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13.2.3 Features of Argument Lists

Our simple sample function, (lambda (a b c) (+ a b c)), specifies three argument variables, so it must be called with three arguments: if you try to call it with only two arguments or four arguments, you get a wrong-number-of-arguments error (see Errors).

It is often convenient to write a function that allows certain arguments to be omitted. For example, the function substring accepts three arguments—a string, the start index and the end index—but the third argument defaults to the length of the string if you omit it. It is also convenient for certain functions to accept an indefinite number of arguments, as the functions list and + do.

To specify optional arguments that may be omitted when a function is called, simply include the keyword &optional before the optional arguments. To specify a list of zero or more extra arguments, include the keyword &rest before one final argument.

Thus, the complete syntax for an argument list is as follows:

[&optional [optional-vars…]]
[&rest [rest-var]])

The square brackets indicate that the &optional and &rest clauses, and the variables that follow them, are optional.

A call to the function requires one actual argument for each of the required-vars. There may be actual arguments for zero or more of the optional-vars, and there cannot be any actual arguments beyond that unless the lambda list uses &rest. In that case, there may be any number of extra actual arguments.

If actual arguments for the optional and rest variables are omitted, then they always default to nil. There is no way for the function to distinguish between an explicit argument of nil and an omitted argument. However, the body of the function is free to consider nil an abbreviation for some other meaningful value. This is what substring does; nil as the third argument to substring means to use the length of the string supplied.

Common Lisp note: Common Lisp allows the function to specify what default value to use when an optional argument is omitted; Emacs Lisp always uses nil. Emacs Lisp does not support supplied-p variables that tell you whether an argument was explicitly passed.

For example, an argument list that looks like this:

(a b &optional c d &rest e)

binds a and b to the first two actual arguments, which are required. If one or two more arguments are provided, c and d are bound to them respectively; any arguments after the first four are collected into a list and e is bound to that list. Thus, if there are only two arguments, c, d and e are nil; if two or three arguments, d and e are nil; if four arguments or fewer, e is nil. Note that exactly five arguments with an explicit nil argument provided for e will cause that nil argument to be passed as a list with one element, (nil), as with any other single value for e.

There is no way to have required arguments following optional ones—it would not make sense. To see why this must be so, suppose that c in the example were optional and d were required. Suppose three actual arguments are given; which variable would the third argument be for? Would it be used for the c, or for d? One can argue for both possibilities. Similarly, it makes no sense to have any more arguments (either required or optional) after a &rest argument.

Here are some examples of argument lists and proper calls:

(funcall (lambda (n) (1+ n))        ; One required:
1) ; requires exactly one argument.
⇒ 2
(funcall (lambda (n &optional n1) ; One required and one optional:
(if n1 (+ n n1) (1+ n))) ; 1 or 2 arguments.
1 2)
⇒ 3
(funcall (lambda (n &rest ns) ; One required and one rest:
(+ n (apply '+ ns))) ; 1 or more arguments.
1 2 3 4 5)
⇒ 15