The Modernization of Emacs: keyboard shortcuts pain

Xah Lee xah at
Tue Jul 24 15:04:12 CEST 2007

Why Emacs's Keyboard Shortcuts Are Painful

Xah Lee, 2007-07

A important aspect in designing keyboard shortcuts is to have keyboard
shortcuts for those most frequently used commands, and, the most
frequently used commands should have most easily-pressed keystrokes.
For example, they should be on the home row.

Emacs's keyboard shortcut set is very inefficient, largely because,
Emacs's keyboard shortcuts are designed with a keyboard that
practically has the Ctrl and Alt key positions swapped.

[image: Space Cadet keyboard]

above: The Space-cadet keyboard (Source↗, 2007-07) .

The common keyboard used around emacs era in the 1980s are those
keyboards from Lisp Machines↗. (see Space-cadet keyboard↗) The
keyboard on lisp machines have the Control key right besides the space
bar (similar to the position of Alt keys on PC keyboards), and Meta to
the left of Control. So, the Control key is right under the thumb, and
the Meta is secondary to Control. This is why, the shortcuts for the
most used commands in emacs involve the Control key instead of the
Meta key. (e.g. The cursor movements: C-p, C-n, C-f, C-b, C-a, C-e,
the cut/paste/undo C-w, C-y, C-/, the kill-line C-k, the mark C-SPC,
the search C-s.) Lisp Machine's keyboards fell out of use alone with
Lisp Machines. Since the 1990s, the IBM PC keyboard↗ (and its
decedents) becomes the most popular and is used by more than 99% of
personal computers today. The PC keyboard does not have Meta key but
have Alt instead, which is practically used as Meta for Emacs. The
Ctrl and Alt key's position are essentially swapped from the Control
and Meta on the Lisp Machine's keyboards. Emacs however, did not
change its keyboard shortcut set by switching the commands that are
mapped to the Control and Meta keys. This makes emacs keyboard
shortcuts very painful, and the frequent need to press the far-away
Control key makes the Emacs Pinky syndrome. (Many emacs-using
programer celebrities have injured their hands with emacs. (e.g.
Richard Stallman↗, Jamie Zawinski↗), and emacs's Ctrl and Meta
combinations are most cited as the major turn-off to potential users
among programers)

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  xah at xahlee.org

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