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8. Programming in M4

Autoconf is written on top of two layers: M4sugar, which provides convenient macros for pure M4 programming, and M4sh, which provides macros dedicated to shell script generation.

As of this version of Autoconf, these two layers are still experimental, and their interface might change in the future. As a matter of fact, anything that is not documented must not be used.

8.1 M4 Quotation  Protecting macros from unwanted expansion
8.2 Using autom4te  The Autoconf executables backbone
8.3 Programming in M4sugar  Convenient pure M4 macros
8.4 Programming in M4sh  Common shell Constructs

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8.1 M4 Quotation

The most common problem with existing macros is an improper quotation. This section, which users of Autoconf can skip, but which macro writers must read, first justifies the quotation scheme that was chosen for Autoconf and then ends with a rule of thumb. Understanding the former helps one to follow the latter.

8.1.1 Active Characters  Characters that change the behavior of M4
8.1.2 One Macro Call  Quotation and one macro call
8.1.3 Quotation and Nested Macros  Macros calling macros
8.1.4 changequote is Evil  Worse than INTERCAL: M4 + changequote
8.1.5 Quadrigraphs  Another way to escape special characters
8.1.6 Quotation Rule Of Thumb  One parenthesis, one quote

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8.1.1 Active Characters

To fully understand where proper quotation is important, you first need to know what the special characters are in Autoconf: `#' introduces a comment inside which no macro expansion is performed, `,' separates arguments, `[' and `]' are the quotes themselves, and finally `(' and `)' (which M4 tries to match by pairs).

In order to understand the delicate case of macro calls, we first have to present some obvious failures. Below they are "obvious-ified", but when you find them in real life, they are usually in disguise.

Comments, introduced by a hash and running up to the newline, are opaque tokens to the top level: active characters are turned off, and there is no macro expansion:

# define([def], ine)
=># define([def], ine)

Each time there can be a macro expansion, there is a quotation expansion, i.e., one level of quotes is stripped:

int tab[10];
=>int tab10;
[int tab[10];]
=>int tab[10];

Without this in mind, the reader will try hopelessly to use her macro array:

define([array], [int tab[10];])
=>int tab10;

How can you correctly output the intended results(2)?

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8.1.2 One Macro Call

Let's proceed on the interaction between active characters and macros with this small macro, which just returns its first argument:

define([car], [$1])

The two pairs of quotes above are not part of the arguments of define; rather, they are understood by the top level when it tries to find the arguments of define. Therefore, it is equivalent to write:

define(car, $1)

But, while it is acceptable for a `configure.ac' to avoid unnecessary quotes, it is bad practice for Autoconf macros which must both be more robust and also advocate perfect style.

At the top level, there are only two possibilities: either you quote or you don't:

car(foo, bar, baz)
[car(foo, bar, baz)]
=>car(foo, bar, baz)

Let's pay attention to the special characters:

error-->EOF in argument list

The closing parenthesis is hidden in the comment; with a hypothetical quoting, the top level understood it this way:


Proper quotation, of course, fixes the problem:


The reader will easily understand the following examples:

car(foo, bar)
car([foo, bar])
=>foo, bar
car((foo, bar))
=>(foo, bar)
car([(foo], [bar)])
car([], [])
car([[]], [[]])

With this in mind, we can explore the cases where macros invoke macros....

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8.1.3 Quotation and Nested Macros

The examples below use the following macros:

define([car], [$1])
define([active], [ACT, IVE])
define([array], [int tab[10]])

Each additional embedded macro call introduces other possible interesting quotations:


In the first case, the top level looks for the arguments of car, and finds `active'. Because M4 evaluates its arguments before applying the macro, `active' is expanded, which results in:

car(ACT, IVE)

In the second case, the top level gives `active' as first and only argument of car, which results in:


i.e., the argument is evaluated after the macro that invokes it. In the third case, car receives `[active]', which results in:


exactly as we already saw above.

The example above, applied to a more realistic example, gives:

car(int tab[10];)
=>int tab10;
car([int tab[10];])
=>int tab10;
car([[int tab[10];]])
=>int tab[10];

Huh? The first case is easily understood, but why is the second wrong, and the third right? To understand that, you must know that after M4 expands a macro, the resulting text is immediately subjected to macro expansion and quote removal. This means that the quote removal occurs twice--first before the argument is passed to the car macro, and second after the car macro expands to the first argument.

As the author of the Autoconf macro car, you then consider it to be incorrect that your users have to double-quote the arguments of car, so you "fix" your macro. Let's call it qar for quoted car:

define([qar], [[$1]])

and check that qar is properly fixed:

qar([int tab[10];])
=>int tab[10];

Ahhh! That's much better.

But note what you've done: now that the arguments are literal strings, if the user wants to use the results of expansions as arguments, she has to use an unquoted macro call:


where she wanted to reproduce what she used to do with car:


Worse yet: she wants to use a macro that produces a set of cpp macros:

define([my_includes], [#include <stdio.h>])
=>#include <stdio.h>
error-->EOF in argument list

This macro, qar, because it double quotes its arguments, forces its users to leave their macro calls unquoted, which is dangerous. Commas and other active symbols are interpreted by M4 before they are given to the macro, often not in the way the users expect. Also, because qar behaves differently from the other macros, it's an exception that should be avoided in Autoconf.

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8.1.4 changequote is Evil

The temptation is often high to bypass proper quotation, in particular when it's late at night. Then, many experienced Autoconf hackers finally surrender to the dark side of the force and use the ultimate weapon: changequote.

The M4 builtin changequote belongs to a set of primitives that allow one to adjust the syntax of the language to adjust it to one's needs. For instance, by default M4 uses ``' and `'' as quotes, but in the context of shell programming (and actually of most programming languages), that's about the worst choice one can make: because of strings and back-quoted expressions in shell code (such as `'this'' and ``that`'), because of literal characters in usual programming languages (as in `'0''), there are many unbalanced ``' and `''. Proper M4 quotation then becomes a nightmare, if not impossible. In order to make M4 useful in such a context, its designers have equipped it with changequote, which makes it possible to choose another pair of quotes. M4sugar, M4sh, Autoconf, and Autotest all have chosen to use `[' and `]'. Not especially because they are unlikely characters, but because they are characters unlikely to be unbalanced.

There are other magic primitives, such as changecom to specify what syntactic forms are comments (it is common to see `changecom(<!--, -->)' when M4 is used to produce HTML pages), changeword and changesyntax to change other syntactic details (such as the character to denote the n-th argument, `$' by default, the parenthesis around arguments etc.).

These primitives are really meant to make M4 more useful for specific domains: they should be considered like command line options: `--quotes', `--comments', `--words', and --syntax. Nevertheless, they are implemented as M4 builtins, as it makes M4 libraries self contained (no need for additional options).

There lies the problem....

The problem is that it is then tempting to use them in the middle of an M4 script, as opposed to its initialization. This, if not carefully thought out, can lead to disastrous effects: you are changing the language in the middle of the execution. Changing and restoring the syntax is often not enough: if you happened to invoke macros in between, these macros will be lost, as the current syntax will probably not be the one they were implemented with.

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8.1.5 Quadrigraphs

When writing an Autoconf macro you may occasionally need to generate special characters that are difficult to express with the standard Autoconf quoting rules. For example, you may need to output the regular expression `[^[]', which matches any character other than `['. This expression contains unbalanced brackets so it cannot be put easily into an M4 macro.

You can work around this problem by using one of the following quadrigraphs:

Expands to nothing.

Quadrigraphs are replaced at a late stage of the translation process, after m4 is run, so they do not get in the way of M4 quoting. For example, the string `^@<:@', independently of its quotation, will appear as `^[' in the output.

The empty quadrigraph can be used:

The name `@&t@' was suggested by Paul Eggert:

I should give some credit to the `@&t@' pun. The `&' is my own invention, but the `t' came from the source code of the ALGOL68C compiler, written by Steve Bourne (of Bourne shell fame), and which used `mt' to denote the empty string. In C, it would have looked like something like:

char const mt[] = "";

but of course the source code was written in Algol 68.

I don't know where he got `mt' from: it could have been his own invention, and I suppose it could have been a common pun around the Cambridge University computer lab at the time.

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8.1.6 Quotation Rule Of Thumb

To conclude, the quotation rule of thumb is:

One pair of quotes per pair of parentheses.

Never over-quote, never under-quote, in particular in the definition of macros. In the few places where the macros need to use brackets (usually in C program text or regular expressions), properly quote the arguments!

It is common to read Autoconf programs with snippets like:

changequote(<<, >>)dnl
<<#include <time.h>
#ifndef tzname /* For SGI.  */
extern char *tzname[]; /* RS6000 and others reject char **tzname.  */
changequote([, ])dnl
[atoi (*tzname);], ac_cv_var_tzname=yes, ac_cv_var_tzname=no)

which is incredibly useless since AC_TRY_LINK is already double quoting, so you just need:

[#include <time.h>
#ifndef tzname /* For SGI.  */
extern char *tzname[]; /* RS6000 and others reject char **tzname.  */
            [atoi (*tzname);],

The M4-fluent reader will note that these two examples are rigorously equivalent, since M4 swallows both the `changequote(<<, >>)' and `<<' `>>' when it collects the arguments: these quotes are not part of the arguments!

Simplified, the example above is just doing this:

changequote(<<, >>)dnl
changequote([, ])dnl

instead of simply:


With macros that do not double quote their arguments (which is the rule), double-quote the (risky) literals:

[[#include <time.h>
#ifndef tzname /* For SGI.  */
extern char *tzname[]; /* RS6000 and others reject char **tzname.  */
                                [atoi (*tzname);])],

See section 8.1.5 Quadrigraphs, for what to do if you run into a hopeless case where quoting does not suffice.

When you create a configure script using newly written macros, examine it carefully to check whether you need to add more quotes in your macros. If one or more words have disappeared in the M4 output, you need more quotes. When in doubt, quote.

However, it's also possible to put on too many layers of quotes. If this happens, the resulting configure script will contain unexpanded macros. The autoconf program checks for this problem by doing `grep AC_ configure'.

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8.2 Using autom4te

The Autoconf suite, including M4sugar, M4sh, and Autotest, in addition to Autoconf per se, heavily rely on M4. All these different uses revealed common needs factored into a layer over m4: autom4te(3).

autom4te should basically considered as a replacement of m4 itself.

8.2.1 Invoking autom4te  A GNU M4 wrapper
8.2.2 Customizing autom4te  Customizing the Autoconf package

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8.2.1 Invoking autom4te

The command line arguments are modeled after M4's:

autom4te options files

where the files are directly passed to m4. In addition to the regular expansion, it handles the replacement of the quadrigraphs (see section 8.1.5 Quadrigraphs), and of `__oline__', the current line in the output. It supports an extended syntax for the files:

This file is an M4 frozen file. Note that all the previous files are ignored. See the option `--melt' for the rationale.

If found in the library path, the file is included for expansion, otherwise it is ignored instead of triggering a failure.

Of course, it supports the Autoconf common subset of options:

Print a summary of the command line options and exit.

Print the version number of Autoconf and exit.

Report processing steps.

Don't remove the temporary files and be even more verbose.

`-I dir'
Also look for input files in dir. Multiple invocations accumulate.

`-o file'
Save output (script or trace) to file. The file `-' stands for the standard output.

As an extension of m4, it includes the following options:

`-W category'
Report the warnings related to category (which can actually be a comma separated list). See section 9.3 Reporting Messages, macro AC_DIAGNOSE, for a comprehensive list of categories. Special values include:

report all the warnings

report none

treats warnings as errors

disable warnings falling into category

Warnings about `syntax' are enabled by default, and the environment variable WARNINGS, a comma separated list of categories, is honored. autom4te -W category will actually behave as if you had run:

autom4te --warnings=syntax,$WARNINGS,category

If you want to disable autom4te's defaults and WARNINGS, but (for example) enable the warnings about obsolete constructs, you would use `-W none,obsolete'.

autom4te displays a back trace for errors, but not for warnings; if you want them, just pass `-W error'. For instance, on this `configure.ac':




you get:

$ autom4te -l autoconf -Wcross
configure.ac:8: warning: AC_RUN_IFELSE called without default \
to allow cross compiling
$ autom4te -l autoconf -Wcross,error -f
configure.ac:8: error: AC_RUN_IFELSE called without default \
to allow cross compiling
acgeneral.m4:3044: AC_RUN_IFELSE is expanded from...
configure.ac:2: INNER is expanded from...
configure.ac:5: OUTER is expanded from...
configure.ac:8: the top level

Do not use frozen files. Any argument file.m4f will be replaced with file.m4. This helps tracing the macros which are executed only when the files are frozen, typically m4_define. For instance, running:

autom4te --melt 1.m4 2.m4f 3.m4 4.m4f input.m4

is roughly equivalent to running:

m4 1.m4 2.m4 3.m4 4.m4 input.m4


autom4te 1.m4 2.m4f 3.m4 4.m4f input.m4

is equivalent to:

m4 --reload-state=4.m4f input.m4

Produce a frozen state file. autom4te freezing is stricter than M4's: it must produce no warnings, and no output other than empty lines (a line with whitespace is not empty) and comments (starting with `#'). Please, note that contrary to m4, this options takes no argument:

autom4te 1.m4 2.m4 3.m4 --freeze --output=3.m4f

corresponds to

m4 1.m4 2.m4 3.m4 --freeze-state=3.m4f

`-m octal-mode'
Set the mode of the non-traces output to octal-mode; by default `0666'.

As another additional feature over m4, autom4te caches its results. GNU M4 is able to produce a regular output and traces at the same time. Traces are heavily used in the GNU Build System: autoheader uses them to build `config.h.in', autoreconf to determine what GNU Build System components are used, automake to "parse" `configure.ac' etc. To save the long runs of m4, traces are cached while performing regular expansion, and conversely. This cache is (actually, the caches are) stored in the directory `autom4te.cache'. It can safely be removed at any moment (especially if for some reason autom4te considers it is trashed).

`-C directory'
Specify the name of the directory where the result should be cached. Passing an empty value disables caching. Be sure to pass a relative path name, as for the time being, global caches are not supported.

Don't cache the results.

If a cache is used, consider it obsolete (but update it anyway).

Because traces are so important to the GNU Build System, autom4te provides high level tracing features as compared to M4, and helps exploiting the cache:

`-t macro[:format]'
Trace the invocations of macro according to the format. Multiple `--trace' arguments can be used to list several macros. Multiple `--trace' arguments for a single macro are not cumulative; instead, you should just make format as long as needed.

The format is a regular string, with newlines if desired, and several special escape codes. It defaults to `$f:$l:$n:$%'. It can use the following special escapes:

The character `$'.

The filename from which macro is called.

The line number from which macro is called.

The depth of the macro call. This is an M4 technical detail that you probably don't want to know about.

The name of the macro.

The numth argument of the call to macro.

All the arguments passed to macro, separated by the character sep or the string separator (`,' by default). Each argument is quoted, i.e., enclosed in a pair of square brackets.

As above, but the arguments are not quoted.

As above, but the arguments are not quoted, all new line characters in the arguments are smashed, and the default separator is `:'.

The escape `$%' produces single-line trace outputs (unless you put newlines in the `separator'), while `$@' and `$*' do not.

See section 3.4 Using autoconf to Create configure, for examples of trace uses.

`-p macro'
Cache the traces of macro, but do not enable traces. This is especially important to save CPU cycles in the future. For instance, when invoked, autoconf preselects all the macros that autoheader, automake, autoreconf etc. will trace, so that running m4 is not needed to trace them: the cache suffices. This results in a huge speed-up.

Finally, autom4te introduces the concept of Autom4te libraries. They consists in a powerful yet extremely simple feature: sets of combined command line arguments:

`-l =language'
Use the language Autom4te library. Current languages include:

create M4sugar output.

create M4sh executable shell scripts.

create Autotest executable test suites.

create Autoconf executable configure scripts.

`-B dir'
Prepend directory dir to the search path. This is used to include the language-specific files before any third-party macros.

As an example, if Autoconf is installed in its default location, `/usr/local', running `autom4te -l m4sugar foo.m4' is strictly equivalent to running `autom4te --prepend-include /usr/local/share/autoconf m4sugar/m4sugar.m4f --warnings syntax foo.m4'. Recursive expansion applies: running `autom4te -l m4sh foo.m4' is the same as `autom4te --language M4sugar m4sugar/m4sh.m4f foo.m4', i.e., `autom4te --prepend-include /usr/local/share/autoconf m4sugar/m4sugar.m4f m4sugar/m4sh.m4f --mode 777 foo.m4'. The definition of the languages is stored in `autom4te.cfg'.

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8.2.2 Customizing autom4te

One can customize autom4te via `~/.autom4te.cfg' (i.e., as found in the user home directory), and `./.autom4te.cfg' (i.e., as found in the directory from which autom4te is run). The order is first reading `autom4te.cfg', then `~/.autom4te.cfg', then `./.autom4te.cfg', and finally the command line arguments.

In these text files, comments are introduced with #, and empty lines are ignored. Customization is performed on a per-language basis, wrapped in between a `begin-language: "language"', `end-language: "language"' pair.

Customizing a language stands for appending options (see section 8.2.1 Invoking autom4te) to the current definition of the language. Options, and more generally arguments, are introduced by `args: arguments'. You may use the traditional shell syntax to quote the arguments.

As an example, to disable Autoconf caches (`autom4te.cache') globally, include the following lines in `~/.autom4te.cfg':

@verbatim ## ------------------ ## ## User Preferences. ## ## ------------------ ##

begin-language: "Autoconf" args: --no-cache end-language: "Autoconf"

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8.3 Programming in M4sugar

M4 by itself provides only a small, but sufficient, set of all-purpose macros. M4sugar introduces additional generic macros. Its name was coined by Lars J. Aas: "Readability And Greater Understanding Stands 4 M4sugar".

8.3.1 Redefined M4 Macros  M4 builtins changed in M4sugar
8.3.2 Evaluation Macros  More quotation and evaluation control
8.3.3 Forbidden Patterns  Catching unexpanded macros

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8.3.1 Redefined M4 Macros

With a few exceptions, all the M4 native macros are moved in the `m4_' pseudo-namespace, e.g., M4sugar renames define as m4_define etc.

Some M4 macros are redefined, and are slightly incompatible with their native equivalent.

Macro: dnl
This macro kept its original name: no m4_dnl is defined.

Macro: m4_defn (macro)
Contrary to the M4 builtin, this macro fails if macro is not defined. See m4_undefine.

Macro: m4_exit (exit-status)
This macro corresponds to m4exit.

Macro: m4_if (comment)
Macro: m4_if (string-1, string-2, equal, [not-equal])
Macro: m4_if (string-1, string-2, equal, ...)
This macro corresponds to ifelse.

Macro: m4_undefine (macro)
Contrary to the M4 builtin, this macro fails if macro is not defined. Use

m4_ifdef([macro], [m4_undefine([macro])])

to recover the behavior of the builtin.

Macro: m4_bpatsubst (string, regexp, [replacement])
This macro corresponds to patsubst. The name m4_patsubst is kept for future versions of M4sh, on top of GNU M4 which will provide extended regular expression syntax via epatsubst.

Macro: m4_popdef (macro)
Contrary to the M4 builtin, this macro fails if macro is not defined. See m4_undefine.

Macro: m4_bregexp (string, regexp, [replacement])
This macro corresponds to regexp. The name m4_regexp is kept for future versions of M4sh, on top of GNU M4 which will provide extended regular expression syntax via eregexp.

Macro: m4_wrap (text)
This macro corresponds to m4wrap.

You are encouraged to end text with `[]', so that there are no risks that two consecutive invocations of m4_wrap result in an unexpected pasting of tokens, as in

m4_define([foo], [Foo])
m4_define([bar], [Bar])
m4_define([foobar], [FOOBAR])

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8.3.2 Evaluation Macros

The following macros give some control over the order of the evaluation by adding or removing levels of quotes. They are meant for hard-core M4 programmers.

Macro: m4_dquote (arg1, ...)
Return the arguments as a quoted list of quoted arguments.

Macro: m4_quote (arg1, ...)
Return the arguments as a single entity, i.e., wrap them into a pair of quotes.

The following example aims at emphasizing the difference between (i), not using these macros, (ii), using m4_quote, and (iii), using m4_dquote.

$ cat example.m4
# Overquote, so that quotes are visible.
m4_define([show], [$[]1 = [$1], $[]@ = [$@]])
show(a, b)
show(m4_quote(a, b))
show(m4_dquote(a, b))
$ autom4te -l m4sugar example.m4
$1 = a, $@ = [a],[b]
$1 = a,b, $@ = [a,b]
$1 = [a],[b], $@ = [[a],[b]]

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8.3.3 Forbidden Patterns

M4sugar provides a means to define suspicious patterns, patterns describing tokens which should not be found in the output. For instance, if an Autoconf `configure' script includes tokens such as `AC_DEFINE', or `dnl', then most probably something went wrong (typically a macro was not evaluated because of overquotation).

M4sugar forbids all the tokens matching `^m4_' and `^dnl$'.

Macro: m4_pattern_forbid (pattern)
Declare that no token matching pattern must be found in the output. Comments are not checked; this can be a problem if, for instance, you have some macro left unexpanded after an `#include'. No consensus is currently found in the Autoconf community, as some people consider it should be valid to name macros in comments (which doesn't makes sense to the author of this documentation, as `#'-comments should document the output, not the input, documented by `dnl' comments).

Of course, you might encounter exceptions to these generic rules, for instance you might have to refer to `$m4_flags'.

Macro: m4_pattern_allow (pattern)
Any token matching pattern is allowed, including if it matches an m4_pattern_forbid pattern.

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8.4 Programming in M4sh

M4sh, pronounced "mash", is aiming at producing portable Bourne shell scripts. This name was coined by Lars J. Aas, who notes that, according to the Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913):

Mash \Mash\, n. [Akin to G. meisch, maisch, meische, maische, mash, wash, and prob. to AS. miscian to mix. See "Mix".]

  1. A mass of mixed ingredients reduced to a soft pulpy state by beating or pressure....

  2. A mixture of meal or bran and water fed to animals.

  3. A mess; trouble. [Obs.] --Beau. & Fl.

For the time being, it is not mature enough to be widely used.

M4sh provides portable alternatives for some common shell constructs that unfortunately are not portable in practice.

Macro: AS_DIRNAME (pathname)
Return the directory portion of pathname, using the algorithm required by POSIX. See section 10.9 Limitations of Usual Tools, for more details about what this returns and why it is more portable than the dirname command.

Macro: AS_MKDIR_P (filename)
Make the directory filename, including intervening directories as necessary. This is equivalent to `mkdir -p filename', except that it is portable to older versions of mkdir that lack support for the `-p' option.

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