I am writing a feature that changes the displaying of certain words as is done in texinfo-mode, where greek syntax \alpha is displayed as the actual greek symbol α. The implementation uses prettify-symbols-mode.

Have seen that texinfo-mode uses ("\\alpha" . ?α). Not sure about the purpose of ?, and whether I would need to employ the ? for my word replacement feature.

A problem that I have encountered is that when the word little gets displayed as the two-letter word ll, both letters get inserted at the same point, such that the user only sees a single letter l.

    (defvar wrepl
         ("all" . "l")     ("as" . "as")      ("can" . "k")
         ("do" . "do")     ("for" . "f")      ("in" . "n")
         ("is" . "s")      ("it" . "t")       ("know" . "no")
         ("like" . "lk")   ("little" . "ll")  ("more" . "mo")
         ("some" . "so")   ("than" . "n")     ("that" . "ta")
         ("there" . "tr")  ("this" . "th")    ("time" . "ti")
         ("to" . "to")     ("we" . "w")       ("well" . "l")
         ("will" . "l")    ("work" . "wk")    ("you" . "u")
      "Replacements for specific words.")
  • How are you planning to use it?
    – NickD
    Apr 19, 2022 at 22:15
  • The plan is to use prettify-symbols.
    – Dilna
    Apr 19, 2022 at 22:16
  • ? is emacs lisp syntax for characters. See the elisp manual.
    – NickD
    Apr 19, 2022 at 22:17
  • Please add all explanatory stuff to the question: it has to stand on its own even if the comments disappear.
    – NickD
    Apr 19, 2022 at 22:18
  • It is still unclear what you are trying to do and, more importantly, why. Among other things, it is unclear whether you want text to be replaced, in which case prettify-symbols is the wrong tool, or you want overlays to change the appearance of the unchanged text, in which case prettify-symbols may be appropriate. Please give real-world usage before-and-after examples. Apr 20, 2022 at 8:16

1 Answer 1


As commented below already, I am not aware of any feature that provides this functionality out of the box. However, while looking at prettify-symbols-mode to look for an alternative, it looked like adapting it to achieve what you ask for, would not be so much work.

So here is the code for steno-mode, an adaption of prettify-symbols-mode that uses the display text property instead of the compose text property:

(setq steno-list '(("all" . "l")     ("as" . "as")      ("can" . "k")
                  ("do" . "do")     ("for" . "f")      ("in" . "n")
                  ("is" . "s")      ("it" . "t")       ("know" . "no")
                  ("like" . "lk")   ("little" . "ll")  ("more" . "mo")
                  ("some" . "so")   ("than" . "n")     ("that" . "ta")
                  ("there" . "tr")  ("this" . "th")    ("time" . "ti")
                  ("to" . "to")     ("we" . "w")       ("well" . "l")
                  ("will" . "l")    ("work" . "wk")    ("you" . "u")))

;; adapted from `prettify-symbols--compose-symbol'
(defun steno--display-symbol (alist)
  "Add paired string as display property to relevant regions"
  ;; Check that the chars should really be composed into a symbol.
  (let ((start (match-beginning 0))
        (end (match-end 0))
        (match (match-string 0)))
    (if (and (not (equal prettify-symbols--current-symbol-bounds (list start end)))
             (funcall prettify-symbols-compose-predicate start end match))
           start end
           `(steno-start ,start steno-end ,end display ,(cdr (assoc match alist)))))
      (remove-list-of-text-properties start end
  ;; Return nil because we're not adding any face property.

(defun steno--make-keywords ()
  `((,(regexp-opt (mapcar 'car steno-list) t)
     (0 (steno--display-symbol ',steno-list)))))

(defvar-local steno--keywords nil)

(define-minor-mode steno-mode
  "Toggle Steno mode.

When Steno mode and font-locking are enabled, symbols are
prettified according to the rules in
`steno-alist' (which see), which are locally defined
by major modes supporting prettifying. To add further
customizations for a given major mode, you can modify
`steno-alist' thus:

  (add-hook \\='emacs-lisp-mode-hook
            (lambda ()
              (push \\='(\"<=\" . ?≤) steno-alist)))

You can enable this mode locally in desired buffers, or use
`global-steno-mode' to enable it for all modes that
support it."
  :init-value nil
  (when steno--keywords
    (font-lock-remove-keywords nil steno--keywords)
    (setq steno--keywords nil))
  (if steno-mode
      ;; Turn on
      (when (setq steno--keywords (steno--make-keywords))
        (font-lock-add-keywords nil steno--keywords)
        (when prettify-symbols-unprettify-at-point
          (add-hook 'post-command-hook
                    #'prettify-symbols--post-command-hook nil t))
    ;; Turn off
    (remove-hook 'post-command-hook #'prettify-symbols--post-command-hook t)
      (remove-text-properties (point-min) (point-max) '(display nil)))))

Use it like how you would use prettify-symbols-mode.

I am not sure what the remaining prettify-symbols... functions are doing, but from the comments in the code it seems that they are required. Therefore, I have left them in to be safe.

  • Is it correct syntax to use ("like" . "lk") without employing ? as in ("like" . ?"lk") ?
    – Dilna
    Apr 21, 2022 at 6:37
  • would I need to set prettify-symbols-compose-predicate?
    – Dilna
    Apr 21, 2022 at 6:44
  • I would say, just try my answer (open a buffer with some example text and apply the command), and you will find out the answers to these questions. You can read about cases when prettify-symbols-compose-predicate is needed here. So my answer only works when you are using/writing the words as separate entities (i.e. without surrounding them with double quotes) and as long as they are not part of comments. Apr 21, 2022 at 8:39
  • I did not get notified about your updates to the question. Indeed, it looks like prettify-symbols-mode can only be used to replace 'patterns' by a (compositions of) single character(s). I could not find anything that provides your desired functionality. I guess you have two alternatives: either modify the prettify-symbols-mode to use text-properties instead of compose-region (see here. Or if you only use short texts, then simply hack something using replace-regexp. Apr 30, 2022 at 8:09

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