Dynamic binding is sometimes called fluid binding. Lexical binding is sometimes called static binding.


A “Binding” is a relationship of correspondence between a name and a (memory) location.

In Lisp you can create a binding using ‘let’:

   (let ((a 1)) (print a))
     ==> 1

This creates a fresh location, puts the value 1 there, and binds the name “a” to it.

Each use of ‘let’ creates a fresh location, even if you use the same name:

   (let ((a 1))
     (let ((a 2))
        (let ((a 3))
          (print a))
        (print a))
     (print a))
     ==> 3

A binding made by ‘let’ lasts until the end of the ‘let’ form.

Function calls create bindings for their formal arguments when they are called:

    (defun foo (a)
      (let ((a 2)) (print a))
      (print a))
    (foo 1)
    ==> 2

A binding made by a function call lasts until the call returns.

A ‘let’ expression is indeed just “syntatic sugar”, a convenience, for the corresponding ‘lambda’ form:

    (let ((a 1)
          (b 3))
      (+ a b))

is equivalent to

    ((lambda (a b) (+ a b)) 1 3)

Note that there are plenty of other ways to make bindings: ‘defconst’, ‘defun’, ‘defvar’, ‘flet’, ‘labels’, ‘prog’, etc.

Dynamic and Lexical Binding

Two regimes for handling variable binding emerged:

All variable names and their values live in one global table.
Every binding scope (function, let syntax, …) creates a new table of variable names and values, organised in a hierarchy called “the environment”.

For the simple examples given above both lexical and dynamic binding return the same results. But consider this piece of code:

    (let ((a 1))                            ; binding (1)
      (let ((f (lambda () (print a))))
        (let ((a 2))                        ; binding (2)
          (funcall f))))
    ==> ?

A name that is lexically bound is looked up only in bindings in the lexical environment of the name – that is, in bindings that enclose the name in the source code. So if “a” is lexically bound, the code above prints “1”, because only binding (1) is in the lexical environment. When there are multiple bindings in the lexical environment, the innermost one is used.

A name that is dynamically bound is looked up only in bindings in the dynamic environment of the name – that is, in all bindings which have been created since the program began and which have not yet been destroyed. When there are multiple bindings in the dynamic environment, the most recently created one is used. So if “a” is dynamically bound, the code above prints “2” because both binding (1) and binding (2) have been created by the time “a” is evaluated, but binding (2) was created more recently.

(In a multi-threaded Lisp we would have to be a bit more careful about dynamic binding to make sure that one thread doesn’t see bindings created on another thread. But EmacsLisp is single-threaded so that’s not a worry.)

Another example which shows the difference

This is a lambda function which adds 3 to a number: (lambda (arg) (+ 3 arg)). You may apply it so: ((lambda (arg) (+ 3 arg)) 5) and it gives 8.

Now you want to store the 3 somewhere else (let’s say in variable to_add) but still get a function which adds 3 (not other possible values of to_add, but the current one). You could try: (let ((to_add 3)) (lambda (arg) (+ to_add arg)) ). But it doesn’t work because you get: (lambda (arg) (+ to_add arg)) instead of (lambda (arg) (+ 3 arg)). The first one will not work if the value of the variable to_add had changed by the time the lambda is applied. The cause of this result is that the binding is dynamic, not lexical. Notice the difference.

Now for how to do what you wanted. This wouldn’t work either: (let ((to_add 3)) `(lambda (arg) (+ ,to_add arg)) ) because it is not a closure, it is a substitution (see: BackquoteSyntax). A solution would be: (lexical-let ((to_add 3)) (lambda (arg) (+ to_add arg))), which can be applied with funcall: (funcall (lexical-let ((to_add 3)) (lambda (arg) (+ to_add arg))) 5) is 8. More on the theory is below, and other solutions in FakeClosures.

Advantages of dynamic binding

Dynamic bindings are great for modifying the behaviour of subsystems. Suppose you are using a function ‘foo’ that generates output using ‘print’. But sometimes you would like to capture the output in a buffer of your choosing. With dynamic binding, it’s easy:

   (let ((b (get-buffer-create " *string-output*")))
     (let ((standard-output b))
       (print "foo"))
     (set-buffer b)
     ;; do stuff with the output of foo
     (insert "bar")

(And if you used this kind of thing a lot, you’d encapsulate it in a macro – but luckily it’s already been done as ‘with-output-to-temp-buffer’.)

This works because ‘foo’ uses the dynamic binding of the name ‘standard-output’, so you can substitute your own binding for that name to modify the behaviour of ‘foo’ – and of all the functions that ‘foo’ calls.

In a language without dynamic binding, you’d probably add an optional argument to ‘foo’ to specify a buffer and then ‘foo’ would pass that to any calls to ‘print’. But if ‘foo’ calls other functions which themselves call ‘print’ you’ll have to alter those functions as well. And if ‘print’ had another option, say ‘print-level’, you’d have to add that as an optional argument as well… Alternatively, you could remember the old value of ‘standard-output’, substitute your new value, call ‘foo’ and then restore the old value. And remember to handle non-local exits using ‘throw’. When you’re through with this, you’ll see that you’ve implemented dynamic binding!

RichardStallman explains the advantages of dynamic binding in the context of EmacsLisp: http://www.gnu.org/software/emacs/emacs-paper.html#SEC17. See also the article Dynamic vs. Static Typing — A Pattern-Based Analysis by Pascal Costanza, http://www.p-cos.net/documents/dynatype.pdf.

Advantages of lexical binding

From: MilesBader
Subject: Re: Emacs 22
Newsgroups: comp.emacs
Date: Sun, 19 Aug 2001 01:47:53 GMT

Because it's (1) much easier for the user [that is, programmer], because
it eliminates the problem of which variables lambda-expressions use
(when they attempt to use variables from their surrounding context), and
(2) much easier for the compiler to optimize, because it doesn't need to
worry about variables escaping their lexical context, and so doesn't
need to allow for the possibility (this is a big problem with the
current compiler).


Most languages only have lexical bindings for names.

Actually, ALGOL 60 had lexical scoping a decade earlier. C inherited it from ALGOL, and most pop lanugages got it from C. Scheme was the first Lisp with lexical scoping.
Scheme was however the first language with lexical closures which is probably what confused the original author.

Why Emacs has dynamic binding

RichardStallman wrote a paper describing the design of the original Emacs and the lessons to be learned from it. It also contains a section on dynamic binding.

See the node ‘Scope’ in the EmacsLispReference.

Moving towards lexical binding

Since April 1, 2011 (not an April fools joke), Emacs 24 has merged the lexical binding branch mentioned below. The trunk code is moving along and becoming lexical-binding-tolerant.

Lexical binding branch of Emacs

I have implemented lexical binding support in Emacs lisp. It is available in the `lexbind’ branch of the official Emacs CVS repository. I keep this branch synced with the CVS trunk on a regular basis, so it should be “mostly” up-to-date.

The status of this implementation:

To use lexical binding, an Emacs-lisp source file must set a file-variable `lexical-binding’ to t in the file header, e.g., by using a first line like:

    ;;; -*- lexical-binding: t -*-

Even in a source file that uses lexical binding, global variables declared with `defvar’ are always dynamically bound.

Much code written for normal elisp should work unchanged when using lexical binding (except that it will be a bit faster and safer), because good elisp programming practice tends to discourage the sort of code that would expose the difference (e.g., let-binding an undeclared variable intending that the value be seen by a called function).

- MilesBader

More about Emacs future lexical binding

Today StefanMonnier told about how the lexical binding in Emacs might behave:

More radical approaches


Simulating lexical binding in Emacs

See this page: FakeClosures. Other tips are given below.

If you (require ‘cl) then you can make lexical bindings with the ‘lexical-let’ macro:

    (lexical-let ((foo 1))
      (defun foo-test () foo)
      (defun foo-inc ()
        (incf foo)))
      => foo-inc
      => 1
      => 1
      => 2
      => 2

[Please actually use (eval-when-compile (require 'cl)) if you intend to distribute such code, to avoid runtime dependence on cl in the compiled code.]

How can it be? foo-test actually references a shared, hidden value slot. That’s because the cl package uses macro hackery to simulate lexical binding. Examine it yourself:

    (with-output-to-temp-buffer (pp (symbol-function 'foo-test)))
      => (lambda
	   (&rest --cl-rest--)
	       (symbol-value G58033))
	    '--foo-- --cl-rest--))

But it works.

Note that this isn’t at all the same thing as actually having lexical variables in the language.

Note that it’s also possible to use a macro to facilitate writing higher-order functions using lexical closures. First, let’s look at a simple example of a higher-order function using lexical-let:

(defun compose (f g)
  (lexical-let ((f f)
                (g g))
    (lambda (x)
      (funcall f (funcall g x)))))

It is a chore to write the lexical-let part of it, but defmacro can help.

;; Defun with lexically-scoped parameters.  Could also be called
;; lexical-defun.
(defmacro lexdef (name args &rest body)
   `(defun ,name ,args
      (lexical-let ,(mapcar (lambda (arg) (list arg arg))
                            (filter (lambda (a) (not (equal a '&rest))) 

Now we can write:

(lexdef compose (f g)
        (lambda (x)
          (funcall f (funcall g x))))

Our macro can also help us write a higher-order function that does currying, i.e., making a new function from f by filling in some of f’s arguments and allowing the rest to be provided later.

(lexdef curry (f &rest args)
        (lambda (&rest more-args)
          (apply f (append args more-args))))

(set 'add1 (curry '+ 1))
(assert (= (funcall add1 2) 3))

See also WikiPedia:Scope (programming)

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