The first thing you should do if you want to debug a problem is to set the variable ‘debug-on-error’ to t. You can do that by calling M-x set-variable RET debug-on-error RET t RET. When you get an EmacsLisp error, this will pop up a BacktraceBuffer. For more advanced EmacsLisp debugging, see SourceLevelDebugger. See also EmacsMemoryDebugging

Another useful tip is to check for parentheses, with M-x check-parens, especially useful if you’re loading a file (e.g your .emacs) and emacs raises weird errors regarding the read syntax.


To debug Emacs using gdb, start with reading etc/DEBUG (in repository).

Other tips

connect to the Emacs process

This is what I use to attach gdb to a running Emacs process. This only makes sense if you have the C source code lying somewhere. This way, if Emacs ever crashes (happened a few times only!), I can at least provide a backtrace when I send my bug report.

 EMACS_PID=`pgrep emacs`
 cd /usr/local/src/emacs-21.1/src
 exec -a debug-emacs xterm -e gdb /usr/local/bin/emacs $EMACS_PID

You should check the location of your emacs, the location of your source directory (this is important for the .gdbinit file there which contains some nice Emacs Lisp-debugging things). Read the etc/DEBUG file in your Emacs distribution for more information.

Other or older shell script suggestions

This shell script starts emacs and attaches gdb to it.

 if [[ "$1" == "--debug" ]]; then
     /usr/local/bin/emacs "$@" &
     cd /usr/local/src/emacs-20.7/src/
     gnome-terminal --termname xterm --use-factory --start-factory-server --title "Debug Emacs" --execute gdb /usr/local/bin/emacs $EMACS_PID &
     /usr/local/bin/emacs "$@" &

Example backtrace

(some frames left out of the backtrace (replaced with “…”) to keep this to a reasonable length)

(gdb) bt
#0  Fforward_line (n=make_fixnum(10)) at ../../src/cmds.c:124
#1  0x0000000000659771 in exec_byte_code (bytestr=XIL(0x7fffec58d32c), vector=XIL(0x7fffec58d13d), maxdepth=make_fixnum(5), args_template=XIL(0), nargs=0, 
    args=0x0) at ../../src/bytecode.c:1167
#2  0x000000000060bc24 in funcall_lambda (fun=XIL(0x7fffec58d10d), nargs=1, arg_vector=0x7fffec58d13d) at ../../src/eval.c:3076
#3  0x000000000060aec6 in Ffuncall (nargs=2, args=0x7fffffff48b8) at ../../src/eval.c:2805
#4  0x0000000000657418 in exec_byte_code (bytestr=XIL(0x7fffec594c5c), vector=XIL(0x7fffec3991c5), maxdepth=make_fixnum(7), args_template=XIL(0), nargs=0, 
    args=0x0) at ../../src/bytecode.c:633
#5  0x000000000060bc24 in funcall_lambda (fun=XIL(0x7fffec399195), nargs=2, arg_vector=0x7fffec3991c5) at ../../src/eval.c:3076
#6  0x000000000060aec6 in Ffuncall (nargs=3, args=0x7fffffff4f48) at ../../src/eval.c:2805
#7  0x0000000000657418 in exec_byte_code (bytestr=XIL(0x7fffec3e84a4), vector=XIL(0x7fffec3e8405), maxdepth=make_fixnum(4), args_template=XIL(0), nargs=0, 
    args=0x0) at ../../src/bytecode.c:633
#59 0x000000000060aec6 in Ffuncall (nargs=2, args=0x7fffffffdf60) at ../../src/eval.c:2805
#60 0x000000000060a87a in call1 (fn=XIL(0x4080), arg1=XIL(0x7fffeb7b3118)) at ../../src/eval.c:2656
#61 0x000000000055b095 in command_loop_1 () at ../../src/keyboard.c:1461
---Type <return> to continue, or q <return> to quit---
#62 0x00000000006078d4 in internal_condition_case (bfun=0x55a8cd <command_loop_1>, handlers=XIL(0x55b0), hfun=0x55a083 <cmd_error>)
    at ../../src/eval.c:1352
#63 0x000000000055a5b5 in command_loop_2 (ignore=XIL(0)) at ../../src/keyboard.c:1091
#64 0x0000000000607189 in internal_catch (tag=XIL(0xcd80), func=0x55a588 <command_loop_2>, arg=XIL(0)) at ../../src/eval.c:1113
#65 0x000000000055a553 in command_loop () at ../../src/keyboard.c:1070
#66 0x0000000000559c52 in recursive_edit_1 () at ../../src/keyboard.c:714
#67 0x0000000000559dd6 in Frecursive_edit () at ../../src/keyboard.c:786
#68 0x0000000000557d74 in main (argc=2, argv=0x7fffffffe458) at ../../src/emacs.c:2103

Lisp Backtrace:
"sgml-html-meta-auto-coding-function" (0xffff48c0)
"find-auto-coding" (0xffff4f50)
"set-auto-coding" (0xffff53e8)
"insert-file-contents" (0xffff9b88)
"find-file-noselect-1" (0xffffa128)
"find-file-noselect" (0xffffa868)
"find-function-C-source" (0xffffad68)
"find-function-search-for-symbol" (0xffffb318)
0xec604a40 PVEC_COMPILED
"apply" (0xffffb940)
"xref-location-marker" (0xffffbe60)
"xref-pop-to-location" (0xffffc338)
"xref--show-defs-buffer" (0xffffc7e0)
"xref--show-defs" (0xffffcc70)
"xref--find-definitions" (0xffffd0f8)
"xref-find-definitions" (0xffffd730)
"funcall-interactively" (0xffffd728)
"call-interactively" (0xffffda50)
"command-execute" (0xffffdf68)

CategoryCode, CategoryDebug