Language Specification

Table of Content:

1 Introduction

This document describes the Elvish programming language. It is both a specification and an advanced tutorial. The parts of this document marked with either notes or called out as examples are non-normative, and only serve to help you understand the more formal descriptions.

Examples in this document might use constructs that have not yet been introduced, so some familiarity with the language is assumed. If you are new to Elvish, start with the learning materials.

2 Source code encoding

Elvish source code must be Unicode text encoded in UTF-8.

In this document, character is a synonym of Unicode codepoint or its UTF-8 encoding.

3 Lexical elements

3.1 Whitespace

In this document, an inline whitespace is any of the following:

  • A space (U+0020);

  • A tab (U+0009);

  • A comment: starting with # and ending before (but not including) the next carriage return, newline or end of file;

  • A line continuation: a ^ followed by a newline ("\n"), or a carriage return and newline ("\r\n").

A whitespace is any of the following:

  • An inline whitespace;

  • A carriage return (U+000D);

  • A newline (U+000A).

3.2 Metacharacters

The following metacharacters serve to introduce or delimit syntax constructs:

Metacharacter Use
$ Referencing variables
* and ? Forming wildcard
| Separating forms in a pipeline
& Marking background pipelines; introducing key-value pairs
; Separating pipelines
< and > Introducing IO redirections
( and ) Enclosing output captures
[ and ] Enclosing list literals, map literals or function signature
{ and } Enclosing lambda literals or brace expressions

The following characters are parsed as metacharacters under certain conditions:

3.3 Single-quoted string

A single-quoted string consists of zero or more characters enclosed in single quotes ('). All enclosed characters represent themselves, except the single quote.

Two consecutive single quotes are handled as a special case: they represent one single quote, instead of terminating a single-quoted string and starting another.

Examples: '*\' evaluates to *\, and 'it''s' evaluates to it's.

3.4 Double-quoted string

A double-quoted string consists of zero or more characters enclosed in double quotes ("). All enclosed characters represent themselves, except backslashes (\), which introduces escape sequences. Double quotes are not allowed inside double-quoted strings, except after backslashes.

The following escape sequences are supported:

  • \cX, where X is a character with codepoint between 0x40 and 0x5F, represents the codepoint that is 0x40 lower than X. For example, \cI is the tab character: 0x49 (I) - 0x40 = 0x09 (tab). There is one special case: A question-mark is converted to del; i.e., \c? or \^? is equivalent to \x7F.

  • \^X is the same as \cX.

  • \[0..7][0..7][0..7] is a byte written as an octal value. There must be three octal digits following the backslash. For example, \000 is the nul character, and \101 is the same as A, but \0 is an invalid escape sequence (too few digits).

  • \x.. is a Unicode code point represented by two hexadecimal digits.

  • \u.... is a Unicode code point represented by four hexadecimal digits.

  • \U...... is a Unicode code point represented by eight hexadecimal digits.

  • The following single character escape sequences:

    • \a is the “bell” character, equivalent to \007 or \x07.

    • \b is the “backspace” character, equivalent to \010 or \x08.

    • \f is the “form feed” character, equivalent to \014 or \x0c.

    • \n is the “new line” character, equivalent to \012 or \x0a.

    • \r is the “carriage return” character, equivalent to \015 or \x0d.

    • \t is the “tab” character, equivalent to \011 or \x09.

    • \v is the “vertical tab” character, equivalent to \013 or \x0b.

    • \\ is the “backslash” character, equivalent to \134 or \x5c.

    • \" is the “double-quote” character, equivalent to \042 or \x22.

An unsupported escape sequence results in a parse error.

Note: Unlike most other shells, double-quoted strings in Elvish do not support interpolation. For instance, "$name" simply evaluates to a string containing $name. To get a similar effect, simply concatenate strings: instead of "my name is $name", write "my name is "$name. Under the hood this is a compounding operation.

3.5 Bareword

A string can be written without quoting – a bareword, if it only includes the characters from the following set:

  • ASCII letters (a-z and A-Z) and numbers (0-9);

  • The symbols !%+,-./:@\_;

  • Non-ASCII codepoints that are printable, as defined by unicode.IsPrint in Go’s standard library.

Examples: a.txt, long-bareword,, /usr/local/bin, 你好世界.

Moreover, ~ and = are allowed to appear without quoting when they are not parsed as metacharacters.

Note: since the backslash (\) is a valid bareword character in Elvish, it cannot be used to escape metacharacter. Use quotes instead: for example, to echo a star, write echo "*" or echo '*', not echo \*. The last command just writes out \*.

4 Value types

4.1 String

A string is a (possibly empty) sequence of bytes.

Single-quoted string literals, double-quoted string literalsand barewords all evaluate to string values. Unless otherwise noted, different syntaxes of string literals are equivalent in the code. For instance, xyz, 'xyz' and "xyz" are different syntaxes for the same string with content xyz.

Strings that contain UTF-8 encoded text can be indexed with a byte index where a codepoint starts, which results in the codepoint that starts there. The index can be given as either a typed number, or a string that parses to a number. Examples:

  • In the string elv, every codepoint is encoded with only one byte, so 0, 1, 2 are all valid indices:

    ~> put elv[0]
    ▶ e
    ~> put elv[1]
    ▶ l
    ~> put elv[2]
    ▶ v
  • In the string 世界, each codepoint is encoded with three bytes. The first codepoint occupies byte 0 through 2, and the second occupies byte 3 through 5. Hence valid indices are 0 and 3:

    ~> put 世界[0]
    ▶ 世
    ~> put 世界[3]
    ▶ 界

Such strings may also be indexed with a slice (see documentation of list for slice syntax). The range determined by the slice is also interpreted as byte indices, and the range must begin and end at codepoint boundaries.

The behavior of indexing a string that does not contain valid UTF-8-encoded Unicode text is unspecified.

Note: String indexing will likely change.

4.2 Number

Elvish has a double-precision floating point number type.

There is no literal syntax for the number type; it can be constructed with the float64 builtin. The builtin takes a single argument, which should be either another float64 value, or a string in the following formats (examples below all express the same value):

  • Decimal notation, e.g. 10.

  • Hexadecimal notation, e.g. 0xA.

  • Octal notation, e.g. 0o12.

  • Binary notation, e.g. 0b1010.

  • Floating point notation, e.g. 10.0.

  • Scientific notation, e.g. 1.0e1.

The following special floating point values are also supported: +Inf, -Inf and NaN.

The float64 builtin is case-insensitive.

Numbers can contain underscores between digits to improve readability. For example, 1000000 and 1_000_000 are equivalent. As is 1.234_56e3 and 1.23456e3. You can not use an underscore as a prefix or suffix in a number.

A float64 data type can be converted to a string using (to-string $number). The resulting string is guaranteed to result in the same value when converted back to a float64. Most of the time you won’t need to perform this explicit conversion. Elvish will implicitly make the conversion when running external commands and many of the builtins (where the distinction is not important).

You usually do not need to use float64 values explicitly; see the discussion of Commands That Operate On Numbers.

4.3 List

A list is a value containing a sequence of values. Values in a list are called its elements. Each element has an index, starting from zero.

List literals are surrounded by square brackets [ ], with elements separated by whitespace. Examples:

~> put [lorem ipsum]
▶ [lorem ipsum]
~> put [lorem
▶ [lorem ipsum foo bar]

Note: In Elvish, commas have no special meanings and are valid bareword characters, so don’t use them to separate elements:

~> li = [a, b]
~> put $li
▶ [a, b]
~> put $li[0]
▶ a,

A list can be indexed with the index of an element to obtain the element, which can take one of two forms:

  • A non-negative integer, an offset counting from the beginning of the list. For example, $li[0] is the first element of $li.

  • A negative integer, an offset counting from the back of the list. For instance, $li[-1] is the last element $li.

In both cases, the index can be given either as a typed number or a number-like string.

A list can also be indexed with a slice to obtain a sublist, which can take one of two forms:

  • A slice $a..$b, where both $a and $b are integers. The result is sublist of $li[$a] up to, but not including, $li[$b]. For instance, $li[4..7] equals [$li[4] $li[5] $li[6]], while $li[1..-1] contains all elements from $li except the first and last one.

    Both integers may be omitted; $a defaults to 0 while $b defaults to the length of the list. For instance, $li[..2] is equivalent to $li[0..2], $li[2..] is equivalent to $li[2..(count $li)], and $li[..] makes a copy of $li. The last form is rarely useful, as lists are immutable.

    Note that the slice needs to be a single string, so there cannot be any spaces within the slice. For instance, $li[2..10] cannot be written as $li[2.. 10]; the latter contains two indices and is equivalent to $li[2..] $li[10] (see Indexing).

  • A slice $a..=$b, which is similar to $a..$b, but includes $li[$b].


~> li = [lorem ipsum foo bar]
~> put $li[0]
▶ lorem
~> put $li[-1]
▶ bar
~> put $li[0..2]
▶ [lorem ipsum]

4.4 Map

A map is a value containing unordered key-value pairs.

Map literals are surrounded by square brackets; a key/value pair is written &key=value (reminiscent to HTTP query parameters), and pairs are separated by whitespaces. Whitespaces are allowed after =, but not before =. Examples:

~> put [&foo=bar &lorem=ipsum]
▶ [&foo=bar &lorem=ipsum]
~> put [&a= 10
&b= 23
&sum= (+ 10 23)]
▶ [&a=10 &b=23 &sum=33]

The literal of an empty map is [&].

Specifying a key without = or a value following it is equivalent to specifying $true as the value. Specifying a key with = but no value following it is equivalent to specifying the empty string as the value. Example:

~> echo [&a &b=]
[&a=$true &b='']

A map can be indexed by any of its keys. Unlike strings and lists, there is no support for slices, and .. and ..= have no special meanings. Examples:

~> map = [&a=lorem &b=ipsum &a..b=haha]
~> echo $map[a]
~> echo $map[a..b]

4.5 Pseudo-map

The concept of pseudo-map is not a concrete data type, but refer to certain data types that behave like maps in some aspects.

A pseudo-map typically has a fixed set of keys, called fields. The values of a field can be accessed by indexing. However, unlike maps, it is usually not possible to add new keys, remove existing keys, or even assigning a new value to an existing key.

The pseudo-map mechanism is often used for introspection. For example, exceptions and user-defined functions are both structmaps.

4.6 Exception

An exception carries information about errors during the execution of code.

There is no literal syntax for exceptions. See the discussion of exception and flow commands for more information about this data type.

An exception is a pseudo-map with a reason field, which is in turn a pseudo-map. The reason pseudo-map has has a type field identifying how the exception was raised, and further fields depending on the type:

  • If the type field is fail, the exception was raised by the fail command.

    In this case, the content field contains the argument to fail.

  • If the type field is flow, the exception was raised by one of the flow commands.

    In this case, the name field contains the name of the flow command.

  • If the type field is pipeline, the exception was a result of multiple commands in the same pipeline raising exceptions.

    In this case, the exceptions field contains the exceptions from the individual commands.

  • If the type field starts with external-cmd/, the exception was caused by one of several conditions of an external command. In this case, the following fields are available:

    • The cmd-name field contains the name of the command.

    • The pid field contains the PID of the command.

  • If the type field is external-cmd/exited, the external command exited with a non-zero status code. In this case, the exit-status field contains the exit status.

  • If the type field is external-cmd/signaled, the external command was killed by a signal. In this case, the following extra fields are available:

    • The signal-name field contains the name of the signal.

    • The signal-number field contains the numerical value of the signal, as a string.

    • The core-dumped field is a boolean reflecting whether a core dump was generated.

  • If the type field is external-cmd/stopped, the external command was stopped. In this case, the following extra fields are available:

    • The signal-name field contains the name of the signal.

    • The signal-number field contains the numerical value of the signal, as a string.

    • The trap-cause field contains the number indicating the trap cause.


~> put ?(fail foo)[reason]
▶ [&content=foo &type=fail]
~> put ?(return)[reason]
▶ [&name=return &type=flow]
~> put ?(false)[reason]
▶ [&cmd-name=false &exit-status=1 &pid=953421 &type=external-cmd/exited]

4.7 Function

A function encapsulates a piece of code that can be executed in an ordinary command, and takes its arguments and options. Functions are first-class values; they can be kept in variables, used as arguments, output on the value channel and embedded in other data structures. Elvish comes with a set of builtin functions, and Elvish code can also create user-defined functions.

Note: Unlike most programming languages, functions in Elvish do not have return values. Instead, they can output values, which can be captured later.

A function literal, or alternatively a lambda, evaluates to a user-defined function. The literal syntax consists of an optional signature list, followed by a code chunk that defines the body of the function.

Here is an example without a signature:

~> f = { echo "Inside a lambda" }
~> put $f
▶ <closure 0x18a1a340>

One or more whitespace characters after { is required: Elvish relies on the presence of whitespace to disambiguate function literals and braced lists.

Note: It is good style to put some whitespace before the closing } for symmetry, but this is not required by the syntax.

Functions defined without a signature list do not accept any arguments or options. To do so, write a signature list. Here is an example:

~> f = [a b]{ put $b $a }
~> $f lorem ipsum
▶ ipsum
▶ lorem

There must be no space between ] and {; otherwise Elvish will parse the signature as a list, followed by a lambda without signature:

~> put [a]{ nop }
▶ <closure 0xc420153d80>
~> put [a] { nop }
▶ [a]
▶ <closure 0xc42004a480>

Like in the left hand of assignments, if you prefix one of the arguments with @, it becomes a rest argument, and its value is a list containing all the remaining arguments:

~> f = [a @rest]{ put $a $rest }
~> $f lorem
▶ lorem
▶ []
~> $f lorem ipsum dolar sit
▶ lorem
▶ [ipsum dolar sit]
~> f = [a @rest b]{ put $a $rest $b }
~> $f lorem ipsum dolar sit
▶ lorem
▶ [ipsum dolar]
▶ sit

You can also declare options in the signature. The syntax is &name=default (like a map pair), where default is the default value for the option; the value of the option will be kept in a variable called name:

~> f = [&opt=default]{ echo "Value of $opt is "$opt }
~> $f
Value of $opt is default
~> $f &opt=foobar
Value of $opt is foobar

Options must have default values: Options should be optional.

If you call a function with too few arguments, too many arguments or unknown options, an exception is thrown:

~> [a]{ echo $a } foo bar
Exception: need 1 arguments, got 2
[tty], line 1: [a]{ echo $a } foo bar
~> [a b]{ echo $a $b } foo
Exception: need 2 arguments, got 1
[tty], line 1: [a b]{ echo $a $b } foo
~> [a b @rest]{ echo $a $b $rest } foo
Exception: need 2 or more arguments, got 1
[tty], line 1: [a b @rest]{ echo $a $b $rest } foo
~> [&k=v]{ echo $k } &k2=v2
Exception: unknown option k2
[tty], line 1: [&k=v]{ echo $k } &k2=v2

A user-defined function is a pseudo-map. If $f is a user-defined function, it has the following fields:

  • $f[arg-names] is a list containing the names of the arguments.

  • $f[rest-arg] is the index of the rest argument. If there is no rest argument, it is -1.

  • $f[opt-names] is a list containing the names of the options.

  • $f[opt-defaults] is a list containing the default values of the options, in the same order as $f[opt-names].

  • $f[def] is a string containing the definition of the function, including the signature and the body.

  • $f[body] is a string containing the body of the function, without the enclosing brackets.

  • $f[src] is a map-like data structure containing information about the source code that the function is defined in. It contains the same value that the src function would output if called from the function.

5 Variable

A variable is a named storage location for holding a value. The following characters can be used in variable names (a subset of bareword characters):

  • ASCII letters (a-z and A-Z) and numbers (0-9);

  • The symbols -_:~. The colon : is special; it is normally used for separating namespaces or denoting namespace variables;

  • Non-ASCII codepoints that are printable, as defined by unicode.IsPrint in Go’s standard library.

A variable exist after its first assignment, and its value may be mutated by further assignments. It can be used as an expression or part of an expression.

Note: In most other shells, variables can map directly to environmental variables: $PATH is the same as the PATH environment variable. This is not the case in Elvish. Instead, environment variables are put in a dedicated E: namespace; the environment variable PATH is known as $E:PATH. The $PATH variable, on the other hand, does not exist initially, and if you have defined it, only lives in a certain lexical scope within the Elvish interpreter.

You will notice that variables sometimes have a leading dollar $, and sometimes not. The tradition is that they do when they are used for their values, and do not otherwise (e.g. in assignment). This is consistent with most other shells.

5.1 Variable suffix

There are two characters that have special meanings and extra type constraints when used as the suffix of a variable name:

  • If a variable name ends with ~, it can only take callable values, which are functions and external commands. Such variables are consulted when resolving ordinary commands.

  • If a variable name ends with :, it can only take namespaces as values. They are used for accessing namespaced variables.

5.2 Scoping rule

Elvish has lexical scoping. A file or an interactive prompt starts with a top-level scope, and a function literal introduce new lexical scopes.

When you use a variable, Elvish looks for it in the current lexical scope, then its parent lexical scope and so forth, until the outermost scope:

~> x = 12
~> { echo $x } # $x is in the global scope
~> { y = bar; { echo $y } } # $y is in the outer scope

If a variable is not in any of the lexical scopes, Elvish tries to resolve it in the builtin: namespace, and if that also fails, fails with an error:

~> echo $pid # builtin
~> echo $nonexistent
Compilation error: variable $nonexistent not found
[interactive], line 1:
echo $nonexistent

Note that Elvish resolves all variables in a code chunk before starting to execute any of it; that is why the error message above says compilation error. This can be more clearly observed in the following example:

~> echo pre-error; echo $nonexistent
Compilation error: variable $nonexistent not found
[tty], line 1: echo pre-error; echo $nonexistent

When you assign a variable, Elvish does a similar searching. If the variable cannot be found, instead of causing an error, it will be created in the current scope:

~> x = 12
~> { x = 13 } # assigns to x in the global scope
~> echo $x
~> { z = foo } # creates z in the inner scope
~> echo $z
Compilation error: variable $z not found
[tty], line 1: echo $z

One implication of this behavior is that Elvish will not shadow your variable in outer scopes.

There is a local: namespace that always refers to the current scope, and by using it it is possible to force Elvish to shadow variables:

~> x = 12
~> { local:x = 13; echo $x } # force shadowing
~> echo $x

After force shadowing, you can still access the variable in the outer scope using the up: namespace, which always skips the innermost scope:

~> x = 12
~> { local:x = 14; echo $x $up:x }
14 12

The local: and up: namespaces can also be used on unshadowed variables, although they are not useful in those cases:

~> foo = a
~> { echo $up:foo } # $up:foo is the same as $foo
~> { bar = b; echo $local:bar } # $local:bar is the same as $bar

It is not possible to refer to a specific outer scope.

You cannot create new variables in the builtin: namespace, although existing variables in it can be assigned new values.

5.3 Closure semantics

When a function literal refers to a variable in an outer scope, the function will keep that variable alive, even if that variable is the local variable of an outer function that that function has returned. This is called closure semantics, because the function literal “closes” over the environment it is defined in.

In the following example, the make-adder function outputs two functions, both referring to a local variable $n. Closure semantics means that:

  1. Both functions can continue to refer to the $n variable after make-adder has returned.

  2. Multiple calls to the make-adder function generates distinct instances of the $n variables.

~> fn make-adder {
n = 0
put { put $n } { n = (+ $n 1) }
~> getter adder = (make-adder)
~> $getter # $getter outputs $n
▶ 0
~> $adder # $adder increments $n
~> $getter # $getter and $setter refer to the same $n
▶ 1
~> getter2 adder2 = (make-adder)
~> $getter2 # $getter2 and $getter refer to different $n
▶ 0
~> $getter
▶ 1

Variables that get “captured” in closures are called upvalues; this is why the pseudo-namespace for variables in outer scopes is called up:. When capturing upvalues, Elvish only captures the variables that are used. In the following example, $m is not an upvalue of $g because it is not used:

~> fn f { m = 2; n = 3; put { put $n } }
~> g = (f)

This effect is not currently observable, but will become so when namespaces become introspectable.

6 Expressions

Elvish has a few types of expressions. Some of those are new compared to most other languages, but some are very similar.

Unlike most other languages, expressions in Elvish may evaluate to any number of values. The concept of multiple values is distinct from a list of multiple elements.

6.1 Literal

Literals of strings, lists, maps and functions all evaluate to one value of their corresponding types. They are described in their respective sections.

6.2 Variable use

A variable use expression is formed by a $ followed by the name of the variable. Examples:

~> foo = bar
~> x y = 3 4
~> put $foo
▶ bar
~> put $x
▶ 3

Unlike other shells and other dynamic languages, local namespaces in Elvish are statically checked. This means that referencing a nonexistent variable results in a compilation error, which is triggered before any code is actually evaluated:

~> echo $x
Compilation error: variable $x not found
[tty], line 1: echo $x
~> f = { echo $x }
compilation error: variable $x not found
[tty 1], line 1: f = { echo $x }

If a variable contains a list value, you can add @ before the variable name; this evaluates to all the elements within the list. This is called exploding the variable:

~> li = [lorem ipsum foo bar]
~> put $li
▶ [lorem ipsum foo bar]
~> put $@li
▶ lorem
▶ ipsum
▶ foo
▶ bar

Note: Since variable uses have higher precedence than indexing, this does not work for exploding a list that is an element of another list. For doing that, and exploding the result of other expressions (such as an output capture), use the builtin all command.)

6.3 Output capture

An output capture expression is formed by putting parentheses () around a code chunk. It redirects the output of the chunk into an internal pipe, and evaluates to all the values that have been output.

~> + 1 10 100
▶ 111
~> x = (+ 1 10 100)
~> put $x
▶ 111
~> put lorem ipsum
▶ lorem
▶ ipsum
~> x y = (put lorem ipsum)
~> put $x
▶ lorem
~> put $y
▶ ipsum

If the chunk outputs bytes, Elvish strips the last newline (if any), and split them by newlines, and consider each line to be one string value:

~> put (echo "a\nb")
▶ a
▶ b

Trailing carriage returns are also stripped from each line, which effectively makes \r\n also valid line separators:

~> put (echo "a\r\nb")
▶ a
▶ b

Note 1. Only the last newline is ever removed, so empty lines are preserved; (echo "a\n") evaluates to two values, "a" and "".

Note 2. One consequence of this mechanism is that you can not distinguish outputs that lack a trailing newline from outputs that have one; (echo what) evaluates to the same value as (print what). If such a distinction is needed, use slurp to preserve the original bytes output.

If the chunk outputs both values and bytes, the values of output capture will contain both value outputs and lines. However, the ordering between value output and byte output might not agree with the order in which they happened:

~> put (put a; echo b) # value order need not be the same as output order
▶ b
▶ a

6.4 Exception capture

An exception capture expression is formed by putting ?() around a code chunk. It runs the chunk and evaluates to the exception it throws.

~> fail bad
Exception: bad
[interactive], line 1:
fail bad
~> put ?(fail bad)
▶ ?(fail bad)

If there was no error, it evaluates to the special value $ok:

~> nop
~> put ?(nop)
▶ $ok

Exceptions are booleanly false and $ok is booleanly true. This is useful in if (introduced later):

if ?(test -d ./a) {
# ./a is a directory

Note: Exception captures do not affect the output of the code chunk. You can combine output capture and exception capture:

output = (error = ?(commands-that-may-fail))

6.5 Braced list

A braced list consists of multiple expressions separated by whitespaces and surrounded by braces ({}). There must be no space after the opening brace. A braced list evaluates to whatever the expressions inside it evaluate to. Its most typical use is grouping multiple values in a compound expression. Example:

~> put {a b}-{1 2}
▶ a-1
▶ a-2
▶ b-1
▶ b-2

It can also be used to affect the order of evaluation. Examples:

~> put *
▶ foo
▶ bar
~> put *o
▶ foo
~> put {*}o
▶ fooo
▶ baro

Note: When used to affect the order of evaluation, braced lists are very similar to parentheses in C-like languages.

Note: A braced list is an expression. It is a syntactical construct and not a separate data structure.

Elvish currently also supports using commas to separate items in a braced list. This will likely be removed in future, but it also means that literal commas must be quoted right now.

6.6 Indexing

An indexing expression is formed by appending one or more indices inside a pair of brackets ([]) after another expression (the indexee). Examples:

~> li = [foo bar]
~> put $li[0]
▶ foo
~> li = [[foo bar] quux]
~> put $li[0][0]
▶ foo
~> put [[foo bar]][0][0]
▶ foo

If the expression being indexed evaluates to multiple values, the indexing operation is applied on each value. Example:

~> put (put [foo bar] [lorem ipsum])[0]
▶ foo
▶ lorem
~> put {[foo bar] [lorem ipsum]}[0]
▶ foo
▶ lorem

If there are multiple index expressions, or the index expression evaluates to multiple values, the indexee is indexed once for each of the index value. Examples:

~> put elv[0 2 0..2]
▶ e
▶ v
▶ el
~> put [lorem ipsum foo bar][0 2 0..2]
▶ lorem
▶ foo
▶ [lorem ipsum]
~> put [&a=lorem &b=ipsum &a..b=haha][a a..b]
▶ lorem
▶ haha

If both the indexee and index evaluate to multiple values, the results generated from the first indexee appear first. Example:

~> put {[foo bar] [lorem ipsum]}[0 1]
▶ foo
▶ bar
▶ lorem
▶ ipsum

6.7 Compounding

A compound expression is formed by writing several expressions together with no space in between. A compound expression evaluates to a string concatenation of all the constituent expressions. Examples:

~> put 'a'b"c" # compounding three string literals
▶ abc
~> v = value
~> put '$v is '$v # compounding one string literal with one string variable
▶ '$v is value'

When one or more of the constituent expressions evaluate to multiple values, the result is all possible combinations:

~> li = [foo bar]
~> put {a b}-$li[0 1]
▶ a-foo
▶ a-bar
▶ b-foo
▶ b-bar

The order of the combinations is determined by first taking the first value in the leftmost expression that generates multiple values, and then taking the second value, and so on.

6.8 Tilde expansion

An unquoted tilde at the beginning of a compound expression triggers tilde expansion. The remainder of this expression must be a string. The part from the beginning of the string up to the first / (or the end of the word if the string does not contain /), is taken as a user name; and they together evaluate to the home directory of that user. If the user name is empty, the current user is assumed.

In the following example, the home directory of the current user is /home/xiaq, while that of the root user is /root:

~> put ~
▶ /home/xiaq
~> put ~root
▶ /root
~> put ~/xxx
▶ /home/xiaq/xxx
~> put ~root/xxx
▶ /root/xxx

Note that tildes are not special when they appear elsewhere in a word:

~> put a~root
▶ a~root

If you need them to be, use a braced list:

~> put a{~root}
▶ a/root

6.9 Wildcard expansion

Wildcard patterns are expressions that contain wildcards. Wildcard patterns evaluate to all filenames they match.

In examples in this section, we will assume that the current directory has the following structure:

|__ .x.conf
|__ ax.conf
|__ .x.conf
|__ ax.conf

Elvish supports the following wildcards:

  • ? matches one arbitrary character except /. For example, ?.cc matches;

  • * matches any number of arbitrary characters except /. For example, *.cc matches and;

  • ** matches any number of arbitrary characters including /. For example, **.cc matches, and b/

The following behaviors are default, although they can be altered by modifiers:

  • When the entire wildcard pattern has no match, an error is thrown.

  • None of the wildcards matches . at the beginning of filenames. For example:

    • ?x.conf does not match .x.conf;

    • d/*.conf does not match d/.x.conf;

    • **.conf does not match d/.x.conf.

Wildcards can be modified using the same syntax as indexing. For instance, in *[match-hidden] the * wildcard is modified with the match-hidden modifier. Multiple matchers can be chained like *[set:abc][range:0-9]. In which case they are OR’ed together.

There are two kinds of modifiers:

Global modifiers apply to the whole pattern and can be placed after any wildcard:

  • nomatch-ok tells Elvish not to throw an error when there is no match for the pattern. For instance, in the example directory put bad* will be an error, but put bad*[nomatch-ok] does exactly nothing.

  • but:xxx (where xxx is any filename) excludes the filename from the final result.

  • type:xxx (where xxx is a recognized file type from the list below). Only one type modifier is allowed. For example, to find the directories at any level below the current working directory: **[type:dir].

    • dir will match if the path is a directory.

    • regular will match if the path is a regular file.

Although global modifiers affect the entire wildcard pattern, you can add it after any wildcard, and the effect is the same. For example, put */*[nomatch-ok].cpp and put *[nomatch-ok]/*.cpp do the same thing. On the other hand, you must add it after a wildcard, instead of after the entire pattern: put */*.cpp[nomatch-ok] unfortunately does not do the correct thing. (This will probably be fixed.)

Local modifiers only apply to the wildcard it immediately follows:

  • match-hidden tells the wildcard to match . at the beginning of filenames, e.g. *[match-hidden].conf matches .x.conf and ax.conf.

    Being a local modifier, it only applies to the wildcard it immediately follows. For instance, *[match-hidden]/*.conf matches d/ax.conf and .d2/ax.conf, but not d/.x.conf or .d2/.x.conf.

  • Character matchers restrict the characters to match:

    • Character sets, like set:aeoiu;

    • Character ranges like range:a-z (including z) or range:a~z (excluding z);

    • Character classes: control, digit, graphic, letter, lower, mark, number, print, punct, space, symbol, title, and upper. See the Is* functions here for their definitions.

Note the following caveats:

  • Local matchers chained together in separate modifiers are OR’ed. For instance, ?[set:aeoiu][digit] matches all files with the chars aeoiu or containing a digit.

  • Local matchers combined in the same modifier, such as ?[set:aeoiu digit], behave in a hard to explain manner. Do not use this form as the behavior is likely to change in the future.

  • Dots at the beginning of filenames always require an explicit match-hidden, even if the matcher includes .. For example, ?[set:.a]x.conf does not match .x.conf; you have to ?[set:.a match-hidden]x.conf.

  • Likewise, you always need to use ** to match slashes, even if the matcher includes /. For example *[set:abc/] is the same as *[set:abc].

6.10 Order of evaluation

An expression can use a combination of indexing, tilde expansion, wildcard and compounding. The order of evaluation is as follows:

  1. Literals, variable uses, output captures and exception captures and braced lists have the highest precedence and are evaluated first.

  2. Indexing has the next highest precedence and is then evaluated first.

  3. Expression compounding then happens. Tildes and wildcards are kept unevaluated.

  4. If the expression starts with a tilde, tilde expansion happens. If the tilde is followed by a wildcard, an exception is raised.

  5. If the expression contains any wildcard, wildcard expansion happens.

Here an example: in ~/$li[0 1]/* (where $li is a list [foo bar]), the expression is evaluated as follows:

  1. The variable use $li evaluates to the list [foo bar].

  2. The indexing expression $li[0] evaluates to two strings foo and bar.

  3. Compounding the expression, the result is ~/foo/* and ~/bar/*.

  4. Tilde expansion happens; assuming that the user’s home directory is /home/elf, the values are now /home/elf/foo/* and /home/elf/bar/*.

  5. Wildcard expansion happens, evaluating the expression to all the filenames within /home/elf/foo and /home/elf/bar. If any directory is empty or nonexistent, an exception is thrown.

To force a particular order of evaluation, group expressions using a braced list.

7 Command forms

A command form is either an ordinary command, a special command or an ordinary assignment. All of three different types can have redirections.

When Elvish parses a command form, it applies the following process to decide its type:

  • If the command form contains an unquoted equal sign surrounded by inline whitespaces, it is an ordinary assignment.

  • If the first expression in the command form contains a single string literal, and the string value matches one of the special commands, it is a special command.

  • Otherwise, it is an ordinary command.

7.1 Ordinary command

An ordinary command form consists of a command head, and any number of arguments and options.

The first expression in an ordinary command is the command head. If the head is a single string literal, it is subject to static resolution:

  • If a variable with name head~ (where head is the value of the head) exists, the head will evaluate as if it is $head~;

  • Otherwise, the head will be evaluate to an external command with the name head.

If the head is not a single string literal, it is evaluated as a normal expression. The expression must evaluate to one value, and the value must be one of the following:

  • A callable value: a function or external command;

  • A string containing at least one slash, in which case it is treated like an external command with the string value as its path.

Examples of commands using static resolution:

~> put x # resolves to builtin function $put~
▶ x
~> f~ = { put 'this is f' }
~> f # resolves to user-defined function $f~
▶ 'this is f'
~> whoami # resolves to external command whoami

Examples of commands using a dynamic callable head:

~> $put~ x
▶ x
~> (external whoami)
~> { put 'this is a lambda' }
▶ 'this is a lambda'

Note: The last command resembles a code block in C-like languages in syntax, but is quite different under the hood: it works by defining a function on the fly and calling it immediately.

Examples of commands using a dynamic string head:

~> x = /bin/whoami
~> $x
~> x = whoami
~> $x # dynamic strings can only used when containing slash
Exception: bad value: command must be callable or string containing slash, but is string
[tty 10], line 1: $x

The definition of barewords is relaxed when parsing the head, and includes <, >, and *. These are all names of numeric builtins:

~> < 3 5 # less-than
▶ $true
~> > 3 5 # greater-than
▶ $false
~> * 3 5 # multiplication
▶ 15

Arguments and options can be supplied to commands. Arguments are arbitrary words, while options have exactly the same syntax as key-value pairs in map literals. They are separated by inline whitespaces and may be intermixed:

~> echo &sep=, a b c # &seq=, is an option; a b c are arguments
~> echo a b &sep=, c # same, with the option mixed within arguments

Note: Since options have the same syntax as key-value pairs in maps, &key is equivalent to &key=$true:

~> fn f [&opt=$false]{ put $opt }
~> f &opt
▶ $true

7.2 Special command

A special command form has the same syntax with an ordinary command, but how it is executed depends on the command head. See special commands.

7.3 Ordinary assignment

An orindary assignment form consists of one or more lvalues, followed by an equal sign (=) and zero or more expressions. The equal sign must appear unquoted, and surrounded by inline whitespaces on both sides.

When executed, an ordinary assignment form assigns all the values at the right hand to all the lvalues at the left hand. An lvalue is one of the following:

  • A variable name (without $), for assigning to the variable. The variable is created is if it doesn’t exist yet.

  • A variable name prefixed with @, for packing a variable number of values into a list and assigning to the variable. The variable is created if it doesn’t exist yet.

    This variant is called a rest variable. In an ordinary assignment form, there could be at most one rest variable.

    Note: Schematically this is the reverse operation of exploding a variable when using it, which is why they share the @ sign.

  • A variable name followed by one or more indices in brackets ([]), for assigning to an element. The variable must already exist.

The number of values and lvalues must be compatible. To be more exact:

  • If there is no rest variable, the number of values and lvalues must match exactly.

  • If there is a rest variable, the number of values should be at least the number of lvalues minus one.


~> foo = bar
~> put $foo
▶ bar
~> x y = lorem ipsum
~> put $x $y
▶ lorem
▶ ipsum
~> a @b c = x y
~> put $a $b $c
▶ x
▶ []
▶ y
~> a @b c = w x y z
~> put $a $b $c
▶ w
▶ [x y]
▶ z
~> b[0] = foo
~> put $b
▶ [foo y]

Lists and maps in Elvish are immutable. As a result, when assigning to the element of a variable that contains a list or map, Elvish does not mutate the underlying list or map. Instead, Elvish creates a new list or map with the mutation applied, and assigns it to the variable. Example:

~> li = [foo bar]
~> li2 = $li
~> li[0] = lorem
~> put $li $li2
▶ [lorem bar]
▶ [foo bar]

7.4 Temporary assignment

You can prepend any command form with temporary assignments, which gives variables temporarily values during the execution of that command.

In the following example, $x and $y are temporarily assigned 100 and 200:

~> x y = 1 2
~> x=100 y=200 + $x $y
▶ 300
~> echo $x $y
1 2

In contrary to normal assignments, there should be no whitespaces around the equal sign =. To have multiple variables in the left-hand side, use braces:

~> x y = 1 2
~> fn f { put 100 200 }
~> {x,y}=(f) + $x $y
▶ 300

If you use a previously undefined variable in a temporary assignment, its value will become the empty string after the command finishes. This behavior will likely change; don’t rely on it.

Since ordinary assignments are also command forms, they can also be prepended with temporary assignments:

~> x=1
~> x=100 y = (+ 133 $x)
~> put $x $y
▶ 1
▶ 233

Temporary assignments must all appear at the beginning of the command form. As soon as something that is not a temporary assignments is parsed, Elvish no longer parses temporary assignments. For instance, in x=1 echo x=1, the second x=1 is not a temporary assignment, but a bareword.

Note: Elvish’s behavior differs from bash (or zsh) in one important place. In bash, temporary assignments to variables do not affect their direct appearance in the command:

bash-4.4$ x=1
bash-4.4$ x=100 echo $x

Note: Elvish currently supports using the syntax of temporary assignments for ordinary assignments, when they are not followed by a command form; for example, a=x behaves like an ordinary assignment a = x. This will likely go away; don’t rely on it.

7.5 Redirection

You can add redirections to any command form, to modify the file descriptors these command form operate with.

The most common form of redirections opens a file and associates it with an FD. The form consists of an optional destination FD (like 2), a redirection operator (like >) and a filename (like error.log):

  • The destination fd determines which FD to modify. It can be given either as a number, or one of stdin, stdout and stderr. There must be no space between the FD and the redirection operator; otherwise Elvish will parse it as an argument.

    The destination FD can be omitted, in which case it is inferred from the redirection operator.

  • The redirection operator determines the mode to open the file, and the destination FD if it is not explicitly specified.

  • The filename names the file to open.

Possible redirection operators and their default FDs are:

  • < for reading. The default FD is 0 (stdin).

  • > for writing. The default FD is 1 (stdout).

  • >> for appending. The default FD is 1 (stdout).

  • <> for reading and writing. The default FD is 1 (stdout).


~> echo haha > log
~> cat log
~> cat < log
~> ls --bad-arg 2> error
Exception: ls exited with 2
[interactive], line 1:
ls --bad-arg 2> error
~> cat error
/bin/ls: unrecognized option '--bad-arg'
Try '/bin/ls --help' for more information.

Redirections can also be used for closing or duplicating FDs. Instead of writing a filename, use &fd (where fd is a number, or any of stdin, stdout and stderr) for duplicating, or &- for closing. In this case, the redirection operator only determines the default destination FD (and is totally irrevelant if a destination FD is specified). Examples:

~> ls >&- # close stdout
/bin/ls: write error: Bad file descriptor
Exception: ls exited with 2
[interactive], line 1:
ls >&-

If you have multiple related redirections, they are applied in the order they appear. For instance:

~> fn f { echo out; echo err >&2 } # echoes "out" on stdout, "err" on stderr
~> f >log 2>&1 # use file "log" for stdout, then use (changed) stdout for stderr
~> cat log

Redirections may appear anywhere in the command, except at the beginning, although this may be restricted in future. It’s usually good style to write redirections at the end of command forms.

8 Special Commands

Special commands obey the same syntax rules as normal commands, but have evaluation rules that are custom to each command. Consider the following example:

~> or ?(echo x) ?(echo y) ?(echo z)
▶ $ok

In the example, the or command first evaluates its first argument, which has the value $ok (a truish value) and the side effect of outputting x. Due to the custom evaluation rule of or, the rest of the arguments are not evaluated.

If or were a normal command, the code above is still syntactically correct. However, Elvish would then evaluate all its arguments, with the side effect of outputting x, y and z, before calling or.

8.1 Deleting variable or element: del

The del special command can be used to delete variables or map elements. Operands should be specified without a leading dollar sign, like the left-hand side of assignments.

Example of deleting variable:

~> x = 2
~> echo $x
~> del x
~> echo $x
Compilation error: variable $x not found
[tty], line 1: echo $x

Deleting a variable does not affect closures that have already captured it; it only removes the name. Example:

~> x = value
~> fn f { put $x }
~> del x
~> f
▶ value

Example of deleting map element:

~> m = [&k=v &k2=v2]
~> del m[k2]
~> put $m
▶ [&k=v]
~> l = [[&k=v &k2=v2]]
~> del l[0][k2]
~> put $l
▶ [[&k=v]]

8.2 Logics: and and or

The and special command evaluates its arguments from left to right; as soon as a booleanly false value is obtained, it outputs the value and stops. When given no arguments, it outputs $true.

The or special command is the same except that it stops when a booleanly true value is obtained. When given no arguments, it outpus $false.

8.3 Condition: if

TODO: Document the syntax notation, and add more examples.


if <condition> {
} elif <condition> {
} else {

The if special command goes through the conditions one by one: as soon as one evaluates to a booleanly true value, its corresponding body is executed. If none of conditions are booleanly true and an else body is supplied, it is executed.

The condition part is an expression, not a command like in other shells. Example:

fn tell-language [fname]{
if (has-suffix $fname .go) {
echo $fname" is a Go file!"
} elif (has-suffix $fname .c) {
echo $fname" is a C file!"
} else {
echo $fname" is a mysterious file!"

The condition part must be syntactically a single expression, but it can evaluate to multiple values, in which case they are and’ed:

if (put $true $false) {
echo "will not be executed"

If the expression evaluates to 0 values, it is considered true, consistent with how and works.

Tip: a combination of if and ?() gives you a semantics close to other shells:

if ?(test -d .git) {
# do something

However, for Elvish’s builtin predicates that output values instead of throw exceptions, the output capture construct () should be used.

8.4 Conditional Loop: while


while <condition> {
} else {

Execute the body as long as the condition evaluates to a booleanly true value.

The else body, if present, is executed if the body has never been executed (i.e. the condition evaluates to a booleanly false value in the very beginning).

8.5 Iterative Loop: for


for <var> <container> {
} else {

Iterate the container (e.g. a list). In each iteration, assign the variable to an element of the container and execute the body.

The else body, if present, is executed if the body has never been executed (i.e. the iteration value has no elements).

8.6 Exception Control: try

(If you just want to capture the exception, you can use the more concise exception capture construct ?() instead.)


try {
} except except-varname {
} else {
} finally {

Only try and try-block are required. This control structure behaves as follows:

  1. The try-block is always executed first.

  2. If except is present and an exception occurs in try-block, it is caught and stored in except-varname, and except-block is then executed. Example:

    ~> try { fail bad } except e { put $e }
    ▶ ?(fail bad)

    Note that if except is not present, exceptions thrown from try are not caught: for instance, try { fail bad } throws bad; it is equivalent to a plain fail bad.

    Note that the word after except names a variable, not a matching condition. Exception matching is not supported yet. For instance, you may want to only match exceptions that were created with fail bad with except bad, but in fact this creates a variable $bad that contains whatever exception was thrown.

  3. If no exception occurs and else is present, else-block is executed. Example:

    ~> try { nop } else { echo well }
  4. If finally-block is present, it is executed. Examples:

    ~> try { fail bad } finally { echo final }
    Exception: bad
    [tty], line 1:
    try { fail bad } finally { echo final }
    ~> try { echo good } finally { echo final }
  5. If the exception was not caught (i.e. except is not present), it is rethrown.

Exceptions thrown in blocks other than try-block are not caught. If an exception was thrown and either except-block or finally-block throws another exception, the original exception is lost. Examples:

~> try { fail bad } except e { fail worse }
Exception: worse
[tty], line 1:
try { fail bad } except e { fail worse }
~> try { fail bad } except e { fail worse } finally { fail worst }
Exception: worst
[tty], line 1:
try { fail bad } except e { fail worse } finally { fail worst }

8.7 Function Definition: fn


fn <name> <lambda>

Define a function with a given name. The function behaves in the same way to the lambda used to define it, except that it “captures” return. In other words, return will fall through lambdas not defined with fn, and continues until it exits a function defined with fn:

~> fn f {
{ echo a; return }
echo b # will not execute
~> f
~> {
echo c # executed, because f "captures" the return

TODO: Find a better way to describe this. Hopefully the example is illustrative enough, though.

Under the hood, fn defines a variable with the given name plus ~ (see variable suffix).

9 Pipeline

A pipeline is formed by joining one or more commands together with the pipe sign (|).

9.1 IO Semantics

For each pair of adjacent commands a | b, the output of a is connected to the input of b. Both the byte pipe and the value channel are connected, even if one of them is not used.

Command redirections are applied before the connection happens. For instance, the following writes foo to a.txt instead of the output:

~> echo foo > a.txt | cat
~> cat a.txt

9.2 Execution Flow

All of the commands in a pipeline are executed in parallel, and the execution of the pipeline finishes when all of its commands finish execution.

If one or more command in a pipeline throws an exception, the other commands will continue to execute as normal. After all commands finish execution, an exception is thrown, the value of which depends on the number of commands that have thrown an exception:

  • If only one command has thrown an exception, that exception is rethrown.

  • If more than one commands have thrown exceptions, a “composite exception”, containing information all exceptions involved, is thrown.

9.3 Background Pipeline

Adding an ampersand & to the end of a pipeline will cause it to be executed in the background. In this case, the rest of the code chunk will continue to execute without waiting for the pipeline to finish. Exceptions thrown from the background pipeline do not affect the code chunk that contains it.

When a background pipeline finishes, a message is printed to the terminal if the shell is interactive.

10 Code Chunk

A code chunk is formed by joining zero or more pipelines together, separating them with either newlines or semicolons.

Pipelines in a code chunk are executed in sequence. If any pipeline throws an exception, the execution of the whole code chunk stops, propagating that exception.

11 Exception and Flow Commands

Exceptions have similar semantics to those in Python or Java. They can be thrown with the fail command and caught with either exception capture ?() or the try special command.

If an external command exits with a non-zero status, Elvish treats that as an exception.

Flow commands – break, continue and return – are ordinary builtin commands that raise special “flow control” exceptions. The for and while commands capture break and continue, while fn modifies its closure to capture return.

One interesting implication is that since flow commands are just ordinary commands you can build functions on top of them. For instance, this function breaks randomly:

fn random-break {
if eq (randint 2) 0 {

The function random-break can then be used in for-loops and while-loops.

Note that the return flow control exception is only captured by functions defined with fn. It falls through ordinary lambdas:

fn f {
# returns f, falling through the innermost lambda

12 Namespaces and Modules

Like other modern programming languages, but unlike traditional shells, Elvish has a namespace mechanism for preventing name collisions.

12.1 Syntax

Prepend namespace: to command names and variable names to specify the namespace. The following code

e:echo $E:PATH

uses the echo command from the e: namespace and the PATH variable from the E: namespace. The colon is considered part of the namespace name.

Namespaces may be nested; for example, calling edit:location:start first finds the edit: namespace, and then the location: namespace inside it, and then call the start function within the nested namespace.

12.2 Special Namespaces

The following namespaces have special meanings to the language:

  • local: and up: refer to lexical scopes, and have been documented above.

  • e: refers to externals. For instance, e:ls refers to the external command ls.

    Most of the time you can rely on static resolution rules of ordinary commands and do not need to use this explicitly, unless a function defined by you (or an Elvish builtin) shadows an external command.

  • E: refers to environment variables. For instance, $E:USER is the environment variable USER.

    This is always needed, because unlike command resolution, variable resolution does not fall back onto environment variables.

  • builtin: refers to builtin functions and variables.

    You don’t need to use this explicitly unless you have defined names that shadows builtin counterparts.

12.3 Modules

Apart from the special namespaces, the most common usage of namespaces is to reference modules, reusable pieces of code that are either shipped with Elvish itself or defined by the user.

12.3.1 Importing modules with use

Modules are imported using the use special command, which accepts a module spec and an optional alias:

use $spec $alias?

Both the module spec and the alias must appear as a single string literal.

The module spec specifies which module to import, and the alias, if given, specifies the namespace to import the module under. By default, the namespace is derived from the module spec, by taking the part after the last slash.


use str # imports the "str" module as "str:"
use a/b/c # imports the "a/b/c" module as "c:"
use a/b/c foo # imports the "a/b/c" module as "foo:"

12.3.2 Pre-Defined Modules

Elvish’s standard library provides the following pre-defined modules that can be imported by use:

The edit module is available in interactive module. As a special case, it does not need importing, but this may change in the future.

12.3.3 User-Defined Modules

You can define your own modules in Elvish by putting them under ~/.elvish/lib and giving them a .elv extension. For instance, to define a module named a, store it in ~/.elvish/lib/a.elv:

~> cat ~/.elvish/lib/a.elv
echo "mod a loading"
fn f {
echo "f from mod a"

This module can now be imported by use a:

~> use a
mod a loading
~> a:f
f from mod a

Similarly, a module defined in ~/.elvish/lib/x/y/z.elv can be imported by use x/y/z:

~> cat .elvish/lib/x/y/z.elv
fn f {
echo "f from x/y/z"
~> use x/y/z
~> z:f
f from x/y/z

In general, a module defined in namespace will be the same as the file name (without the .elv extension).

12.3.4 Relative imports

The module spec may being with ./ or ../, which introduce relative imports. When use is invoked from a file, this will import the file relative to the location of the file. When use is invoked at the interactive prompt, this will import the file relative to the current working directory.

12.3.5 Scoping of Imports

Namespace imports are lexically scoped. For instance, if you use a module within an inner scope, it is not available outside that scope:

use some-mod
some-mod:some-func # not valid

The imported modules themselves are also evaluated in a separate scope. That means that functions and variables defined in the module does not pollute the default namespace, and vice versa. For instance, if you define ls as a wrapper function in rc.elv:

fn ls [@a]{
e:ls --color=auto $@a

That definition is not visible in module files: ls will still refer to the external command ls, unless you shadow it in the very same module.

12.3.6 Re-Importing

Modules are cached after one import. Subsequent imports do not re-execute the module; they only serve the bring it into the current scope. Moreover, the cache is keyed by the path of the module, not the name under which it is imported. For instance, if you have the following in ~/.elvish/lib/a/b.elv:

echo importing

The following code only prints one importing:

{ use a/b }
use a/b # only brings mod into the lexical scope

As does the following:

use a/b
use a/b alias