Syntax highlighting for `less`, powered by Emacs
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e2ansi - Syntax highlighting support for less, powered by Emacs

Author: Anders Lindgren
Version: 0.1.1

e2ansi (Emacs to ANSI) provides syntax highlighting support for less and for other tools that run in terminal windows.

The e2ansi-cat command line tool use ANSI escape sequences to syntax highlight source files. The actual syntax highlighting is performed by Emacs, the mother of all text editors, running in batch mode.

Pager applications like more and less can be configured to automatically invoke e2ansi-cat, so that all viewed files will be syntax highlighted. A nice side effect is that other conversions that Emacs normally performs, like uncompressing files, are also automatically applied.


Before After


The e2ansi-cat command line tool is written in Emacs Lisp. To start it, use:

emacs --batch [...Emacs options...] -l bin/e2ansi-cat [...options...]

Alternatively, on UNIX-like operating systems the e2ansi-cat can be executed directly, assuming that the bin directory is in the load path. This assumes that Emacs is installed as /usr/bin/emacs:

e2ansi-cat [...options...]

Note, due to how Emacs parses options, some options passed to e2ansi-cat is parsed by Emacs. Most notably, passing the option --help to e2ansi-cat displays help for Emacs itself.

Command line options:

  • --background-mode -- Specify light or dark background mode.
  • --colors -- Number of colors, or rgb24 for full 24 bit colors. This is both used when mapping faces to actual colors and to decide the kind of ANSI sequences that is used.
  • --color-class -- Specify color or grayscale.
  • --theme -- Specify the color theme to use.
  • --usage -- Show help text.

Integration with less

The standard command line tool less can be configured to preprocess any output given to it. e2ansi-cat can be used to generate a syntax highlighted version. This is enabled by setting the following environment variables, for example, to (using bash syntax):

export "LESSOPEN=|emacs --batch -l ~/.emacs -l bin/e2ansi-cat %s"
export "LESS=-R"
export "MORE=-R"

The LESSOPEN environment variable is used by less to specify an input preprocessor. When using e2ansi, the first character should be a |, this signals to less that the input preprocessor prints the result on standard output.

The above example assumes that your init file is named .emacs and located in your home directory. It also assumes that it adds the location of the e2ansi package to the load path.

less and pipes

Modern versions of less can also use the input preprocessor when used in a pipe, for example:

svn diff | less

For this, the LESSOPEN environment variable must start with |-. In this case, the file name - is passed to the input preprocessor, which is expected to read from standard input.

export "LESSOPEN=|-emacs --batch -l ~/.emacs -l bin/e2ansi-cat %s"

Note: If your version of less is too old, using |- typically yields error like "/bin/bash: -/: invalid option".

Also note that this makes it hard for Emacs to select a suitable major mode, as it can not base this on the file name extension. Typically, this result in incorrect or no highlighting. Fortunately, Emacs has the ability inspect the file content when selecting major mode, see magic-mode-alist for details. The support file e2ansi-magic.el adds some file types to the list, e.g. the diff format used by svn. You must explicitly load it to take effect, either using -l e2ansi-magic.el or by loading in from another file that is being loaded, like your init file.

Emacs init files

When using Emacs in batch mode, Emacs reads the system init file but not the user init file.

If you want to load your personal init file, you can load it using -l command line option, for example:

emacs -l ~/.emacs -l bin/e2ansi-cat file ...

To avoid loading the system init file, you can specify the -Q command line option:

emacs -Q -l ~/.emacs -l bin/e2ansi-cat file ...

Adapting your init file to batch mode

As Emacs most often is used in interactive mode there is a risk that parts of the system or your init file doesn't work in batch mode.

To exclude something when in batch mode, you can use:

    (unless noninteractive
      .. original code goes here ... )

Silencing messages

When Emacs is used in batch mode, message are emitted on the standard error stream. This includes messages emitted when files are loaded.

On UNIX-like operating systems, the standard error stream can be redirected to /dev/null, for example:

emacs --batch -l ~/.emacs -l bin/e2ansi-cat 2> /dev/null

Alternatively, the file e2ansi-silent can be loaded. This file has the advantages that the Usage information of e2ansi-cat is printed (when started without arguments) and that it works on all operating systems. (If you load it before your init file, you might need to specify the full path.)

emacs --batch -l e2ansi-silent -l ~/.emacs -l bin/e2ansi-cat ...

Silencing messages in site-start.el

Normally, the file site-start.el is loaded by Emacs before any file specified on the command line. To silence messages emitted by this file, you can suppress loading it using -Q, load e2ansi-silent and explicitly load the site-start file:

emacs --batch -Q -l e2ansi-silent -l ../site-lisp/site-start -l ...

Note: When -Q is used, the site-lisp directory is not included in the load path, the ../site-lisp part compensate for this.

Emacs modules

  • e2ansi.el -- Render a syntax highlighted buffer using ANSI escape sequences. This can be used both in normal interactive mode and in batch mode.
  • e2ansi-magic.el -- Set up magic-mode-alist to recognize file formats based on the content of files. This is useful when using less in pipes where Emacs can't use the file name extension to select a suitable major mode.
  • e2ansi-silent.el -- Load this in batch mode to silence some messages from init files.
  • bin/e2ansi-cat -- The command line tool for converting files in batch mode.
  • bin/e2ansi-info -- Print various ANSI-related information to help you trim your ANSI environment.


What is Emacs

Emacs is a the mother of all text editors. It originates from the 1970:s, but is still in active development. It runs under all major operating systems, including MS-Windows, Mac OS X, and various UNIX-like systems like Linux. You can use normal windows, run it in a terminal window (great when working remotely), or use it to run scripts in batch mode, which is how it is used by the command line tools provided by this package.

Emacs provides state-of-the-art syntax highlighting.

Why use Emacs to power syntax highlighting in the terminal:

  • Emacs has support for a vast range of programming languages and other structured text formats.
  • Emacs is fast and accurate -- it is designed for interactive use, and provides advanced support for ensuring that a source buffer is parsed correctly.
  • Emacs supports color themes. If you don't like the ones provided, and can't find one on internet, you can easily write your own.
  • To add syntax highlighting support for other formats can easily be done by providing a standard Emacs major mode, where the syntax highlighting is provided by Font Lock keywords. You can use font-lock-studio to debug those keywords, it allows you single step match by match and it visualizes matches using a palette of background colors.

ANSI sequences

ANSI sequences, formally known as ISO/IEC 6429, is a system used by various physical terminals and console programs to, for example, render colors and text attributes such as bold and italics.

See Wikipedia for more information.


Both foreground and background colors can be rendered. Note that faces with the same background as the default face is not rendered with a background.

Four modes are supported:

  • 8 -- The eight basic ANSI colors are supported.
  • 16 -- The eight basic colors, plus 8 "bright" colors. These are represented as "bold" versions of the above.
  • 256 -- Some modern terminal programs support a larger palette. This consist of the 16 basic colors, a 666 color cube plus a grayscale.
  • 24 bit -- Support for 256256256 colors.


  • Bold
  • Italics
  • Underline

Operating system notes

Mac OS X

Mas OS X comes bundled with Emacs. Unfortunately, it's a relatively old version, 22.1.1. It is fully functional, but it lacks some features. Most notably, the default face definitions are broken when 8 colors are used.

You can download a modern version from EmacsForOSX. Once installed, the path to the Emacs binary is typically /Applications/

The version of less that is preinstalled on 10.9 is 418 dating from 2007. It supports the input preprocessors for named files (the | syntax) but not for pipes (The |- syntax).

Fortunately, it's easy to download and build a new version of less from

Why Apple has not included a newer version, I do not understand. Some claim that Apple is actively avoiding software licensed under GPLv3+. However, less is available under two licenses so this should not be a problem. I guess it's down to laziness and opting to spend resources to invent yet another way of making menus semi-opaque rather than providing their users with up to date tools.

Microsoft Windows

The command window in Microsoft Windows does not understand ANSI sequences. Fortunately, modern versions of less is capable of rendering ANSI sequences using colors.

Unfortunately, I'm not aware of any up to date distribution of prebuilt versions of less. To make things worse, the build scripts provided with less is somewhat hard to use.

In the document LessWindows I describe how to build less using cmake, a modern build system.


All images are screen captures of less running in a terminal window. White or black backgrounds were used, even though some themes have other backgrounds, when used inside Emacs.

Default 8 colors

Light Dark

Default 256 colors

Light Dark

Grayscale 256 colors

Light Dark

Selected themes

The following themes are included in the Emacs distribution.

Tango Tsdh light
Adwaita Misterioso

Future development

This sections consists of things that might or might not appear in this package in the future.

More command line tools

More command line tools could make life simpler. For example:

  • e2ansi-exec -- Run another command line tools and convert all arguments (that looks like files) to the corresponding ansi format. (To avoid converting files that should not be converted, this tool must include knowledge regarding common commands.) One problem with this tool is the bizarre way Emacs treats command line options -- hence, the entire tool, or parts of it, must be written in another script language like Ruby.q

  • e2ansi-tmp -- Render a syntax highlighted version of a file as a temporary file and print the file name. This way a user could use the shell backquote syntax to feed syntax highlighted versions of a file to a third tool, for example:

      atool `e2ansi-tmp afile.c`

    A technical problem with this tool is that it leaves the temporary file behind. Hence, some kind of garbage collection mechanism must be put in place.


Much of the code in this package is generic. It could most likely be used to generate other output formats like Markdown. One idea is to break out the generic parts to a separate package.

Faster response time:

  • By using a resident Emacs process, response time could be greatly reduced. Today, a bare-bone Emacs start fast, however, if you use a heavy init file (like I do) the start-up time goes up noticeably.
  • Incremental syntax highlighting. Today, the entire buffer is syntax highlighted at once, before it is converted to ANSI. By only run font-lock on parts of the buffer before printing it, a receiving application like less could start faster.


Various things.

  • Check how things look when using a dark background, maybe something would need to be added to the overrides list.
  • Don't use the "brightxxx" color names, they are not used by Emacs and it's only confusing.
  • Add unit tests for individual parts and full source file tests where the entire output is compared against a known ANSI representation, as done in my faceup package.
  • Describe Emacs font specification selection process.
  • Better error handling when parsing command line arguments.
  • Customization support.
  • Optimize ANSI sequences. Today, whenever there is a change, a reset is emitted, plus codes to set all properties. However, sometimes it would be shorter to simple, say, add underline, and without touching the other properties.
  • Security issues: Don't allow file local variables, or anything else, allow arbitrary elisp code to be executed when a file is viewed.
  • Use floating point numbers when scoring, rather than scaling down.
  • Promote some of the "list" commands from the "test" package.
  • Inhibit rendering ANSI sequences when running less on a file already containing ANSI sequences.
  • Add --force to force e2ansi to render a file using ANSI sequences, even when such sequences are found in the file.
  • Mention ||- in the documentation.
  • Investigate why backgrounds spanning mutiple lines misbehaves in (and other terminals). Maybe always reset the background at the end of each line?


Mark, thanks for writing less!

Converted from e2ansi.el by el2markdown.