There is a stock emacs function called append-to-file that is defined as follows (in files.el):

(defun append-to-file (start end filename)
  "Append the contents of the region to the end of file FILENAME.
When called from a function, expects three arguments,
START, END and FILENAME.  START and END are buffer positions
saying what text to write."
  (interactive "r\nFAppend to file: ")
  (write-region start end filename t))

I'm running spacemacs, which runs helm. When this stock function is called via M x append-to-file, an interactive prompt comes up that seems to use helm-find-files to help the user find a file to input into this stock function.

Question: How does this emacs function -- which was presumably written years before helm ever was -- know to call helm-find-files when prompting the user for an input file in the minibuffer?

Motivation: The reason why I'm curious about this is that I'm ultimately wanting to call a different interactive file-finding function (one other than helm-find-files) with this function (for example I'd like it to invoke helm-projectile-find-file which is slightly different).

EDIT: Using bmag's answer, I have a partial solution that doesn't use helm-projectile-find-file but instead uses the shell find command to get a list of files I'm interested in.

In particular, I'm interested in the list of files brought up by the shell command find -L /path/to/files -wholename */capture.md). How can I put this result into :sources below and have the appropriate buffers come up?

(defun helm-append-to-file (start end)
  (interactive "r")
  (let ((filename
         (helm :sources ... ;; <--what do I put here?
               :buffer "*helm append to file*"
               :prompt "File to append to: ")))
    (append-to-file start end filename)))
  • I think you could do this with customizing helm-completing-read-handlers-alist, but I am not completely sure how to set it correctly to your needs, probably something like (add-to-list 'helm-completing-read-handlers-alist '((ido-find-file . helm-projectile-find-file))) or (add-to-list 'helm-completing-read-handlers-alist '((append-to-file . helm-projectile-find-file))) will do.
    – theldoria
    Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 4:52
  • @theldoria: That conceptually seems like it should do it, but neither of those options worked for some reason.
    – George
    Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 12:10
  • @theldoria: I added a 50 point bounty to this question. If you could help me refine your solution to something that works I would gladly fork over the 50 points :)
    – George
    Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 6:35
  • Hello George. What is your current value of the variable helm-completing-read-handlers-alist? Does it contain append-to-file? Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 9:09
  • 2
    BTW, It is much easier to write your own version of append-to-file.
    – xuchunyang
    Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 10:45

2 Answers 2


As @db48x wrote, append-to-file uses Emacs' default completion facilities, which means calling the function completion-read. In turn, the variable completing-read-function determines what backend to use for completion. By controlling completion-read-function you decide what completion interface you want. Reading file names is a bit different, because it's done by read-file-name which is controlled by read-file-name-function. However, the default behavior is that read-file-name calls completing-read.

When helm-mode is enabled, it sets completing-read-function to helm--completing-read-default and read-file-name-function to helm--generic-read-file-name. In addition, in newer Emacs version (24.4+) Helm uses add-function to override these variables instead of setq. I assume that's because with setq it needs to know the original value when disabling helm-mode, but with add-function it doesn't.

The completion you get when invoking append-to-file is actually a generic helm file name completion, which isn't as heavy and feature-rich as the command helm-find-files. In fact, most Helm commands don't use interactive to read arguments, because they want more features than the generic Helm completion. Instead, they have a minimal interactive declaration and call helm function for reading arguments and performing actions, thus utilizing Helm's features. Notably, this includes helm-find-files and helm-projectile-find-file.

To change the default completion backend, you can just disable helm-mode and set completing-read-function and read-file-name-function to whatever you wish. Helm commands will still function through Helm as usual, and won't be affected by this change.

Alternatively, if you want append-to-file to use different completion, but still use Helm as the general completion backend, you will need to wrap append-to-file in another command. That command should read the arguments and then call append-to-file (non-interactively). With Helm, you could start with the following and modify according to your needs and how much of Helm's features you want to use:

(defun helm-append-to-file (start end)
  (interactive "r")
  (let ((filename
         (helm :sources some-helm-sources
               :buffer "*helm append to file*"
               :prompt "File to append to: ")))
    (append-to-file start end filename)))

Note that if (helm ...) changes the current buffer or region then append-to-file won't append the region you expect it to, so you'll want to wrap (helm ...) in a save-excursion or similar. You could use :candidates instead of :sources, but at that point you won't be much better off than the generic Helm completion. You might be lucky enough to find suitable pre-existing sources, so you don't need to write your own, but otherwise you will have to learn how to write a Helm source. You can look at helm-projectile.el and the macro helm-projectile-command to see how helm-projectile commands are defined.

For more info on Emacs completion you can visit section 19.6 of the elisp manual or read the relevant functions' documentation.

EDIT: Using find and Helm

The solution below uses the shell command find to get a list of filenames. I use split-string so the files show up in the Helm prompt without the common prefix (instead I include the common prefix in the source's name). Because of that, I need to use f-join to so append-to-file gets the correct filename. Note that Helm has a transformers feature to alter how candidates are displayed, but I didn't use them here since I'm less familiar with them.

Using f-join brings a dependency on f.el, which you will need to install (in Spacemacs it's already installed). Using seq-map brings a dependency on seq.el, which requires Emacs 25.1 or newer. Both of these can be replaced by functions available in Emacs 24.5 and older (cl-map instead of seq-map, several string and filename functions instead of f-join).

(require 'f)
(require 'helm)
(require 'seq)

(defun helm-append-to-file (start end)
  (interactive "r")
  (let* ((path "/path/to/files")
          (helm :sources (helm-build-sync-source "append"
                          :candidates (get-candidates path))
                :buffer "*helm append to file*"
                :prompt "File to append to: "))
        (filename (f-join path relative-filename)))
    (append-to-file start end filename)))

(defun get-candidates (path)
  "Get names of capture files.
Return a list of filenames. Each filename is relative to PATH."
  ;; use -print0 just in case a filename contains a newline
  (let ((find-command (format "find -L '%s' -wholename '*/capture.md' -print0" path)))
    ;; remove common path prefix so candidates are easier to read in helm prompt
    (seq-map (lambda (s) (string-remove-prefix path s))
            ;; "\0" matches -print0
            (split-string (shell-command-to-string find-command) "\0" t))))
  • This is a great answer, but it's still unclear to me how to use helm-projectile-find-file in, i.e., the sample function that you provided (helm-append-to-file).
    – George
    Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 15:59
  • I attempted a solution based off your helm-append-to-file and edited my question. Can you take a look at it?
    – George
    Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 16:19
  • Your edit doesn't state what you tried. I updated my answer with a working solution. Keep in mind that it isn't the most Helm-idiomatic code, due to the lack of transformers, but for private usage I think it's good enough.
    – bmag
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 7:46

I may not be able to supply the full answer, but here's how you can find out.

append-to-file is an interactive function, so its arguments are described in the (interactive ...) declaration just before the function body. This is stringly-typed data, which is annoying (and there's not much we can do about it now); the argument types are given by single-letter codes embedded in the string. You can look up some pretty good help information just by running C-h f interactive <RET>, but better documentation is in chapter 20.2.2 of the the Elisp manual (C-h i to open the list of manuals, or find it online). We can see that the F code means to input a filename:

     A file name.  The file need not exist.  Completion, Default,

This is a bit terse, but if you look at the top of this chapter you'll find that Completion signifies that Emacs will first call completing-read to prompt the user for the filename:

     Provide completion.  <TAB>, <SPC>, and <RET> perform name
     completion because the argument is read using ‘completing-read’
     (*note Completion::).  ‘?’ displays a list of possible completions.

Helm thus needs only to modify how completing-read works; it could do this by redefining it, or by adding advice to it, but completion is quite a complicated feature so Helm is likely to be more subtle than that. completing-read calls into a number of other functions for various things, there are many variables that control the behavior of these functions, etc; see chapter 19.6 of the Elisp manual.

Have fun :)

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