Is there a way to have describe-variable show characters instead of numbers where it makes sense?

Here's for example output of describe-variable word-separating-categories:

word-separating-categories is a variable defined in `C source code'. Its value is ((72 . 75))

Documentation: List of pair (cons) of categories to determine word boundary. See the documentation of the variable `word-combining-categories'.

It would help if instead ((72 . 75)) it would show something meaningful.

  • You could probably pipe the value of the variable through char-to-string.
    – Dan
    Apr 3, 2016 at 17:58

2 Answers 2


In Emacs a character is an integer. There is no way for describe-variable to know that the value of this variable is a list that contains conses with car and cdr that you want to see rendered as characters.

But you can use something like this:

(mapcar (lambda (cs)
          (cons (format "%c" (car cs)) (format "%c" (cdr cs))))
  • But it is certainly technically possible to provide a way for describe-variable to know such things. For example, by adding a suitable property to the symbol containing relevant information. I think a case could be made that this would be a useful enhancement to emacs. Apr 3, 2016 at 21:22
  • @HaraldHanche-Olsen I initially was going to suggest that the OP use M-x report-emacs-bug to request an enhancement of describe-variable. But I don't think it is very feasible. Certainly the usual approach of using "character" before the name in the docstring would not work, as the characters are within a larger structure. And what property value would you provide, for your suggestion? The value is not a character; it is a list of conses of characters. You would need an elaborate type-defining mechanism similar to what Customize :type offers, and that is certainly overengineering here.
    – Drew
    Apr 3, 2016 at 21:26
  • One possibility for the property could be a function to compute a string describing the value. For robustness, the function could return nil or throw an error in case of unexpected data, leaving describe-variable to use the standard display as a fallback. The cost of adding this functionality to describe-variable would be negligible – the cost of adding such functions to relevant variables, less trivial. But one doesn't have to do them all from day one. Apr 3, 2016 at 21:38
  • @HaraldHanche-Olsen: Go for it, if you think it is worthwhile - M-x report-emacs-bug. Include a patch...
    – Drew
    Apr 3, 2016 at 21:40
  • Hmm. Looking at the source code, I realize that the function called should probably be expected to prettyprint the result if it is large. That complicates things quite considerably. Apr 3, 2016 at 21:58

print1-to-string is used during making display string of the variable's value, so maybe you can try to hijack that, use, e.g.

(defun display-in-char-p (var val)
  (or (eq 'word-separating-categories var)
      (numberp val)
      (and (listp val) (ignore-errors (seq-every-p #'numberp val)))))

(defun describe-variable-hack (orig-fun &rest args)
  (when (display-in-char-p (car args) (symbol-value (car args)))
    (advice-add 'prin1-to-string :filter-return
                (defun prin1-to-string-hack (rtv)
                   (lambda (match) (string (string-to-number match)))
  (unwind-protect (apply orig-fun args)
    (advice-remove 'prin1-to-string #'prin1-to-string-hack)))

(advice-add 'describe-variable :around #'describe-variable-hack)

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