I'm trying to get rid of tabs, following this guide:

(setq-default indent-tabs-mode nil)

So: why setq-default and not setq? I know I would need to use setq-default for a buffer-local variable, but I can't actually determine (except from inferring from the guide) whether indent-tabs-mode is buffer local.

C-h v return something more confusing to me:

Automatically becomes buffer-local when set.

So it would become buffer local if I setq it, so I must setq-default it?

  • 1
    A particular major-mode and some minor-modes may set indent-tabs-mode, so setq-default is not a 100% guarantee that your buffer will have said default setting. Only if nothing else sets that variable differently when using a particular combination of major-mode and minor-modes would that default setting be respected. Thus, it may be necessary to use a major-mode hook to set the variable to your liking. Here is link to a recent example where the tab-width is set by a major mode to 4 and a major-mode hook is used to reset the value to 2. emacs.stackexchange.com/a/10329/2287
    – lawlist
    Mar 31, 2015 at 23:38

1 Answer 1


When you see Automatically becomes buffer-local when set you can rely on it meaning just what it says: whenever that variable is set (e.g., using setq), it becomes buffer-local if it was not already buffer-local. So yes, setq sets the buffer-local value, and if you want to set the global, default value then you need to use setq-default.

  • I thought as much, but emacswiki says: "You should ensure these variables have the same value, e.g., (setq tab-width..." That certainly can be interpreted in different ways. One of which is: "Use setq for tab-width, but setq-default for indent-tabs-mode" Which I assume to be wrong. Do you have any clues why they use setq for tab-width?
    – x-yuri
    Apr 13, 2015 at 15:16
  • @x-yuri: Sorry, I don't know what you are quoting from, or who "they" is. The Emacs Wiki page cited by the OP doesn't say any of that. Use setq-default to set the global value, and setq to set a buffer-local value (assuming that the variable is buffer-local.
    – Drew
    Apr 13, 2015 at 16:38
  • Sorry, I forgot to specify the link. There indent-tabs-mode is set using setq-default, but tab-width is set using just setq. Do you have any clues why that is so? Both of them are buffer-local, as far as I can tell. Why not set both of them with setq-default?
    – x-yuri
    Apr 13, 2015 at 16:53
  • As that page says: the first turns off indent-tabs-mode everywhere, by default. The second is in the context of "The rest of this page will assume tabs are used..." It is telling you how to deal with particular modes that allow the use of tab chars, i.e., buffers that overrule the default of using only spaces as set by the setq-default of indent-tabs-mode. To be clear, I didn't write that page, and I'm no expert on any of this. My reading of it is that it is telling you (a) how to turn off using tabs, by default and (b) how to allow tabs in some buffer/mode.
    – Drew
    Apr 13, 2015 at 18:07

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.