Emacs Lisp: Buffer Functions

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

What is a Buffer

A buffer in emacs is an area the displays text, for reading or modification. Content of file is represented in a buffer, so is any prompt, shell, dir listing, chat mode, etc.

For emacs lisp programers, a buffer is a special emacs lisp data structure that holds text, and allows you to search or edit it in a efficient way, programatically. You can think of it as a enhanced string data structure for storing large text for modification.

Important Buffer Concepts

Here's the most useful functions for buffer.

Get Buffer Name

(buffer-name &optional BUFFER)

Return the name of buffer. The name of current buffer by default.

(buffer-file-name &optional BUFFER)

Return the full path of the file, or nil if not a file.


A buffer-local variable. Value is the buffer's file path. If the buffer is not associated with a file, value is nil.

Tip: use this variable if you want the file path of current buffer. If you have another buffer in mind, use the function buffer-file-name .


return the current buffer object.

Switch Buffer

(with-current-buffer BUFFER-OR-NAME &rest BODY)

Temporarily make a buffer current.

Tip: Most of the time, you want to use this. Because it takes care of switching back to the original buffer when the function is done.

;; make myBuf current temporarily
(with-current-buffer myBuf
  ;; code to edit text here
(set-buffer BUFFER-OR-NAME)

Make a buffer current. (but does not make it visible.) Return that buffer object.

Tip: for temp switching buffer in elisp, better to use with-current-buffer or with-temp-buffer. To switch buffer for user, use switch-to-buffer or pop-to-buffer.


  ;; switch to myBuf
  (set-buffer myBuf)

  ;; do stuff, such as insert/delete text
(save-current-buffer &rest BODY)

Execute BODY, then restore the current buffer that is before this function call.

Tip: this function is used when you want to switch buffer in your code and restore the user's current buffer.

Warning: do not manually record current buffer and switch back to it at end of code. because that wont restore when there are error conditions.

Create Buffer

(with-temp-buffer &rest BODY)

Create a temporary buffer, and evaluate BODY, return the last expression.

Tip: most of the time, you should just use with-temp-buffer to create new buffers. Because that saves you code of creating buffer, switching to it, do something, possibly close it, and restore (switch back) to the buffer that was current.

;; use a temp buffer to manipulate string

(setq myStr "big text")

  (insert myStr)

  ;; manipulate the string here

  ;; return buffer content as string
(generate-new-buffer NAME)

Create and return a buffer with a name based on NAME. Buffer name is created by calling generate-new-buffer-name.

Typically used like this:

;; create a new buffer, save it to a var, so later you can switch to it or kill it
(setq newBuf (generate-new-buffer " xyz"))
;; if name for new buffer start with space, undo is disabled
(get-buffer-create BUFFER-OR-NAME)
  • Returns the buffer (does not make it current).
  • BUFFER-OR-NAME can be a string or buffer.
  • If the buffer exists, it's just returned. If not exist, new is created.
  • If BUFFER-OR-NAME is a string and start with a space, undo is disabled.
;; create new buffer, without undo info. make sure the string passed is unique and has space in front
(setq newBuf (get-buffer-create " xyz"))

Kill (Delete) Buffer

(kill-buffer &optional BUFFER-OR-NAME)

Delete a buffer. Default to the current buffer.

Warning: if the buffer is not a saved file buffer, all text in the buffer are gone. If you want to keep the text, use buffer-substring to extract the string first, or write-region to save to a file. [see Emacs Lisp: Write File]

List of All Buffer Functions

Here's a list of all buffer related functions. The most commonly used are explained above.


Emacs Lisp File/Buffer

Practical Elisp ⭐

Writing Command

Text Processing

Get User Input


Writing Script