. Using the function format described in the previous section, the format string could be something like "%s %s <%s>". This approach quickly becomes impractical, however, as it can be unclear which specification character corresponds to which piece of information.

A more convenient format string for such cases would be something like "%f %l <%e>", where each specification character carries more semantic information and can easily be rearranged relative to other specification characters, making such format strings more easily customizable by the user.

The function format-spec described in this section performs a similar function to format, except it operates on format control strings that use arbitrary specification characters.

Function: format-spec template spec-alist &optional only-present

This function returns a string produced from the format string template according to conversions specified in spec-alist, which is an alist (see Association Lists) of the form (letter . replacement). Each specification %letter in template will be replaced by replacement when formatting the resulting string.

The characters in template, other than the format specifications, are copied directly into the output, including their text properties, if any. Any text properties of the format specifications are copied to their replacements.

Using an alist to specify conversions gives rise to some useful properties:

The optional argument only-present indicates how to handle specification characters in template that are not found in spec-alist. If it is nil or omitted, the function signals an error. Otherwise, those format specifications and any occurrences of ‘%%’ in template are left verbatim in the output, including their text properties, if any.

The syntax of format specifications accepted by format-spec is similar, but not identical, to that accepted by format. In both cases, a format specification is a sequence of characters beginning with ‘%’ and ending with an alphabetic letter such as ‘s’.

Unlike format, which assigns specific meanings to a fixed set of specification characters, format-spec accepts arbitrary specification characters and treats them all equally. For example:

(setq my-site-info
      (list (cons ?s system-name)
            (cons ?t (symbol-name system-type))
            (cons ?c system-configuration)
            (cons ?v emacs-version)
            (cons ?e invocation-name)
            (cons ?p (number-to-string (emacs-pid)))
            (cons ?a user-mail-address)
            (cons ?n user-full-name)))

(format-spec "%e %v (%c)" my-site-info)
     ⇒ "emacs 27.1 (x86_64-pc-linux-gnu)"

(format-spec "%n <%a>" my-site-info)
     ⇒ "Emacs Developers <emacs-devel@gnu.org>"

A format specification can include any number of the following flag characters immediately after the ‘%’ to modify aspects of the substitution.

0

This flag causes any padding specified by the width to consist of ‘0’ characters instead of spaces.

-

This flag causes any padding specified by the width to be inserted on the right rather than the left.

<

This flag causes the substitution to be truncated on the left to the given width, if specified.

>

This flag causes the substitution to be truncated on the right to the given width, if specified.

^

This flag converts the substituted text to upper case (see Case Conversion).

_

This flag converts the substituted text to lower case (see Case Conversion).

The result of using contradictory flags (for instance, both upper and lower case) is undefined.

As is the case with format, a format specification can include a width, which is a decimal number that appears after any flags. If a substitution contains fewer characters than its specified width, it is padded on the left:

(format-spec "%8a is padded on the left with spaces"
             '((?a . "alpha")))
     ⇒ "   alpha is padded on the left with spaces"

Here is a more complicated example that combines several aforementioned features:

(setq my-battery-info
      (list (cons ?p "73")      ; Percentage
            (cons ?L "Battery") ; Status
            (cons ?t "2:23")    ; Remaining time
            (cons ?c "24330")   ; Capacity
            (cons ?r "10.6")))  ; Rate of discharge

(format-spec "%>^-3L : %3p%% (%05t left)" my-battery-info)
     ⇒ "BAT :  73% (02:23 left)"

(format-spec "%>^-3L : %3p%% (%05t left)"
             (cons (cons ?L "AC")
                   my-battery-info))
     ⇒ "AC  :  73% (02:23 left)"

As the examples in this section illustrate, format-spec is often used for selectively formatting an assortment of different pieces of information. This is useful in programs that provide user-customizable format strings, as the user can choose to format with a regular syntax and in any desired order only a subset of the information that the program makes available.

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