I am trying to implement a minor mode that displays in the modeline the current word count and the number of new words since the file was last opened.

There are some existing implementations with this type of functionality (e.g., nanowrimo.el). But as far as I can tell, all of the implementations I've found so far seem to re-count the entire buffer after each change (i.e. after each character insertion or deletion, kill, yank, undo, etc.) This makes emacs a bit slow and unresponsive on on large files. This would seem to be a very common problem, but I haven't found a solution.

I am trying to keep track of the current word count in a variable and use before-change-functions and after-change-functions to update that count after every insertion, deletion, kill, yank, undo, etc. This involves counting only the changed character(s) and the immediately surrounding characters. (For example, if a space is inserted between two non-word characters, the word count increases by 1.) This approach is much faster/more efficient - but I haven't quite figured out all the details to make it work.

Is there existing code that already does this, either using change hooks or any other method? Or, any thoughts about a good approach to do this?

  • 1
    I would suggest using a system similar to flyspell "displacement-commands" and also an idle-timer. If idle, then check. If not idle, then if this-command is eq to the last-command, then don't check -- otherwise, check. The pre-command-hook can record this-command and the post-command-hook can check to see if this-command is eq to last-command. You can also have a list of commands that are excluded from the check, or a list of commands that are specifically included in the check.
    – lawlist
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 5:22
  • Be sure to read (info "(elisp) Change Hooks"), because these hooks may not work as you'd expect, i.e. they may not be called in a balanced manner in every case.
    – politza
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 10:13
  • 2
    How big does the file have to be for a word counting function to lag noticeably? From programming perspective, it would be much easier to re-count all words in a buffer, thus giving results independent of the state (you don't really want to try to guess all ways users may insert text in the buffer much less add hooks to fundamental text-inserting functions, unless absolutely necessary).
    – wvxvw
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 10:40
  • @lawlist That's a simple solution that might solve the problem (if I can find an idle time that works for me). Will try it. Could you say a bit about the logic behind checking only when this-command is not eq the last-command?
    – B. Bub
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 16:35
  • @politza I ran into exactly that issue. I think I can make it work by using before-change-functions to count deletions and after-change-functions to count insertions. What I'm having trouble with is figuring out how to make the hooks buffer local. I tried: (make-variable-buffer-local 'before-change-functions) but the function I added to before-change-functions seems to be called in all buffers.
    – B. Bub
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 17:07

1 Answer 1


I went with an approach that uses before-change-functions and after-change-functions to update the word count after each buffer modification. A simplified version of the code is:

;; Function that counts words in buffer
(defun wc-buffer ()

;; Function that counts words in a region
(defun wc-region (rbeg rend)

(defvar-local a1 nil)
(defvar-local a2 nil)
(defvar-local curr-wc nil)

(defun init-function ()
    (setq curr-wc (wc-buffer))

(defun wc-update-before (change-beg change-end)
  (setq pos1 (max 1 (1- change-beg)))
  (setq pos2 (min (point-max) (1+ change-end)))

  (setq a1 (wc-region pos1 pos2))

(defun wc-update-after (change-beg change-end prev-len)
  (if (bound-and-true-p a1) 
    (setq pos1 (max 1 (1- change-beg)))
    (setq pos2 (min (point-max) (1+ change-end)))

    (setq a2 (wc-region pos1 pos2))

    (setq curr-wc (+ curr-wc (- a2 a1)))

(add-hook 'before-change-functions 'wc-update-before nil t) 
(add-hook 'after-change-functions 'wc-update-after nil t)
(setq inhibit-modification-hooks nil)

(Code for the wc-buffer and wc-region functions needs to be added to use this.) The variable curr-wc holds the current word count. This runs efficiently and causes no noticeable slowdown even on large files (tested with 100,000 words). It seems to work correctly for all modification types I've tried (inserts, deletes, yanks, kills, and undos). The main concern with the approach is that, according to the documentation, the before-change-functions and after-change-functions are not necessarily called in pairs. But in my testing so far this doesn't seem to have affected the accuracy of the count.

  • 2
    Hi can you provide the whole answer! I am incapable to writing code for wc-buffer and wc-region. Can you please provide the whole solution?
    – Pandian Le
    Commented Nov 23, 2019 at 10:39

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