Skeleton is very powerful special-purpose mini-language implemented in EmacsLisp. The definition of a skeleton looks like a mixture of an EmacsLisp function and line noise. Nevertheless, they are very powerful. Typically, skeletons are used in conjunction with AbbrevMode for automatic insertion of customized templates and such. GnuEmacs comes with an “Autotype” InfoMode manual (‘C-h i d m Autotype RET’) which explains skeletons. You may also read the documentation of skeleton-insert for more info.

Introduction to Skeleton Mode

TomBreton wrote a nice recipe for skeletons: RecipeForSkeletonMode.

Simple example

Bare bones

    (define-skeleton hello-world-skeleton
      "Write a greeting"
      "Type name of user: "
      "hello, " str "!")

Full example

Here is an example that sets up a general LaTeX letter, creating a skeleton with define-skeleton.

The first string is the DocString, a short textual description of the skeleton. Then follows the skeleton itself, which is mostly plain strings inserted as-is. However, the string right after the DocString, "Empfänger: ", is the prompt string, which the minibuffer uses for prompting for a user-entered value whenever the str symbol occurs in the skeleton. The value entered is substituted in place of str.

The construct str | " *** Empfänger *** " in the skeleton means that “*** Empfänger ***” will be used as the default value if nothing was entered. (If the skeleton doesn’t contain any str symbols, the empty symbol nil may be used in place of the prompt string.)

Finally, the _ symbol specifies the “wrap position”, i.e., where the point will end up when the skeleton has been inserted. If any text is selected beforehand, the skeleton will wrap around it.

    (define-skeleton latex-skeleton
      "Inserts a Latex letter skeleton into current buffer.
    This only makes sense for empty buffers."
      "Empfänger: "
      "\\name{A. Schröder}\n"
      "\\address{Alexander Schröder \\\\ Langstrasse 104 \\\\ 8004 Zürich}\n"
      "\\begin{letter}{" str | " *** Empfänger *** " "}\n"
      "\\opening{" _ "}\n\n"
      "\\closing{Mit freundlichen Grüssen,}\n"

Place the code in .emacs. Then you can, for example, bind it to a key with:

    (global-set-key "\C-cl" 'latex-skeleton)

Very simple, right?

Of course, the scheme is infinitely flexible. Instead of strings you can use Lisp expressions, whose return values will be used in the text. See the Emacs Auto Type manual for details.

Skeletons and abbrevs

You can combine the power of skeletons with abbrevs. Note that you need to activate AbbrevMode if you really want to just type `;ife’ to insert the expansion. (The following posting was slightly edited by AlexSchroeder.)

 From: Miroslav Fikar <>
 Subject: Re: Templates in Emacs...
 Newsgroups: comp.emacs
 Date: 12 Oct 2001 18:07:28 +0200

Here is a small skeleton example from my fortran mode: typing `;ife’ expands to the following fragment with the TextCursor placed in ().

 if () then
 end if

Here’s the code:

    (define-abbrev fortran-mode-abbrev-table ";ife"
      "" 'fortran-skeleton-if-else-endif)
    (define-skeleton fortran-skeleton-if-else-endif
      "Insert an if - else - end if region" nil
      > "if (" _ ") then" \n
      -3 "else" \n
      -3 "end if")
    (setq skeleton-end-hook nil)

abbrev only expands on word constituents. In fortran-mode, the semicolon is a word constituent. You can’t just use ;foo in other modes … this confused me greatly ;)

Preventing skeleton/abbrev recursion

If you want to use abbrevs, but don’t want abbrevs interacting with your skeletons, you can use this.

    (setq skeleton-further-elements '((abbrev-mode nil)))

skeleton-further-elements is buffer local when set. Its purpose is to effectively surround your abbrev expansion with let.

    ;; actual snippet from skeleton.el
    (eval `(let ,skeleton-further-elements
     	   (skeleton-internal-list skeleton str)))

So my example causes the above code to expand into:

    (let ((abbrev-mode nil))
         (skeleton-internal-list skeleton str))

Effectivly turning off abbrev-mode while skeletons insert into this buffer.

See “Using Multiple Variables” below and then imagine how this feature opens the possibilities.

Repeated Input

Here is another example which asks the user for repeated input. The key phrase to note in the skeleton-insert DocString is this:

ELEMENT may itself be a SKELETON with an INTERACTOR. The user is prompted repeatedly for different inputs. The SKELETON is processed as often as the user enters a non-empty string.
    (define-skeleton hello-class
      "Example for repeated input."
      "this prompt is ignored"
      ("Enter name of student: " "hello, " str \n))

And assuming some very simple input, here’s the result:

    hello, a
    hello, b
    hello, c

Using the power of repeating skeletons

I like the way you can make a skeleton repeat until you don’t want any more input (see above), however I struggled until today to work out how to act on the str so that you can transform it how you will.

  (define-skeleton add-tags
    "Enter tags in any case and the output will be upcased."
    "Tags: "
    ((upcase (skeleton-read "Tag: ")) ":"  str) ":" \n)

Skeletonizing skeletons

It’s easy to create interactive skeletons for multiple distinct inputs. Here’s a skeleton which aids in writing new skeletons! It first prompts for the name and docstring, and then repeatedly prompts for every line of the new skeleton definition. This could easily be adapted to writing simple functions or classes in different languages.

 (define-skeleton skeleton-skel
   "Interactive skeleton for writing skeletons."
   > "(define-skeleton " (skeleton-read "Skeleton name: ") \n
   > "\"" (skeleton-read "Docstring: ") "\""
   > ("Content line: " \n str) _ ")")

Using Multiple Variables with Skeleton Mode

define-skeleton has this limitation: you can’t bind more than one variable at a time.

The skeleton provides a) the two symbols v1 and v2 (preserved for the user) and b) ‘skeleton-read’ to query for a string during the execution of the skeleton. Thus:

    (define-skeleton read-two-vars
      "Prompt the user for two variables, and use them in a skeleton."
      > "variable A is " (setq v1 (skeleton-read "Variable A? ")) \n
      > "variable B is " (setq v2 (skeleton-read "Variable B? ")) \n
      > "A: " v1 "    B: " v2 \n)

More things to do with Variables in Skeleton Mode

    (define-skeleton vote
      "Electoral motion results"
      > "|----------------+----------+--------------|" \n
      > "|Vote:           |For: "
      (setq v1 (skeleton-read "How many for? "))
      "    |Against: "
      (setq v2 (skeleton-read "How many against? "))
      "    |" \n
      > "|----------------+----------+--------------|" \n
      "|" (if (< (string-to-number v1)(string-to-number v2))
	      "Not Carried                               |"
	    "Carried                                    |")
      > "|------------------------------------------|" \n)

This is a use of unquoted S-expressions to both write immediate text and set variables that are to be reused later. As you can see, so long as the S-expression finally inserts text some numerical calculations can be done.

Using Arbitrary Lisp Expressions

The skeleton language allows to evaluate arbitrary Lisp expressions when Emacs executes the skeleton program. This feature has two flavours: quoted s-expressions and unquoted S-expressions.

S-Expressions without Quotes

S-expressions without a quote must return a string. The skeleton program then inserts this string into the buffer. Example:

    (define-skeleton sexpr-example
      "Insert a silly example."
      > "Emacs version is: " emacs-version \n
      > "And time is: " (current-time-string))

Quoted S-Expressions

If you quote the sexpr, the skeleton program does not insert its return value, but discards it. You can use this to play some hackish tricks. The following example inserts a C-style comment in a box into the current buffer, like:

 /* **************************************************************** */
 /* **                        Lirum larum                         ** */
 /* **************************************************************** */

This is the skeleton:

    (define-skeleton insert-c-comment-header
      "Inserts a c comment in a rectangle into current buffer."
      '(setq str (skeleton-read "Comment: "))
      ;; `str' is set explicitly here, because otherwise the skeleton
      ;; program would set it, only when it is going to insert it into the
      ;; buffer. But we need to determine the length of the string
      ;; beforehand, with `(length str)' below.
      '(when (string= str "") (setq str " - "))
      '(setq v1 (make-string (- fill-column 6) ?*))
      '(setq v2 (- fill-column 10 (length str)))
      "/* " v1 " */" \n
      "/* **"
      (make-string (floor v2 2) ?\ )
      (make-string (ceiling v2 2) ?\ )
      "** */" \n
      "/* " v1 " */")

Please note, however, that when you have reached this level of complexity, you probably should consider implementing it as a normal EmacsLisp function.

Here’s another example of quoted sexps that might be more useful.

    (define-skeleton xhtml-trans-skeleton
      "Inserts a skeletal XHTML file with the DOCTYPE declaration
    for the XHTML 1.0 Transitional DTD"
      "Title: "
      "<?xml version=\"1.0\""
      (if buffer-file-coding-system
          (concat " encoding=\""
                  (setq v1
                         (coding-system-get buffer-file-coding-system
                                        'mime-charset))) "\""))
      "<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC \"-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN\"\n"
      > "\"\">\n"
      > "<html xmlns=\"\">\n"
      > "<head>\n"
      (when buffer-file-coding-system
             "<meta http-equiv=\"Content-type\" content=\"text/html; charset="
             v1 "\" />\n"))
      > "<meta name=\"Author\" content=\"" (user-full-name) "\" />\n"
      > "<title>" - str
      '(save-excursion (sgml-quote skeleton-point (point)))
      "</head>" > \n
      > "<body>\n"
      > "<h1>" - str
      '(save-excursion (sgml-quote skeleton-point (point)))
      > - \n
      "</body>" > \n
      "</html>" > \n \n)

The quoted sexps provide proper HTML characters by running sgml-quote on the region, by first marking the point with - and using ‘skeleton-point’ in the sexp. Once you start using -, you can’t use _ as the “interesting point”. This example also shows how you need to use > at the end of lines before a newline is inserted in case indentation needs to go backwards because of a closing element.

Moving within skeletons

Though the skeleton user interface is not as meaty as other template packages, such as TempoSnippets and Yasnippet, it is nonetheless possible to take a “bare bones” (ugh!) approach to movement within snippets. When creating skeleton templates, you can use the “@” sign to indicate positions that will be saved in the variable skeleton-positions. Here’s a simple example:

   (define-skeleton skel-defun
     "Insert a defun template."
     "Name: "
     "(defun " str " (" @ - ")" \n
     "(" @ _ ")" \n)

The template above inserts a skeleton that looks like this (after the prompt):

   (defun some-function ()

Because of the “-”, the cursor is placed inside the first set of parentheses. And because of the “_”, any active region is placed inside the second set of parentheses. But thanks to the “@” signs, these locations have also been saved in skeleton-positions, making it possible (with some handy elisp) to jump back and forth between the entry points:

  (defvar *skeleton-markers* nil
    "Markers for locations saved in skeleton-positions")
  (add-hook 'skeleton-end-hook 'skeleton-make-markers)
  (defun skeleton-make-markers ()
    (while *skeleton-markers*
      (set-marker (pop *skeleton-markers*) nil))
    (setq *skeleton-markers *
          (mapcar 'copy-marker (reverse skeleton-positions))))
  (defun skeleton-next-position (&optional reverse)
    "Jump to next position in skeleton.
         REVERSE - Jump to previous position in skeleton"
    (interactive "P")
    (let* ((positions (mapcar 'marker-position *skeleton-markers*))
           (positions (if reverse (reverse positions) positions))
           (comp (if reverse '> '<))
      (when positions
        (if (catch 'break
              (while (setq pos (pop positions))
                (when (funcall comp (point) pos)
                  (throw 'break t))))
            (goto-char pos)
          (goto-char (marker-position
                      (car *skeleton-markers*)))))))

Simply bind skeleton-next-position to some convenient key and you’ll be able to cycle through the completion points within the template.

More Information

Read the function documentation for skeleton-insert to learn about creating more complex skeletons.

Other example uses of Skeleton mode are at these pages.

See SkeletonPair for notes on using SkeletonMode to handle inserting pairs of character like quotes, parentheses, braces and brackets.

If you want to write test for your skeletons see SkeletonModeTests?.

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