Consider the following code running on a fresh Mathematica session with no symbols defined:

p[s_String] := Protect[s];

This doesn't do anything because there is no symbol named x yet, so no symbols match the string pattern "x". No problem, we can resolve this by using Symbol:

p[s_String] := Protect[Symbol[s]];

This doesn't work either, since Protect has the attribute HoldAll. So we can use Evaluate:

p[s_String] := Protect[Evaluate[Symbol[s]]];

Great! Now it works. Except... If the symbol we want to protect does already exist, then it won't work:

y = 1;
p[s_String] := Protect[Evaluate[Symbol[s]]];

This will execute Protect[1] because Symbol["y"] evaluates to 1. How can one write a function p which protects a symbol, given via a string, whether or not it already exists?


EDIT: A solution was given in the comments:

p[s_String] := Protect @@ ToExpression[s, StandardForm, Hold];

However, now I have another similar issue. I would like to find out if s is a proper symbol, so that e.g. p["1"] or p["a b"] will return an error message. So I tried the same trick with Head:

p[s_String] := 
  If[Head @@ ToExpression[s, StandardForm, Hold] === Symbol, 
   Protect @@ ToExpression[s, StandardForm, Hold], 
   Print[s, " is not a symbol!"]];

This works only if the symbol was not defined previously. For example, if I type x = 1 and then p["x"] I will get x is not a symbol because its Head is Integer. So again, it's the same problem as above: How can I look at the symbol itself without it being replaced by its value?

  • $\begingroup$ What if you just did p[s_String] := If[MemberQ[Names[s], s], Protect[s]] $\endgroup$
    – flinty
    Aug 6, 2021 at 15:17
  • $\begingroup$ Protect @@ ToExpression[s, StandardForm, Hold]? $\endgroup$
    – Michael E2
    Aug 6, 2021 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ @flinty: But then it won't be protected if it doesn't already exist. I want to protect that symbol from future modifications whether or not it already exists. $\endgroup$
    – CMB
    Aug 6, 2021 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelE2: Thanks, I think that works! $\endgroup$
    – CMB
    Aug 6, 2021 at 17:40
  • $\begingroup$ I now have a similar problem, for which this trick doesn't work. Please see my edit. Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – CMB
    Aug 6, 2021 at 18:36

1 Answer 1


I found a simple solution to my problem:

p[s_String] := 
  Quiet[Check[Protect @@ ToExpression[s, StandardForm, Hold], 
    Print[s, " is not a symbol!"], Protect::pssl]];

This solution simply lets Protect "do the work for me" (as suggested by @MichaelE2 in the comments). In my actual code, there is much more that happens after calling Protect, but I only continue the evaluation if Protect was successful.


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