29.13.1 Choosing a Window for Displaying a Buffer

The command display-buffer flexibly chooses a window for display, and displays a specified buffer in that window. It can be called interactively, via the key binding C-x 4 C-o. It is also used as a subroutine by many functions and commands, including switch-to-buffer and pop-to-buffer (see Switching to a Buffer in a Window).

This command performs several complex steps to find a window to display in. These steps are described by means of display actions, which have the form (functions . alist). Here, functions is either a single function or a list of functions, referred to as “action functions” (see Action Functions for Buffer Display); and alist is an association list, referred to as “action alist” (see Action Alists for Buffer Display). See The Zen of Buffer Display, for samples of display actions.

An action function accepts two arguments: the buffer to display and an action alist. It attempts to display the buffer in some window, picking or creating a window according to its own criteria. If successful, it returns the window; otherwise, it returns nil.

display-buffer works by combining display actions from several sources, and calling the action functions in turn, until one of them manages to display the buffer and returns a non-nil value.

Command: display-buffer buffer-or-name &optional action frame

This command makes buffer-or-name appear in some window, without selecting the window or making the buffer current. The argument buffer-or-name must be a buffer or the name of an existing buffer. The return value is the window chosen to display the buffer, or nil if no suitable window was found.

The optional argument action, if non-nil, should normally be a display action (described above). display-buffer builds a list of action functions and an action alist, by consolidating display actions from the following sources (in order of their precedence, from highest to lowest):

  • The variable display-buffer-overriding-action.
  • The user option display-buffer-alist.
  • The action argument.
  • The user option display-buffer-base-action.
  • The constant display-buffer-fallback-action.

In practice this means that display-buffer builds a list of all action functions specified by these display actions. The first element of this list is the first action function specified by display-buffer-overriding-action, if any. Its last element is display-buffer-pop-up-frame—the last action function specified by display-buffer-fallback-action. Duplicates are not removed from this list—hence one and the same action function may be called multiple times during one call of display-buffer.

display-buffer calls the action functions specified by this list in turn, passing the buffer as the first argument and the combined action alist as the second argument, until one of the functions returns non-nil. See Precedence of Action Functions, for examples how display actions specified by different sources are processed by display-buffer.

Note that the second argument is always the list of all action alist entries specified by the sources named above. Hence, the first element of that list is the first action alist entry specified by display-buffer-overriding-action, if any. Its last element is the last alist entry of display-buffer-base-action, if any (the action alist of display-buffer-fallback-action is empty).

Note also, that the combined action alist may contain duplicate entries and entries for the same key with different values. As a rule, action functions always use the first association of a key they find. Hence, the association an action function uses is not necessarily the association provided by the display action that specified that action function,

The argument action can also have a non-nil, non-list value. This has the special meaning that the buffer should be displayed in a window other than the selected one, even if the selected window is already displaying it. If called interactively with a prefix argument, action is t. Lisp programs should always supply a list value.

The optional argument frame, if non-nil, specifies which frames to check when deciding whether the buffer is already displayed. It is equivalent to adding an element (reusable-frames . frame) to the action alist of action (see Action Alists for Buffer Display). The frame argument is provided for compatibility reasons, Lisp programs should not use it.

Variable: display-buffer-overriding-action

The value of this variable should be a display action, which is treated with the highest priority by display-buffer. The default value is an empty display action, i.e., (nil . nil).

User Option: display-buffer-alist

The value of this option is an alist mapping conditions to display actions. Each condition is passed to buffer-match-p (see The Buffer List), along with the buffer name and the action argument passed to display-buffer. If it returns a non-nil value, then display-buffer uses the corresponding display action to display the buffer. Caveat: if you use derived-mode or major-mode as condition, buffer-match-p could fail to report a match if display-buffer is called before the major mode of the buffer is set.

User Option: display-buffer-base-action

The value of this option should be a display action. This option can be used to define a standard display action for calls to display-buffer.

Constant: display-buffer-fallback-action

This display action specifies the fallback behavior for display-buffer if no other display actions are given.