I tried to search for a topic on this, but didn't seem to find anything, so here goes.

I'm pretty new to Mathematica, so there are a lot of things I don't know yet, but one thing is pretty annoying so far.

If I type something, lets say 10 lines with functions, variables, matrices and so on, and I push SHIFT + Enter on each line to get an output. Then I can either give each function, plot etc. a name or some sort, so I can use it always. But I can also, at least I've seen, use %, and then it takes the last output, if I'm not mistaken, or else I can use %(number) to define which output I want to use.

But, and now comes the problem, if I want to change something in a previous line, let's say a value in a matrix needs to be changed, and I SHIFT+Enter that line again to update the output. Then the input/output number changes, and the places where I have used the % command, and want to update as well, are now flawed because the input/output is not the same as before.

As I said, I find it pretty annoying that I just can't change a tiny value without affecting the whole document. But maybe it's just because I'm a noob, and don't know how to do it ?

Thanks in advance.

  • $\begingroup$ Recommend that you evaluate ??In and ??Out to get a better feel for what is going in your session's In/Out history. Best to do this in a notebook that has had a few but not too many evaluations. $\endgroup$
    – m_goldberg
    Mar 8, 2014 at 2:46
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ The best advice I can give is to NOT rely on such programming. You'll only waste time fighting the system. It's true, % and friends are good for one-off cases where you're too lazy (or it is unimportant) to assign the output to a variable, but relying on this to do your work will only end in tears... some day. $\endgroup$
    – rm -rf
    Mar 8, 2014 at 3:07
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, this does sound like a case of "Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I do this." "So don't do that then." $\endgroup$
    – user484
    Mar 8, 2014 at 4:59
  • $\begingroup$ % is (mostly, avoid $HistoryLength=0) o.k. as long as you keep code lines in one cell, i.e. evaluate them in one go. Once you start using separate cells, you should not rely on Out too much. $\endgroup$
    – Yves Klett
    Mar 8, 2014 at 9:10

2 Answers 2


There is no way you can avoid the In / Out number increase.

Keep in mind that, even if Mathematica is not showing all the output is still keeping everything in memory. So if instead of using just % you use %n you programs will not break.


As an example:

In[140]:= m = {{1,2},{3,4}}
Out[140]= {{1,2},{3,4}}    
In[141]:= v= {x,y}
Out[141]= {x,y}
In[142]:= m.%
Out[142]= {x+2 y,3 x+4 y}

so far so good. Let's now change m

In[143]:= m = {{1,2},{6,4}}
Out[143]= {{1,2},{6,4}}

now notice how m.% is not working as expected:

In[144]:= m.%
Out[144]= {{13,10},{30,28}}

My suggestion is to write In[142] as

In[145]:= m.%141
Out[145]= {x+2 y,6 x+4 y}

Now you can change m as much as you want and %141 will always reference to {x,y}

  • $\begingroup$ Can you post a small example of what you mean? $\endgroup$
    – Ymareth
    Mar 8, 2014 at 1:36
  • $\begingroup$ Done. Let me know if it clearer or need further explanation! $\endgroup$
    – mete
    Mar 8, 2014 at 1:59
  • $\begingroup$ Seems nice. But you say that %141 will always reference to v in this case, is that even though the input/output numbers changes in the original 141 ? $\endgroup$ Mar 8, 2014 at 2:12
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, because you are not changing %141. Even if you change v it will use a different number, so that %141 will always reference to the same thing $\endgroup$
    – mete
    Mar 8, 2014 at 2:38
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry @mete but your m.% in cell 144 is working as expected. It is equal to m.m where m is defined in cell 143. That is because % refers to the last output cell (the one with the highest number, so far). $\endgroup$
    – magma
    Mar 8, 2014 at 11:23

Hi Denver and welcome to Mathematica.SE.I see that this is your first question here. Your description of the working of % and %n and their limitations is correct and unavoidable. I understand you are a novice MMA user so let me tell you how and when an experienced user uses % and %n.

NEVER! ...Well almost never :-)

In pre-Mathematica days people used to make calculations on the "back of an emvelope". Feynman used to sketch his physics intuitions on place mats in a topless bar, but obviously he would later polish and transfer them in a notebook.

Nowadays he would probably bring a small laptop to the bar, do the calculations with MMA, polish them almost immediately, and have them published on the net over WiFi, before leaving the bar.

Would he use % or %n? Certainly not! Otherwise he would run the risk of not being able to get the same results again.

% and %n are very fragile mechanisms which can be disrupted simply by making the calculations in a different order or by re-evaluating the input cells.

If you have any formula that you are going to use again later in the same notebook, give it a name (even if it is a Plot or Graph or another thing you would not normally name in computerless math) with Set (=) and do not worry about % and %n anymore.

This practice will make your notebooks forever readable and re-evaluateable by yourself and other people.

  • $\begingroup$ I will keep that in mind, thank you :) $\endgroup$ Mar 8, 2014 at 12:44

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