Controlling expansion has been a key part of expl3 from day one. A basic expl3 function name such as \foo:nn shows how many unmodified braced arguments it takes: so called n-type arguments. We can then create variants, which can lead to expansion only once (o-type), to the value of a variable (V-type) or to the value retrieved by constructing the name of a variable and then finding the value (v-type). We can do the same with single-token (N-type) arguments, which are often themselves functions and can be given as a constructed name (c-type).

How about exhaustively expanding all of the tokens in an argument? To date, that has been handled by x-type expansion. This uses \edef behind-the-scenes, so the experienced TeX programmer will see that it cannot itself work in an expansion context. Using \edef also has the side effect that # tokens need to be doubled in the input.

Enter \expanded

A little while ago now, the LaTeX Team arranged for a ‘new’ primitive \expanded to be added to the major TeX engines. This works almost in the same way as \edef except that it is itself expandable and it does not require # tokens to be doubled. Using this primitive, we added e-type expansion to expl3, and have used it for creating variants of expandable functions.

That left us with two almost-identical variants and a tricky task giving an explanation of which to use, as there are places we want e-type expansion even if the underlying function isn’t expandable (where that # doubling business is an issue). In particular, with a bit of care for a few edge cases, it turns out that everything that is set up for x-type expansion can be converted to e-type. That includes things like \cs_set_nopar:Npx, where when you look closely we should have called it \cs_set_nopar:Npe from the word go: there’s no # doubling as this is just \edef renamed.

The pivot

So we’ve now made the decision to pivot toward e-type expansion across the board. We’ll be retaining the (now deprecated) x-type variants that are already in expl3, but the documentation and all new variants will only be e-type. Once the new release is out, package authors are encouraged to move all of their x-type usage to e-type. The timeframe will of course depend on the stability approach of individual package authors: for siunitx, I’m simply going to step the minimum required expl3 release and be done with it, but others may be more cautious.

What is important here is that almost all users should see minimal impact: provided the installed expl3 core files match, there should be no obvious change for end users. What we gain, though, at the code level is a lot more consistency and clarity of design choice.

One last variant

That leaves one additional variant: f-type, which is almost like e-type but stops at the first non-expandable token. It exists largely as we needed something expandable before we had e-type, but it still has a few edge use cases. So we won’t be dropping it, but in almost all cases code using f-type expansion can move to e-type. Again, I’ve done that in siunitx and will do a sweep over the expl3 core soon. So we can expect to see a move to almost no use of f-type other than some specialist low-level places.

A (more) consistent variant set

A key driver in the tidy up here is that we would like to provide as far as possible pre-defined variants for the core expl3 functions. That means having some way of avoiding a combinatorial explosion: the more variants we need, the more this is an issue. So we are aiming to get the ‘core’ set to n, V, v and e, and N and c, with o and f where they are required. The latest expl3 release fleshes out more pre-defined variants for this set, and we expect that to grow a little more as we try to standardise more functions around this core set.

Programmer action

The keen expl3 programmer is likely wondering what they need to do in detail. Working on the basis that you are already requiring the expl3 release with these changes (2023-10-10), then

  • All x-type variants provided by expl3 have now got a matching e-type, so you can simply change the naming unless …
  • … you have doubled # tokens in an argument, in which case you also need to undouble them
  • Replace your own x-type variants with e-type ones for internal code
  • For your own documented variants, decide if you will retain, deprecate or remove x-type

As an example of the point on # tokens, you might currently have something like

    \cs_new:Npn \exp_not:N \mypkg_foo:w ##1 \c_colon_str ##2 \c_underscore_str
        % Code using ##1 and ##2

which would need to change to

    \cs_new:Npn \exp_not:N \mypkg_foo:w #1 \c_colon_str #2 \c_underscore_str
        % Code using #1 and #2

Of course, if there are no doubled # to worry about, it’s really just a search-and-replace. So we can all now get on and use the ‘Jag’!