The Chronicle

of a ColdFusion Expatriate

Living in Evil

January 23, 2016

Evil Mode is a phenomenal tool; it’s a better Vim than Vim. The only problem is, there are a lot of other great tools available in Emacs that don’t get along well with Evil Mode, and if you don’t set things up just right you can wind up with jumbled key bindings and unexpected behaviors.

In this post I’ll explain how I set up my configuration to use Evil Mode in all of the places where I want it, but none of the places where it gets in the way.

Basic Configuration

If you already have Evil working and you don’t care how I load it into my Emacs, you can jump down to “Brass Tacks.”

First, I use John Wiegley’s great use-package system for importing packages into my Emacs. This simplifies my configuration by defining the packages I want, downloading them from MELPA or other repositories when they don’t exist, and defining the configurations that should be applied both before and after the package has been loaded, all in one place.

My Evil Mode configuration is pretty big, and you can read the whole thing in my Github repository here, but for the sake of illustration I will use an abbreviated version in this post. Something like this:

(use-package evil
  :ensure t
  (evil-mode 1)
  ;; More configuration goes here

Here is a crash course in use-package: first you name the package you want to load (obviously); :ensure t means “make sure this package is installed,” which will try to install it from MELPA if it isn’t found; and then everything in the :config section is evaluated right after evil is loaded.

Here I’m just calling evil-mode to activate it, because I want it to be turned on globally, all the time.

So the first thing I do in my own configuration is load four more packages that rely on Evil: evil-leader, evil-surround, and evil-indent-textobject. Because there is no sense in loading these if Evil isn’t loaded, I nest their use-package calls within Evil’s :config section. So now we have something like this:

(NB: evil-jumper was merged into evil-mode itself in 2016, so you don’t need to install that package any longer.)

(use-package evil
  :ensure t
  (evil-mode 1)

  (use-package evil-leader
    :ensure t

  (use-package evil-surround
    :ensure t

  (use-package evil-indent-textobject
    :ensure t))

It might occur to you, especially if you’ve already skimmed my real configuration, that this is too short. Where are all the key bindings and the special sauces and magical fairy dust that makes Evil behave itself?

For whatever reason, I like terse use-package calls, so when a configuration gets to be the size of my Evil setup, I put all of it into a custom function and just call that function from the :config section of the use-package declaration. I have one for Evil and another one for Evil Leader, because both are pretty long.

It’s completely up to you whether you want to do that or not. My recommendation is to keep piling stuff into :config until you feel like it’s too long to remain quite organized, or too hard to read, then start breaking it up into separate functions.

Brass Tacks

Great, you’ve got Evil set up and now you’re ready to make it play nice with other modes. The Evil package actually ships with some sensible default configuration for commonly used packages, like Magit (the Git porcelain inside Emacs; one of my favorite tools in the world).

Because Magit itself provides a full complement of non-modified key bindings (that is, you don’t hold “control,” “meta,” or “shift” for any of them), it doesn’t make sense to let Evil assert its bindings in any of the Magit modes. To do this, Evil uses a special state. First, a recap of Vim states: Vim can be in one of five states:

  • Normal
  • Insert
  • Visual
  • Operator
  • Replace

We also call those “modes” in Vim parlance, but because “mode” has a very special meaning in the Emacs world, here we call them “states.” Evil adds two more states:

  • Motion
  • Emacs

Motion state is only the movement keys and functions without any other normal mode capabilities (like entering the other states, deleting, etc.) The motion state is used for pure read-only scenarios, like the Info reader (C-h i).

Emacs state is the important one. In Emacs state, all Evil key bindings are suspended and Emacs behaves as though Evil is not there at all. You can temporarily toggle Emacs state yourself by pressing C-z, and this can come in handy when a mode you don’t use often has some key binding you want to access that Evil is overriding (you can figure that out by viewing the mode information in C-h m).

Forcing Emacs State

What we want is to automatically place certain modes into Emacs state by default so that we can use their native key bindings without turning Evil off and on, which would be super annoying. Fortunately, Evil has a built-in facility to do this in the form of a variable called evil-emacs-state-modes. The value of that variable is a list of mode names. If you enter a mode whose name is in that list, Evil will toggle to Emacs state automatically.

It bears mentioning that there are also variables like evil-insert-state-modes, evil-visual-state-modes, and so on, if you wish to have some mode start in any of the available Evil states.

As an example, there are three modes where I want to use Emacs state by default: ag-mode, flycheck-error-list-mode, and git-rebase-mode. To achieve this, all you have to do is call the built-in function add-to-list and add these values to the appropriate list variable. That looks like this:

(add-to-list 'evil-emacs-state-modes 'ag-mode)
(add-to-list 'evil-emacs-state-modes 'flycheck-error-list-mode)
(add-to-list 'evil-emacs-state-modes 'git-rebase-mode)

The apostrophes are Elisp shorthand for the “quote” function, which returns the given argument without evaluating it. In this case, we want to pass the variables and mode names themselves to add-to-list, not their values (the value of evil-emacs-state-modes is the list of those modes, and the value of the various mode functions are the functions themselves).

Cool, so now these modes start in Emacs state right away, but it’s kind of repetitive to type or paste add-to-list over and over, especially if you have many such modes. Elisp is a full programming language, so we can simplify it a bit:

  (dolist (mode '(ag-mode
    (add-to-list 'evil-emacs-state-modes mode))

Figuring out how this works is left as an exercise for the reader, but the one thing I will mention here is the clever use of '(foo bar baz) to quote the whole list at once. You’ll see that convention used all over the place in Elisp code.

Adding h/j/k/l Bindings

Emacs state is fabulous for modes like Magit, which have their own mature and sensible key bindings that you’ll just love using and that almost feel a lot like Vim on their own. There are other modes, though, where you want to keep most of their bindings for special functions, but moving around with arrow keys makes you feel like a Visual Studio developer (and we can’t have that).

One such mode is occur-mode, which lets you see a summary of search results, similar to editors like Sublime Text. Occur has a bunch of default key bindings that overlap Evil’s, such as e, which puts Occur into editing mode so that you can actually edit the results right there and the source file is changed simultaneously. It’s a very powerful feature.

What I want, though, is to be able to move around with h, j, k, and l as I do in Vim, but leave the rest of Occur’s bindings alone. That is possible with a really nice Evil function called, sensibly, evil-add-hjkl-bindings.

This function is quite versatile. It expects to receive a keymap (which is a special Emacs data structure), a state name to apply bindings to, and optionally a series of additional keys and functions they should call. More on that later.

Here is my configuration for Occur:

(evil-add-hjkl-bindings occur-mode-map 'emacs
  (kbd "/")       'evil-search-forward
  (kbd "n")       'evil-search-next
  (kbd "N")       'evil-search-previous
  (kbd "C-d")     'evil-scroll-down
  (kbd "C-u")     'evil-scroll-up
  (kbd "C-w C-w") 'other-window)

This automatically applies the Evil h, j, k, and l bindings to occur-mode-map when I’m in Emacs state. Additionally, it defines some keys for a couple of other common Vim shortcuts that I often use in Occur and maps them to existing Evil functions.

A crash course on keymaps

Every major and minor mode has a keymap, even if it isn’t used. When built-in functions are called to define new modes, default map variables are created using the name of the mode with -map added to the end.

If you want to confirm that a certain keymap exists, first make sure the mode it’s associated with is loaded, and then use C-m v to call the “Describe variable” function and enter the name of the map. If you have Helm installed, you will also see a narrowing list of variable names, which I use all the time to hunt down variables.

Sometimes you can get into a situation where one configuration relies on another piece of code to be loaded first. In the above example, I am assuming that Occur has been loaded and its keymap exists. Because Occur is part of the Emacs core, it’s pretty much always loaded first, but this is sloppy coding on my part. A much more reliable way to make sure things run in order is to use hooks.

Bonus: How to Use Hooks

This isn’t strictly related to Evil, but it’s good to know as you build up your Emacs configuration. Hooks are just functions called at certain points in time. Much like keymaps, each major and minor mode will have hook variables defined automatically for it. The hook for a mode is called immediately after that mode is activated, so it’s a great place to put any customization that relies on that mode being loaded.

It’s very common to make adjustments to a mode’s keymap within the hook for that mode (because the keymap variable won’t be defined until the mode is loaded). This also makes your configuration more efficient because you only run code in the situations where it’s actually used.

Emacs provides convenience functions for working with hooks, and the main one to know is add-hook. A hook is actually a list of functions that, when a mode is activated, are called in turn. Just like keymaps, hooks are automatically defined as the name of the mode with -hook appended.

To set up the hjkl bindings in Occur mode only when Occur starts, you could write it like this:

(add-hook 'occur-mode-hook
          (lambda ()
            (evil-add-hjkl-bindings occur-mode-map 'emacs
              (kbd "/")       'evil-search-forward
              (kbd "n")       'evil-search-next
              (kbd "N")       'evil-search-previous
              (kbd "C-d")     'evil-scroll-down
              (kbd "C-u")     'evil-scroll-up
              (kbd "C-w C-w") 'other-window)))

The add-hook function prepends the given function to the occur-mode-hook variable. In this case, I’m passing an anonymous function (or lambda) to add-hook because if I just put the (evil-add-hjkl-bindings ...) call there by itself, the result of calling that function would be passed to add-hook and it would complain about receiving the wrong variable type.


So that’s how I make Evil play nice with the various other modes that I use often. Of course there is a lot more in my configuration, which you’re welcome to browse on Github, or if you have specific questions feel free to drop a comment below.