Font locking (aka syntax highlighting) is an essential part of any Emacs major mode. While Emacs has great facilities to implement syntax highlighting, these are not always easy to understand and implement.

This post is the start of an article series about font locking that aims to give a little overview about various font locking techniques in Emacs. In essence, it’s a summary of what I discovered and learned recently while refactoring and improving font locking in Puppet Mode.

As such, the examples throughout this series are about Puppet Mode. If you are not familiar with Puppet, you may want take a short look at the Puppet language reference first.


Emacs has two major facilities for syntax highlighting:

Syntax Tables

Simple generic and stateless highlighting for strings and comments by classifying individual characters.

Most major modes make use of this basic facility for strings and comments.

Font Lock Keywords

Stateless highlighting based on regular expressions, for specific syntactic elements of the target language.

This is the major workhorse of font lock, used by every major mode.

Both facilities are stateless, and cannot look at syntactic context. However, by means of syntax-propertize-function Emacs allows major modes to hook into its syntactic analysis, to add arbitrary text properties and syntax classifiers to buffer text.

This is the most powerful, but also the most tricky syntax highlighting feature of Emacs. As such, it’s not frequently used, but sometimes it’s necessary1 and often it makes the difference between good and great syntax highlighting2.


  1. Python Mode needs to use this feature to fontify triple-quoted strings. 

  2. Ruby mode uses this feature to fontify variable expansions inside double-quoted strings.