GNU Emacs Terms and Conventions

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If you're an experienced Emacs user, you can skip the following conventions and definition of terms and go directly to the Getting Started section. The conventions used in this section differ slightly from those in the rest of this book in order to be consistent with the online Emacs documentation. They are as follows:

Hold down the CTRL (Control) key and press the "x" key.
Hold down the META or ALT key and press the "x" key.

Since some keyboards don't have a META key, you can generate M-x, for example, by pressing ESC (Escape), releasing it, and then pressing the "x" key. ("Releasing it" is emphasized because pressing ESC twice or holding it down a second too long so that it repeats gives you an error message.)

Press the RETURN or ENTER key. This is normally used to complete a command.
Press the space bar.
Press the TAB key.
Press the DELETE key. This may also be a Backspace key, depending on your keyboard or Emacs configuration.

A prefix argument allows you to pass an argument to any Emacs function. To pass an argument, type C-u before the Emacs command or keystroke. Numeric arguments can be passed as well. For example, to insert five f's, use C-u 5 f. There is a default of four when using C-u, and you can use multiple prefix arguments to provide arguments of powers of four. To continue our example, you could insert four f's with C-u f, 16 f's with C-u C-u f, 64 f's with C-u C-u C-u f, and so on. Numeric and valueless negative arguments can also be inserted with the META key. Examples include M-5 to specify an argument of 5, or M--, which specifies a negative argument with no particular value.

There are several other terms that are used in Emacs that you should know. The point is where the cursor currently is. You can save your current place in the file by setting a mark. This operation is useful in several ways. The mark can be later used when defining a region, which is the text between the point and mark. Many commands operate on regions, such as those for deleting text or filling paragraphs. A mark can be set with C-@ (or C-SPC).

The minibuffer is the bottom line of the Emacs window, where all prompting and multiple-character input is directed. If you are prompted for information in the minibuffer, such as a filename, Emacs helps complete your answer if you type SPC or TAB. A second SPC or TAB lists all possibilities at that point. The minibuffer is also where you enter Emacs function names after typing M-x. In the first paragraph, I mentioned that you could obtain help with C-h t (help-with-tutorial). What this means is that you can get a tutorial by typing either C-h t or M-x help-with-tutorial. In the latter case, you are prompted for help-with-tutorial in the minibuffer after typing M-x.

In case of trouble: Emacs can be interrupted at any time with C-g. For example, if you've started a command that requests that you enter something in the minibuffer, but then you change your mind, type C-g and you'll be back where you started. If you want to exit Emacs entirely, use C-x C-c.

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(This section was written by Bill Wohler.)
Last change $Date: 1996/07/14 17:35:00 $

This file is from the third edition of the book MH & xmh: Email for Users & Programmers, ISBN 1-56592-093-7, by Jerry Peek. Copyright © 1991, 1992, 1995 by O'Reilly & Associates, Inc. This file is freely-available; you can redistribute it and/or modify it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by the Free Software Foundation. For more information, see the file copying.htm.

Suggestions are welcome: Bill Wohler <>