Emacs: how to activate the functionality X for all files of type Y?

Arialdo Martini — 24/02/2024 — emacs lisp

  • When a file of type Y is opened, Emacs sets a specific major mode.
  • Each major mode is equipped with a hook, a variable holding a list of functions.
  • After that major mode is activated, all the functions in its hook are run.
  • If you add a function to the mode’s hook it will be run for that kind of file.
  • You can use `add-hook` for that.

Therefore, just use:

(add-hook '<major-mode>-hook #'<function-you-wish-to-trigger>)

For example, to have line numbers in your Python files, use:

(add-hook 'python-mode-hook #'display-line-numbers-mode)

Table of Contents


This post is based on the content of the lessons I took from Protesilaos Stavrou and it includes his comments.

A sample use case

There are 3 functionalities that I like to have enabled for specific kinds of files:

Minor mode Feature Where it makes sense to me
olivetti-mode Enhances the appearance of prose documents Markdown, Org
toggle-truncate-lines When it is on, long lines are not wrapped at the window’s edge All files
aggressive-indent-mode Format Lisp code in real time as you type Emacs Lisp files

Your mileage may be different.

In this post we will find out how to istruct Emacs to enable a specific feature when specific kinds of files are opened.


(add-hook 'org-mode-hook #'olivetti-mode)

(add-hook 'markdown-mode-hook #'olivetti-mode)

(defun turn-on-toggle-truncate-line ()
  "Turns truncating on, without printing messages"
  (let ((inhibit-message t))
    (toggle-truncate-lines 1)))
(add-hook 'log4j-mode-hooks #'turn-on-toggle-truncate-line)

(add-hook 'emacs-lisp-mode-hooks #'aggressive-indent-mode)

Major modes

When files are opened, Emacs enables a specific major mode.

A major mode is a function that configures Emacs to provide specific functionalities. It sets up keybindings, indentation rules, syntax highlighting and other features tailored to that specific file type. Typically, different kinds of files require different sets of features.

You can verify that a major mode is indeed a function by running:

M-x describe-function lisp-mode

Type s to inspect the source code, or jump to the Source Code section if you use the helpful package.

Major modes have a notion of inheritance. This means that when a major mode is activated, it is run together with all its the parent mode functions.

Some modes such as fundamental-mode and text-mode are top-level parents - and therefore the least specialized ones. fundamental-mode is defined with defun:

  (defun fundamental-mode ()
  "Major mode not specialized for anything in particular.
Other major modes are defined by comparison with this one."

Modes that inherit from other modes, such as emacs-lisp-mode, are defined with the define-derived-mode macro:

(define-derived-mode emacs-lisp-mode lisp-data-mode

text-mode, that is a top-level mode, is also declared with define-derived-mode, indicating nil as its parent;

(define-derived-mode text-mode nil "Text"
"Major mode for editing text written for humans to read.

Indeed, most of the top-level major modes are created with define-derived-mode by passing a nil PARENT argument. The fact that fundamental-mode is declared instead as a defun, is likely a legacy rather than the current convention.

The advantage of define-derived-mode over defun is that it automatically declares the corresponding hook, the key map, the abbrev table etc. Perhaps, then the macro define-derived-mode is a misnomer. It should be defmode or something.

It’s easy to follow the inheritance line up to the first parent with xref-find-definitions (M-.). For example, if you display the source code of emacs-lisp-mode with describe-function:

C-h f emacs-lisp-mode RET

and then you display its source code, you can see it derives from lisp-data-mode:

(define-derived-mode emacs-lisp-mode lisp-data-mode

Move the point over lisp-data-mode and hit M-. to jump to its definition:

(define-derived-mode lisp-data-mode prog-mode "Lisp-Data"

So, lisp-data-mode inherits from prog-mode. Do the same for prog-mode:

(define-derived-mode prog-mode fundamental-mode "Prog"

and finally for fundamental-mode:

(defun fundamental-mode ()
  "Major mode not specialized for anything in particular.
Other major modes are defined by comparison with this one."

We reached the top-most mode.
The inheritance line we just found out is:


The source code of fundamental-mode is very interesting: the last command is (run-mode-hooks), which leads us to the to the concept of hooks.


Each major mode is equipped with a hook, a variable containing a list of functions.

All major mode hooks are parameterless, and they are called “normal”. There are also “abnormal” hooks (conventially named with a -functions suffix) such as enable-theme-functions and after-load-functions, which take parameters.

As you can foresee from the source code of fundamental-mode, after the major mode has been activated, the functions in the hook are triggered.

The same happens for modes inheriting from a parent major mode. We saw before that those modes are defined via the macro define-derived-mode. The source of define-derived-mode may not be straightforward to undestand, but it is easy to see that its last operation is to run the hook functions:

;; Run the hooks (and delayed-after-hook-functions), if any.
(run-mode-hooks ',hook)))))

By convention, each major mode defines a hook whose name is the mode name followed by -hook. For example, the hook for emacs-lisp-mode is emacs-lisp-mode-hook.

You can display the value of a hook with M-x describe-variable RET <hook name>.

For example, in my case prog-mode-hook contains:


Note the the hook contains rainbow-mode: this makes sense, because we know that modes are just functions. This is in fact the idiomatic way to associate minor modes to a major mode.

Adding a function in a hook

So, let’s go back to my original goal of adding the beautiful aggressive-indent-mode to emacs-lisp-mode:

The current value of:

M-x describe-variable RET emacs-lisp-mode-hook RET


(ert--activate-font-lock-keywords erefactor-lazy-highlight-turn-on)

While it is possible to add aggressive-indent-mode with:

(setq emacs-lisp-modehook '(ert--activate-font-lock-keywords aggressive-indent-mode))

this is not very convenient, as it forces to copy the already existing values.

One could think of using:

(push #'aggressive-indent-mode emacs-lisp-mode-hook)

but this is also suboptimal, because push is not idempotent, so running the code above twice would insert aggressive-indent-mode multiple times.

The idiomatic way to customize a hook is via add-hook.

(add-hook 'emacs-lisp-mode-hook #'aggressive-indent-mode)

add-hook is an amazingly complex function, but what matters here is that it makes sure that it adds a function to the hook variable ensuring that it is not added again if already present.

Of course, you can also add custom functions to a mode. For example:

(defun my-say-hello ()
  (message "Enjoy your programming session!"))
(add-hook 'prog-mode-hook #'my-say-hello)

Open any .el file and verify that the greeting is displayed in the echo area.

Removing functions from hooks

As you could imagine, the inverse of add-hook is remove-hook:

(remove-hook 'prog-mode-hook #'my-say-hello)

More on modes

Some major modes are mostly used as parent text-mode prog-mode special-mode, they can also be used directly prog-mode by its own does nothing.

It should not come as a surprise that minor modes too have hooks. When a file is opened, its major mode is run, together with all its parent major modes. Minor modes too are run, but typically they don’t inherit from eachother.

This leads us to a question: what does happen if a function is defined in multiple hooks? Let’s find this out.


We know that emacs-lisp-mode inherits from prog-mode. So, let’s add my-say-hello to both their hooks:

(add-hook 'emacs-lisp-mode-hook #'my-say-hello)
(add-hook 'prog-mode-hook #'my-say-hello)

Let’s display the view echo ares messages buffer with:

M-x view-echo-area-messages RET

and finally let’s open a random .el file.

Oh, no! There is a disappointing:

Enjoy your programming session! [2 times]

This gets us to a general recommendation:

  • either make sure that the inheritance graph of modes avoids duplications.
  • or make sure that hooks invoke idempotent functions. Luckily, this is the default for the vast majority of minor modes.

In the case of aggressive-indent-mode, its author has been so diligent to make it idempotent. Indeed, its documentation (C-h f aggressive-indent-mode RET) states:

If called from Lisp, toggle the mode if ARG is toggle.  Enable
the mode if ARG is nil, omitted, or is a positive number.

You can easily verify that toggle-truncate-lines behaves differently. If you set it up twice:

(add-hook 'emacs-lisp-mode-hook #'toggle-truncate-lines)
(add-hook 'prog-mode-hook #'toggle-truncate-lines)

opening a file will result in having it off.

It’s better to have the following:

(remove-hook 'emacs-lisp-mode-hook #'toggle-truncate-lines)
(remove-hook 'prog-mode-hook #'toggle-truncate-lines)

(defun turn-on-toggle-truncate-line ()
  "Turns truncating on, without printing messages"
  (let ((inhibit-message t))
    (toggle-truncate-lines 1)))

(add-hook 'emacs-lisp-mode-hook #turn-on-toggle-truncate-line)
(add-hook 'prog-mode-hook #turn-on-toggle-truncate-line)

Of course, it is never a good idea to intentionally add the same function to multiple hooks in the same hierarchy. In this case, I prefer to have:

(add-hook 'fundamental-mode-hook #turn-on-toggle-truncate-line)

Anonymous functions

It is also possible to use anonymous functions:

(add-hook 'mark-down-mode-hook (lambda () (auto-fill-mode -1)))

Anonymous functions are fine, but you have to remove them as a whole if you want to modify them, whereas adding a symbol (a function’s name) gives you an indirection: you can change the function without updating the hook.

Associating major modes to file types

This leads us to a final question: what determines the major mode for a file or a functionality like magit or dired?

For files, it all revolves aroung the variable auto-mode-alist.

If you inspect its value (C-h v auto-mode-alist RET) you will find a very large value, containing items such as:

: (
(\.fs[iylx]?\' . fsharp-mode)
(\.hsc\' . haskell-mode)
(\.cabal\'\|/cabal\.project\|/\.cabal/config\' . haskell-cabal-mode)
(\.py[iw]?\' . python-mode)
(\.cs\' . csharp-mode)
(\.java\' . java-mode)
(\.org\' . org-mode)
(\.tgz\' . tar-mode))

So, it is an alist of file name patterns vs corresponding major mode functions. Visiting a file whose name matches the regular expression will run the corresponding mode function.

Modes are also run when a buffer is not visiting a file. That’s the case, for example, of magit and dired. You will usually find this as just a function call with the name of the major mode.

For those cases, mode functions are explicitly run from the code. This is for example a snippet from dired-internal-noselect:

(if mode (funcall mode)
  (dired-mode dir-or-list switches))



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