How can I get the first N elements of a list?

I know I can use subseq:

(subseq '("one" "two" "three" "four" "five") 0 2)

Yet when I use subseq, it produces one of the following results:

  • on the first call, the message "function 'subseq' from cl package called at runtime" or,
  • an error that "progn: Symbol’s function definition is void: subseq" when using vanilla emacs -Q.

I could overcome these by using (require 'cl-extras) or cl-subseq. But given these hiccups, I expect there is a more direct way to get the first N elements.

Looking through documentation didn't turn up anything and the implementation of cl-subseq is non-trivial. If a builtin doesn't exist, I imagine to implement from scratch would require something like "Get the car of each cdr". Yet, this makes me think of loop... which is also a cl extension.


  • 2
    "My ultimate goal is to read the first N lines of a file" is such a different use-case to the question that I strongly recommend you remove that text from this question, and ask a new separate question which is "Read the first N lines of a file".
    – phils
    Mar 12, 2020 at 21:26
  • 1
    i.e. The best solution to your actual question will almost certainly be to move over N newlines and then you're done (more or less). No one is likely to recommend reading the entire file into a list as a starting point.
    – phils
    Mar 12, 2020 at 21:40

3 Answers 3


Use butlast. The following code snippet returns the first 3 elements, you can vary the number 3 in the snippet.

(let ((list '("one" "two" "three" "four" "five")))
  (butlast list (- (length list) 3)))
  • Or nbutlast to do the same thing destructively.
    – phils
    Mar 13, 2020 at 22:48

I think the sensible options are:

  • (require 'cl-lib) and use cl-subseq
  • (require 'seq) and use seq-subseq

The latter actually uses the former, but you might prefer using the seq library functions generally.

You could roll your own, but I would just use one of the above.

  • 4
    Worth mention seq-take does more directly what the questioner asks.
    – ideasman42
    Mar 13, 2020 at 3:28

(Elevating ideasman42 comment to an answer)

Worth mention seq-take does more directly what the questioner asks.

(setq l1 '("one" "two" "three" "four" "five"))
(seq-take l1 3)
("one" "two" "three")

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