Mathematica Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for users of Mathematica. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top


I often have the problem that in an expression, I want to change an option. If we are sure the option is not present, we could simply use Append[expression, opt -> val]. But sometimes such an expression is very long and it can be a bit of a pain to see if this option is already present.


We have

Notebook[{Cell["hello", "Text"]}]

we want

Notebook[{Cell["hello", "Text"]}, Background -> LightGreen]

Mathematica has some built in functions for setting options. They are SetOptions, Option in combination with Set (which I think does the same thing as SetOptions) and CurrentValue in combination with Set. None of these seem to do what I want.

Silly things I tried

The fact that we can use Options with Set may sound promising, but although we can ask the value of an option in an expression, we cannot set it.


Options[kkkk, q]
{q -> c, z -> x, zz -> xx} 
{q -> c}


Options[kkkk] = {q -> d, z -> x, zz -> xx}

gives an error and

Options[Unevaluated@kkkk] = {q -> d, z -> x, zz -> xx}

does something strange.

Nice function

So I have made my own function

   b : Longest[ OptionsPattern[], 1],
   Longest[(symb_ -> _) ..., 2],
   d : OptionsPattern[]
  symb_ -> val_
  ] := head[a, b, symb -> val, d]

Examples of use

setExpressionOptions[f[2, q -> b, z -> x, zz -> xx], q -> c]
 f[2, q -> c, z -> x, zz -> xx]
setExpressionOptions[f[2, z -> x, zz -> xx], q -> c]
 f[2, z -> x, zz -> xx, q -> c]

The function also works with Unevaluated

setExpressionOptions[Unevaluated[Plot[x, {x, 0, 1}]], PlotStyle -> Red]
 (*a plot with a red line*)

Note that we really need Unevaluated here, otherwise the expression with head Plot evaluates to an expression with head Graphics, which does not work with PlotStyle.

Possible extension

We can define the function setOptions like this

  x_ /; MemberQ[{NotebookObject, CellObject, FrontEndObject, InputStream, 
     OutputStream, Symbol, String}, Head[Unevaluated@x]], y___
  ] := SetOptions[x, y]

setOptions[z___] := setExpressionOptions[z]

Examples of use

setOptions[EvaluationNotebook[], Background -> LightGreen]
(*makes the background LightGreen*)
setOptions[f[1], q -> r]
f[1, q -> r]


I like the functions quite a lot, but they could be better. It would be nice if we could set any number of options at once using setExpressionOptions.

Example of desired evaluation

 Notebook[{Cell["hello", "Text"]}, Background -> LightGreen],
 Background -> Cyan,
 DynamicUpdating -> True
 Notebook[{Cell["hello", "Text"]}, Background -> Cyan, DynamicUpdating -> True]

Note that SetOptions works the same way; beyond position one there are any number of Rules. That also makes integrating this case in setOptions easier.

Also I am sure I left out a lot of heads in the test in setOptions. The Q&A How can I work out which functions work with SetOptions? sounded promising for making the list more complete, but I guess it is not helpful.

  • Main question*: Can we add the additional functionality?

    • sub Question 1: Did I overlook anything and can this be done easier?

    • sub Question 2: Can this use of Longest lead to bad performance? (probably no)

share|improve this question
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Another thought-provoking question Jacob, and sadly one I missed until today. After only brief consideration I think perhaps what you want can be done more simply, but I look forward to your critique of my proposal.


  • Exact preservation of the structure of option lists is not required
  • The specific order of options is not significant
  • Option rules may be safely evaluated

Basic Proposal

SetAttributes[setOpts, HoldFirst]

setOpts[head_[args___, opts : OptionsPattern[]], new__] := 
 First /@ GatherBy[Flatten@{new, opts}, First] /. {op___} :> head[args, op]


setOpts[f[1], q -> r]
f[1, q -> r]
  f[2, q -> b, z -> x, {aa -> bb -> cc, foo :> bar}],
  z -> dog,
  a :> cat
f[2, z -> dog, a :> cat, q -> b, aa -> bb -> cc, foo :> bar]
setOpts[Plot[Sinc@x, {x, 0, 10}], PlotStyle -> Red]

enter image description here

Extended definition

To make the following case work requires an additional definition:

delay := Plot[Sinc@x, {x, 0, 10}]

setOpts[delay, PlotStyle -> Red]
setOpts[delay, PlotStyle -> RGBColor[1, 0, 0]]      (* failure *)

I shall use the same method I did for:

which will require my step function from: How do I evaluate only one step of an expression?

setOpts[other_, new__] := step[other] /. _[x_] :> setOpts[x, new]


setOpts[delay, PlotStyle -> Red]

enter image description here

share|improve this answer
Thank you Mr.W, this is very nice! I like quite a few things about this. 1) in your examples you make explicit that we can have lists of options. I think I completely forgot this possibility and my function does not always work well here. 2) Your function works with RuleDelayed. 3) You can specify multiple options. 4) The order of non duplicate options is preserved and duplicates are removed. 5) Inserting new options at the start is more natural. On the flip side, I personally prefer a setup where setOpts does not have a hold attribute, analogous to SetOptions and friends. – Jacob Akkerboom Apr 28 '14 at 11:59
@Jacob Thanks for your feedback, and the Accept. Regarding your last point I hoped that my method would be a good hybrid: the second definition will cause it to evaluate until and only until the first definition matches. Evaluation can be controlled by modifying the first pattern. If you wish to return e.g. setOpts["foo", 1 -> 2] unevaluated that can done with a simple addition. What behavior is lost in my approach that you would like to retain? Perhaps it is possible. – Mr.Wizard Apr 28 '14 at 19:07
@gpap I missed your comment. (Seeing a pattern?) Can you give a practical example of the kind of Options you wish to set and how it would work on these objects? – Mr.Wizard May 1 '14 at 0:07
@Mr.Wizard I was using f := Interpolation[list, InterpolationOrder -> 1] and g := setOpts[f, InterpolationOrder -> 4] but your function actually works perfectly well. I just mistyped list = RandomReal[{0, 1}, {2, 100}]; (so the transpose of what Interpolation likes) and the interpolation call was crashing my kernel (which I don't understand at all and is extremely annoying in its own right but nothing to do with your function). So, yeah, my bad and +1. – gpap May 1 '14 at 9:07

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.