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GNU Emacs Lisp Reference Manual

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22.1 Keymap Terminology

A keymap is a table mapping event types to definitions (which can be any Lisp objects, though only certain types are meaningful for execution by the command loop). Given an event (or an event type) and a keymap, Emacs can get the event's definition. Events include characters, function keys, and mouse actions (see section 21.6 Input Events).

A sequence of input events that form a unit is called a key sequence, or key for short. A sequence of one event is always a key sequence, and so are some multi-event sequences.

A keymap determines a binding or definition for any key sequence. If the key sequence is a single event, its binding is the definition of the event in the keymap. The binding of a key sequence of more than one event is found by an iterative process: the binding of the first event is found, and must be a keymap; then the second event's binding is found in that keymap, and so on until all the events in the key sequence are used up.

If the binding of a key sequence is a keymap, we call the key sequence a prefix key. Otherwise, we call it a complete key (because no more events can be added to it). If the binding is nil, we call the key undefined. Examples of prefix keys are C-c, C-x, and C-x 4. Examples of defined complete keys are X, RET, and C-x 4 C-f. Examples of undefined complete keys are C-x C-g, and C-c 3. See section 22.5 Prefix Keys, for more details.

The rule for finding the binding of a key sequence assumes that the intermediate bindings (found for the events before the last) are all keymaps; if this is not so, the sequence of events does not form a unit--it is not really one key sequence. In other words, removing one or more events from the end of any valid key sequence must always yield a prefix key. For example, C-f C-n is not a key sequence; C-f is not a prefix key, so a longer sequence starting with C-f cannot be a key sequence.

The set of possible multi-event key sequences depends on the bindings for prefix keys; therefore, it can be different for different keymaps, and can change when bindings are changed. However, a one-event sequence is always a key sequence, because it does not depend on any prefix keys for its well-formedness.

At any time, several primary keymaps are active---that is, in use for finding key bindings. These are the global map, which is shared by all buffers; the local keymap, which is usually associated with a specific major mode; and zero or more minor mode keymaps, which belong to currently enabled minor modes. (Not all minor modes have keymaps.) The local keymap bindings shadow (i.e., take precedence over) the corresponding global bindings. The minor mode keymaps shadow both local and global keymaps. See section 22.6 Active Keymaps, for details.

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