Control, Escape, and Meta Tricks

By Susam Pal on 16 Jun 2023

Terminal Tricks

Open a Unix or Linux terminal emulator. If you are using on macOS, ensure that the “Use Option as Meta Key”
option is enabled in its “Preferences” section. Now type foo
bar baz
followed by meta+b
(alt+b or option+b on
modern keyboards). In a modern shell like Bash, Zsh, etc., the
cursor should move backward by one word. Now
type esc b. The cursor should move back again
by one word. Finally type ctrl+[ b
and the same thing should happen again. How are we able to perform
the same operation in three different ways?

To understand why these three key sequences yield the same result,
it might be a good exercise to run the command cat and
type the three key sequences again. The three key sequences we are
talking about are:

  • meta+b (alt+b
    or option+b on modern keyboards)
  • esc b
  • ctrl+[ b

When we run cat and type the three key sequences
mentioned above, the following output appears:

$ cat

The output shows that the terminal sends the same input
to cat each time: the escape character that
appears as ^[ in the output and the
character b. This becomes more apparent if instead of
running cat, we run od -t d1 and type the
three key sequences followed
by ctrl+d enter:

$ od -t d1
0000000    27  98  27  98  27  98  10                                    

Indeed decimal 27 is the code of the escape character.
Similarly decimal 98 is the code of the character b.

Control Codes

Let us first discuss why typing ctrl+[
produces the escape character. The character [
has code 91 (binary 1011011) and holding the ctrl key
while typing it results in a control code obtained by taking 91
(binary 1011011), keeping its five least significant bits, and
discarding the rest. We get the control code 27 (binary 11011) as
the result. This is the code of the escape character. This
explains why ctrl+[ produces
the escape character and why the escape character
is represented as ^[ while typing it into the standard
input. The caret sign (^) here is a notation for
the ctrl modifier.

The following table provides some more examples of control codes
that can be obtained by typing the ctrl key along with
some other key.

Key Modified Character Control Character
Binary Decimal Character Binary Decimal Character
ctrl+@ 1000000 64 @ 00000 0 Null
ctrl+g 1000111 71 G 00111 7 Bell
ctrl+h 1001000 72 H 01000 8 Backspace
ctrl+i 1001001 73 I 01001 9 Horizontal Tab
ctrl+j 1001010 74 I 01010 10 Line Feed
ctrl+m 1001101 77 M 01101 13 Carriage Return
ctrl+[ 1011011 91 [ 11011 27 Escape

This explains why typing ctrl+g in a modern
terminal emulator produces a beep, why ctrl+h
erases a character, and so on. This also explains why we can
type ctrl+[ in Vim to escape from insert mode
to normal mode. While we can type escape with
the esc key on the keyboard, we can do so with
the ctrl+[ key too within the terminal.

The keen eyed may notice that the table above has lowercase letters
in the first column but the second and third columns use the code of
the corresponding uppercase letters. This discrepancy does not
matter much because the bitwise operation mentioned earlier provides
the same result irrespective of the case we choose for the letters.
For example, consider the key sequence
ctrl+g. The uppercase character G
has the code 71 (decimal 1000111) and the lowercase
character g has the code 103 (decimal 1100111). The
five least significant bits are equal in both. So when we pick the
five least significant bits and discard the rest, we get the same
result, i.e., 7 (binary 111) which is the code of the bell
character. This is due to the fact that the five least significant
bits of the code of a lowercase character is exactly the same as
that of the corresponding uppercase character. They differ only in
their sixth least significant bit.

In addition to what we have discussed so far, many terminal
emulators also implement a few special rules such as the following:

Key Modified Character Resulting Character
Binary Decimal Character Binary Decimal Character
ctrl+space 0100000 32 Space 0 0 Null
ctrl+? 0111111 63 ? 1111111 127 Delete

One could argue that the first row shows a straightforward example
of picking the least significiant five bits to arrive at the control
code, so it is not really a special case. That is a fair point.
However, in the history of computing, different systems have
implemented slightly different methods to compute the resulting
control codes from our input. Turning off only the the 6th and the
7th least significant bits has been one method. Subtracting 64 from
the character code has been another one. These different methods
produce identical results for the first table but not so for the
second table. For example, while turning off the 6th and 7th bits of
32 (the code of the space character) does give us 0,
subtracting 64 from it does not. The second entry above is clearly a
special rule because we neither turn off bits nor subtract 64.
Instead, we turn on the 7th least significant bit which amounts to
adding 64 to the code of the modified character.

The meta key no longer exists on modern keyboards. On
modern keyboards, we use the alt or option key
instead of meta. For example, when a shell’s manual says
that we need to type meta+b to move the cursor
back by one word, what we really type on a modern keyboard is
either alt+b
or option+b. In fact, the cat
and od experiments mentioned earlier show that when we
type the modern alternative for the meta key along with
another key, what the terminal really sends to the underlying
program is an escape control code (27) followed by the code
of the modified character. This means that the key sequences in each
row of the following table are equivalent to each other in a
terminal emulator.

Meta Key Sequence Escape Key Sequence Control Key Sequence
meta+b esc b ctrl+[ b
meta+f esc f ctrl+[ f
meta+/ esc / ctrl+[ /
meta+: esc : ctrl+[ :

Awkward Vim Tricks

Most Vim users know that we can go from insert mode to command-line
mode and search for patterns by typing
either esc / or C-[ /.
But what some people may find surprising is that we can also go from
insert mode to searching patterns by simply typing
meta+/. Yes, this can be verified by running
Vim in a terminal emulator. While insert mode is active,
type alt+/ or option+/
and the current mode should instantly switch to the command-line
mode with the forward-slash (/) prompt waiting for our
search pattern. This works only in a terminal emulator. It may not
work in the graphical version of Vim. The table above illustrates
why this works in a terminal emulator.

Similarly, in a Vim instance running within a terminal emulator, we
can type meta+: to go directly from insert
mode to command-line mode and enter Ex commands. We can
type meta+0 to go directly from insert mode to
the first character of a line, or type meta+$
to go to the end of the line, and so on. These are equivalent to
typing esc 0, esc $,

More interestingly, we can type meta+O to open
a line above, meta+A to append text at the end
of the line, meta+I to append text at the
beginning of the line, or meta+S to delete the
current line while staying in insert mode! Since the Vim
commands O, A, I, and S
leave us back in insert mode, we are able to perform an editing
operation that involves leaving the insert mode, doing something
interesting, and returning to insert mode instantly using the
the meta key combination. The following table summarizes
these observations:

Initial Mode Meta Key Sequence Equivalent To Operation Final State
Insert meta+/ esc / Enter command-line mode to search a pattern Command-line
Insert meta+: esc : Enter command-line mode to enter Ex command Command-line
Insert meta+0 esc 0 Move to the first character of the line Normal
Insert meta+$ esc $ Move to the end of the line Normal
Insert meta+O esc O Begin a new line above and insert text Insert
Insert meta+A esc A Append text to the end of line Insert
Insert meta+I esc I Insert text before the first non-blank in line Insert
Insert meta+S esc S Delete line and insert text Insert

There is no good reason to use Vim like this but it works, thanks to
the quirky history of Unix terminals and keyboards!

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