22.13 Recursive Editing

The Emacs command loop is entered automatically when Emacs starts up. This top-level invocation of the command loop never exits; it keeps running as long as Emacs does. Lisp programs can also invoke the command loop. Since this makes more than one activation of the command loop, we call it recursive editing. A recursive editing level has the effect of suspending whatever command invoked it and permitting the user to do arbitrary editing before resuming that command.

The commands available during recursive editing are the same ones available in the top-level editing loop and defined in the keymaps. Only a few special commands exit the recursive editing level; the others return to the recursive editing level when they finish. (The special commands for exiting are always available, but they do nothing when recursive editing is not in progress.)

All command loops, including recursive ones, set up all-purpose error handlers so that an error in a command run from the command loop will not exit the loop.

Minibuffer input is a special kind of recursive editing. It has a few special wrinkles, such as enabling display of the minibuffer and the minibuffer window, but fewer than you might suppose. Certain keys behave differently in the minibuffer, but that is only because of the minibuffer’s local map; if you switch windows, you get the usual Emacs commands.

To invoke a recursive editing level, call the function recursive-edit. This function contains the command loop; it also contains a call to catch with tag exit, which makes it possible to exit the recursive editing level by throwing to exit (see Explicit Nonlocal Exits: catch and throw). Throwing a t value causes recursive-edit to quit, so that control returns to the command loop one level up. This is called aborting, and is done by C-] (abort-recursive-edit). Similarly, you can throw a string value to make recursive-edit signal an error, printing this string as the message. If you throw a function, recursive-edit will call it without arguments before returning. Throwing any other value, will make recursive-edit return normally to the function that called it. The command C-M-c (exit-recursive-edit) does this.

Most applications should not use recursive editing, except as part of using the minibuffer. Usually it is more convenient for the user if you change the major mode of the current buffer temporarily to a special major mode, which should have a command to go back to the previous mode. (The e command in Rmail uses this technique.) Or, if you wish to give the user different text to edit recursively, create and select a new buffer in a special mode. In this mode, define a command to complete the processing and go back to the previous buffer. (The m command in Rmail does this.)

Recursive edits are useful in debugging. You can insert a call to debug into a function definition as a sort of breakpoint, so that you can look around when the function gets there. debug invokes a recursive edit but also provides the other features of the debugger.

Recursive editing levels are also used when you type C-r in query-replace or use C-x q (kbd-macro-query).

Command: recursive-edit

This function invokes the editor command loop. It is called automatically by the initialization of Emacs, to let the user begin editing. When called from a Lisp program, it enters a recursive editing level.

If the current buffer is not the same as the selected window’s buffer, recursive-edit saves and restores the current buffer. Otherwise, if you switch buffers, the buffer you switched to is current after recursive-edit returns.

In the following example, the function simple-rec first advances point one word, then enters a recursive edit, printing out a message in the echo area. The user can then do any editing desired, and then type C-M-c to exit and continue executing simple-rec.

(defun simple-rec ()
  (forward-word 1)
  (message "Recursive edit in progress")
  (forward-word 1))
     ⇒ simple-rec
     ⇒ nil
Command: exit-recursive-edit

This function exits from the innermost recursive edit (including minibuffer input). Its definition is effectively (throw 'exit nil).

Command: abort-recursive-edit

This function aborts the command that requested the innermost recursive edit (including minibuffer input), by signaling quit after exiting the recursive edit. Its definition is effectively (throw 'exit t). See Quitting.

Command: top-level

This function exits all recursive editing levels; it does not return a value, as it jumps completely out of any computation directly back to the main command loop.

Function: recursion-depth

This function returns the current depth of recursive edits. When no recursive edit is active, it returns 0.