I am trying to figure out how how to replace structural elements in org-mode with glyphs/abbreviations to make them more readable. Unfortunately, I'm getting stuck on replacing a simple checkbox [X] with (glyph).

     'org-mode `(             
                      (3 (progn (compose-region (match-beginning 1) (match-end 1) 

My goal is to replace the checkbox capturing group with the glyph, but no matter which group index I pick, I either get a pre-pended glyph or no glyph at all. More disturbingly, this messes with the rest of Org-mode's fontification when you toggle to fundamental-mode and then back to org-mode. Is this is breaking the syntax table or something? How do you avoid this happening?


I think the problem is with the complex regex capture groups. I you just code this for the - [X] case (no OR expressions needed, one capture group), everything works and the other font-locks do not get messed up.

  • Have you located the portion of code in the org-mode source that deals with these specific checkboxes; and, if so, can you let us know where it is and what version of org-mode your are using? Some people use the built-in version and others like to pull the latest stable release, and some people are using older versions of Emacs with older built-in org-mode versions. You will almost certainly need to modify the location where this checkbox stuff normally happens, as there is just too much happening in org-mode to modify font-lock stuff after the fact (in my opinion, that is).
    – lawlist
    Jun 8, 2017 at 1:51
  • I use spacemacs, so the version is from the Org ELPA repo: org-plus-contrib-20170210. The file org-element.el seems to be responsible for defining checkboxes. I wish there was some way to use the built-in faces to do text replacement fontification. Unfortunately, all faces do is colors, fonts etc, but you cannot replace text.
    – user27636
    Jun 8, 2017 at 12:05

1 Answer 1


There's no need to use font-lock for this. Emacs comes with prettify-symbols-mode which replaces fixed strings with single character glyphs. You can add additional symbols to prettify by adding them to prettify-symbols-alist a list (STRING . GLYPH) pairs

(add-hook 'org-mode-hook
          (lambda ()
            (push '("[ ]" .  "🞎") prettify-symbols-alist)
            (push '("[X]" . "🗷" ) prettify-symbols-alist)
            (push '("[-]" . "◫" ) prettify-symbols-alist)

Of course you can change the glyphs to any that you like. If you want them to also export prettily to HTML use

(setq org-html-checkbox-type 'unicode)
(setq org-html-checkbox-types
 '((unicode (on . "<span class=\"task-done\">&#x2611;</span>")
            (off . "<span class=\"task-todo\">&#x2610;</span>")
            (trans . "<span class=\"task-in-progress\">&#x25eb;</span>"))))

There doesn't seem to be a corresponding setting for other export backends.

  • Is it possible to specify context with this technique? (a checkbox mid- sentence is not a checkbox)
    – user27636
    Jun 9, 2017 at 11:20
  • prettify-symbol-mode only replaces strings; it doesn't understand regexs or anything like that. I, at least, rarely type "[ ]" except to make checkboxes. It could happen but maybe not often to enough to offset the awesome looking checkboxes.
    – erikstokes
    Jun 9, 2017 at 22:13

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