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An incremental search begins searching as soon as you type the first character of the search string. As you type in the search string, Emacs shows you where the string (as you have typed it so far) would be found. When you have typed enough characters to identify the place you want, you can stop. Depending on what you plan to do next, you may or may not need to terminate the search explicitly with RET.
C-s starts a forward incremental search. It reads characters from the keyboard, and moves point past the next occurrence of those characters. If you type C-s and then F, that puts the cursor after the first `F' (the first following the starting point, since this is a forward search). Then if you type an O, you will see the cursor move just after the first `FO' (the `F' in that `FO' may or may not be the first `F'). After another O, the cursor moves after the first `FOO' after the place where you started the search. At each step, the buffer text that matches the search string is highlighted, if the terminal can do that; the current search string is always displayed in the echo area.
If you make a mistake in typing the search string, you can cancel characters with DEL. Each DEL cancels the last character of search string. This does not happen until Emacs is ready to read another input character; first it must either find, or fail to find, the character you want to erase. If you do not want to wait for this to happen, use C-g as described below.
When you are satisfied with the place you have reached, you can type RET, which stops searching, leaving the cursor where the search brought it. Also, any command not specially meaningful in searches stops the searching and is then executed. Thus, typing C-a would exit the search and then move to the beginning of the line. RET is necessary only if the next command you want to type is a printing character, DEL, RET, or another character that is special within searches (C-q, C-w, C-r, C-s, C-y, M-y, M-r, M-s, and some other meta-characters).
Sometimes you search for `FOO' and find one, but not the one you expected to find. There was a second `FOO' that you forgot about, before the one you were aiming for. In this event, type another C-s to move to the next occurrence of the search string. You can repeat this any number of times. If you overshoot, you can cancel some C-s characters with DEL.
After you exit a search, you can search for the same string again by typing just C-s C-s: the first C-s is the key that invokes incremental search, and the second C-s means "search again."
To reuse earlier search strings, use the search ring. The commands M-p and M-n move through the ring to pick a search string to reuse. These commands leave the selected search ring element in the minibuffer, where you can edit it. Type C-s or C-r to terminate editing the string and search for it.
If your string is not found at all, the echo area says `Failing I-Search'. The cursor is after the place where Emacs found as much of your string as it could. Thus, if you search for `FOOT', and there is no `FOOT', you might see the cursor after the `FOO' in `FOOL'. At this point there are several things you can do. If your string was mistyped, you can rub some of it out and correct it. If you like the place you have found, you can type RET or some other Emacs command to remain there. Or you can type C-g, which removes from the search string the characters that could not be found (the `T' in `FOOT'), leaving those that were found (the `FOO' in `FOOT'). A second C-g at that point cancels the search entirely, returning point to where it was when the search started.
An upper-case letter in the search string makes the search case-sensitive. If you delete the upper-case character from the search string, it ceases to have this effect. See section K.6 Searching and Case.
To search for a newline, type C-j. To search for another control character, such as control-S or carriage return, you must quote it by typing C-q first. This function of C-q is analogous to its use for insertion (see section D.1 Inserting Text): it causes the following character to be treated the way any "ordinary" character is treated in the same context. You can also specify a character by its octal code: enter C-q followed by a sequence of octal digits.
To search for non-ASCII characters, you must use an input method (see section Q.4 Input Methods). If an input method is enabled in the current buffer when you start the search, you can use it while you type the search string also. Emacs indicates that by including the input method mnemonic in its prompt, like this:
where im is the mnemonic of the active input method. You can
toggle (enable or disable) the input method while you type the search
string with C-\ (
isearch-toggle-input-method). You can
turn on a certain (non-default) input method with C-^
isearch-toggle-specified-input-method), which prompts for the
name of the input method. The input method you enable during
incremental search remains enabled in the current buffer afterwards.
If a search is failing and you ask to repeat it by typing another C-s, it starts again from the beginning of the buffer. Repeating a failing reverse search with C-r starts again from the end. This is called wrapping around, and `Wrapped' appears in the search prompt once this has happened. If you keep on going past the original starting point of the search, it changes to `Overwrapped', which means that you are revisiting matches that you have already seen.
The C-g "quit" character does special things during searches; just what it does depends on the status of the search. If the search has found what you specified and is waiting for input, C-g cancels the entire search. The cursor moves back to where you started the search. If C-g is typed when there are characters in the search string that have not been found--because Emacs is still searching for them, or because it has failed to find them--then the search string characters which have not been found are discarded from the search string. With them gone, the search is now successful and waiting for more input, so a second C-g will cancel the entire search.
You can change to searching backwards with C-r. If a search fails because the place you started was too late in the file, you should do this. Repeated C-r keeps looking for more occurrences backwards. A C-s starts going forwards again. C-r in a search can be canceled with DEL.
If you know initially that you want to search backwards, you can use
C-r instead of C-s to start the search, because C-r as
a key runs a command (
isearch-backward) to search backward. A
backward search finds matches that are entirely before the starting
point, just as a forward search finds matches that begin after it.
The characters C-y and C-w can be used in incremental search to grab text from the buffer into the search string. This makes it convenient to search for another occurrence of text at point. C-w copies the word after point as part of the search string, advancing point over that word. Another C-s to repeat the search will then search for a string including that word. C-y is similar to C-w but copies all the rest of the current line into the search string. Both C-y and C-w convert the text they copy to lower case if the search is currently not case-sensitive; this is so the search remains case-insensitive.
The character M-y copies text from the kill ring into the search string. It uses the same text that C-y as a command would yank. Mouse-2 in the echo area does the same. See section H.8 Yanking.
When you exit the incremental search, it sets the mark to where point was, before the search. That is convenient for moving back there. In Transient Mark mode, incremental search sets the mark without activating it, and does so only if the mark is not already active.
When you pause for a little while during incremental search, it
highlights all other possible matches for the search string. This
makes it easier to anticipate where you can get to by typing C-s
or C-r to repeat the search. The short delay before highlighting
other matches helps indicate which match is the current one.
If you don't like this feature, you can turn it off by setting
You can control how this highlighting looks by customizing the faces
isearch (used for the current match) and
isearch-lazy-highlight-face (for all the other matches).
To customize the special characters that incremental search understands,
alter their bindings in the keymap
isearch-mode-map. For a list
of bindings, look at the documentation of
C-h f isearch-mode RET.
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