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Input control

This chapter describes various builtin macros for controlling the input to m4.

Deleting whitespace in input

The builtin dnl reads and discards all characters, up to and including the first newline:

and it is often used in connection with define, to remove the newline that follow the call to define. Thus

define(`foo', `Macro `foo'.')dnl A very simple macro, indeed.
=>Macro foo.

The input up to and including the next newline is discarded, as opposed to the way comments are treated (see section Comments).

Usually, dnl is immediately followed by an end of line or some other whitespace. GNU m4 will produce a warning diagnostic if dnl is followed by an open parenthesis. In this case, dnl will collect and process all arguments, looking for a matching close parenthesis. All predictable side effects resulting from this collection will take place. dnl will return no output. The input following the matching close parenthesis up to and including the next newline, on whatever line containing it, will still be discarded.

Changing the quote characters

The default quote delimiters can be changed with the builtin changequote:

changequote(opt start, opt end)
where start is the new start-quote delimiter and end is the new end-quote delimiter. If any of the arguments are missing, the default quotes (` and ') are used instead of the void arguments.

The expansion of changequote is void.

changequote([, ])
define([foo], [Macro [foo].])
=>Macro foo.

If no single character is appropriate, start and end can be of any length.

changequote([[, ]])
define([[foo]], [[Macro [[[foo]]].]])
=>Macro [foo].

Changing the quotes to the empty strings will effectively disable the quoting mechanism, leaving no way to quote text.

define(`foo', `Macro `FOO'.')
changequote(, )
=>Macro `FOO'.
=>`Macro `FOO'.'

There is no way in m4 to quote a string containing an unmatched left quote, except using changequote to change the current quotes.

Neither quote string should start with a letter or `_' (underscore), as they will be confused with names in the input. Doing so disables the quoting mechanism.

Changing comment delimiters

The default comment delimiters can be changed with the builtin macro changecom:

changecom(opt start, opt end)
where start is the new start-comment delimiter and end is the new end-comment delimiter. If any of the arguments are void, the default comment delimiters (# and newline) are used instead of the void arguments. The comment delimiters can be of any length.

The expansion of changecom is void.

define(`comment', `COMMENT')
# A normal comment
=># A normal comment
changecom(`/*', `*/')
# Not a comment anymore
=># Not a COMMENT anymore
But: /* this is a comment now */ while this is not a comment
=>But: /* this is a comment now */ while this is not a COMMENT

Note how comments are copied to the output, much as if they were quoted strings. If you want the text inside a comment expanded, quote the start comment delimiter.

Calling changecom without any arguments disables the commenting mechanism completely.

define(`comment', `COMMENT')
# Not a comment anymore
=># Not a COMMENT anymore

Changing the lexical structure of words

The macro changeword and all associated functionnality is experimental. It is only available if the --enable-changeword option was given to configure, at GNU m4 installation time. The functionnality might change or even go away in the future. Do not rely on it. Please direct your comments about it the same way you would do for bugs.

A file being processed by m4 is split into quoted strings, words (potential macro names) and simple tokens (any other single character). Initially a word is defined by the following regular expression:


Using changeword, you can change this regular expression. Relaxing m4's lexical rules might be useful (for example) if you wanted to apply translations to a file of numbers:

define(1, 0)

Tightening the lexical rules is less useful, because it will generally make some of the builtins unavailable. You could use it to prevent accidental call of builtins, for example:

define(`_indir', defn(`indir'))
_indir(`esyscmd', `ls')

Because m4 constructs its words a character at a time, there is a restriction on the regular expressions that may be passed to changeword. This is that if your regular expression accepts `foo', it must also accept `f' and `fo'.

changeword has another function. If the regular expression supplied contains any bracketed subexpressions, then text outside the first of these is discarded before symbol lookup. So:

changecom(`/*', `*/')

m4 now requires a `#' mark at the beginning of every macro invocation, so one can use m4 to preprocess shell scripts without getting shift commands swallowed, and plain text without losing various common words.

m4's macro substitution is based on text, while TeX's is based on tokens. changeword can throw this difference into relief. For example, here is the same idea represented in TeX and m4. First, the TeX version:


Then, the m4 version:

define(a, `errprint(`Hello')')

In the TeX example, the first line defines a macro a to print the message `Hello'. The second line defines @ to be usable instead of \ as an escape character. The third line defines \ to be a normal printing character, not an escape. The fourth line invokes the macro a. So, when TeX is run on this file, it displays the message `Hello'.

When the m4 example is passed through m4, it outputs `errprint(Hello)'. The reason for this is that TeX does lexical analysis of macro definition when the macro is defined. m4 just stores the text, postponing the lexical analysis until the macro is used.

You should note that using changeword will slow m4 down by a factor of about seven.

Saving input

It is possible to `save' some text until the end of the normal input has been seen. Text can be saved, to be read again by m4 when the normal input has been exhausted. This feature is normally used to initiate cleanup actions before normal exit, e.g., deleting temporary files.

To save input text, use the builtin m4wrap:

m4wrap(string, ...)
which stores string and the rest of the arguments in a safe place, to be reread when end of input is reached.

define(`cleanup', `This is the `cleanup' actions.
This is the first and last normal input line.
=>This is the first and last normal input line.
=>This is the cleanup actions.

The saved input is only reread when the end of normal input is seen, and not if m4exit is used to exit m4.

It is safe to call m4wrap from saved text, but then the order in which the saved text is reread is undefined. If m4wrap is not used recursively, the saved pieces of text are reread in the opposite order in which they were saved (LIFO--last in, first out).

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