I'm writing an IntelliJ-style "smart backspace" function which does the following:

  • If the whole of the line up to the point is whitespace
    • Join the line to the previous line, killing that whitespace
    • Indent the line
  • Otherwise, just delete a char as normal

I've got the smart backspace working, but the as normal part is proving difficult.

(defun smart-backspace ()
  (if (beginning-of-line-text-p)
      (progn (join-line)
      (delete-backward-char 1)))

The problem is most language modes provide their own version of delete-backward-char, so overriding backspace like this doesn't do handy (or crucial!) stuff such as paredit/smartparens' sp-backward-delete-char, which keeps the sexp tree intact when you backspace over a closing delimiter.

What I'm asking is: is there a way to call the "default" binding for a key or mode from inside a function such as mine?

2 Answers 2


The answer is "yes". As usual, I suspect that's not the answer you were looking for, tho.

How to do that depends on how you bind your backspace key to your smart-backspace command. One way to do it is to bind it as part of a minor mode:

(defvar smart-backspace-mode-map
  (let ((map (make-sparse-keymap)))
    (define-key map (kbd "DEL") 'smart-backspace)

(define-minor-mode smart-backspace-mode
  "Be smart."
  :global t)

in which case you can call the "default" binding with something like:

(let ((smart-backspace-mode nil))
  (command-execute (key-binding (this-single-command-keys))))
  • Thank you, this worked! It needed a couple of tweaks - first it's command-execute not execute-command, and I needed to add a fallback to delete-backwards-char when key-binding doesn't return anything - but otherwise this works perfectly! Jan 31, 2020 at 15:33

Stefan's solution is almost perfect, but it required the following modifications:

  • Use command-execute instead of execute-command
  • Provide a fallback to backspace when no key binding is defined, via or:
(defun smart-backspace ()
  (if (beginning-of-line-text-p)
      (let ((smart-backspace-mode nil))
        (command-execute (or
                          (key-binding (this-single-command-keys))

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