What is the difference between setq and defvar in Emacs lisp?

I see common lisp version of the same question at https://stackoverflow.com/questions/3855862. Are they same in Elisp?


1 Answer 1


You should ask Emacs this question: C-h i, choose the Elisp manual (m Elisp), and search the index for "defvar" (i defvar). That takes you to node Defining Variables.

Emacs tells you that defvar allows attaching a doc string, and that if the variable already has a value then it does nothing.

It also tells you about the use of defvar with no value to be assigned: (defvar foo). It tells you that that declares the variable to be dynamically scoped.

setq has none of those properties.

defvar and setq are similar, but not quite the same, in Emacs Lisp and Common Lisp.

Read more, to learn more.

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    In fact defvar also declares "dynamical scoping" if there is a value given, and that remains true even if the variable already had a value. OTOH "if the variable already has a value then it does nothing" is true for all valid uses of defvar (and the bytecompiler should issue a warning in the remaining cases, i.e. if declaring a variable after its first use).
    – YoungFrog
    Dec 31, 2016 at 18:17
  • so it sounds like defvar is a global variable (as in imperative programming style) and a convention for customization, while setq is more like a let binding in functional programming languages (with dynamic/lexical scoping rule depending of which global scoping mode is active.........)
    – nicolas
    Dec 1, 2018 at 11:04
  • @nicolas: Please read the manual. setq sets a var value, regardless of whether the var (occurrence) is local. defvar declares a var as global. (It may also be "buffer-local": local-variable-p.) A var occurrence bound as a function arg or by let is "local" in the usual sense. If a var bound by let etc. is global (or buffer-local) then a local binding (usual sense) is created for it, for the duration/scope of that let. Within that binding scope, setq changes the local value. It's better to talk about a var occurrence being local (on stack) or global (on heap) than a var being so.
    – Drew
    Dec 1, 2018 at 18:22
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    @nicolas: Take your time reading it and rereading it. Sometimes what it says is precise but hard to grasp, like a formal specification. Once you get it, it could be helpful for you to M-x report-emacs-bug to suggest improvements that might help others get it easier.
    – Drew
    Dec 1, 2018 at 20:21
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    @nicolas: Start with understanding a variable on the heap (aka a global or buffer-local variable). You likely already understand true local variables, that is, variables on the stack. Googling might also help.
    – Drew
    Dec 1, 2018 at 20:23

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