emacs lisp as text processing language...


Xah Lee

Text Processing with Emacs Lisp

Xah Lee, 2007-10-29

This page gives a outline of how to use emacs lisp to do text
processing, using a specific real-world problem as example. If you
don't know elisp, first take a gander at Emacs Lisp Basics.

HTML version with links and colors is at:

Following this post as a separate post, is some relevant (i hope)
remark about Perl and Python.



I want to write a elisp program, that process a list of given files.
Each file is a HTML file. For each file, i want to remove the link to
itself, in its page navigation bar. More specifically, each file have
a page navigation bar in this format:

<div class="pages">Goto Page: <a href="1.html">1</a>, <a
href="2.html">2</a>, <a href="3.html">3</a>, <a href="4.html">3</
a>, ...</div>.

where the file names and link texts are all arbitrary. (not as 1, 2, 3
shown here.) The link to itself needs to be removed.


My website has over 3 thousand files; many of the pages is a series.
For example, i have a article on Algorithmic Mathematical Art, which
is broken into 3 HTML pages. So, at the bottom of each page, i have a
page navigation bar with code like this:

<div class="pages">Goto Page: <a href="20040113_cmaci_larcu.html">1</
a>, <a href="cmaci_larcu2.html">2</a>, <a href="cmaci_larcu3.html">3</

In a browser, it would look like this:
i/page tag

Note that the link to the page itself really shouldn't be a link.

There are a total of 134 pages scattered about in various directories
that has this page navigation bar. I need some automated way to
process these files and remove the self-link.

I've been programing in perl professionally from 1998 to 2002 full
time. Typically, for this task in perl (or Python), i'd open each
file, read in the file, then use regex to do the replacement, then
write out the file. For replacement that span over several lines, the
regex needs to act on the whole file (as opposed to one line at a
time). The regex can become quite complex or reaching its limit. For a
more robust solution, a XML/HTML parser package can be used to read in
the file into a structured representation, then process that. Using a
HTML parser is a bit involved. Then, as usual, one may need to create
backups of the original files, and also deal with maintaining the
file's meta info such as keeping the same permission bits. In summary,
if the particular text-processing required is not simple, then the
coding gets fairly complex quickly, even if job is trivial in

With emacs lisp, the task is vastly simplified, because emacs reads in
a file into its buffer representation. With buffers, one can move a
pointer back and forth, search and delete or insert text arbitrarily,
with the entire emacs lisp's suite of functions designed for
processing text, as well the entire emacs environment that
automatically deals with maintaining file. (symbolic links, hard
links, auto-backup system, file meta-info maintaince, file locking,
remote files... etc).

We proceed to write a elisp code to solve this problem.


Here's are the steps we need to do for each file:

* open the file in a buffer
* move cursor to the page navigation text.
* move cursor to file name
* run sgml-delete-tag (removes the link)
* save file
* close buffer

We begin by writing a test code to process a single file.

(defun xx ()
"temp. experimental code"
(let (fpath fname mybuffer)
(setq fpath "/Users/xah/test1.html")
(setq fname (file-name-nondirectory fpath))
(setq mybuffer (find-file fpath))
(search-forward "<div class=\"pages\">Goto Page:")
(search-forward fname)
(sgml-delete-tag 1)
(kill-buffer mybuffer)))

First of all, create files test1.html, test2.html, test3.html in a
temp directory for testing this code. Each file will contain this page
navigation line:

<div class="pages">Goto Page: <a href="test1.html">some1</a>, <a
href="test2.html">another</a>, <a href="test3.html">xyz3</a></div>

Note that in actual files, the page-nav string may not be in a single

The elisp code above is fairly simple and self-explanatory. The file
opening function find-file is found from elisp doc section “Filesâ€.
The cursor moving function search-forward is in “Searching and
Matchingâ€, the save or close buffer fuctions are in section “Bufferâ€.

Reference: Elisp Manual: Files.

Reference: Elisp Manual: Buffers.

Reference: Elisp Manual: Searching-and-Matching.

The interesting part is calling the function sgml-delete-tag. It is a
function loaded by html-mode (which is automatically loaded when a
html file is opened). What sgml-delete-tag does is to delete the tag
that encloses the cursor (both the opening and closing tags will de
deleted). The cursor can be anywhere in the beginning angle bracket of
the opening to the ending angle bracket of the closing tag. This sgml-
delete-tag function helps us tremendously.

Now, with the above code, our job is essentially done. All we need to
do now is to feed it a bunch of file paths. First we clean the code up
by writing it to take a path as argument.

(defun my-modfile-page-tag (fpath)
"Modify the HTML file at fpath."
(let (fname mybuffer)
(setq fname (file-name-nondirectory fpath))
(setq mybuffer (find-file fpath))
(search-forward "<div class=\"pages\">Goto Page:")
(search-forward fname)
(sgml-delete-tag 1)
(kill-buffer mybuffer)))

Then, we test this modified code by evaluating the following code:

(my-modfile-page-tag "/Users/xah/test1.html")

To complete our task, all we have to do now is get the list of files
that contains the page-nav tag and feed them to my-modfile-page-tag.

To generate a list of files, we can simply use unix's “find†and
“grepâ€, like this:

find . -name "*\.html" -exec grep -l '<div class="pages">' {} \;

For each line in the output, we just wrap a double quote around it to
make it a lisp string. Possibly also insert the full path by using
string-rectangle, to construct the following code:

(mapcar (lambda (x) (my-modfile-page-tag x))
;... 100+ lines

The mapcar and lambda is a lisp idiom of looping thru a list. We
evaluate the code and we are all done!

Emacs is beautiful!

(a separate post follows on the relevance of Perl and Python)

(e-mail address removed)
∑ http://xahlee.org/

Xah Lee

.... continued from previous post.

PS I'm cross-posting this post to perl and python groups because i
find that it being a little know fact that emacs lisp's power in the
area of text processing, are far beyond Perl (or Python).

.... i worked as a professional perl programer since 1998. I started to
study elisp as a hobby since 2005. (i started to use emacs daily since
1998) It is only today, while i was studying elisp's file and buffer
related functions, that i realized how elisp can be used as a general
text processing language, and in fact is a dedicated language for this
task, with powers quite beyond Perl (or Python, PHP (Ruby, java, c
etc) etc).

This realization surprised me, because it is well-known that Perl is
the de facto language for text processing, and emacs lisp for this is
almost unknown (outside of elisp developers). The surprise was
exasperated by the fact that Emacs Lisp existed before perl by almost
a decade. (Albeit Emacs Lisp is not suitable for writing general

My study about lisp as a text processing tool today, remind me of a
article i read in 2000: “Ilya Regularly Expressesâ€, of a interview
with Dr Ilya Zakharevich (author of cperl-mode.el and a major
contributor to the Perl language). In the article, he mentioned
something about Perl's lack of text processing primitives that are in
emacs, which i did not fully understand at the time. (i don't know
elisp at the time)

The article is at:

Here's the relevant excerpt:
Let me also mention that classifying the text handling facilities of
Perl as "extremely agile" gives me the willies. Perl's regular
expressions are indeed more convenient than in other languages.
However, the lack of a lot of key text-processing ingredients makes
Perl solutions for many averagely complicated tasks either extremely
slow, or not easier to maintain than solutions in other languages (and
in some cases both).

I wrote a (heuristic-driven) Perlish syntax parser and transformer in
Emacs Lisp, and though Perl as a language is incomparably friendlier
than Lisps, I would not be even able of thinking about rewriting this
tool in Perl: there are just not enough text-handling primitives
hardwired into Perl. I will need to code all these primitives first.
And having these primitives coded in Perl, the solution would turn out
to be (possibly) hundreds times slower than the built-in Emacs

My current conjecture on why people classify Perl as an agile text-
handler (in addition to obvious traits of false advertisements) is
that most of the problems to handle are more or less trivial ("system
maintenance"-type problems). For such problems Perl indeed shines. But
between having simple solutions for simple problems and having it
possible to solve complicated problems, there is a principle of having
moderately complicated solutions for moderately complicated problems.
There is no reason for Perl to be not capable of satisfying this
requirement, but currently Perl needs improvement in this regard.

(e-mail address removed)
∑ http://xahlee.org/

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