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A better modifier based keyboard layout
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3l - A better modifier based keyboard layout

Three Layout, more commonly called 3l, is an alternative keyboard layout designed for efficiently typing both English text and computer programs. 3l is modifier based, so many of the keys which would normally be accessed on the top row (with numbers on QWERTY) can be accessed on the main part of the keyboard.

To give you an idea on how much this layout can improve your typing efficiency, compare typing distance of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four to other common layouts:

QWERTY 10.4 miles
Neo 2.0 6.3 miles
Antibracket (which this keyboard layout was based on) 6.3 miles
Dvorak 6.2 miles
Colemak 5.9 miles
Workman 5.8 miles
WULY (my old layout) 5.6 miles
ARENSITO 5.3 miles
3l 4.9 miles

Typing distance is not the only factor that 3l optimizes for. 3l helps increase hand alternation, reduce bottom-to-top row jumps, decrease lateral motion, and also strives to be easy to learn.


See the docs directory for more images of the layout.

Testing the layout without installation

On Linux using X, you can run linux/xmodmap/ from the base of this repository to temporarily set your keyboard layout. To undo this, you can either figure out how to type setxkbmap us (or whatever layout you were using before), or it will return back to normal next time you log out and back in.

On Windows, compile and run the provided AHK script. Your keyboard layout will return to normal when the script exits (in system tray). You may also be interested in toggling the layout.



Place the linux/xkb/symbols/3l file in your system's symbols directory [1], then either:

  1. Run setxkbmap 3l to set the layout temporarily.

  2. Or, to set 3l as the default keyboard layout for your system, add a section to your X11 configuration:

    $ cat /etc/X11/xorg.conf.d/99-keyboard.conf
    Section "InputClass"
            Identifier "system-keyboard"
            MatchIsKeyboard "on"
            Option "XkbLayout" "3l"

    systemd has the localectl utility that you may optionally use to maintain this configuration file.

There may also be a package for 3l in your distribution. There is at least a package in the Arch Linux AUR available under threelayout.

To create a console mapping from the xkb symbols file, you can use the ckbcomp utility.

[1]This is typically something like /usr/share/X11/xkb/symbols.

Mac OS X [2]

  1. Install Karabiner Elements
  2. Copy the macosx/karabiner.json file to the ~/.config/karabiner/ directory.
  3. Select the 3l profile from Karabiner Elements.
[2]Get off your hipster butt. This can be used to refer to "OS X" and "macOS" as well.


Place the AHK script in your "Startup" folder.

To toggle between 3l and your system layout (e.g., QWERTY), press both Alt keys at the same time.

Layout Mods

There are a number of modifications that can be preformed to the layout. Currently, these are only supported on systems with xmodmap (Sorry Windows and Mac OS X users).

To apply a mod, run xmodmap ~/path/to/git/repo/linux/xmodmap/mod-XXX at login, where XXX is the name of the mod you wish to apply.

Users are encouraged to submit the mods they find useful in a pull request.


This mod gives you an Insert key on QWERTY's Whack/Pipe key (above enter). Useful on some notebooks which do not have an Insert key, but also convenient on desktop keyboards.


Many Chromebook computers have a Super_L key that acts as a "search" key in Chrome OS where the Caps Lock key should be. As such, when using alternative layouts that makes good use of this key, the good use is lost. This mod makes the Super_L act as Tab for these systems.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens if I have to use someone else's computer and all they've got is QWERTY?

Short-term use of someone's computer with QWERTY is usually a non-concern. Since most keyboards have the layout printed on the key caps, most users of 3l don't have any issues surviving.

For long-term use (such as on a shared machine, or a school lab computer), applying the layout temporarily usually only takes a few minutes to setup and can help relieve some pains.

What happens if someone has to temporarily use my computer?

For Windows, see toggling the layout.

For Linux, most window managers provide a convenient way to toggle between layouts. If your window manager does not have that, just bind a key to run setxkbmap.

If anyone has some Mac OS X tips, please submit a PR. (I presume Karabiner makes this pretty easy.)

How should I start learning?

The Klavaro Typing Tutor is configurable to multiple layouts (you can put in 3l as a custom layout) and is an excellent option for learning. You should start with the basic skills courses before the speed-typing courses.

Most users will recommend going cold turkey from your old layout when just starting to learn. This will help you focus on your learning, and learning survival QWERTY later is always an option.

How long does it take to learn?

Most users are able to accomplish survival typing skills (>20 WPM) within one week of starting to learn. Focusing on accuracy over speed during your first few weeks of learning will help you be successful, and you'll pick up the speed in the long run.

Will I forget QWERTY?

Most users seem to indicate that they lost some QWERTY skills while re-training their brain to 3l, but were eventually able to recover enough skills to survive in the long term.

Will I type faster than on my old layout?

Maybe. While most users report they are able to type faster than they could on QWERTY, the primary benefit of trying an alternative layout is in typing comfort and health. Many users enjoy reduced repetitive motions, and find typing longer hours less difficult.

Will I have to re-configure my text editor for the new layout?

3l was designed partly with keeping vanilla Vi-style keybindings somewhat sane in mind. If you find yourself using many systems and don't want to have to keep configuration in sync, you'll appreciate how easy it is to use Vi or Vim style editors with the default configuration. I personally use Emacs with Evil mode, and haven't had any issues keeping most of the Vi-style bindings in their standard configuration. That being said, if you find that some sort of rebinding with respect to 3l helps you, I'm curious to see what you've done. Maybe we can drop this in some sort of contrib/ directory.

I'm curious to hear if and what people do to work with 3l and non-Vi editors. Drop me an email or a PR :)

Is the symbols layer designed for a specific programming language?

The symbols layer is mostly derived from the Neo 2.0 keyboard layout, and to the best of my knowledge, was not designed with any specific programming language in mind. I've used it with everything from C-style languages, to HTML, to Haskell, to Python, and Lisp and have found that most every language benefits from the symbols layer.

What about using the layout on mobile?

Modern mobile keyboards (such as Gboard) tend to use machine learning algorithms for predictive input and autocorrect, and these algorithms were trained on QWERTY users. In addition, QWERTY's design of common bigraphs spaced far apart is incidentally a helpful design when using swipe typing. For these reasons, nobody has bothered with making a moblie version.

However, an Android or iOS version of the layout could potentially be useful for tablet typing. If someone with expertise in this domain wanted to implement this and submit a PR, that would be very much appreciated.

Users' Registry

This section lists people who have learned to type on 3l. Users who learn to type at least 15 WPM (that's what it takes to get past the initial learning threshold) on 3l can be added to this list. This list is included here so you can query typists to see what they like and dislike about the layout before you dedicate time to learning, or so you can reach out for learning tips.

If you learn the layout, feel free to submit a PR with your name added.

There is an email list for general chat about the layout. Please subscribe to the list. You can send mail to the list using the address:

You do not have to be a member to post, so feel free to reach out on this list with questions about the layout, even if you're not a user yet.

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