Most Emacs commands can use a prefix argument, a number
specified before the command itself. (Don’t confuse prefix arguments
with prefix keys.) The prefix argument is at all times represented by a
value, which may be
nil, meaning there is currently no prefix
argument. Each command may use the prefix argument or ignore it.
There are two representations of the prefix argument: raw and numeric. The editor command loop uses the raw representation internally, and so do the Lisp variables that store the information, but commands can request either representation.
Here are the possible values of a raw prefix argument:
nil, meaning there is no prefix argument. Its numeric value is 1, but numerous commands make a distinction between
niland the integer 1.
-. This indicates that M-- or C-u - was typed, without following digits. The equivalent numeric value is −1, but some commands make a distinction between the integer −1 and the symbol
We illustrate these possibilities by calling the following function with various prefixes:
(defun display-prefix (arg) "Display the value of the raw prefix arg." (interactive "P") (message "%s" arg))
Here are the results of calling
display-prefix with various
raw prefix arguments:
M-x display-prefix -| nil C-u M-x display-prefix -| (4) C-u C-u M-x display-prefix -| (16) C-u 3 M-x display-prefix -| 3 M-3 M-x display-prefix -| 3 ; (Same as
C-u 3.) C-u - M-x display-prefix -| - M-- M-x display-prefix -| - ; (Same as
C-u -.) C-u - 7 M-x display-prefix -| -7 M-- 7 M-x display-prefix -| -7 ; (Same as
Emacs uses two variables to store the prefix argument:
current-prefix-arg. Commands such as
universal-argument that set up prefix arguments for other
commands store them in
prefix-arg. In contrast,
current-prefix-arg conveys the prefix argument to the current
command, so setting it has no effect on the prefix arguments for future
Normally, commands specify which representation to use for the prefix
argument, either numeric or raw, in the
interactive.) Alternatively, functions may look at the
value of the prefix argument directly in the variable
current-prefix-arg, but this is less clean.
This function returns the numeric meaning of a valid raw prefix argument
value, arg. The argument may be a symbol, a number, or a list.
If it is
nil, the value 1 is returned; if it is
value −1 is returned; if it is a number, that number is returned;
if it is a list, the CAR of that list (which should be a number) is
This variable holds the raw prefix argument for the current
command. Commands may examine it directly, but the usual method for
accessing it is with
The value of this variable is the raw prefix argument for the
next editing command. Commands such as
that specify prefix arguments for the following command work by setting
The raw prefix argument value used by the previous command.
The following commands exist to set up prefix arguments for the following command. Do not call them for any other reason.
This command reads input and specifies a prefix argument for the following command. Don’t call this command yourself unless you know what you are doing.
This command adds to the prefix argument for the following command. The argument arg is the raw prefix argument as it was before this command; it is used to compute the updated prefix argument. Don’t call this command yourself unless you know what you are doing.
This command adds to the numeric argument for the next command. The argument arg is the raw prefix argument as it was before this command; its value is negated to form the new prefix argument. Don’t call this command yourself unless you know what you are doing.