Development log of a life-long coder

Creating Windows-style paths (backslash-separated) from pathnames in Common Lisp

Use uiop/filesystem:native-namestring. That's the answer.

The rest of this post is just additional context/whining.


Common Lisp was born in an era of surprising file system diversity. Nowadays, Windows is mocked for using something other than a forward slash as a path separator, but old Macs used colons and I've seen references to > being used on more exotic platforms.

Common Lisp handles this difference (and many other differences that never even occurred to me, such as types and versions) by abstracting everything into a platform-independent concept called a pathname.

Example pathname

Here's how to create a (relative) pathname for "the directory 'foo', which is located in the parent directory":

 (make-pathname :directory '(:relative :up "foo"))

The problem

While working on a tiny Common Lisp project, my program needed to run a command in a subprocess (using uiop:run-program) with a directory passed as an argument. I had assumed that format-ing a pathname on Windows would result in a Windows-compatible string (or at least that namestring would), e.g. "..\foo\" for the example code above.

For reasons I won't yet understand, this is not how things work on SBCL! Instead, forward slashes are used: "../foo/". This works fine for some programs (including Git, apparently), but I doubt it's robust in general, considering some (mostly old) Windows programs use the forward slash to indicate command-line flags (instead of using a hyphen).

But why?

I thought the point of pathnames was to support a platform-independent notion of a file path/name, so it's not clear to me why they don't format by default into a form that's compatible with the host environment.

Even more surprising, after spending way too much time browsing the Common Lisp HyperSpec, I couldn't even find anything in Common Lisp's standard library for this scenario. Why can I create and manipulate pathnames but not actually pass them to the operating system? That's a serious question--if you know the answer, please tell me!

UIOP to the rescue

Given that (ANSI) Common Lisp hasn't been updated since 1994, I don't see this situation changing, but the good news is that Common Lisp implementations fill in this gap and UIOP abstracts away the implementations' different approaches/naming schemes.

So that leads us to the solution: uiop/filesystem:native-namestring. Example:

 (uiop/filesystem:native-namestring (make-pathname :directory '(:relative :up "foo")))



Problem solved!

The only lingering question for me is: why is native-namestring in uiop/filesystem instead of uiop/pathname?