21.8 Asking Multiple-Choice Questions

This section describes facilities for asking the user more complex questions or several similar questions.

When you have a series of similar questions to ask, such as “Do you want to save this buffer?” for each buffer in turn, you should use map-y-or-n-p to ask the collection of questions, rather than asking each question individually. This gives the user certain convenient facilities such as the ability to answer the whole series at once.

Function: map-y-or-n-p prompter actor list &optional help action-alist no-cursor-in-echo-area

This function asks the user a series of questions, reading a single-character answer in the echo area for each one.

The value of list specifies the objects to ask questions about. It should be either a list of objects or a generator function. If it is a function, it will be called with no arguments, and should return either the next object to ask about, or nil, meaning to stop asking questions.

The argument prompter specifies how to ask each question. If prompter is a string, the question text is computed like this:

(format prompter object)

where object is the next object to ask about (as obtained from list). See Formatting Strings, for more information about format.

If prompter is not a string, it should be a function of one argument (the object to ask about) and should return the question text for that object. If the value prompter returns is a string, that is the question to ask the user. The function can also return t, meaning to act on this object without asking the user, or nil, which means to silently ignore this object.

The argument actor says how to act on the objects for which the user answers yes. It should be a function of one argument, and will be called with each object from list for which the user answers yes.

If the argument help is given, it should be a list of this form:

(singular plural action)

where singular is a string containing a singular noun that describes a single object to be acted on, plural is the corresponding plural noun, and action is a transitive verb describing what actor does with the objects.

If you don’t specify help, it defaults to the list ("object" "objects" "act on").

Each time a question is asked, the user can answer as follows:

y, Y, or SPC

act on the object

n, N, or DEL

skip the object


act on all the following objects

ESC or q

exit (skip all following objects)

. (period)

act on the object and then exit


get help

These are the same answers that query-replace accepts. The keymap query-replace-map defines their meaning for map-y-or-n-p as well as for query-replace; see Search and Replace.

You can use action-alist to specify additional possible answers and what they mean. If provided, action-alist should be an alist whose elements are of the form (char function help). Each of the alist elements defines one additional answer. In each element, char is a character (the answer); function is a function of one argument (an object from list); and help is a string. When the user responds with char, map-y-or-n-p calls function. If it returns non-nil, the object is considered to have been acted upon, and map-y-or-n-p advances to the next object in list. If it returns nil, the prompt is repeated for the same object. If the user requests help, the text in help is used to describe these additional answers.

Normally, map-y-or-n-p binds cursor-in-echo-area while prompting. But if no-cursor-in-echo-area is non-nil, it does not do that.

If map-y-or-n-p is called in a command that was invoked using the mouse or some other window-system gesture, or a command invoked via a menu, then it uses a dialog box or pop-up menu to ask the question if dialog boxes are supported. In this case, it does not use keyboard input or the echo area. You can force use either of the mouse or of keyboard input by binding last-nonmenu-event to a suitable value around the call—bind it to t to force keyboard interaction, and to a list to force dialog boxes.

The return value of map-y-or-n-p is the number of objects acted on.

If you need to ask the user a question that might have more than just 2 answers, use read-answer.

Function: read-answer question answers

This function prompts the user with text in question, which should end in the ‘SPC’ character. The function includes in the prompt the possible responses in answers by appending them to the end of question. The possible responses are provided in answers as an alist whose elements are of the following form:

(long-answer short-answer help-message)

where long-answer is the complete text of the user response, a string; short-answer is a short form of the same response, a single character or a function key; and help-message is the text that describes the meaning of the answer. If the variable read-answer-short is non-nil, the prompt will show the short variants of the possible answers and the user is expected to type the single characters/keys shown in the prompt; otherwise the prompt will show the long variants of the answers, and the user is expected to type the full text of one of the answers and end by pressing RET. If use-dialog-box is non-nil, and this function was invoked by mouse events, the question and the answers will be displayed in a GUI dialog box.

The function returns the text of the long-answer selected by the user, regardless of whether long or short answers were shown in the prompt and typed by the user.

Here is an example of using this function:

(let ((read-answer-short t))
  (read-answer "Foo "
     '(("yes"  ?y "perform the action")
       ("no"   ?n "skip to the next")
       ("all"  ?! "perform for the rest without more questions")
       ("help" ?h "show help")
       ("quit" ?q "exit"))))
Function: read-char-from-minibuffer prompt &optional chars history

This function uses the minibuffer to read and return a single character. Optionally, it ignores any input that is not a member of chars, a list of accepted characters. The history argument specifies the history list symbol to use; if it is omitted or nil, this function doesn’t use the history.

If you bind help-form (see Help Functions) to a non-nil value while calling read-char-from-minibuffer, then pressing help-char causes it to evaluate help-form and display the result.