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Keys and Commands

This manual is full of passages that tell you what particular keys do. But Emacs does not assign meanings to keys directly. Instead, Emacs assigns meanings to named commands, and then gives keys their meanings by binding them to commands.

Every command has a name chosen by a programmer. The name is usually made of a few English words separated by dashes; for example, next-line or forward-word. A command also has a function definition which is a Lisp program; this is what makes the command do what it does. In Emacs Lisp, a command is actually a special kind of Lisp function; one which specifies how to read arguments for it and call it interactively. For more information on commands and functions, see section `What Is a Function' in The Emacs Lisp Reference Manual. (The definition we use in this manual is simplified slightly.)

The bindings between keys and commands are recorded in various tables called keymaps. See section Keymaps.

When we say that "C-n moves down vertically one line" we are glossing over a distinction that is irrelevant in ordinary use but is vital in understanding how to customize Emacs. It is the command next-line that is programmed to move down vertically. C-n has this effect because it is bound to that command. If you rebind C-n to the command forward-word then C-n will move forward by words instead. Rebinding keys is a common method of customization.

In the rest of this manual, we usually ignore this subtlety to keep things simple. To give the information needed for customization, we state the name of the command which really does the work in parentheses after mentioning the key that runs it. For example, we will say that "The command C-n (next-line) moves point vertically down," meaning that next-line is a command that moves vertically down and C-n is a key that is standardly bound to it.

While we are on the subject of information for customization only, it's a good time to tell you about variables. Often the description of a command will say, "To change this, set the variable mumble-foo." A variable is a name used to remember a value. Most of the variables documented in this manual exist just to facilitate customization: some command or other part of Emacs examines the variable and behaves differently according to the value that you set. Until you are interested in customizing, you can ignore the information about variables. When you are ready to be interested, read the basic information on variables, and then the information on individual variables will make sense. See section Variables.

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