I'm looking for a way to reduce what Emacs kills when I use backward-kill-word.

protected virtual void OnPropertyChanged(PropertyChangedEventArgs e)
    if (PropertyChanged != null)
        PropertyChanged(this, e);

If I'm editing the above code in Emacs and I place my cursor on the very last character (the }) and I call backward-kill-word, the entirety of e); is killed, since Emacs only considers the e to be a word.

Another example is if you place your cursor on the 'P' of PropertyChanged(this, e) and call backward-kill-word, the entirety of null) before it is killed. The closed parenthesis is simply considered to not be a word.

My question is how I can eliminate this behavior. I want characters like ), ', }, etc. to be treated as words by backward-kill-word. This means that backward-kill-word kills these characters and the cursor replaces them, just how backward-kill-word typically behaves for one-character-long words like e. One possible solution I've thought of is to somehow edit what Emacs considers to be words and simply add the characters I want to the list. Regardless, thanks for the help!

  • 1
    It's not clear (to me) just what behavior you're looking for. What does it mean to "ignore" characters such as ) and }? Do you want them to be skipped over and the next word found to be killed? Or do you want the word-kill operation to do nothing if it runs into a non-word char? Or something else? Try to specify the behavior you want.
    – Drew
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 21:33
  • Very similar question here: backward-kill-word ignores whitespaces, is there another friendlier version?
    – Dan
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 21:38
  • Understood. But besides not deleting those chars, you do not describe the behavior. Please reread what I wrote.
    – Drew
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 21:38
  • Ah I see. Well, I'd like characters like } to be treated as if they were words--so the character itself would be killed and the cursor end up in its place.
    – gvelasq
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 21:42
  • 1
    What about sequences of whitespace or brackets, e.g. foo)) ))? It sounds like you want a command that deletes the non-word characters one by one and then deletes 'foo' in one go? So more of a "backward delete char or word?" I think you may need to write your own command here.
    – glucas
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 22:12

2 Answers 2


Here's a quick attempt at a custom function that may do what you want:

(defun backward-kill-char-or-word ()
  "Delete the character or word before point."
  (if (looking-back "\\w" 1)
      (backward-kill-word 1)
    (backward-delete-char 1)))

This looks back one character to decide what to do. If it sees a word constituent character it kills the word, otherwise it just deletes one character. There may be other cases you needed to handle, this is "lightly tested".

You can revise this to handle whitespace in different ways. If you want to delete spaces along with the next word (which is what backward-kill-word does), try this:

(defun backward-kill-char-or-word ()
  (if (looking-back (rx (char word blank)) 1)
      (backward-kill-word 1)
    (backward-delete-char 1)))

If you want to delete a sequence of whitespace as a unit but stop at a word, try this:

(defun backward-kill-char-or-word ()
   ((looking-back (rx (char word)) 1)
    (backward-kill-word 1))
   ((looking-back (rx (char blank)) 1)
    (delete-horizontal-space t))
    (backward-delete-char 1))))
  • This does work the way I had in mind. :) It's only missing the ability to kill the whitespace behind the cursor until a character or word is found, as backward-kill-word does.
    – gvelasq
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 22:43
  • The third piece of code that you provided--the one that uses delete-horizontal-space--is just what I was looking for. Thank you so much!!
    – gvelasq
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 23:51

Emacs uses syntax tables to decide what is and is not a word. Each major mode will have its own syntax table. Commands that move over or delete words will use the values in this table to determine how far to go.

The key syntax class in this case is the 'word constituent'. Deleting a word in Emacs works by deleting whole groups of adjacent word constituents.

To add characters to the 'word constituent' class you can use modify-syntax-entry. For example, to add the character ), you'd use the following:

(modify-syntax-entry ?) "w") 

By default, this will modify the current syntax table. You'll need to do a bit more to target the syntax table for a particular mode. For example, I have the following in my .init.el:

(eval-after-load "bibtex"
     (modify-syntax-entry ?% "_" bibtex-mode-syntax-table))

This will modify the syntax table for bibtex-mode after it's loaded, changing the % character to a 'symbol constituent'. See the linked manual page for more details on the different syntax classes and how to set them.


As @politza points out, changing the syntax table may have unintended consequences. Syntax classes are a pretty fundamental structure in Emacs, and many different functions depend on them, not just movement and deletion commands. So you might find surprising bugs arise as a consequence of such changes.

  • I added (modify-syntax-entry ?) "w") to my .emacs file and backward-kill-word still kills ) in addition to the word before it. :( I'm running Emacs version 25.1-2, by the way.
    – gvelasq
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 21:53
  • So with point at the end of ` null)` you would expect the command to delete just ), then if called again to delete null?
    – glucas
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 21:56
  • Yup, that is what I'd like to do.
    – gvelasq
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 21:58
  • I think this is a very bad idea, because other core functions depend on it; maybe even font-lock in some cases.
    – politza
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 22:14
  • 2
    I use with-syntax-table for the duration of my custom functions for movement and searching so that I don't touch the major-mode syntax table, and I define a custom syntax table for said movement.
    – lawlist
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 22:30

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