Switching to the meow modal editing system from evil

Posted: 2021 / 12 / 18

1 Introduction

The first modal editing system I used was vim. After the initial learning curve that comes with getting used to not being able to type in every mode, it introduced me to a few key ideas that I feel lead to decidedly more efficient editing

  • editing as a language composed of adjectives, nouns and verbs
  • a dedicated “mode” for inserting text that’s distinct and non-default.

Over the years, the vi style of editing and specific, opinionated keybinds and patterns became muscle memory. Actions like ciw or 2dd are remarkably powerful primarily because of the so called “grammar” of the vim language: verb -> adjective -> noun.

2 Switching to emacs and evil

When I first switched to emacs, I started on Doom emacs. It’s essentially a mostly pre-configured emacs “distribution” that takes the elisp edge off for vim refugees. Doom puts a lot of effort into making everything “just work” in expectable ways for vim users. While this was probably the reason I got into emacs in the first place, I think it handicaps users in several ways.

A typical emacs user’s setup probably includes many different packages and components that each come with their own modes and keymaps. While evil-collection tries (with some success) to make them work sensibly with vi-thinking, it doesn’t work all the time. One of the biggest modes where failures are apparent is org-mode. Actions in org are fundamentally different from typical actions in vim, where one typically acts on code instead of headings, tables, and lists. While evil-org seems to superficially fix some of various problems, it’s still unwieldy and feels almost like another editing language in its own right.

Doom also aims to eliminate the necessity to learn traditional emacs and elisp, and succeeds quite well. This is unfortunate because traditional keybinds occupy some prime keybind real estate that’s difficult to change with good compatibility due to problems mentioned earlier.

You only have so many “good keybinds”: keybinds that are easy to press and remember. Evil clutters this up in ways that are annoying to fix. For instance, if you want to bind a key like C-o to something else in emacs, like (execute-extended-command) as I do, you’d need to first remove the keybind from evil’s map.

Essentially, as the creator of meow puts it, evil has an extremely high “cost of integration.” The final product of putting in the effort (like how distributions like doom/spacemacs do) to make emacs work sensibly with evil doesn’t feel much like emacs at all.

Recently, I found a potential alternative called Meow that not only fixes the integration problems that come with evil, but also introduces concepts from other modal editing styles and directly improve on vi ideas.

Quick note, for the rest of this post I will refer to commands by their suggested qwerty keybindings. Meow actually comes with no default keybind set, and for good reason. It’s not clear whether these specific keybinds are in fact optimal, or even any good at all. I do this only because most people will likely use this keybind set.

3 Meow’s critical improvements

Vi editing, with its popularity, is often seen as the peak of editing efficiency – or at least it certainly did to me. However, there are some key areas where improvements can be made. A lot of these changes were first introduced by Kakoune, but were adopted in Meow.

3.1 Grammar inversion

Vi grammar puts the noun after the verb. To delete a word, you’d type the verb to delete, d, and then the object, which is selected by “inner,” i and then “word,” w. The big problem with this grammar is that you have no feedback on what you’re acting on until after you act on it. This isn’t much of an issue with the object iw, but it is an issue with say, deleting 4 lines: 4dd.

Meow’s (and Kakoune’s) solution to this problem is to reverse the grammar and put the region in front of the word. This also means that you get constant feedback about what you’re acting on before you act on it, since objects are always highlighted. Visual mode in vim is rendered useless since movements are already visual!

3.2 Sensible movements

Meow actually comes with no keymap built in. You have to define your own keymap, or use one that the author suggests. The suggested QWERTY keymap has many direct improvements over vim that are a result of very sensibly chosen keybinds that integrate well with emacs.

3.2.1 “Inner” by default

One of my most used vim “adjectives” is i for inner. Meow has built in selectors for “inner things” by default. ciw in vim becomes w to select the inner word, and c to change. This is a full key saved, a huge improvement on an extremely common action – directly better than vim since it reduces the cognitive load of having to do two different things based on where your cursor is on the word.

Similarly, there are no (dedicated) “beginning of sentence” and “end of sentence” markers in Meow like vim’s ^ and $ (terrible choices btw), only x to select the sentence. This is because once the region is selected, you can use i to insert left of the region and a right of the region. Furthermore, expanding selections to the a sentence end marker integrates perfectly with emacs’ C-a and C-e.

3.2.2 Expansion hints

Repeating actions in Meow is extremely well engineered. Consider the situation of deleting some number of lines. In vim, without relative line numbers you’d have to count lines and then press <NUM>dd. If you mess up (remember, no feedback), you have to press u to undo and then try again.

Meow has an elegant solution. You press x to select one sentence, and then it prompts you on the screen, avy-style, with numbers at the start of every next object you can select. You then press a number, it expands the selection visually, and finally you supply the verb, delete, s to delete the whole region. In practice, it works absurdly smoothly and lowers cognitive load significantly.

3.2.3 Dwimmy behavior

Many commands in meow have do-what-i-mean behavior. For example, the c command, change, operates situationally. With a region selected, it changes the region, but otherwise changes a single character.

3.3 Elegant multi-editing

Vim doesn’t have multi-editing. The only ways to do repeated actions are either to record recursive macros or do some obtuse find-and-replace action.

Meow’s multi edit, again inspired by kakoune is quite intuitive. It involves first selecting and “grabbing” a region, and then creating a set of “multicursors” based on movements. These multicursors are intelligent. If you grabbed a region by selecting 3 sentences (x3), then the fake cursors are replicated on every line. Once you grab a selection, every movement creates fake cursors on the ending position of the movement. This means that doing multi-edits is very intuitive and has lots of visual feedback.

Converting a_b_c_d_e to a-b-c-d-e is WG-f_c-<ESC>. Select the whole “symbol,” negative search for _, change to - and press escape to run the changes. Internally, every time you enter insert mode while in “beacon mode” you’re actually recording a macro.

3.4 Extensibility and scalability

Meow is remarkably standardized. For example, Meow has a generalized “thing” concept. The bounds of any of these “things” is selected by . (similar to vim’s a) and the inner of any “thing” is selected by ,. It’s super easy to add things to this table. I wanted to define a thing for strings inside <> brackets. This is just:

;meow-thing-register THING INNER BOUNDS (meow-thing-register 'arrow '(pair ("<") (">")) '(pair ("<") (">"))) (add-to-list 'meow-char-thing-table '(?a . arrow))

Of course, meow-thing-register also accepts defining bounds by arbitrary syntax keys and regular expressions, which makes the possibilities endless. It would be criminal to not mention just how good the built in documentation that comes with meow is with respect to this section.

The fact that you have to define your own keybinds in your own init file is also very helpful, because it makes changing things much easier. The way keys are defined is also very elegant, each mode’s keybinds are all defined under one function that takes in alists.

To illustrate how easy it is to make changes, I’ll include an example of adding a key, F, to reverse search for a character.

First, we define a function to reverse a search, which is just calling the normal (meow-find) command with a negative prefix:

(defun meow-negative-find () (interactive) (let ((current-prefix-arg -1)) (call-interactively 'meow-find)))

Finally, we throw in the alist '("F" . meow-negative-find) into the (meow-normal-define-key) function. Done!

3.5 Uncluttered keybindings

Meow is very minimalist. It doesn’t define keys by default if they’re not absolutely necessary. For example, there’s no key to go to the top or bottom of the buffer. This is fine though, because you can use emacs’ built in keybindings, C-M-< and C-M->, but also, you can generally go the beginning or end of a “thing”, and then select buffer as your thing, <b. After switching from evil, it’s great to have a lot of keybind real estate back to bind to more useful commands instead of obscure vim actions I’ll never use.

3.5.1 Keypad mode

As if I wasn’t sold enough on Meow, keypad mode was the nail in the coffin. The problem with evil-leader and related solutions is that you have to manually rebind functions to leader keybinds, which is a lot of work and very annoying to do. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible, like Spacemacs has shown, but it’s not something I’m interested in doing in vanilla emacs. Meow takes the god-mode suggestion and introduces keypad mode, which allows you to type modifier key chords using space.

This is done cleverly, too. The first key you press after SPC becomes the modifier that is applied to every key following it. So C-x C-f becomes <SPC> x f, and C-c C-v C-t still becomes <SPC> c v t. To escape modification, you press SPC again. Critically, you can omit the SPC if the key you press matches exactly one non-modified key and no modified-keys.