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2.3 Command line options for limits control

There are some limits within m4 that can be tuned. For compatibility, m4 also accepts some options that control limits in other implementations, but which are automatically unbounded (limited only by your hardware and operating system constraints) in GNU m4.


Enable all the extensions in this implementation. In this release of M4, this option is always on by default; it is currently only useful when overriding a prior use of ‘--traditional’. However, having GNU behavior as default makes it impossible to write a strictly POSIX-compliant client that avoids all incompatible GNU M4 extensions, since such a client would have to use the non-POSIX command-line option to force full POSIX behavior. Thus, a future version of M4 will be changed to implicitly use the option ‘--traditional’ if the environment variable POSIXLY_CORRECT is set. Projects that intentionally use GNU extensions should consider using ‘--gnu’ to state their intentions, so that the project will not mysteriously break if the user upgrades to a newer M4 and has POSIXLY_CORRECT set in their environment.


Suppress all the extensions made in this implementation, compared to the System V version. See section Compatibility with other versions of m4, for a list of these.

-H num

Make the internal hash table for symbol lookup be num entries big. For better performance, the number should be prime, but this is not checked. The default is 509 entries. It should not be necessary to increase this value, unless you define an excessive number of macros.

-L num

Artificially limit the nesting of macro calls to num levels, stopping program execution if this limit is ever exceeded. When not specified, nesting defaults to unlimited on platforms that can detect stack overflow, and to 1024 levels otherwise. A value of zero means unlimited; but then heavily nested code could potentially cause a stack overflow.

The precise effect of this option is more correctly associated with textual nesting than dynamic recursion. It has been useful when some complex m4 input was generated by mechanical means, and also in diagnosing recursive algorithms that do not scale well. Most users never need to change this option from its default.

This option does not have the ability to break endless rescanning loops, since these do not necessarily consume much memory or stack space. Through clever usage of rescanning loops, one can request complex, time-consuming computations from m4 with useful results. Putting limitations in this area would break m4 power. There are many pathological cases: ‘define(`a', `a')a’ is only the simplest example (but see section Compatibility with other versions of m4). Expecting GNU m4 to detect these would be a little like expecting a compiler system to detect and diagnose endless loops: it is a quite hard problem in general, if not undecidable!

-B num
-S num
-T num

These options are present for compatibility with System V m4, but do nothing in this implementation. They may disappear in future releases, and issue a warning to that effect.

-N num

These options are present only for compatibility with previous versions of GNU m4, and were controlling the number of possible diversions which could be used at the same time. They do nothing, because there is no fixed limit anymore. They may disappear in future releases, and issue a warning to that effect.

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