The below dummy foo describes how I need the prefix variable setting to work.

I'd like the read-number prompt to show up only if the user entered C-u as prefix. In all other cases, the prefix will be read as (interactive "p") would usually do.

(defun foo (prefix)
  ;; (interactive "p") ??
  ;; (interactive (list (read-number "Num: "))) ??
  ;; Only if `C-u' prefix is used, show the prompt for user entry
  ;; else set PREFIX to user entered numeric prefix using
  ;; the C-0/C-1 or M-0/M-1 style.
  (message "prefix = %0d" prefix))
;; Desired outcome
;;  C-0 M-x foo => prefix = 0 (no prompt)
;;  M-6 M-x foo => prefix = 6 (no prompt)
;;  C-u M-x foo => Prompt appears => User enters 7 => prefix = 7

2 Answers 2


Here's a more elegant way of doing it:

(defun foo (arg)
   (list (if (consp current-prefix-arg)
             (read-number "Number: ")
           (prefix-numeric-value current-prefix-arg))))
  (message "prefix = %0d" arg))

current-prefix-arg holds the value you'd get from (interactive "P"). You can convert it to what (interactive "p") would return with prefix-numeric-value. Finally, the universal argument is represented as (4), (16), (64), etc., depending on the times you've hit C-u. It's tempting to use the listp predicate to detect it, but that would return t for no argument as nil and () are the same, so I'm using consp instead to explicitly test whether we've got a cons cell there.

  • Nice :) Learned something new!
    – clemera
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 0:45

I'm not sure if this is the most elegant way but it does the job:

(defun foo (prefix)
  (interactive "P")
  (cond ((null prefix)
         (setq prefix 1))
        ((listp prefix)
         (setq prefix (read-number "Num: "))))
  (message "prefix = %0d" prefix))

The capital "P" in the interactive form means pass the prefix arg in it's raw form. This means it is nil without a prefix, a non empty list if you call it with C-u (called universal-argument) or numeric if you call it with C-1,M-3 and friends.

  • Thanks! This works. If we don't discover an inbuilt solution to handle such cases more elegantly, I will accept this as an answer. :) Commented Oct 8, 2015 at 18:31

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