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GNU Emacs Lisp Reference Manual

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22.7 Key Lookup

Key lookup is the process of finding the binding of a key sequence from a given keymap. Actual execution of the binding is not part of key lookup.

Key lookup uses just the event type of each event in the key sequence; the rest of the event is ignored. In fact, a key sequence used for key lookup may designate mouse events with just their types (symbols) instead of with entire mouse events (lists). See section 21.6 Input Events. Such a "key-sequence" is insufficient for command-execute to run, but it is sufficient for looking up or rebinding a key.

When the key sequence consists of multiple events, key lookup processes the events sequentially: 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. (The binding thus found for the last event may or may not be a keymap.) Thus, the process of key lookup is defined in terms of a simpler process for looking up a single event in a keymap. How that is done depends on the type of object associated with the event in that keymap.

Let's use the term keymap entry to describe the value found by looking up an event type in a keymap. (This doesn't include the item string and other extra elements in menu key bindings, because lookup-key and other key lookup functions don't include them in the returned value.) While any Lisp object may be stored in a keymap as a keymap entry, not all make sense for key lookup. Here is a table of the meaningful kinds of keymap entries:

nil means that the events used so far in the lookup form an undefined key. When a keymap fails to mention an event type at all, and has no default binding, that is equivalent to a binding of nil for that event type.

The events used so far in the lookup form a complete key, and command is its binding. See section 12.1 What Is a Function?.

The array (either a string or a vector) is a keyboard macro. The events used so far in the lookup form a complete key, and the array is its binding. See 21.15 Keyboard Macros, for more information.

The events used so far in the lookup form a prefix key. The next event of the key sequence is looked up in keymap.

The meaning of a list depends on the types of the elements of the list.

The function definition of symbol is used in place of symbol. If that too is a symbol, then this process is repeated, any number of times. Ultimately this should lead to an object that is a keymap, a command, or a keyboard macro. A list is allowed if it is a keymap or a command, but indirect entries are not understood when found via symbols.

Note that keymaps and keyboard macros (strings and vectors) are not valid functions, so a symbol with a keymap, string, or vector as its function definition is invalid as a function. It is, however, valid as a key binding. If the definition is a keyboard macro, then the symbol is also valid as an argument to command-execute (see section 21.3 Interactive Call).

The symbol undefined is worth special mention: it means to treat the key as undefined. Strictly speaking, the key is defined, and its binding is the command undefined; but that command does the same thing that is done automatically for an undefined key: it rings the bell (by calling ding) but does not signal an error.

undefined is used in local keymaps to override a global key binding and make the key "undefined" locally. A local binding of nil would fail to do this because it would not override the global binding.

anything else
If any other type of object is found, the events used so far in the lookup form a complete key, and the object is its binding, but the binding is not executable as a command.

In short, a keymap entry may be a keymap, a command, a keyboard macro, a symbol that leads to one of them, or an indirection or nil. Here is an example of a sparse keymap with two characters bound to commands and one bound to another keymap. This map is the normal value of emacs-lisp-mode-map. Note that 9 is the code for TAB, 127 for DEL, 27 for ESC, 17 for C-q and 24 for C-x.

(keymap (9 . lisp-indent-line)
        (127 . backward-delete-char-untabify)
        (27 keymap (17 . indent-sexp) (24 . eval-defun)))

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