Emacs: Mark Ring

Arialdo Martini — 20/03/2024 — emacs lisp

Rings — fixed sized variables acting as circular buffers — are a beautiful idea: one day I will eventually write something about how undoing changes is handled in Emacs with the undo-ring. I find outrageous that other editors have not followed the same idea.

Table of Contents

The mark ring itself is an amazingly simple idea: it is just a variable storing buffer positions. Around it, there are of course functions for pushing and pulling data, functions for browsing the stored positions, packages for making all of this even more convenient and the like. But the foundation is just that: a variable.
While I’m writing this post, the content of my mark-ring is:

M-x describe-variable <RET> mark-ring <RET>

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As you see, it is just a list of objects referencing a buffer and a position.
The mark ring is used as a storage for the historical values of marks. Marks, on their side, are positions that you intentionally asked Emacs to keep a memory of — or that Emacs, before some operations, decided to mark on its initiative.
There is a notion of the current mark, which you can inspect evaluating (mark). Whenever the mark changes, its old value is pushed in the mark ring.
If your head already spins, don’t despair. It’s easier than it seems. Think of Git.

Like Git

I find the relation between the cursor, the mark and the mark ring similar to what happens with Git with the worktree, the index and the repository. This is wonderfully represented in this interactive Git Cheatsheet. For Emacs we have something similar (and way simpler):

Change me

Just Going Back

So you have variable to store a history of marked position. The basic idea is:

  • You store a position for future use.
  • You move around.
  • When you want to get back on your tracks, you pull the position out of the history.

Here is the basic usage:

  • Whenever you want to leave a breadcrumb, use C-SPC (set-mark-command). Hit it twice: the first time it will start selecting text (in Emacs lingo: it will activate the mark). Here we don’t want to select anything: we just want to write a position down in the history. C-SPC (set-mark-command) updates the current mark and pushes the previous a value in the mark ring, in fact creating a history of positions.
  • If C-SPC saves a position, it should not come as a surprise that prefixing it with C-u reverses the behavior. That’s a common pattern in Emacs: in general, C-u (universal-argument) is a way for starting inputing a numeric argument to a function; for many commands, as for C-SPC, it serves as a flag to deviate from the default behaviour.
  • Indeed: whenever you want to move back to the previous position, hit C-u C-SPC. Your cursor will be moved where the mark is, and the previous position will be popped out from the mark ring. In other words, with C-u C-SPC you will be consuming the position history.

Follow the diagram. It’s really easier done than said.

C-u C-SPC acts like VisualStudio’s and IntelliJ’s Ctrl - with a big difference: with VS and Idea, it is not that clear when new values are pushed in the position history; in Emacs you are in full control.
But this is, anyway, just the tip of the icebearg.

Oh, My Consult!

The position history is just a variable. You could expect that someone would eventually write packages to manipulate that variable in fancy ways. Amongst others, Daniel Mendler did that, with the amazing consult.el library. To me, the most convenient way to operate with the mark ring is, hands-down, consult.el. Install it with:

(use-package consult
  :ensure t)

It will provide you with the command consult-mark which you can use to browse all the positions in the mark rink — not only the last one in a LIFO fashion — and to have a real-time preview of the content you would jump to.

Do this experiment:

  • Open a large file.
  • Move around, and from time to time hit C-SPC C-SPC wherever you want to leave a breadcrumb.
  • When you have enough of this, run M-x consult-mark.
  • Try to move up and down, back and forth the history.
  • Search for a position in the mark ring by content.

Never. Again. Without.

Multi Cursors

Once you have some positions stored in the mark ring, there are other interesting things you can do.

  • Navigate around in a buffer and push some marks here and there (C-SPC C-SPC).
  • Run M-x mc/mark pop. This will pop the last mark from the mark ring and add a second cursor there.
  • Run M-x mc/mark pop again. You will get a 3rd cursor, in the second to last position.
  • Stop when you wish.
  • Happy editing with multi-cursors!

End your multi-cursors session with C-g.

Setting the mark elsewhere

So, set-mark-command (C-SPC) is the way to manually set a mark exactly where the cursor is. Is that all?
Of course not. There are many other functions that help setting the mark to other specific positions, for example after a word, at the end of the page or at the end of a function.

In most of the applications, though, the mark is set for other reasons than just keeping a history of positions. In fact, in Emacs the mark is the foundation for defining a region, that is, for selecting text. In a sense, this ability to move back to previous positions is a byproduct of handling the region.

The Region

In the majority of editors, the region, or the selection, is the part of text that is temporarily highlighted, usually by the means of the mouse or using the arrows plus the Shift key.
In Emacs the region is way more powerful. As it often happens, this greater powers come from simpler foundations. Indeed, in Emacs the region is a trivial notion: it is just the part of buffer between the mark and the cursor.

Why do I say this is more powerful? Think how to do the following tasks with an editor other than Emacs or Vim. Start selecting some text, then:

  • Use any of the editor’s search capabilities to find where to end the selection.
  • Consult another file while you are selecting.
  • Move the focus to another application, get back to your editor and expect to find the selection where you left it.
  • Complete the selection. Then, change idea where the selection should start.

Those are all trivial tasks with Emacs. Possibly, just no possible with other editrs. If the other editors had to copy one functionality from Emacs, it should be this, hands down.

Getting back to those commands that somehow save a position in the mark: given what we said about the region, it should come with no surprises that the majority of them also activate the region. For example, mark-defun (C-M-h) sets the mark at the end of a function and moves the point at its beginning. The final effect is, the whole function will be selected.
You can find a more complete list in the chapter Marking Objects.

Knowing that selecting is about setting the the mark — so also about pushing the current value in the history — gives you the opportunity to perform some smart moves. For example:

  • Select the current function / paragraph with mark-defun (C-M-h).
  • Notice that the cursor ended up being at the beginning of the function. The selection ends where the function ends.
  • Use C-u C-SPC to move to the function end.
  • Press C-x C-x multiple times: you will keep jumping between the beginning and the end of the function.

If you’re not lacking creativity, you’ll eventually come up with a thousand clever uses for this feature.

Invisible Region

It might not be immediately clear, but when you pasted the text, it was already selected, although the selection was not highlighted. Emacs has got a very peculiar way of managing the selected text (the region): no matter if highlighted and visible, the region is always there. As we said, it is the part of text between the current cursor position and the most recent mark.

This allows you to do tricks such as the following. Imagine you have the point here:

    "parser-directories": [

You paste some code:

    "parser-directories": [
"theme": {
    "attribute": {
      "color": 124,
      "italic": true
    "constant.builtin": {
      "bold": true,
      "color": 94

and you notice that the result is horribly indented. Since you know that the code you just pasted is already selected — the mark and the cursor do surround it — you can run commands that expect a region. Type M-x indent-region RET or just simply C-M-\ and format it.

We saw this trick in Emacs: Let’s Surround! when talking about the region. You might be interested in finding a bit more details there.

Mark what?

Here are some questions you might legimately ask yourself:

  • Can I mark a position in a dired buffer?
  • Can I mark a commit in the Magit’s Git log buffer?
  • What about marking a position in vterm while in vterm-copy-mode?
  • Emacs can open PDF and PNG files: can I mark them?

Guess what? It’s a full house of “yes! yes! yes!”. Of course you can! Everything in Emacs is a text, everything lives a buffer. Why wouldn’t you be able to?

This is, to me, the beauty of Emacs. It’s not the amount of plugins (VS Code has 57202 extensions, so what?). It’s not its alleged Operating System nature. To me, the reason why Emacs stands out as an engineering product is that it is built on top of few core building blocks, just a handful of simple notions that marvelously build upon each other consistently, seemlessly, elegantly, creating a cohesive structure.

Note to myself: good things in life are temporary

Here’s a last question.

  • What if I mark a position and then I kill the buffer? Will Emacs resurrect it when jumping back?

And here, for once, the answer is “no”. Marks are really meant to be volatile.
But don’t despair: there are other means to do this.

Other Cases

There are other commands that automatically push the current cursor position in the mark ring before operating. A notable case is switch-to-buffer (C-x b), the command you use to move to a different buffer. You will be happy to know that every times you jump to another file and you mark a new position, Emacs scrupulously saves that breadcrumb also in the global mark ring. This will allow you to jump back with pop-global-mark (C-x C-SPC). And of course, consult.el has a command for browsing this: consult-global-mark.

This brings me to the last topic: other than the local mark rings (one per buffer), there is a global mark ring. What is it for?

Buffer Local and Global Marks

Each buffer keeps its own mark ring. This means that mark-ring is defined as a buffer local variable. You can verify that invoking M-x describe-variable RET mark-ring RET and then navigating to the source code:

(defvar-local mark-ring nil
  "The list of former marks of the current buffer, most recent first.")

By default, mark-ring keeps the last 16 positions. But you can customize this setting mark-ring-max.

As we just mentioned, there is also a global mark ring version, not surprisingly called global-mark-ring. Its maximum size is defined, guess what?, with global-mark-ring-max.

A couple of legit questions are:

  • Is it possible to feed this global mark ring?
  • When a mark is pushed locally, is this also reflected in the global mark ring?

The answer is jein! As usual, the manual is exhaustive:

Each time you set a mark, this is recorded in the global mark ring in addition to the current buffer’s own mark ring, if you have switched buffers since the previous mark setting.

Hence, the global mark ring records a sequence of buffers that you have been in, and, for each buffer, a place where you set the mark

To make it simple: as a modern Hansel & Gretel, Emacs keeps dropping off a breadcrumb every time you ask it so; and every time you happen to be on a different path, if you mark the new trail, it will lay done a white stone, a special mark you can follow to track down your journey from a bird’s-eye perspective:

global marks              
local marks
buffer A     B       C    

A bit of Lisp

If you are curious about how things work more than about how to use them (and it’s likely, if you spend time tinkering with Emacs) you might wonder: what does happen to the mark-ring variable when a value is pulled out of it? Is the mark-ring like a stack, that is progressively consumed as values are popped-out of it?

You could display the point, the mark and the mark ring value with something like:

(defun display-mark ()
  (message "%s -> %s -> %s" (point) (mark) (mark-ring-positions)))

(defun mark-ring-positions ()
   (lambda (item)
     (marker-position item))
(keymap-set global-map "C-c c" 'display-mark)

Just hit C-c c. You will find that the mark ring is really a circular structure. When you pop a value out of it, you are not really consuming it: the ring will rotate so, as long as you don’t exceed mark-ring-max values, you will never loose information.

What’s next?

Fantasizing how to improve the mark and its rings one could dream of some extra-functionalities:

  • Items in the history could be given a name so that they can be easily called back in any order.
  • Visiting back something that was killed should resurrect it.
  • Why to store positions only? Why not to store snippets of text too?
  • Now I come to think of it: everything is a text in Emacs? Why not to store keyboard macros in a history?

Wouldn’t it be cool to have all of these features?
Enter Registers!

(Thanks to Protesilaos for the kind review).



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