910bb7ec7d6b05f1a84f3ece85e141114f981ca8 — Gregory Chamberlain a month ago 3c05e94
Publish vanilla-emacs (Emacs Keeps Surprising Me)
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title='Emacs Keeps Surprising Me'

description='Some incredibly useful features built into Emacs that were
right under my nose from day one.'

author='Gregory Chamberlain'

date='Sunday, 12 September 2021'


cover_img_alt="GNU Emacs logo featuring a red Gnu and blue text in a
cursive pen style"

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Emacs keeps surprising me.  Though I've been using it regularly for
about two years now, I am still discovering features and nuances that
have been right under my nose since day one.

I'm not talking about writing your own Elisp.  I'm not even talking
about third-party packages.  I'm talking about stock, built-in,
everyday functionality that is right there when you open GNU Emacs for
the first time, wondering what all the fuss is about.

There is *so much* there.  It's overwhelming.  Really, it's insane.
Stuff you didn't think existed, stuff you didn't know was possible,
stuff you don't expect to find, stuff you didn't think you needed,
stuff you really really needed that one time but didn't know about or
even think to look for, and stuff you always suspected might exist but
hadn't looked into yet.

Sometimes it's a default key binding, however obscure, that has been
waiting patiently under your fingers, hidden beneath the keyboard all
this time, never before invoked (except perhaps by mistake).
Sometimes it's a minor mode, or a unique tool for editing, or just a
subtlety in the behaviour of a command you've already been using for

Most of these things are documented thoroughly in the manual, so it's
not like they're deliberately hidden from us.  It's just that there is
such an abundance of features built into Emacs that they effectively
must compete for our attention.

# Inserting special characters

Recently I finally got around to looking in more detail at a feature I
only vaguely knew of: **input methods**.  I do not know why I waited
until *now* to look into it but, as someone who is interested in
languages, it was curiosity that eventually led me there.

Now, there are a couple of sections in the manual about input methods
(22.3 and 22.4), and I'm sure they're great, but that was not how I
went about learning this particular feature.  No, I just dove straight
in.  What little I did know of input methods was only because I
inadvertently hit <kbd>C-\\</kbd> from time to time, invoking
`toggle-input-method`.  I knew it had something to do with
internationalisation but I had always hit <kbd>C-g</kbd> to get out of
it and continue with whatever highly important task I was doing (such
as `M-x tetris`).  This time I hit <kbd>TAB</kbd> instead, revealing a
screenful or two of completion candidates.

Among them were *czech*, *arabic*, *japanese* and many other languages
and their related input methods.  No surprises there.  What caught my
eye, though, were *TeX* and *sgml*.  These are not spoken languages.
These are methods for inserting all kinds of special
characters—obscure diacritical marks, quote marks, superscript and
subscript mathematical symbols, playing card suits, smileys, various
shapes and arrows, and so on.

Input methods allow you to insert characters that you *can’t* type by
typing a *sequence* of characters that you *can* type.  For example,
using the `spanish-postfix` input method, typing `n~` produces `ñ`.
<kbd>C-h C-\\</kbd> (`describe-input-method`) shows you all the
sequences for a given input method.

Until now I had been using <kbd>C-x 8 RET</kbd> (`insert-char`) to
insert special characters by name, if I could guess the name (was it
had a much smoother, less cumbersome way of doing the same thing.

This is a feature you can *just use*.  There’s no Lisp to write or
variables to tweak to make it usable.  There’s no external package you
have to install from MELPA.  You hit <kbd>C-\\</kbd>, choose your
input method, and start writing.

My last article was about IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet)
and I had to write a lot of phonetic symbols like ə and ʧ.  There I
was going through Wiktionary, painstakingly copy-pasting symbols into
Emacs while its `ipa` input method was right under my nose the whole

A few days later I discovered it.  That’s what prompted me to write
this article.

# View and edit lines that match a pattern

*grep* is an old-school UNIX program for printing only the lines of a
file that match a regular expression.

Emacs has a command called **occur** (<kbd>M-s o</kbd>), which does a
similar thing for Emacs buffers.  The matching lines are shown in the
`*Occur*` buffer, which can be used to jump to the location in the
source buffer where that match occurs.

What’s really cool is that you can edit the `*Occur*` buffer and any
changes made there are reflected in the source buffer.  You just hit
<kbd>e</kbd> to begin editing and <kbd>C-c C-c</kbd> to apply the
changes when you’re done.  In that sense, it’s a bit like <kbd>C-x n
n</kbd> (`narrow-to-region`) but for “multiple regions,” if you like.

As an example, let’s say I wanted to reword some of the headings in
this article.  I’m writing it in Markdown, so each heading is on its
own line beginning with `#`.  So I begin with <kbd>M-s o ^# RET</kbd>
to have all the headings reproduced in the `*Occur*` buffer—not unlike
a table of contents.  In that buffer, I can use <kbd>o</kbd> or
<kbd>C-o</kbd> to jump to that section in my article.  I can also hit
<kbd>e</kbd> to begin editing them.  When I’m happy with my reworded
headings, I can hit <kbd>C-c C-c</kbd> to apply the changes.

Occur is a built-in package.  <kbd>M-s o</kbd> is a default global key
binding.  It’s right there from day one.  No external packages or
Elisp to copy and paste into your init file.  Just vanilla Emacs.

# Visualisation of whitespace

The annoying thing about editing whitespace is that you can’t see it.
I mean, that’s kind of the point, but sometimes you need to know
exactly where it is and how much of it is there.  This is especially
true for some programming languages where whitespace and indentation
are significant to the compiler or interpretter.

The Emacs developers know this pain all too well, and that’s why we
have **whitespace-mode**.  It makes it abundantly clear where there
are spaces, tabs and newline characters by highlighting them and
denoting them with certain symbols—a middle dot (`·`) for spaces, a
double chevron for tabs (`»`), a dollar sign (`$`) for newlines.
<small>The symbols shown can be changed or removed, of course—see
`whitespace-style` and `whitespace-display-mappings`.</small>

Trailing whitespace is made particularly obvious because it is
highlighted in red.  Lines longer than `whitespace-line-column`
characters (80 by default) are highlighted in yellow.  <small>These
colours may vary by theme.</small>

I wouldn’t recommend keeping whitespace mode on at all times because
it makes the rest of the text quite hard to read.  I only enable it
for a moment while I check for stray whitespace, or sometimes when
editing tab-separated data.

# Display buffer continuously over several windows

When I’m learning (or writing) a new piece of music, I like to have
the notes (chords, tabs, lyrics, etc.) for the entire song shown at
one time, if possible.  This way I can play through it from start to
finish without having to pause for scrolling.

Usually I set it up in a column layout to make the most of the
horizontal screen space.  Emacs is perfect for this because of its
windowing capabilities combined with a minor mode called
**follow-mode**.  Follow mode shows adjacent screenfuls of the same
buffer across multiple windows, like pages in a book.

It’s hard to explain, so maybe it’s best to try it for yourself—for
example, by visiting this very page with <kbd>M-x eww</kbd>.  Create a
side-by-side split using <kbd>C-x 3</kbd> (`split-window-right`), then
do <kbd>M-x follow-mode</kbd> and try scrolling around.  The window on
the right shows the part of the buffer that immediately follows the
part in the window on the left.

# Undo only within a region

This feature is phenomenal and it’s actually enabled already because
it’s just a nuance of the `undo` command.  <small>I don’t know of
any other text editor that can do this.  I believe Vim has “time
travel” history which is cool in its own right, but not quite the

Emacs allows you to undo changes that happened in a particular region
of the buffer, without undoing changes elsewhere across it.  Typically
that region will be a range of lines but it doesn’t have to be.

All you do is select the region of text in which the changes occured,
then invoke `undo` as normal (e.g. <kbd>C-/</kbd>).

Again, this is something that was right under my nose and for months I
had no idea Emacs could do this—I had never even *wondered* if it was
possible; it simply didn’t occur to me.

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