In trying to learn Emacs Lisp on Emacs 25.3.1, I decided to implement a minimal version of fic-mode. Following is the code:

(defun todo/pos-in-doc-or-comment-region-p (pos)
  (memq (get-char-property pos 'face)
    '(font-lock-doc-face font-lock-comment-face)))

(defun todo/search-for-keyword (limit)
  (let ((original-match-data nil))
      (while (and (null original-match-data)
          (re-search-forward "TODO([^)]+?):" limit t))
    (if (and (todo/pos-in-doc-or-comment-region-p (match-beginning 0))
         (todo/pos-in-doc-or-comment-region-p (match-end 0)))
        (setq original-match-data (match-data)))))
    (when original-match-data
      (set-match-data original-match-data)
      (goto-char (match-end 0))

(defvar todo/keywords
  '((todo/search-for-keyword . font-lock-warning-face)))

(font-lock-add-keywords nil todo/keywords 'append)

When I run the function todo/search-for-keyword in a Elisp buffer containing the comment

;; TODO(me): Hey

the function does the right thing (finds the comment and puts cursor after the colon). However, when I put the whole code in my .emacs, the TODO(me): does not get colored.

The following even simpler version does work but not in comments (which is the whole point of this exercise):

(defvar todo/keywords
  '(("\\(TODO(\\)\\([^)]+?\\)\\():\\)" .
                 ((1 font-lock-warning-face)
                  (2 font-lock-variable-name-face)
                  (3 font-lock-warning-face)))))
(font-lock-add-keywords nil todo/keywords 'append)

It seems like Emacs already decides to render the text as a comment before my keyword even comes into picture. How can I override Emacs so that parts of comments get highlighted in different way according to my rules?

PS: Here is the documentation for Search-based fontification.

  • 2
    Using font-lock-add-keywords without a mode as argument is a bad idea because it will only work for whatever is the currently active mode. It's better to put your code into a function, then add it to the respective mode hooks you're interested in.
    – wasamasa
    Mar 25, 2018 at 9:42

1 Answer 1


You're right, comments are highlighted in a first pass which is done by interpreting syntax tables. Font-lock does not override already fontified text by default, to do that you have to add another list item in your font-lock expression:

MATCH-HIGHLIGHT should be of the form:


The optional OVERRIDE argument is what you're after.

That aside, here's a minimal variation of what fic-mode does: https://github.com/tarsius/hl-todo

  • Thank you, I am not sure how I missed that. However, there is another minor problem. When I write TODO(name):, it doesn't get colored until I press return. I guess Emacs caches the results of highlighting. Is there any way I can force Emacs to recalculate highlighting?
    – strNOcat
    Mar 25, 2018 at 9:16
  • 1
    M-x font-lock-fontify-buffer
    – wasamasa
    Mar 25, 2018 at 9:36
  • Do I call it upon inserting every character? That seems wasteful.
    – strNOcat
    Mar 25, 2018 at 9:43
  • 1
    No, you call it interactively to check whether it's indeed an intermittent failure or not. It's not an actual solution to such problems.
    – wasamasa
    Mar 25, 2018 at 11:00

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