As an avid Emacs user, I love to have my Emacs key bindings available in as many places as possible. For example, even though I still regularly use the arrow keys to move the cursor around, I also use Emacs’ Alt-f and Alt-b to move one word forward or back, respectively. Similarly, Ctrl-a to me doesn’t mean “select all”, but rather “go to the beginning of line” (like the Home key). And especially this latter keybinding has a huge potential to mess things up, e.g. when you follow it by typing text, because that will then overwrite the selected text, i.e. all text. And the only thing I really intended to do was to go to the beginning of the line.

Another clash: in Emacs Ctrl-k means “kill to end of line”, i.e. “delete everything from the cursor position up to the end of the current line”, but in Firefox it sends your cursor to the Search box (for those of you who, like me, still use that for searching instead of just typing your query in the address bar). Similarly, Ctrl-n moves one character forward in Emacs, but in Firefox it opens a new window.

Luckily for me, I have managed to tailor the settings of various tools and the Gnome desktop environment to accommodate at least some of the more common Emacs key bindings. Unfortunately, applications built using other frameworks, like the Signal and Mattermost desktop apps, don’t follow these settings.

Below are the settings I’m currently using. Most of them have been with me for several years at this point and have been migrated various Ubuntu Linux upgrades, so I hope they are complete. For the record, I’m currently running the 24.04 Noble Numbat release.


Let’s start with the Gnome desktop environment. My Linux desktop of choice for roughly the past twenty years has been Ubuntu, which uses Gnome. There is a gsettings entry that allows you to enable Emacs key bindings in most Gnome/Gtk applications, including Thunderbird. The entry can be set by setting the “Emacs input” toggle in the Keyboard section of the Gnome Tweak tool, or directly on the command line with

gsettings get org.gnome.desktop.interface gtk-key-theme "Emacs"

The current value can be checked like this:

$ gsettings get org.gnome.desktop.interface gtk-key-theme

The Arch Linux wiki also lists options for GTK-2.0 and GTK-3.0, but I haven’t got those configured (any more).

Gnome terminal

By default, Gnome terminal steals the Alt key and uses e.g. Alt-f to open the file menu. This can be turned off by going to the hamburger menu in the top right corner and under “Global” — “General” uncheck the box for “Enable mnemonics (such as Alt-F to open the File menu)”.

Shells (Bash, Zsh)

As Emacs has been around for so many years, many shells (well, actually, the readline library if I’m not mistaken) support the basic Emacs key bindings for editing the commands you type on the command line. Both Bash and Zsh use the Emacs bindings by default (others might do too, but I don’t have any experience with other shells, except tcsh a long long time ago). In fact, you have to run set -o vi on order to be able to use Vim key bindings.

Byobu & Screen

I often use byobo as a terminal multiplexer. Like screen it likes to “steal” Ctrl-a as “attention” or “escape” key. Luckily, when the user presses Ctrl-a for the first time in Byobu, they are asked whether they’d like to use Emacs key bindings or not. My answer is obvious, and I generally give them Ctrl-o to use instead. This can be done via a menu by pressing F9 and selecting “Change escape sequence”.

Alternatively, this can be changed in the ~/.byoby/keybindings file by adding the following code:

# replace ctrl-A by ctrl-o
escape ^Oo

For screen the same line should be added to ~/.screenrc .


My solution for Firefox is to replace the Ctrl key with the Alt key. This way, I can open new tabs with Alt-t, new windows with Alt-n, etc. Together with the Gnome settings for Emacs key bindings (see above), this means I can use Ctrl-a, Ctrl-f, Ctrl-b, etc. for moving the cursor in text fields, Ctrl-d for delete, etc. Interestingly enough, Alt-f and Alt-b — for “move one word forward” and “move one word backward”, respectively — keep working in text fields as well. Note that this also means that “Undo” is handled by Alt-z instead of Ctrl-z, which is fine with me because Ctrl-z is normally used to let applications run in the background (in the shell).

Unfortunately, some sites seem to define their own extra keybindings that interfere with my settings. For example, when creating or commenting on a Github issue, Ctrl-e inserts a backtick (`), instead of going to the end of line. I haven’t yet found out how to disable or overwrite that. I’m glad that I mainly use Gitlab, as it behaves properly.

To change the key, point to about:config in the address bar of the browser and find the entry ui.key.accelKey and change its value to 18. This is the code for the Alt key (see the documentation). You may want to set the entries ui.key.generalAccessKey and ui.key.menuAccessKey to 0 to disable e.g. using Alt for accessing the menus, but I haven’t done so myself.

Additional documentation about Emacs key bindings in Firefox can be found in the Mozilla knowledgebase article.

There are, and have been, various Firefox extensions or other methods that allow(-ed) one to use Emacs for editing text in textfields like those used in forum posts, etc. However, the last one I used, “Emacs Everywhere” unfortunately doesn’t work yet with the Wayland window manager, although work seems to be on the way to fix that.


Unfortunately I regularly have to edit MS Word documents (or their LibreOffice counterpart). Fortunately, Marcus Nitzschke created a customisation list for LibreOffice Writer that sets a series of basic Emacs movement key bindings! On his site he links to a Zip file that can be imported via Tools — Customize — Keyboard — Load. After that, the following keys should work in LibreOffice Writer (thanks to Marcus for this list):

Binding Function
C-f forward-char
C-b backward-char
C-n next-line
C-p previous-line
M-f forward-word
M-b backward-word
C-v next page
M-v previous page
C-a beginning-of-line
C-e end-of-line
C-k kill-line
M-d kill-word
M-backspace backward-kill-word

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