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Emacs minor mode to highlight indentation
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DarthFennec Alternate location access for highlighters
This is with respect to #52.

The `start' variable is now inaccessible in the highlighter functions,
due to font-lock.el becoming lexically-scoped in Emacs 27. Now the
global regex match location (which should in all cases contain the same
value) is used instead.
Latest commit 0b10f38 Jan 7, 2019
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.gitattributes Updated README May 24, 2018 Re-recorded animated gif May 30, 2018
highlight-indent-guides.el Alternate location access for highlighters Jan 8, 2019



This minor mode highlights indentation levels via font-lock. Indent widths are dynamically discovered, which means this correctly highlights in any mode, regardless of indent width, even in languages with non-uniform indentation such as Haskell. By default, this mode also inspects your theme dynamically, and automatically chooses appropriate colors for highlighting. This mode works properly around hard tabs and mixed indentation, and it behaves well in large buffers.


responsive gif

(setq highlight-indent-guides-method ...)
'fill 'column 'character
fill method screenshot column method screenshot character method screenshot


To install from Melpa, use M-x package-install RET highlight-indent-guides RET. Otherwise, download highlight-indent-guides.el and put it in your load path.


Once the mode is installed, do M-x highlight-indent-guides-mode to enable it. To enable it automatically in most programming modes, use the following:

(add-hook 'prog-mode-hook 'highlight-indent-guides-mode)


This mode supports three display methods. To change the display method, customize highlight-indent-guides-method, and set it to one of the following:

  • fill: The default method. All whitespace used for indentation is highlighted. The color of each level of indentation alternates between highlight-indent-guides-odd-face and highlight-indent-guides-even-face.
  • column: Like fill, but only the first column of each level of indentation is highlighted.
  • character: The first column of each level of indentation is drawn using a column of characters. The character to draw with is specified by highlight-indent-guides-character, and it is drawn using the face highlight-indent-guides-character-face.

For example:

(setq highlight-indent-guides-method 'character)

To change the character used for drawing guide lines with the character display method, customize highlight-indent-guides-character.

For example:

(setq highlight-indent-guides-character ?\|)

Highlight Colors

By default, this mode dynamically chooses colors that look acceptable with the loaded theme. It does this by altering the luminosity of the theme's background color by a given percentage. These percentages can be tweaked, to make the colors more intense or subtle.

For example:

(setq highlight-indent-guides-auto-odd-face-perc 15)
(setq highlight-indent-guides-auto-even-face-perc 15)
(setq highlight-indent-guides-auto-character-face-perc 20)

To set the colors manually, disable this feature and customize the faces directly.

For example:

(setq highlight-indent-guides-auto-enabled nil)

(set-face-background 'highlight-indent-guides-odd-face "darkgray")
(set-face-background 'highlight-indent-guides-even-face "dimgray")
(set-face-foreground 'highlight-indent-guides-character-face "dimgray")

Responsive Guides

Responsive guides allow you to visualize not only the indentation itself, but your place in it. To enable this feature, customize highlight-indent-guides-responsive, and set it to one of the following:

  • nil: The default. Responsive guides are disabled.
  • top: Use a different color to highlight the "current" guide (the indentation block of the line that the cursor is on). This changes as the cursor moves.
  • stack: Like top, but also use a third color for all "ancestor" guides of the current guide. Again, this will change as the cursor moves around.

By default, responsive guides are not updated immediately every time the cursor moves. Instead, guides only update after the cursor stops moving for a certain period of time (one tenth of a second, by default). If you would like to change this behavior, customize highlight-indent-guides-delay, and set it to the number of seconds to wait. For example, to disable the delay entirely:

(setq highlight-indent-guides-delay 0)

Enabling this feature provides more highlight faces, as well as more color modifiers for the dynamic colors feature. These are specified in the following table:

Type Level Method Variable
face nil odd highlight-indent-guides-odd-face
face nil even highlight-indent-guides-even-face
face nil character highlight-indent-guides-character-face
face top odd highlight-indent-guides-top-odd-face
face top even highlight-indent-guides-top-even-face
face top character highlight-indent-guides-top-character-face
face stack odd highlight-indent-guides-stack-odd-face
face stack even highlight-indent-guides-stack-even-face
face stack character highlight-indent-guides-stack-character-face
perc nil odd highlight-indent-guides-auto-odd-face-perc
perc nil even highlight-indent-guides-auto-even-face-perc
perc nil character highlight-indent-guides-auto-character-face-perc
perc top odd highlight-indent-guides-auto-top-odd-face-perc
perc top even highlight-indent-guides-auto-top-even-face-perc
perc top character highlight-indent-guides-auto-top-character-face-perc
perc stack odd highlight-indent-guides-auto-stack-odd-face-perc
perc stack even highlight-indent-guides-auto-stack-even-face-perc
perc stack character highlight-indent-guides-auto-stack-character-face-perc

Custom Highlighter Function

The highlighter function is the function that calculates which faces to use to display each guide character. If the default highlighter function isn't doing it for you, you can write your own by customizing highlight-indent-guides-highlighter-function. A custom highlighter takes three parameters:

  • level: The indent level this guide character exists at, starting at 0.
  • responsive: The responsive class of this guide character. This can be nil, top, or stack.
  • display: The display method setting. One of fill, column, or character.

A custom highlighter should return the face to use to color the given guide character. Alternatively, it may return nil to specify that the guide should not be displayed at all.

The highlighter function is called once for each indentation character, each time a section of the buffer is re-highlighted. To speed things up a little, the results of the highlighter function are memoized per-character, and are reused when possible. Because of this, a custom highlighter should run quickly, and should not have side-effects (i.e. it should not depend on or change external values that might differ from one call to the next). A custom highlighter can return custom faces, but those faces will not be recognized by the dynamic color feature, and will need to be defined and colored manually.

The following example highlighter will highlight normally, except that it will not highlight the first two levels of indentation:

(defun my-highlighter (level responsive display)
  (if (> 2 level)
    (highlight-indent-guides--highlighter-default level responsive display)))

(setq highlight-indent-guides-highlighter-function 'my-highlighter)


To display the character method guides, and to highlight tab characters correctly, this mode controls the display text property of some characters via font-lock. Therefore, this mode may or may not play well with other modes that use the display text property. This mode may also interfere with modes that use a display table to modify how whitespace is drawn, e.g., the whitespace minor mode.

Currently, with the way this mode is designed, there is no good way to display indent guides on empty lines.


Package Name Widths Hard Tabs Other Notes
highlight-indentation.el Fixed Unsupported Very popular
indent-guide.el Dynamic Supported Fairly slow, jittery
hl-indent.el Dynamic Unsupported Slow for large files
visual-indentation-mode.el Fixed Unsupported Fast and slim
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