I'm going kinda crazy trying to understand what's going on here... Asked this question on the r/emacs subreddit so apologies if any of you are seeing this again.

Do org blocks allow TAB indentation without going into special editing mode via C-c ' ?

I have the following relevant settings in my custom-set-variables block (i.e. edited via customize-mode.

 '(org-edit-src-content-indentation 0)
 '(org-src-preserve-indentation nil)

I used these settings because I was getting sick of editing code in the source block and having all the lines jump 2 spaces to the right.

org-src-tab-acts-natively is set to t as well.

But now when I write

#+begin_src python
def hello():

the cursor is stuck at the start of the line and I can't use TAB to indent to add a new line, i.e. to make it look like:

def hello( ):

TAB used to work -- or atleast, I thought it was working. This github comment suggests that this facility was never actually available, and we always had to use C-c ' to edit code properly. But then this Stackoverflow post and answers, as well as this github issue seem to imply otherwise.

Now, I have also set org-adapt-indentation to nil, because I prefer org-headings, sub-headings and text to be aligned with the buffer edge. If I set it to 1, it looks like there is some aligning going on when I hit TAB, but this is not perfect. Does this explain the "pseudo-indenting" that I had before, and there really is no inherent TAB indent in org blocks?

I have also been recommended poly-mode and poly-org, but I'd first like to understand what is going on here.

EDIT: I have neglected to say that the message Can’t guess python-indent-offset, using defaults: 4 appears in the minibuffer after each failed TAB press. I wouldn't have thought that would be the difference, as long as it guessed a non-zero offset.

EDIT: Org mode version 9.4.4 (release_9.4.4 @ /usr/share/emacs/27.2/lisp/org/)

EDIT: Here is the tab-indentation behavior when running emacs -Q https://i.sstatic.net/Bm05v.jpg

  • What is the value of org-cycle-emulate-tab? If nil, set it to t and try again. Check the doc string of the variable with C-h v org-cycle-emulate-tab.
    – NickD
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 16:33
  • To avoid getting the message Can't guess ... add this to your python configuration: (setq python-indent-guess-indent-offset-verbose nil). Take care also to init tab-width to 4 and config python-indent-offset also to 4.
    – Ian
    Commented Nov 4, 2021 at 14:04

1 Answer 1


TAB is bound to org-cycle in Org mode buffers: that function generally cycles the element that the cursor is on (headlines, drawers, source blocks) between the folded and unfolded state. But Org mode makes use of context-dependent bindings very often and that confuses things. E.g. in this case, if the cursor is in a table, the table is realigned and the cursor moves to the next cell.

But when the cursor is not on anything that org-cycle considers "special" to do something interesting, then it just executes the global binding of TAB which re-indents lines, assuming that org-cycle-emulate-tab is not nil. In that case, TAB in your python source code block (as opposed on the #+BEGIN_SRC line which folds the code block) should indent using indent-for-tab-command (unless you have modified the global binding of TAB).

EDIT: for debugging, try adding and evaluating the following source block to an Org mode file:

#+begin_src elisp
(global-key-binding (kbd "TAB"))

: indent-for-tab-command

Do you get indent-for-tab-command as the result? If so, go to your python source block and say M-x indent-for-tab-command - do you get the indentation you expect?

EDIT 2: Note that you should not expect "real" python indentation. This is more like typing python code in a buffer that is in fundamental mode.

EDIT 3: I stand corrected: you should expect "real" python indentation: indent-for-tab-command calls the function which is the value of the variable indent-line-function. Now inside an Org mode buffer, the value of that variable is org-indent-line, which, in source code blocks, calls org-babel-do-key-sequence-in-edit-buffer; that in turn calls the macro org-babel-do-in-edit-buffer: that finally calls whatever function is bound to TAB in the context of an edit buffer created by org-edit-src-code and then does org-edit-src-exit - phew! That's basically what would happen interactively, if you did C-c ' in the source block, typed a TAB in the resulting source buffer (which is in python mode!) and then exited with another C-c '. But note that using two tabs to unindent, as would happen if you did it interactively, does not work: each tab is treated separately, so we go into the source buffer twice, do a single tab each time and exit. There are limitations to this approach.

  • Thanks -- it was nil, but setting org-cycle-emulate-tab to t (i.e. "Everywhere except in headlines") still does not fix this (even if I change org-src-preserve-indentation. Presumably indentation works for you, and properly (i.e. the tab does 4 spaces rather than whatever org-edit-src-content-indentation is set to)? Perhaps I need to do emacs -Q again and see if some other mode is hogging TAB, though I can't see which one. Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 17:40
  • 1
    I get two spaces on the first line and four additional spaces on subsequent lines, but N.B. this is more or less an accident: it's what you would get say if you tried typing python code in a buffer that is in Fundamental mode. You cannot expect it to do what "real" indentation would do in a python mode buffer.
    – NickD
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 18:46
  • 1
    I added some debugging suggestions, as well as the caveat from the previous comment to the answer.
    – NickD
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 18:49
  • I do get indent-for-tab-command when I evaluate that code block and running M-x indent-for-tab-command has the same result as using TAB -- no indent. However, I think I have neglected to say that the message Can’t guess python-indent-offset, using defaults: 4 appears in the minibuffer each time. I wouldn't have thought that would be the difference, as long as it guessed a non-zero offset. Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 19:36
  • Re: "you should not expect "real" python indentation", OK, but I would have thought having the variable org-src-tab-acts-natively would allow this to be the case, as this answer and the *Help* page suggests. In any case, just a naive/fundamental-mode style indentation via TAB seems beyond me at the moment. Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 19:36

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