Effective Elvish

Table of content

Elvish is not an entirely new language. Its programming techniques have two primary sources: traditional Unix shells and functional programming languages, both dating back to many decades ago. However, the way Elvish combines those two paradigms is unique in many ways, which enables new ways to write code.

This document is an advanced tutorial focusing on how to write idiomatic Elvish code, code that is concise and clear, and takes full advantage of Elvish’s features.

An appropriate adjective for idiomatic Elvish code, like Pythonic for Python or Rubyesque for Ruby, is Elven. In Roguelike games, Elven items are known to be high-quality, artful and resilient. So is Elven code.



Use dash-delimited-words for names of variables and functions. Underscores are allowed in variable and function names, but their use should be limited to environment variables (e.g. $E:LC_ALL) and external commands (e.g. pkg_add).

When building a module, use a leading dash to communicate that a variable or function is subject to change in future and cannot be relied upon, either because it is an experimental feature or implementation detail.

Elvish’s core libraries follow the naming convention above.


Indent by two spaces.

Code Blocks

In Elvish, code blocks in control structures are delimited by curly braces. This is perhaps the most visible difference of Elvish from most other shells like bash, zsh or fish. The following bash code:

if true; then
  echo true

Is written like this in Elvish:

if $true {
  echo true

If you have used lambdas in Elvish, you will notice that code blocks are syntactically just parameter-list-less lambdas.

In Elvish, you cannot put opening braces of code blocks on the next line. This won’t work:

if $true
{ # wrong!
  echo true

Instead, you must write:

if $true {
  echo true

This is because in Elvish, control structures like if follow the same syntax as normal commands, hence newlines terminate them. To make the code block part of the if command, it must appear on the same line.

Using the Pipeline

Elvish is equipped with a powerful tool for passing data: the pipeline. Like in traditional shells, it is an intuitive notation for data processing: data flows from left to right, undergoing one transformation after another. Unlike in traditional shells, it is not restricted to unstructured bytes: all Elvish values, including lists, maps and even closures, can flow in the pipeline. This section documents how to make the most use of pipelines.

Returning Values with Structured Output

Unlike functions in most other programming languages, Elvish commands do not have return values. Instead, they can write to structured output, which is similar to the traditional byte-based stdout, but preserves all internal structures of aribitrary Elvish values. The most fundamental command that does this is put:

~> put foo
▶ foo
~> var x = (put foo)
~> put $x
▶ foo

This is hardly impressive - you can output and recover simple strings using good old byte-based output as well. But let’s try this:

~> put "a\nb" [foo bar]
▶ "a\nb"
▶ [foo bar]
~> var s li = (put "a\nb" [foo bar])
~> put $s
▶ "a\nb"
~> put $li[0]
▶ foo

Here, two things are worth mentioning: the first value we put contains a newline, and the second value is a list. When we capture the output, we get those exact values back. Passing structured data is difficult with byte-based output, but trivial with value output.

Besides put, many other builtin commands and commands in builtin modules also write to structured output, like str:split:

~> use str
~> str:split , foo,bar
▶ foo
▶ bar
~> var words = [(str:split , foo,bar)]
~> put $words
▶ [foo bar]

User-defined functions behave in the same way: they “return” values by writing to structured stdout. Without realizing that “return values” are just outputs in Elvish, it is easy to think of put as the command to “return” values and write code like this:

~> fn split-by-comma {|s| use str; put (str:split , $s) }
~> split-by-comma foo,bar
▶ foo
▶ bar

The split-by-comma function works, but it can be written more concisely as:

~> fn split-by-comma {|s| use str; str:split , $s }
~> split-by-comma foo,bar
▶ foo
▶ bar

In fact, the pattern put (some-cmd) is almost always redundant and equivalent to just some-command.

Similarly, it is seldom necessary to write echo (some-cmd): it is almost always equivalent to just some-cmd. As an exercise, try simplifying the following function:

fn git-describe { echo (git describe --tags --always) }

Mixing Bytes and Values

Each pipe in Elvish comprises two components: one traditional byte pipe that carries unstructured bytes, and one value pipe that carries Elvish values. You can write to both, and output capture will capture both:

~> fn f { echo bytes; put value }
~> f
▶ value
~> var outs = [(f)]
~> put $outs
▶ [bytes value]

This also illustrates that the output capture operator (...) works with both byte and value outputs, and it can recover the output sent to echo. When byte output contains multiple lines, each line becomes one value:

~> var x = [(echo "lorem\nipsum")]
~> put $x
▶ [lorem ipsum]

Most Elvish builtin functions also work with both byte and value inputs. Similarly to output capture, they split their byte input by newlines. For example:

~> use str
~> put lorem ipsum | each $str:to-upper~
~> echo "lorem\nipsum" | each $str:to-upper~

This line-oriented processing of byte input is consistent with traditional Unix tools like grep, sed and awk. In fact, it is easy to write your own grep in Elvish:

~> use re
~> fn mygrep {|p| each {|line| if (re:match $p $line) { echo $line } } }
~> cat in.txt
~> cat in.txt | mygrep '[0-9]'

Note that it is more concise to write mygrep ... < in.txt.

However, this line-oriented behavior is not always desirable: not all Unix commands output newline-separated data. When you want to get the output as is, as a single string, you can use the slurp command:

~> echo "a\nb\nc" | slurp
▶ "a\nb\nc\n"

One immediate use of slurp is to read a whole file into a string:

~> cat hello.go
package main

import "fmt"

func main() {
~> hello-go = (slurp < hello.go)
~> put $hello-go
▶ "package main\n\nimport \"fmt\"\n\nfunc main()

It is also useful, for example, when working with NUL-separated output:

~> touch "a\nb.go"
~> mkdir d
~> touch d/f.go
~> use str
~> find . -name '*.go' -print0 | str:split "\000" (slurp)
▶ "./a\nb.go"
▶ ./d/f.go
▶ ''

In the above command, slurp turns the input into one string, which is then used as an argument to str:split. The str:split command then splits the whole input by NUL bytes.

Note that in Elvish, strings can contain NUL bytes; in fact, they can contain any byte; this makes Elvish suitable for working with binary data. (Also, note that the find command terminates its output with a NUL byte, hence we see a trailing empty string in the output.)

One side note: In the first example, we saw that bytes appeared before value. This is not guaranteed: byte output and value output are separate, it is possible to get value before bytes in more complex cases. Writes to one component, however, always have their orders preserved, so in put x; put y, x will always appear before y.

Prefer Pipes Over Parentheses

If you have experience with Lisp, you will discover that you can write Elvish code very similar to Lisp. For instance, to split a string containing comma-separated value, reduplicate each value (using commas as separators), and rejoin them with semicolons, you can write:

~> var csv = a,b,foo,bar
~> use str
~> str:join ';' [(each {|x| put $x,$x } [(str:split , $csv)])]
▶ 'a,a;b,b;foo,foo;bar,bar'

This code works, but it is a bit unreadable. In particular, since str:split outputs multiple values but each wants a list argument, you have to wrap the output of str:split in a list with [(str:split ...)]. Then you have to do this again in order to pass the output of each to str:join. You might wonder why commands like str:split and each do not simply output a list to make this easier.

The answer to that particular question is in the next subsection, but for the program at hand, there is a much better way to write it:

~> var csv = a,b,foo,bar
~> use str
~> str:split , $csv | each {|x| put $x,$x } | str:join ';'
▶ 'a,a;b,b;foo,foo;bar,bar'

Besides having fewer pairs of parentheses (and brackets), this program is also more readable, because the data flows from left to right, and there is no nesting. You can see that $csv is first split by commas, then each value gets reduplicated, and then finally everything is joined by semicolons. It matches exactly how you would describe the algorithm in spoken English – or for that matter, any spoken language!

Both versions work, because commands like each and str:join that work with multiple inputs can take their inputs in two ways: they can take the inputs as one list argument, like in the first version; or from the pipeline, like the second version. Whenever possible, you should prefer the input-from-pipeline form: it makes for programs that have little nesting, read naturally.

One exception to the recommendation is when the input is a small set of things known beforehand. For example:

~> each $str:to-upper~ [lorem ipsum]

Here, using the input-from-argument is completely fine: if you want to use the input-from-input form, you have to supply the input using put, which is also OK but a bit more wordy:

~> put lorem ipsum | each $str:to-upper~

However, not all commands support taking input from the pipeline. For example, if we want to first join some values with space and then split at commas, this won’t work:

~> use str
~> str:join ' ' [a,b c,d] | str:split ,
Exception: arity mismatch: arguments here must be 2 values, but is 1 value
[tty], line 1: str:join ' ' [a,b c,d] | str:split ,

This is because the str:split command only ever works with one input (one string to split), and was not implemented to support taking input from pipeline; hence it always takes 2 arguments and we got an exception.

It is easy to remedy this situation however. The all command passes its input to its output, and by capturing its output, we can turn the input into an argument:

~> use str
~> str:join ' ' [a,b c,d] | str:split , (all)
▶ a
▶ 'b c'
▶ d

Streaming Multiple Outputs

In the previous subsection, we remarked that commands like str:split and each write multiple output values instead of one list. Why?

This has to do with another advantage of passing data through the pipeline: in a pipeline, all commands are executed in parallel. A command in a pipeline does not need to wait for its previous command to finish running before it can start processing data. Try this in your terminal:

~> each $str:to-upper~ | each {|x| put $x$x }
(Start typing)
(Press ^D)

You will notice that as soon as you press Enter after typing abc, the output ABCABC is shown. As soon as one input is available, it goes through the entire pipeline, each command doing its work. This gives you immediate feedback, and makes good use of multi-core CPUs on modern computers. Pipelines are like assembly lines in the manufacturing industry.

If instead of passing multiple values, we pass a list through the pipeline: that means that each command will now be waiting for its previous command to do all the processing and pack the results in a list before it can start doing anything. Now, although the commands themselves are run in parallel, they all need to be waiting for their previous commands to finish before they can start doing real work.

This is why commands like each and str:split produce multiple values instead of one list. When writing your functions, try to make them produce multiple values as well: they will cooperate better with builtin commands, and they can benefit from the efficiency of parallel computations.

Working with Multiple Values

In Elvish, many constructs can evaluate to multiple values. This can be surprising if you are not familiar with it.

To start with, output captures evaluate to all the captured values, instead of a list:

~> use str
~> str:split , a,b,c
▶ a
▶ b
▶ c
~> var li = (str:split , a,b,c)
Exception: arity mismatch: assignment right-hand-side must be 1 value, but is 3 values
[tty], line 1: li = (str:split , a,b,c)

The assignment fails with “arity mismatch” because the right hand side evaluates to 3 values, but you are attempting to assign them to just one variable. If you want to capture the results into a list, you have to explicitly do so, either by constructing a list or using rest variables:

~> use str
~> var li = [(str:split , a,b,c)]
~> put $li
▶ [a b c]
~> var @li = (str:split , a,b,c) # equivalent and slightly shorter

Assigning Multiple Variables

To Be Continued…

As of writing, Elvish is neither stable nor complete. The builtin libraries still have missing pieces, the package manager is in its early days, and things like a type system and macros have been proposed and considered, but not yet worked on. Deciding best practices for using feature x can be a bit tricky when that feature x doesn’t yet exist!

The current version of the document is what the lead developer of Elvish (@xiaq) has collected as best practices for writing Elvish code in early 2018, between the release of Elvish 0.11 and 0.12. They apply to aspects of the Elvish language that are relatively complete and stable; but as Elvish evolves, the document will co-evolve. You are invited to revisit this document once in a while!