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New HOWTO: Emacs Beginner's HOWTO - page 4

Table of Contents, Section 1

  • March 26, 2001
  4.  Customizing Emacs

  Virtually all Emacs customization is done via Lisp code. You can
  modify variables which influence the way Emacs operates or you can add
  new functions to Emacs (or override existing functions--replacing them
  with your own).

  4.1.  Temporary Customization

  While experimenting with Emacs customization, you'll probably want to
  do it in a way that is temporary. If you do something horribly wrong,
  you can just C-x C-c to exit emacs and run it again. Once you've
  figured out what changes you'd like to make permanent, you can add
  them to your very own .emacs file so that they take effect every time
  you start Emacs. This is discussed in the next section.

  4.1.1.  Variable Assignments

  The easiest customizations are accomplished by changing the value of a
  variable in Emacs. The list code to do this looks like this:

  (setq variable-name new-value)

  Where variable-name is the name of the variable and new-value is the
  value you'd like to give the variable. (In Lisp-speak, you're binding
  a variable to a value.) The setq function in lisp is analogous to the
  assignment operators (usually =) in other programming languages.

  NOTE: I'm glossing over many details here for the sake of simplicity.
  You may also see me or others use the Lisp functions set and even
  setq-default. If you're really curious, feel free to look them up in
  an Emacs Lisp reference.

  Let's look at a line from my .emacs file

  (setq-default transient-mark-mode t)

  The variable transient-mark-mode controls whether or not a region
  becomes highlighted when I mark it. In many GUI applications, if you
  click and drag the mouse to select a range of text it becomes hi-
  lighted in reverse video or some other color. Emacs will do the same
  thing it the transient-mark-mode variable is set (to a non-nil value).

  A WHAT value?

  Okay. Brief digression. Most programming languages have some notion of
  true/false values. In C/C++ a value is considered true if it is a non-
  zero value. In Perl, a non-null or non-zero value is true. In Lisp,
  the same idea applies but the names and symbols are different.

  True is usually written as t and false (or null) is written as nil.
  Like in other languages, though, any non-nill value is considered
  true.

  To get the full description of what transient-mark-mode does, you can
  use the on-line help. Type C-h v or M-x describe-variable and then
  transient-mark-mode. If you're lazy like me, you can take advantage of
  variable name completion using the Tab key. Just type part of the
  variable name and hit the Tab key. If you've typed enough of it that
  Emacs can already uniquely identify it, you'll see the whole name
  completed for you.

  Another variable that folks often set is fill-column. It tells Emacs
  how wide the screen should be for the purposes of word-wrapping (and
  auto-fill-mode respects this value). To set the value to something
  absurd, you could type:

  (setq fill-column 20)

  But that won't actually do anything. You need to tell Emacs to
  evaluate the expression you typed. To do so, put the point (cursor) at
  the end of the expression end then type C-x C-e, which calls the
  function eval-last-sexp in case you care. When you do that, notice
  that 20 (or whatever value you used) is echoed back to you in the
  mini-buffer at the bottom of the screen. That's just the return value
  from the expression you evaluated.

  Just to prove that it works, type a sentence or two. If you happen to
  have auto-fill-mode enabled (you probably don't), you'll notice the
  text wrapping at the 20 column mark. Otherwise, after you've typed
  some stuff, type M-q which calls the function fill-paragraph. It will
  then perform the word wrapping.

  4.1.2.  File Associations

  You can configure Emacs to automatically do something when you open a
  file of a particular type (just like some GUIs will automatically
  launch a specific application if you click on the icon for a
  particular file). For example, I may want Emacs to automatically
  switch to text-mode every time I open a file with a .txt extension.
  Well, that already happens. :-) So let's tell Emacs to always enter
  text-mode when you open a file named ``README''.

  (setq auto-mode-alist (cons '("README" . text-mode) auto-mode-alist))

  Huh?

  Without diving into lots of Lisp programming that you really don't
  need to know (but it wouldn't hurt you to learn), let just say that
  the variable auto-mode-alist contains a list of pairs. Each pair
  contains a regular expression and an Emacs mode name. If a file you
  open matches the regular expression (in this case, the string README)
  Emacs starts the mode you specified.

  The funny syntax above is because we're actually adding another pair
  to that mode list. You wouldn't want to just assign to auto-mode-alist
  without making sure the values that it already contains aren't lost.
  And if I wanted Emacs to automatically switch to html-helper-mode
  every time that I opened a file that ended with .html or .htm, I would
  add this to my .emacs file:

  (setq auto-mode-alist (cons '("\\.html$" . html-helper-mode) auto-mode-alist))
  (setq auto-mode-alist (cons '("\\.htm$" . html-helper-mode) auto-mode-alist))

  The possibilities are truly endless.

  4.2.  Using a .emacs  File

  After you've spent some time with Emacs and have a basic idea of what
  customization can do for you, you'll probably want to customize a few
  things permanently (or at least until you change your mind). If you
  find yourself using Emacs on a daily basis, you'll also notice that
  your .emacs file get bigger as time goes on. That's a Good Thing
  because it means you've figured out how to make Emacs work the way you
  want it do work. It's a shame that more software products don't let
  you do that.

  In case you haven't already guessed, every time you start Emacs, it
  looks for a file named .emacs in your home directory. Your .emacs file
  is where you should put any Lisp code that you want run automatically
  and that includes the sort of customization we've been dealing with
  here.

  Another example from my .emacs file:

  (setq inhibit-startup-message t)

  The inhibit-startup-message variable controls whether or not Emacs
  displays that welcome message when it starts. After a while, I got
  sick of looking at it (because I knew how to find the help and
  whatnot), so I went in search of a way to turn it off.

  As an exercise, try creating a .emacs file of your own and add that
  line to it. Then exit and start Emacs again. You should not see the
  welcome message.

  Often times when your read about an Emacs mode (or a package), the
  documentation will suggest some code to add to your .emacs file in
  order to make the mode or package work in a particular way.

  The GNU Emacs FAQ (C-h F) contains some items related to .emacs files
  that you might find useful.

  4.3.  The Customize Package

  As Emacs has grown in popularity and continued to evolved, someone
  eventually said ``there has to be a better way to let novice users
  customize their Emacs.'' And customize was born.
  Customize provides a more intuitive method of customizing parts of
  Emacs. To try it out, either visit the Customize sub-menu in your Help
  menu, or type M-x customize.

  Customize groups customization into logical groups like ``Editing'',
  ``Programming'', ``Files'', and so on. Some groups contain sub-groups.

  If you make changes using the customize interface, Emacs will save the
  changes to your .emacs file. That's rather handy, because you can
  easily inspect (and change) the changes it made for you.

  I don't use the Customize interface, so I can't say much more about
  it.

  4.4.  X Windows Display

  Like any well behaved X application, Emacs respects your X resources.
  That means you can control the initial colors, geometry, and other X
  specific things just as you could with an xterm, nxterm, or whatever.

  Here's the relevant bit of my ~/.Xdefaults file:

  emacs*Background: DarkSlateGray
  emacs*Foreground: Wheat
  emacs*pointerColor: Orchid
  emacs*cursorColor: Orchid
  emacs*bitmapIcon: on
  emacs*font: fixed
  emacs.geometry: 80x25

  See your X manual page for more details about X resources.

  Chris Gray (cgray4@po-box.mcgill.ca) also notes:

       In Debian, the ~/.Xdefaults doesn't seem to be used.  How�
       ever, Debian people can put what you have given in
       /etc/X11/Xresources/emacs and they can have the pretty col�
       ors that they had when they were using RedHat.
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