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Workshop for Emacs Macros

Basic idea of this file is to be both a guide and a practice pad for leveling up on Emacs’ keyboard macro system.

To use, just download this file to your system, and edit it in Emacs. Then just follow along… If you are not familiar with org-mode files, here are the basics for this workshop:

  • Hit a tab on the header expands or collapses it
  • Narrow to show just one section with: C-x n s
  • Return by widening normally with: C-x n w
  • Hyperlinks can be clicked on to view the Emacs Manual

Pretty much treat the rest of this document as a text file.

Basic Usage

Let’s begin with something simple to try out this project. In the block area below, hit: C-c ' (yes, the apostrophe). When done with the tasks, hit: C-x C-s to close and return here.

  - This foobar should be Interesting
  - Nulla foobar Posuere
  - Nullam foobar Tempus
  - Etiam foobar laoreet quam sed Arcu
  - Donec foobar hendrerit tempor Tellus
  - Mauris foobar mollis tincidunt Felis
  - etiam laoreet quam sed arcu
  - nullam rutrum
  - sed diam
  - lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit
  - mauris ac felis vel velit tristique imperdiet
  - fusce suscipit, wisi nec facilisis facilisis, est dui fermentum leo, quis tempor ligula erat quis odio
  - donec hendrerit tempor tellus

Notice that the frame is split with this document still visible?

Good, let’s play around. Let’s capitalize the first letter of each line. Position point at the beginning of the first line, and then:

  • F3
  • M-c
  • C-n
  • C-a
  • F4

Press F4 repeatedly to capitalize the first word on each line. Don’t capitalize every line… leave a few alone for a moment. Now you have the basics.

Let’s make a new macro to capitalize the last word on each line. Pop back up to the top of the list, and:

  • F3
  • C-e
  • M-b
  • M-c
  • C-n
  • F4

Once again, leave a few lines alone. Just one more macro, as I want to show you something interesting. Jump back to the beginning, and:

  • F3
  • C-a
  • M-f
  • Space
  • foobar (or type any single word you find amusing)
  • C-n
  • F4

Type: C-x C-k C-k

Notice it behaves the same as F4, but you can keep typing C-k to execute your macro.

Start typing C-n and/or C-p and notice the minibuffer. It alternates between the following:

  • M-c C-n C-a
  • C-e M-b M-c C-n
  • C-a M-f SPC f 2*o b a r C-n

Typing C-k at any point will execute that macro. You’ve now see the Emacs Macro Ring, and can manipulate it. You are now at Level 2.

Type C-c ' (apostrophe) to close that side window.

Naming Macros

While that foobar macro may be quite handy, looping around the keyboard macro ring to select it may be inefficient. Name it!

C-x C-k n

Give it a name of foobar, and now, you can: M-x foobar to have the macro run.

Perhaps it may be more useful to bind that macro to some un-used key, like C-c k or F2 … type:

C-x C-k b

And then type your binding, e.g. C-c k

You know that C-c followed by a single letter is supposed to be free of usage and available for your nefarious reasons, right?

Read the the Emacs Manual for details. If you actually tried this example, then you have earned enough experience points to be level 3.

What do you mean On Every Line?

Keyboard macros are slick, and while we could prefix the F4 with the numbering prefix to run it multiple times at once, e.g. C-9 F4, a typical use case is to run it on every line in a region.

Position the cursor in the block, and type: C-c ‘

  I will not take out the trash
  I should not stop swearing
  I may not stop to smell the roses
  I do not want to go shopping
  I could not care less

With the point on the first line, type:

  • F3
  • C-a
  • M-f
  • M-f
  • Space
  • not (type the word, not)
  • F4

Now select the remaining 4 lines any way you like, and type:

  • C-x C-k r

Read the Emacs Manual for complete details, and welcome to level 4.


Numbering things seems to be important to people. Let’s see if we can easily number the worst song ever inflicted on humanity.

Once again, position the point inside the block, and type: C-c '

  1 Drummers Drumming
  2 Pipers Piping
  3 Lords a Leaping
  4 Ladies Dancing
  5 Maids a Milking
  6 Swans a Swimming
  7 Geese a Laying
  8 Golden Rings
  9 Calling Birds
  10 French Hens
  11 Turtle Doves
  12 Partridge in a Pear Tree

Follow along at home. First, position the point at the end (on the line with the partridge), and:

  • C-x C-k C-c
  • 1
  • Return (to set a counter to 1)
  • F3
  • C-a
  • F3
  • Spacebar
  • C-n
  • F4

Yes, hitting the F3 key twice (once to start the macro, and again to insert the value of the counter) is a bit odd. You can also use the binding: C-x C-k C-i

Each time you hit F4, you increment the counter that is inserted.

By the way, if you didn’t do the whole C-x C-k C-c to set the counter to 1, the first value would be 0. Read the manual for details.

Fixing Macros

Now that you are a Level 5 Elf Keyboard Macro-er, and you can now sling macros everywhere, you may notice that sometimes, in the middle of a long macro, you flub it.

If you hit F4 too soon (it happens), hit: C-u C-u F3 to pick up where you left off and enter the rest of the macro. Hit F4 when you are really finished.

If you need to fix a keyboard macro with more finesse, type:

C-x C-k C-e

And behold the glory. Tis a simple language that should be pretty obvious to a skilled Macro-er as yourself. Type C-h m once in that buffer to display details of how to edit the macro. When you are finished editing, type: C-c C-c

I’ll let you play around with your own example for this one. Read the manual for complete details.

Variations on a Theme

To gain the Level 7 Keyboard Macro-er title, one should know how to customize a macro while running it. The following section of HTML code needs some textual changes. We want to add one of the following phrases to the end of every paragraph that has a class of change:

  • Because I said so. Got it?
  • Because I'm the boss. Got it?
  • You heard me. Got it?
  • Just do it. Got it?

To begin, first move to the following block (hint: C-c M-f) and hit TAB to collapse the block (you gotta see all the instructions, right?) Next, issue a C-c ' on this block to show it in a new window. If you have trouble with your HTML mode, change the html to text.

  <!DOCTYPE html>
        Proin neque massa, cursus ut, gravida ut, lobortis eget, lacus.
        Praesent augue.  Sed diam.  Nunc eleifend leo vitae magna.  Nunc
        rutrum turpis sed pede.
      <p class="change">
        Nullam rutrum.  Nunc rutrum turpis sed pede.
        Phasellus at dui in ligula mollis ultricies.  Curabitur lacinia
        pulvinar nibh.  Donec pretium posuere tellus.  Praesent
        fermentum tempor tellus.  Proin quam nisl, tincidunt et, mattis
        eget, convallis nec, purus.
      <p class="change">
        Fusce sagittis, libero non molestie mollis, magna orci ultrices
        dolor, at vulputate neque nulla lacinia eros.  Sed diam.  Nam
        vestibulum accumsan nisl.
        Aliquam feugiat tellus ut neque. Nam vestibulum accumsan
        nisl. Praesent fermentum tempor tellus.
        Vivamus id enim.  Suspendisse potenti.  Curabitur lacinia
        pulvinar nibh.  Mauris ac felis vel velit tristique imperdiet.
      <p class="change">
        Donec vitae dolor.  Mauris ac felis vel velit tristique
        imperdiet.  Nunc aliquet, augue nec adipiscing interdum, lacus
        tellus malesuada massa, quis varius mi purus non odio.  Proin
        quam nisl, tincidunt et, mattis eget, convallis nec, purus.  Nam
        euismod tellus id erat.
        Nullam rutrum.

Type the following:

  • F3
  • C-s
  • Type: class="change"
  • C-e
  • C-s
  • Type: </p>
  • C-p
  • C-e
  • C-x q
  • Type: Got it?
  • C-n
  • F4

In this particular case, we actually didn't do anything special, so move to the beginning of the buffer, and hit F4, and the cursor will go to the end of every paragraph that needs changing, and stop with a prompt:

Proceed with macro? (Y, N, RET, C-l, C-r)

Type C-r and begin typing one of our phrases, and when you are done, type: C-M-c

The prompt will be re-displayed, so finish the macro with 'Y'. Check out the manual for details on this C-x q business.