keyboard macros

Keyboard macros are a truly classic emacs feature. Still, I only started to use them years after I got sucked into emacs – not so uncommon for emacs features… There may be more people like me, so let's raise the awareness a bit.

Keyboard macros allow you to record a number of keystrokes, and replay those at some later point. This can be a great time-saver when you need to do repetitive things. In many cases, they are an easy alternative to writing some elisp to get a job done. Note, keyboard macros are should not be confused with elisp-macros, which are something else altogether.

an example

So, when would we want to use a keyboard macro? Let's take some tedious task -- for example, we have a list of a few hundred names:

Newton, Isaac
Einstein, Albert
Maxwell, James
Turing, Alan

and we want to turn that into:

Isaac Newton
James Maxwell
Alan Turing

so, roughly, put the last name after the first name, and remove the comma.

We can solve this in different ways; we could simple change each line by hand. That's a fine solution if there are only a few lines, but it gets boring rather quickly.

Another way is to use regular expressions (see Building regular expressions); in this case, it's fairly easy to come up with one (assuming you know regular expressions). But let's see how we can solve it with a keyboard macro.

Schematically, we can solve this with the following:

go to beginning of a lineC-a
kill (cut) the first wordM-d
delete the next two charactersDEL DEL
go to the end of the lineC-e
insert a spaceSPC
yank (paste)C-y
go to the next lineC-n

This may look like some magical incantation, but it comes quite natural when you are actually doing the editing.

An important thing to remember when working with keyboard macros is that you do your commands in such a way that they can be repeated for each line. Suppose you would select Newton with shift-select, i.e., C-SPC at the beginning of the line and pressing the right arrow key 6 times – that works for Newton, but not for Einstein. Instead, we need to use M-d ('kill-word') instead.

defining a macro

Now that we have solved the problem for a single line, let's make a keyboard macro.

We move the cursor to the first line, and start the definition by pressing C-x (, or alternatively, F3. Then, we press the commands C-a, M-d, DEL DEL, C-e, SPC, C-y, C-n (as in the list above). To finish the definition, press C-x ), (or F4).

Hurray, we have our macro. Now, let's use it.

using the macro

Now, to execute the last defined macro, you press C-x e. We could repeat that for our whole list, but fortunately there's an easier way to repeat a macro n times, using a prefix argument. For example, to repeat the macro 123 times, you first press C-u 123 and then C-x e.

There's a slightly shorter way to do this: instead of C-u 123 we can write M-123, and for C-x e we can use F4 (kmacro=end-or-call-macro).

You can even repeat the macro until the end of the buffer is reached with C-u 0 C-x e; this only makes sense if the macros ever reaches the end of the buffer of course. (Remember that you can always terminate with C-g, keyboard-quit)

You can also apply your keyboard macro to all lines in the selected area (region) with M-x apply-macro-to-region-lines (or C-x C-k r). Important to remember: this will actually move the cursor (point) to the start of each line, and then execute the macro. If you want your macro like that, the go-to-the-next-line should not be part of your macro, or you will be skipping lines.

saving macros for later use

If you want to use multiple macros, you can name them. You can do this with M-x name-last-kbd-macro. If you name your macro, say, foo (inventive as we are), you can then execute it after that as M-x foo, which will be available until you exit emacs.

If you want to have the macro for future emacs sessions as well, you can use insert-kbd-macro, which will give you an elisp version of your macro. For our example, this will look like:

(fset 'foo 
   [?\C-a ?\M-d delete delete ?\C-e ?  ?\C-y ?\C-n])

Not very readable, but we can put this in .emacs, and we can use it the next time we start emacs as well. We can also add a key binding for this, for example:

(global-set-key (kbd "C-c f") 'foo)

This will bind foo to C-c f.

final notes

Keyboard macros can be useful and easy, but they are fundamentally connected to key presses – so, if you remap your keys to something different, your macros may not work anymore. Also, the macros are pretty much write-only in the way we use them here. You can edit them in the macro editor though, with M-x edit-kbd-macro M-x foo; we'll then get something like:

;; Keyboard Macro Editor.  Press C-c C-c to finish; press C-x k RET to cancel.
;; Original keys: C-a M-d 2*<delete> C-e SPC C-y C-n

Command: foo
Key: none


C-a                     ;; move-beginning-of-line
M-d                     ;; kill-word
2*<delete>              ;; delete-char
C-e                     ;; move-end-of-line
SPC                     ;; self-insert-command
C-y                     ;; yank
C-n                     ;; next-line

Keyboard macros can be quite a useful trick in your arsenal. And I have not even gone into more advanced tricks like macros with variations or the macro ring. Please refer to the section Keyboard macros in the emacs manual (C-h r) for all the details.

And, finally, don't let the text-based example limit your imagination – you can turn just about any repetitive sequence of tasks into a macro.


Unknown said...

You could also mention that, once a macro has been invoked via C-x e, you can repeat its invocation by pressing e repeatedly.

djcb said...

@danlei: thanks, added.

Boojum said...

One thing that I didn't realise for a very long time was that you're free to jump around between buffers (C-x b, C-x o, etc.) within a macro. There's nothing restricting you to just a single buffer. I've generally tended to use this ability with one buffer supplying data to a macro to control its operation on another buffer.

For example, you could have one buffer with a list of strings that you kill one at a time with C-k, hop over to a target buffer with C-x o, isearch for it with C-s M-y, do some work at that spot, and then hop back to the control buffer with C-x o and advance to the next string for the next macro repetition with C-n.

This approach can be really powerful, and lets keyboard macros go far beyond the kinds of basic transforms that regexps could do.

Unknown said...

You can repeat something more than 9 times using the digit-keys. If you press M-1 2 8 C-x e the macro will be repeated 128 times. You do not have to release the Meta-button, so M-1 M-2 M-8 C-x e works too.

Bill Night said...

Hmmm... the trick of pressing 'e' repeatedly doesn't work for me in emacs 21.3. Must have come in with some later version.

Eric Larson said...

In the example, I would have used isearch-forward (C-s) to find the comma and used a selection to go back to the beginning of the line (C-s , RET del del C-space C-a C-w C-e space C-y).

I only mention it to help folks see different ways to define macros that need to be more flexible.

Anonymous said...

Repeated 'e' presses only seem to work if you used C-x e to invoke it the first time. Pressing F4 will should repeat the macro in either case.

djcb said...

@Erik: ah, didn't know that, thanks; updated.
@Bill Night,@Anonymous: indeed, F4 always works. Unless you're defining a macro while defining a macro.... Anyway, updated.

Unknown said...

You mention how to save macros for future use. I wrote up some code which automatically makes this key string the readable version. You might want to check it out at Stack Overflow emacs keystroke representation confusion

Bruneel Michaël said...


Probably typo :
- start defining a keyboard macro (start-kbd-macro) with "C-x (", not "C-("
- end the definition of a keyboard macro (end-kbd-macro) with "C-x )", not "C-)".

djcb said...

@Bruneel Michaël: fixed, thanks!

todd said...

From the beginning of the line, I would use
M-z , ;; 1. zap to the comma
M-\ ;; 2. delete-horizontal-space
bkspc ;; backward-delete, whever you have it

1. M-z (zap-to-char) is very useful and will take care of names like 'van Helsing' or 'Haifin-Dache'.
2. delete-horizontal-space is useful in a number of cleanup situations (M-^ too). Twice here, just in case there is extra whitespace, make sure there's only one.

There are a number of commands that I probably only use inside of keyboard macros because they do the right thing in multiple situations.

djcb said...

@Todd Kaufmann: sure, the macro could be improved in various ways and indeed in real life you could make at bit more tolerant for small differences in the lines.

maybe we should have a competition for some data manipulation using the shortest possible keyboard macros, somewhat like 'perl golf' for emacs...

rebecca said...

You could also use text to columns, using the space as to delimit and then replace the comma with nothing.

Steve Phillips said...

I would do it by wrapping the following in a macro and repeating it 3 times after the initial run:

(forward-word) ; M-f
(delete-char) ; C-d
(transpose-words) ; C-p (C-t for me; it's faster because I use Dvorak, not QWERTY)
(forward-char) ; C-f


sagar said...

Hi, useful blog. please post on how to list all the saved macros.