Syntax Highlighting using font-lock in Emacs

  | = Anders Lindgren -- Lindydancer = |

 Make the world a more colorful place!


int main(void)
  printf("Hello World\n");


int main(void)
  printf("Hello World\n");

 Anders Lindgren -- Lindydancer

 Compiler developer at IAR Systems in Uppsala

IAR Systems make development tools for the embedded industry. I've
been with the company since 1997 -- 18 years!

 Emacs user since (at least) 1991

 Author of the following built-in Emacs packages:
- follow-mode
- (global-)auto-revert-mode
- cwarn-mode

 Involved with the OS X port of Emacs
- ns-auto-hide-menu-bar

 Author or co-author of
- Multicolumn
- el2markdown
- ini-mode
- Erlang-mode (with Robert Virding
- REXX-mode
- Folding-mode (with Jamie Lokier and Jari Aalto)

 Known as Lindydancer on:
- GitHub
- Stack Overflow / Emacs Stack Excange

 Syntax Highlighting

 Or "font-lock", as it's called in the Emacs world

Why do I want to learn more about it?

- Fix problems
- Tweek your environment
- Write packages providing additional highlighting
- Write your own major mode

 Font-lock Phases

 Syntactic phase (comment and strings)

In most cases, a properly defined "syntax-table" takes care of this
for you.

 Keyword phase

A "keyword list" is a list of rules, provided by the major mode, or by
additional packages, describing what should be highlighted and how.

 Font-lock keywords

 Simplest form:


For example:

  ("alpha" font-lock-constant-face)

Ok, ok, this is not a good example, as it will match "alpha" in any


Fortunately, MATCHER is a "regular expression" (regexp). It provides
some special features. For example, the following will match "alpha"
but only when on it's own:

  ("\\_<alpha\\_>" font-lock-constant-face)

 Font-lock keywords


You can use "\\(" and "\\)" to group things, only to match part of
something bigger. Here HIGHLIGHT is not simply the face to use, it
also specifies it should only highlight group 1 (i.e. "alpha" but not

  ("\\_<\\(alpha\\)beta\\_>" (1 font-lock-constant-face))

 Font-lock keywords

 Multiple HIGHLIGHT:s

   (1 font-lock-constant-face)
   (2 font-lock-builtin-face))

 Font-lock keywords

 Anchored search

An "anchored search" is a search within a search.

   (1 font-lock-constant-face)
    nil          ; Pre-match form
    nil          ; Post-match form
    (2 font-lock-builtin-face)))

This highlights any number of "beta":s found after an "alpha".

You can use the pre- and post-match forms to move the point around
before or after the sub-searches. The pre-match form also controls the
extent of the search -- it is possible to make the search span
multiple lines.

 Font-lock keywords


A HIGHLIGHT has two optional flag fields:



OVERRIDE controls what happens when there already was a face at the
location. If not present, the match is not applied. In most cases this
is the desired effect, as we don't want to mess up comments or
strings. Legal values are "t", "keep", "append", and "prepend".

Hint: Prefer "prepend" over "t", as it behaves better when the new and
existing face provides different attributes, for example when the
existing face specifies a background color and the new doesn't.


Don't signal an error if there is no match for SUBEXP.

 The power of code (over constants)

 Arbitrary expressions

MATCHER and FACE doesn't have to be constants. In fact, they can be
arbitrary code, which makes font-lock packages really powerful.

Unfortunately, this talk it to short to dig into this in detail...

 Adding font-lock keywords to an existing mode


You can use font-lock-add-keywords in two different ways

 Add to current buffer

This is the way I prefere to use it. The main difference is that if I
make an error, I can simply kill the buffer, fix the error and reload
the file.

(defun my-c-mode-common-hook ()
   '(("\\<\\(k[A-Z0-9][a-zA-Z0-9_]*\\)\\>" 1 font-lock-constant-face))))
(add-hook 'c-mode-common-hook 'my-c-mode-common-hook)

 Add to a specific major mode

(font-lock-add-keywords 'emacs-lisp-mode
                           (1 font-lock-warning-face))))

 Providing font-lock keywords to a major mode

(defvar my-font-lock-keywords
     (1 font-lock-function-name-face))
    ("^\\([^ \t\n=]+\\) *="
     (1 font-lock-variable-name-face)))
  "Highlight rules for `my-mode'.")

(define-derived-mode my-mode prog-mode "My"
  "My own mode"
  (setq font-lock-defaults '(my-font-lock-keywords nil)))

 Debugging font-lock keywords

 Font-lock is not developer friendly:
- Errors are silently ignored
- A badly written rule could hang Emacs


Font-lock Studio is an interactive debugger for font-lock keywords.


- Two-window setup -- Source and list of font-lock keywords
- Single step keyowords, match by match
- Visualizes matches using a palette of background colors
- Invoke the debugger if an error occurs
- Integrated with edebug (i.e. step into lisp code)
- Explain rules in "plain english"
- Set breakpoints, run, etc.
- Great for reverse engineering existing packages.

 Regression tests

 Faceup -- Markup language for texts with faces

The package "faceup" makes it possible to save a text representation
of a syntax highlighted buffer.

Together with "ert" (the Emacs Regression Test package), it's possible
to verify that a package highlights a buffer exactly like it did when
the reference file was first generated.

For example:

«t:int» «f:main»(«t:void»)
  printf(«s:"Hello World\n"»);

 Font-lock examples

The following slides contains a number of examples of font-lock
packages demonstrating some of the things that are possible to do in


In C, highlight assignments in expressions and stray semicolons.
For example:

int test()
  if (x = 17);
    return 1;
  return 2;


CMake is a build system generator that can generate Makefiles,
ninjafiles, Visual Studio projects etc. Unfortunately, the CMake
language is really hard to read, since it does not have normal return
values. (To make a long story short), a word passed to a function can
be a keyword, the name of a variable, a string, a property, a

cmake-font-lock knows about the signature of all CMake functions, and
can highlight them accordingly:

function(my_get_dirs var)
  set(dirs "")
  foreach(file ${ARGN})
    get_filename_component(abs_file ${file} ABSOLUTE)
    get_filename_component(abs_path ${abs_file} PATH)
    list(FIND dirs ${abs_path} present)
    if(${present} EQUAL -1)
      list(APPEND dirs ${abs_path})
  set(${var} ${dirs} PARENT_SCOPE)

my_get_dirs(DIRS alpha/one.h alpha/two.h beta/three.h)

message(STATUS "Directories:")
foreach(d ${DIRS})
  message(STATUS "  ${d}")


Make preprocessor macro definitions stand out. I find this especially
useful for multiline macros.

* Include directive *
#incude <stdio.h>

* Normal macro *
#define HORSE 1

* Multiline macro *
#define MAX(x, y)                              \
  (  (x) > (y)                                 \
   ? (x)                                       \
   : (y))

A nice side effect is that helps you find broken macros:

* Broken multiline macro (end-of-line backslash missing) *
#define MIN(x, y)                              \
  (  (x) < (y)
   ? (x)                                       \
   : (y))


Objective-C function calls are really hard to spot, not so any more:

void test()
  [NSColor colorWithCalibratedRed: first + 0.01
                            green: fourth + (second/third)
                             blue: (CGFloat)[my_string length]
                            alpha: fourth];


Highlights bound variables: parameters, "let" etc.
Highlights special (global) variables in a different face.
Highlights quoted expressions.
Backquotes, and the related "," and ",@" operators, are highlighted in
a special face.

(defun my-function (next)                          ; <- Parameters
  (let ((numbers '(one two three))                 ; <- `let' and quoted expr
        (buffer-read-only t))                      ; <- Special variable
    `(,@numbers and ,next)))                       ; <- Backquote and comma

 World premiere for --

 World premiere for -- e2ansi

 Syntax highlighting in `less', powered by Emacs.

 Renders a syntax highlighted Emacs buffer using ANSI sequences.

 Command line tool "e2ansi-cat"

Use an Emacs in batch mode to perform the convertion.

 "less" and input filters

You can configure "less" to use "e2ansi-cat" to render all viewed

export "LESSOPEN=||-emacs --batch -Q -l ~/.emacs -l e2ansi-silent -l bin/e2ansi-cat %s"
export "LESS=-r -j20"

alias "more=less -X -E"

 The end!

All packages (except font-lock itself) presented here were written by
me and released under the GNU General Public License.

 Contact information


Most of the packages can be installed from "".

 Information about this presentation

This presentation was written using "org-mode" and was presented using

The option "org-src-fontify-natively" should be set to "t".

All packages presented in this presentation should be installed in
order for the examples to be correctly highlighted.