Skip to content
Go to file

Latest commit


Git stats


Failed to load latest commit information.
Latest commit message
Commit time


License GPL 3 MELPA CI

What is this?

This is a building kit to help switch to modal editing in Emacs. The main goal of the package is making modal editing in Emacs as natural and native as possible. There is no hack, no corner cases, no emulation—just start edit modally the way you want.

In this article I use “vimish” terms when I refer to modes of operation:

  • Normal mode—this is where you manipulate existing text, normal characters typically run primitive editing operations instead of self-insertion.

  • Insert mode—in this mode characters are self-inserting, i.e. it's how Emacs works by default.

What Modalka is not

  • Modalka does not introduce new “efficient” keyboard layout for normal mode of editing, you set it up yourself.

  • Modalka does not reinvent the wheel providing “improved” commands for editing, I believe you can find all possible commands to edit text in Emacs itself or in numerous third-party packages.

Why should I use it then?

Modal editing is more efficient, but most importantly, it is better for your health. You should at least try it. This package allows easily switch from ⎈ Ctrl-based key combinations to performing editing manipulations via normal typing experience and you can do it gradually using your own design (although it's recommended to keep it similar to commands you already have in the insert mode).

grep, man, gnus—all these goodies are recommended to be called using key sequences and calling of these commands should not necessarily be modal, you only should make modal “intense” editing commands that you use very often.

The only thing you need to set up is how you activate the key bindings, make it easier. Here Modalka comes into play. It adds a thin wrapper that translates some normally self-inserting characters in the normal mode into traditional key bindings that you specify. In the insert mode everything works as usual. This way you can work with all existing packages “natively”, without the need for any sort of “bridge”.

Other solutions

In this section I describe other solutions and compare them with this package. Some of the solutions are quite popular, others are almost not used. I'll attempt to guess why it is so and why Modalka may be worth trying out.


Evil is popular because Vi (and Vim) are popular. In fact, Vi (and Vim) are more popular than Emacs itself. Emulation of Vi-style modal editing for Emacs is provided by several various modes, but the most advanced is Evil.

What's wrong with it? Well, you see, Emacs is very flexible and can be Vim, of course, with sufficient effort, but Emacs is not Vim. Emacs has different traditional keybindings and other parts of Emacs ecosystem follow these conventions (mostly). Then if you are using evil-mode to edit text you will need to either accept that you edit text with different set of key bindings than key bindings used everywhere else or try to “convert” Emacs further.

To convert Emacs further you will need sort of bridge package for every more-or-less complex thing: evil-org, evil-smartparens, et cetera.

Evil by itself is fairly complex and hooks deep into Emacs internals and can cause incompatibilities with other packages. It also makes it harder (or at least intricate) to hack Emacs.

Modalka feels vanilla, it lets you use Emacs how it is supposed to be used, but adds modal interface when you need to edit text, that looks like a more natural solution (at least for me).

Control Mode

Control Mode is essentially a hack. From my experience it has the following flaws:

  • Automatic generation of key-bindings on the fly is always a bit dirty.

  • If you work with overlays that have local key maps this mode cannot handle this, you will need to disable it to interact with the overlays (for example if you are using packages to fold text).

  • If you enable a minor mode when control-mode is already enabled, it cannot catch this change and adapt, you need to turn it off then reactivate or run a special command that re-generates key bindings.

  • Generalizing the previous points, in Emacs, given combination of keys may have different meaning depending on situation. Control Mode automatic generation of key bindings puts them in stone.

  • It generates more key bindings than necessary replacing key bindings that should not be used in the “normal” mode. As I said, you should control your key bindings, don't let an algorithm generate them automatically.

God Mode

God Mode is quite popular and can be considered an improvement over control-mode.

However, compared to Modalka, God Mode has certain downsides:

  • Design decisions are made for you. You can change something (because it's Emacs), but forming entire key map is not meant to be done by the user.

  • Its implementation is far more hairy without any additional benefit. You can do the same things with Modalka if you really want to, and it will always be more robust and bug-free simply because the system is clearer and more minimalistic.

  • Unlike Modalka, God Mode doesn't work with input methods enabled. This may be important for users working with non-Latin languages.

  • You don't need to write hooks to change the shape of cursor according to current mode with Modalka, it handles this for you.


Boon is a package for modal editing with emphasis on ergonomics. This package gives you complete implementation of a modal editing system similar to Vim.

It may take some time to learn it and I'm not entirely sure it will bring much difference. Modal editing is easier, but ergonomic layout of normal mode is somewhat optional for most people. I would value compatibility with the rest of Emacs ecosystem more.

Of course it is far more complex than Modalka and comes with a carefully chosen set of keybindings, for ergonomics purposes. Bindings come in Colemak and Qwerty versions (no Dvorak nor Workman).


Fingers is another attempt on ergonomic modal editing. The same things said for Boon can be repeated here. Differences between these packages are not very significant except for the fact that Fingers is optimized for the Workman keyboard layout.

Xah Fly Keys

Xah Fly Keys is one more package for ergonomic modal editing optimized for Dvorak (QWERTY layout is said to be supported too). It's rather big compared to Boon and Fingers. If you look at source code you'll see that it has peculiar collection of editing primitives, for example you can capitalize things skipping words like “and”, “to”, “or”, etc.—functionality you rarely find in this sort of Emacs package. Good dose of Unicode support is guaranteed too!

Ergoemacs Mode

According to the authors, Ergoemacs Mode supports modal editing and can even emulate god-mode. And that's not all:

You can either define your own modal keymap, or tell ergoemacs-mode that the keyboard layout is the same as the current layout, but with Alt (or control pressed, or swapped, or any sort of other key combination).

It's more complex of course, but goals of Ergoemacs Mode are entirely different from goals of this package and do not include “lightweightness”.


If you would like to install the package manually, download or clone it and put on Emacs' load-path, then you can require it in your init file like this:

(require 'modalka)

It's available via MELPA, so you can just M-x package-install RET modalka RET.

Example of use

Let's try to bring modal editing to Emacs using the Modalka package. Here is a simple collection of translations that an Emacs user could easily adopt:

(modalka-define-kbd "W" "M-w")
(modalka-define-kbd "Y" "M-y")
(modalka-define-kbd "a" "C-a")
(modalka-define-kbd "b" "C-b")
(modalka-define-kbd "e" "C-e")
(modalka-define-kbd "f" "C-f")
(modalka-define-kbd "g" "C-g")
(modalka-define-kbd "n" "C-n")
(modalka-define-kbd "p" "C-p")
(modalka-define-kbd "w" "C-w")
(modalka-define-kbd "y" "C-y")
(modalka-define-kbd "SPC" "C-SPC")

For now you can use M-x modalka-mode to try it. When in normal mode (modalka-mode) with such a setup, you can kill two lines of text like this: SPC n n w. Note that Modalka can translate sequential key bindings like x ; too.

If you're missing numeric prefixes it's easy to add them:

(modalka-define-kbd "2" "C-2")

Now you can kill twenty-two lines with SPC 2 2 n w. You get the idea, everything depends on your imagination!

For example of complete, “real world” setup see this.


Modalka implemented as a minor mode called modalka-mode. This section describes how to set up efficient modal editing and provides some tips.

How to define translations

There is a set of functions to define key translations and to remove them:

  • modalka-define-key
  • modalka-remove-key

Here are versions that wrap arguments with kbd:

  • modalka-define-kbd
  • modalka-remove-kbd

Using these functions it's easy to setup your translation map. Note that target key binding cannot be a prefix key (prefix keys will be ignored).

If you want to bind a command in modalka-mode without performing a keybinding translation, remember that modalka-mode is just a normal minor mode which has an associated key map called modalka-mode-map. So you can do the following:

(define-key modalka-mode-map (kbd "Q") #'my-command)

How to activate the minor mode

You should bind some key to toggle modalka-mode. This should be an easy key: one key pressing, easy to reach. I would even advise binding ; or ↵ Enter, but it's up to you. Bind it globally, like this:

(global-set-key (kbd "<return>") #'modalka-mode)

The next thing to consider is whether modalka-mode should be enabled by default and where. There is no default setup, the whole thing is up to you. If you want to enable it everywhere, just add the following to your configuration file:

(modalka-global-mode 1)

This will enable modalka-mode in every buffer except for the minibuffer. You can also avoid enabling modalka-mode when buffer is in a certain major mode. To do that add names of major modes to modalka-excluded-modes list, like this:

(add-to-list 'modalka-excluded-modes 'magit-status-mode)

However you may want to enable modalka-mode only in the modes where you need to edit text:

(add-hook 'text-mode-hook #'modalka-mode)
(add-hook 'prog-mode-hook #'modalka-mode)

You can omit all of these if you prefer to always start in the insert mode.

Change cursor shape for visual feedback

modalka-mode comes with a lighter, currently it's in the from of up arrow “↑”. I don't recommend disabling it because you need some visual feedback to know if you are in modalka-mode or not.

However you can improve the visual feedback by using different shapes of cursor depending on editing mode you are in (normal modemodalka-mode and insert mode—your normal Emacs editing).

You can specify what your cursor looks like by setting value of the cursor-type variable. I suggest using vertical bar cursor in the insert mode and box cursor in the normal mode. Modalka uses cursor specified in the modalka-cursor-type variable, so the whole setup might look like this:

(setq-default cursor-type '(bar . 1))
(setq modalka-cursor-type 'box)

And that's it! Now it's obvious what mode you're in.


modalka-mode is a normal minor mode. This means that you can use the modalka-mode-hook to define mode-specific hooks. You can use the customization interface to customize Modalka-related variables like this: M-x customize-group modalka RET.


Copyright © 2015–present Mark Karpov

Distributed under GNU GPL, version 3.