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32.15 Sorting Text

The sorting functions described in this section all rearrange text in a buffer. This is in contrast to the function sort, which rearranges the order of the elements of a list (see Rearrangement). The values returned by these functions are not meaningful.

— Function: sort-subr reverse nextrecfun endrecfun &optional startkeyfun endkeyfun predicate

This function is the general text-sorting routine that subdivides a buffer into records and then sorts them. Most of the commands in this section use this function.

To understand how sort-subr works, consider the whole accessible portion of the buffer as being divided into disjoint pieces called sort records. The records may or may not be contiguous, but they must not overlap. A portion of each sort record (perhaps all of it) is designated as the sort key. Sorting rearranges the records in order by their sort keys.

Usually, the records are rearranged in order of ascending sort key. If the first argument to the sort-subr function, reverse, is non-nil, the sort records are rearranged in order of descending sort key.

The next four arguments to sort-subr are functions that are called to move point across a sort record. They are called many times from within sort-subr.

  1. nextrecfun is called with point at the end of a record. This function moves point to the start of the next record. The first record is assumed to start at the position of point when sort-subr is called. Therefore, you should usually move point to the beginning of the buffer before calling sort-subr.

    This function can indicate there are no more sort records by leaving point at the end of the buffer.

  2. endrecfun is called with point within a record. It moves point to the end of the record.
  3. startkeyfun is called to move point from the start of a record to the start of the sort key. This argument is optional; if it is omitted, the whole record is the sort key. If supplied, the function should either return a non-nil value to be used as the sort key, or return nil to indicate that the sort key is in the buffer starting at point. In the latter case, endkeyfun is called to find the end of the sort key.
  4. endkeyfun is called to move point from the start of the sort key to the end of the sort key. This argument is optional. If startkeyfun returns nil and this argument is omitted (or nil), then the sort key extends to the end of the record. There is no need for endkeyfun if startkeyfun returns a non-nil value.

The argument predicate is the function to use to compare keys. If keys are numbers, it defaults to <; otherwise it defaults to string<.

As an example of sort-subr, here is the complete function definition for sort-lines:

          ;; Note that the first two lines of doc string
          ;; are effectively one line when viewed by a user.
          (defun sort-lines (reverse beg end)
            "Sort lines in region alphabetically;\
           argument means descending order.
          Called from a program, there are three arguments:
          REVERSE (non-nil means reverse order),\
           BEG and END (region to sort).
          The variable `sort-fold-case' determines\
           whether alphabetic case affects
          the sort order."
            (interactive "P\nr")
            (save-excursion
              (save-restriction
                (narrow-to-region beg end)
                (goto-char (point-min))
                (let ((inhibit-field-text-motion t))
                  (sort-subr reverse 'forward-line 'end-of-line)))))

Here forward-line moves point to the start of the next record, and end-of-line moves point to the end of record. We do not pass the arguments startkeyfun and endkeyfun, because the entire record is used as the sort key.

The sort-paragraphs function is very much the same, except that its sort-subr call looks like this:

          (sort-subr reverse
                     (function
                       (lambda ()
                         (while (and (not (eobp))
                                (looking-at paragraph-separate))
                           (forward-line 1))))
                     'forward-paragraph)

Markers pointing into any sort records are left with no useful position after sort-subr returns.

— User Option: sort-fold-case

If this variable is non-nil, sort-subr and the other buffer sorting functions ignore case when comparing strings.

— Command: sort-regexp-fields reverse record-regexp key-regexp start end

This command sorts the region between start and end alphabetically as specified by record-regexp and key-regexp. If reverse is a negative integer, then sorting is in reverse order.

Alphabetical sorting means that two sort keys are compared by comparing the first characters of each, the second characters of each, and so on. If a mismatch is found, it means that the sort keys are unequal; the sort key whose character is less at the point of first mismatch is the lesser sort key. The individual characters are compared according to their numerical character codes in the Emacs character set.

The value of the record-regexp argument specifies how to divide the buffer into sort records. At the end of each record, a search is done for this regular expression, and the text that matches it is taken as the next record. For example, the regular expression ‘^.+$’, which matches lines with at least one character besides a newline, would make each such line into a sort record. See Regular Expressions, for a description of the syntax and meaning of regular expressions.

The value of the key-regexp argument specifies what part of each record is the sort key. The key-regexp could match the whole record, or only a part. In the latter case, the rest of the record has no effect on the sorted order of records, but it is carried along when the record moves to its new position.

The key-regexp argument can refer to the text matched by a subexpression of record-regexp, or it can be a regular expression on its own.

If key-regexp is:

\digit
then the text matched by the digitth ‘\(...\)’ parenthesis grouping in record-regexp is the sort key.
\&
then the whole record is the sort key.
a regular expression
then sort-regexp-fields searches for a match for the regular expression within the record. If such a match is found, it is the sort key. If there is no match for key-regexp within a record then that record is ignored, which means its position in the buffer is not changed. (The other records may move around it.)

For example, if you plan to sort all the lines in the region by the first word on each line starting with the letter ‘f’, you should set record-regexp to ‘^.*$’ and set key-regexp to ‘\<f\w*\>’. The resulting expression looks like this:

          (sort-regexp-fields nil "^.*$" "\\<f\\w*\\>"
                              (region-beginning)
                              (region-end))

If you call sort-regexp-fields interactively, it prompts for record-regexp and key-regexp in the minibuffer.

— Command: sort-lines reverse start end

This command alphabetically sorts lines in the region between start and end. If reverse is non-nil, the sort is in reverse order.

— Command: sort-paragraphs reverse start end

This command alphabetically sorts paragraphs in the region between start and end. If reverse is non-nil, the sort is in reverse order.

— Command: sort-pages reverse start end

This command alphabetically sorts pages in the region between start and end. If reverse is non-nil, the sort is in reverse order.

— Command: sort-fields field start end

This command sorts lines in the region between start and end, comparing them alphabetically by the fieldth field of each line. Fields are separated by whitespace and numbered starting from 1. If field is negative, sorting is by the −fieldth field from the end of the line. This command is useful for sorting tables.

— Command: sort-numeric-fields field start end

This command sorts lines in the region between start and end, comparing them numerically by the fieldth field of each line. Fields are separated by whitespace and numbered starting from 1. The specified field must contain a number in each line of the region. Numbers starting with 0 are treated as octal, and numbers starting with ‘0x’ are treated as hexadecimal.

If field is negative, sorting is by the −fieldth field from the end of the line. This command is useful for sorting tables.

— User Option: sort-numeric-base

This variable specifies the default radix for sort-numeric-fields to parse numbers.

— Command: sort-columns reverse &optional beg end

This command sorts the lines in the region between beg and end, comparing them alphabetically by a certain range of columns. The column positions of beg and end bound the range of columns to sort on.

If reverse is non-nil, the sort is in reverse order.

One unusual thing about this command is that the entire line containing position beg, and the entire line containing position end, are included in the region sorted.

Note that sort-columns rejects text that contains tabs, because tabs could be split across the specified columns. Use M-x untabify to convert tabs to spaces before sorting.

When possible, this command actually works by calling the sort utility program.