(mystery-function "a neat\nstring\"")
=> "\"a neat \\nstring\\\""

This question was asked on freenode#emacs by user dropdrive. How could I write (or use) a function that takes a string literal and returns the string literal that, when read, would return the original string? That is,

(let ((s (any-string)))
  (should (equal s (read (mystery-function s)))))

Note that this let-form is a bit misleading – the session at the very top of this question should be used for testing. Sorry for any confusion!

  • I don't understand your purpose: in particular, "\"a neat \\nstring\\\"" cannot be read, while the output of (prin1-to-string "a neat\nstring\"") can (even with "expanded" newline characters)...
    – T. Verron
    Commented Dec 7, 2014 at 18:02
  • @T.Verron The purpose, I would believe, would be to use the function to insert literal strings for other languages that use escape sequences. I am not the original asker though so I don't know the original intent, but this is how I would use it. Commented Dec 7, 2014 at 18:05

2 Answers 2


You're looking for prin1-to-string. Also, set print-escape-newlines to a true value to get the "\n" behavior you specified.


(let ((print-escape-newlines t))
  (prin1-to-string "foo\nbar"))
=> "\"foo\\nbar\""
  • +1, but what about \r, \t, etc.? Sorry that I didn't formulate the question completely – I didn't think there'd be a ready-made solution for \n that didn't account for the other sequences :( Commented Dec 7, 2014 at 17:16
  • 1
    Only \n and \f are affected by print-escape-newlines (now I have no idea why \f is a newline, but here we are). I'm afraid you are out of luck for the others, as the other print-escape-* variables do not affect them. Commented Dec 7, 2014 at 17:20
  • 3
    Also note, you can use the %S in format or message and it will print like prin1 Commented Dec 7, 2014 at 22:42

This is not exactly the purpose it was invented for, but seems to be useful:

(require 'json)
(json-encode-string "a neat\nstring\" with tab\t and feed \f, also vertical tab \v")
"\"a neat\\nstring\\\" with tab\\t and feed \\f, also vertical tab \\u000b\""
  • Well, I'll be. +1 Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 22:19

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