The Emacs Lisp Reference Manual's Appendix D.7 mentions some comment tips:

  • Single semicolons (;) should be used for inline comments.
  • Double semicolons (;;) should be used for line comments.
  • Triple semicolons (;;;) should be used for "comments which should be considered a heading by Outline minor mode".
  • Quadruple semicolons (;;;;) should be used for headings of major sections of a program.

The single and double semicolon use cases are clear, but there does not seem to be a sharp delineation between triple and quadruple semicolons.

In particular, the standard documentation for Emacs packages provided by auto-insert uses triple semicolons, never quadruple semicolons, even for the highest-level headings like file name and major sections. See example below:

;;; test.el --- A test file.                         -*- lexical-binding: t; -*-

;; Copyright (C) 2016

;; Author:  John Smith
;; Keywords: 

;; This program is free software; you can redistribute it and/or modify
;; it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by
;; the Free Software Foundation, either version 3 of the License, or
;; (at your option) any later version.

;; This program is distributed in the hope that it will be useful,
;; but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of
;; GNU General Public License for more details.

;; You should have received a copy of the GNU General Public License
;; along with this program.  If not, see <http://www.gnu.org/licenses/>.

;;; Commentary:


;;; Code:

(provide 'test)
;;; test.el ends here

What are the best practices for triple and quadruple semicolons?


Thanks to Stefan's answer, I have filed a bug report and made the following suggestion:

I suggest that the description for three semicolons be changed to:

Comments that start with three semicolons, ‘;;;’, are considered
top-level headings by Outline minor mode.

Four or more semicolons can be used as subheadings in hierarchical
fashion. E.g.

;;; Main heading
;;;; Sub heading
;;;;; Sub sub heading
;;;; Another sub heading
;;; Next main heading

These comments should be used to break Emacs Lisp code into sections.

A link to "Outline minor mode" in the Emacs manual would be useful: https://www.gnu.org/software/emacs/manual/html_node/emacs/Outline-Mode.html

The section for four semicolons can be elided.

  • Look through the Emacs sources (grep -r '^;;;; ' lisp) for inspiration.
    – sds
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 19:38
  • @sds that turns up a few non-standard applications of ;;;; in the canonical sources ;)
    – Tyler
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 20:39
  • That's what I meant - this 4 semicolon recommendation cannot be taken too seriously, OTOH, one should also look at the file timestamp - these non-standard things could be obsolete.
    – sds
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 20:42

1 Answer 1


Actually, 3-and-more semi-colons stand for headings, where the more semi-colons you put the deeper the nesting of the heading. So it should look like

;;; Main heading
;;;; Sub heading
;;;;; Sub sub heading
;;;; Another sub heading
;;; Next main heading
  • That seems to be the common practice, but differs from the conventions listed in the Elisp manual linked in the question. Is that a bug in the manual?
    – Tyler
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 16:17
  • 4
    It's not just a question of practice. That's how emacs-lisp-mode configures outline-minor-mode. I suggest you report this as a documentation bug (I think the doc is unclear more than wrong, but the end result is the same).
    – Stefan
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 16:27
  • I have sent a bug report, and offered a suggestion to change the documentation to something else. I see that I can get the TexInfo source for the manual; is there a repository that I can clone and make a pull request against? Commented Mar 19, 2016 at 3:49
  • @TianxiangXiong: Of course, the doc is part of Emacs's source code, so you can clone git://git.sv.gnu.org/emacs.git and then send a patch via M-x report-emacs-bug.
    – Stefan
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 13:11
  • For reference, here are the Common Lisp conventions. If Emacs Lisp really uses 3 semicolons for a heading but then 4 semicolons for a less prominent heading, that seems illogical and contrary to what I've seen in CL and other lisps. Maybe it's simply a better fit for org-mode style headings so they went with it for elisp too.
    – Lassi
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 14:41

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