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UNIX command line editing made easy

Wish there were a quicker way to work with UNIX command lines? There is when you use the VI or EMACS command line editors. With our list of VI and EMACS commands, you'll get your line editing done in no time.


Ever get tired of typing long directory or file names and wish there were a simple keystroke to finish the word you’re entering? The solution lies in the line editor. The line editor allows you to get a previous command, finish a file or directory name, or list files by typing only a few characters. There are many line editors you can choose to use, however. Below is a simple table that compares two of them—VI and EMACS—and presents some of the commands associated with each.

Use EMACS instead of VI
Usually the default line editor is VI, but I personally prefer EMACS. It is possible to make your system automatically use EMACS by changing the .kshrc or .profile files, but that is beyond the scope of this article. The simplest way to switch to EMACS (if you choose to do so) is to type the following line in your terminal window:
set –o emacs

Note that it is set, dash the letter o and not set, dash zero.

Line editor commands
Below is a table of line editor commands you can use while you are working in a terminal window.

Line Editor Commands
VI Command EMACS Command Meaning
#k or #– CTRL–p Gets previous command from history
#j or #+ CTRL–n Gets next command from history
\ ESC ESC Completes pathname of the current word; appends a backslash (\) to the end of directories and a space to files
= ESC = Lists files that begin with the current word and returns to the current line status
#h CTRL–b Moves cursor one character to the left
#l CTRL–f Moves cursor one character to the right
#b ESC b Moves cursor left one word
#w ESC f Moves cursor right one word
0 CTRL–a Moves cursor to the start of line
$ CTRL–e Moves cursor to the end of line
i/a none Enters input mode to input at current point/Enters append mode to enter after current point
#x/#X CTRL–d/CTRL–h Deletes current/previous character
d#w/d#W ESC d/ESC CTRL–? Deletes current/previous word
Note: In VI, ESC enters command mode and exits after editing, while # stands for any number.

Hopefully, having these commands at your fingertips will help increase your productivity and ease your workload.
What do you think of Mike’s line editor commands? What other UNIX tips and tricks would you like to see? Post a comment or write to Mike Hayes and let us know.

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