Use-package is a popular package to organize your Emacs configuration and load your installed packages efficiently. According to the official README, use-package is a macro that allows you to isolate package configuration in a way that’s both performance-oriented and tidy. It also provides additional useful keywords, such as
:init, among many others. If you’re serious about mastering use-package and abstract your Emacs configuration as much as possible, I encourage you to read the official GitHub README linked above.
To install a desired package without using use-package, one may have to manually install it from GitHub and put it under a load path where Emacs can find it, for instance with
(add-to-list 'load-path "/path/to/installed-package-repo"). Alternatively, you could open up the package list in Emacs with
M-x list-packages, navigate your cursor to find the package you want, and press
i followed by
x on the row containing the package. Either way, you’d have to explicitly call
(require 'package-name) in your
init.el before you could do any configuration. Lastly, any configuration of the package may need to be wrapped in a
(with-eval-after-load 'package-name ...) block, to avoid running into undefined variables and functions before your package is fully loaded (Reference).
What a hassle indeed! The good news is that use-package abstracts all of this away from you.
Setting up use-package
The following snippet, to be put at the top of your
init.el, takes care of connecting to the GNU and MELPA package archives over the internet, and download use-package for you if it’s not installed.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 (require 'package) (add-to-list 'package-archives '("gnu" . "https://elpa.gnu.org/packages/")) (add-to-list 'package-archives '("melpa" . "https://melpa.org/packages/")) (package-initialize) (unless (package-installed-p 'use-package) (package-refresh-contents) (package-install 'use-package)) (eval-and-compile (setq use-package-always-ensure t use-package-expand-minimally t))
t (meaning “true”) saves us the trouble of having to specify
:ensure t in any future packages we’d like to declare and install. The
:ensure macro basically makes sure that the packages are correctly installed at every startup, and automatically installs the missing ones for you. This is extremely useful when you frequently move between different machines and need to port your entire Emacs config over to a new setup.
Use-package in action: Example 1
Say you want to write Typescript in Emacs and need language-specific support (i.e. better syntax highlighting, etc.). We can install typescript-mode for this purpose.
Let’s start with a simple configuration:
1 (use-package typescript-mode)
After restarting Emacs, use-package will automatically install typescript-mode and load it for you when the suitable time comes.
But what does “a suitable time” mean? Surely it means when we open a
.tsx buffer, right?
Let’s specify that:
1 2 (use-package typescript-mode :mode ("\\.tsx?\\'" . typescript-mode))
Here we see our first use-package keyword
All it does is that it internally expands to the normal Emacs Lisp syntax of
(add-to-list 'auto-mode-alist '("\\.tsx?\\'" . typescript-mode)), which essentially states that all files ending with
.tsx will be recognized by Emacs as a suitable buffer to be opened in typescript-mode.
Normal package configuration (to be executed after a package is loaded) should go after the
:config keyword, which is the use-package keyword that you’ll probably be using the most often. For example, say I want to set the default Typescript indent level to 2 spaces (like most modern developers do), I can add on:
1 2 3 4 (use-package typescript-mode :mode ("\\.tsx?\\'" . typescript-mode) :config (setq typescript-indent-level 2))
If you really dislike using keywords other than
:config (and want to be a purist), you are welcome to refactor it to:
1 2 3 4 (use-package typescript-mode :config (add-to-list 'auto-mode-alist '("\\.tsx?\\'" . typescript-mode)) (setq typescript-indent-level 2))
Which of course is more verbose, less abstracted, and more close to the default configuration syntax. At the end of the day, it’s down to personal preference.
Use-package in action: Example 2
Let’s have a look at another example:
Say you want to write Markdown in Emacs and need additional syntax highlighting and indentation support for it, we can install the markdown-mode package for this purpose. All you have to do is put this in your
1 2 (use-package markdown-mode :mode ("\\.md\\'" . markdown-mode))
Again, this is all you need. After restarting Emacs, use-package will automatically install markdown-mode and load it for you when the suitable time comes (that is, when you open up a
Say I want to enable auto-fill-mode whenever I’m editing Markdown. Auto-fill-mode is just a mode that adjusts the width of the buffer content and makes it more readable by automatically breaking lines on the fly while you’re typing. To tell Emacs to enable auto-fill-mode whenever we open a markdown-mode buffer, we can add a hook as follows:
1 2 (use-package markdown-mode :hook (markdown-mode . auto-fill-mode))
Say I also want to let markdown-mode’s code-font style inherit the style of an Org Mode source block:
1 2 3 (use-package markdown-mode :hook (markdown-mode . auto-fill-mode) :custom-face (markdown-code-face ((t (:inherit org-block)))))
If you’re familiar with Emacs Lisp, it isn’t hard to guess that
:hook (markdown-mode . auto-fill-mode) internally expands to become
(add-hook 'markdown-mode-hook #'auto-fill-mode), and
:custom-face expands to a
set-face-attribute call. So if you really don’t like using the
:hook keyword, you can also refactor this snippet to be:
1 2 3 4 (use-package markdown-mode :config (add-hook 'markdown-mode-hook #'auto-fill-mode) (set-face-attribute 'markdown-code-face nil :inherit 'org-block))
Some packages don’t even require us to modify the auto-mode-alist for file extension regex recognition, as they’re handled by the packages themselves. For instance:
1 2 3 4 5 (use-package json-mode) (use-package vimrc-mode) (use-package yaml-mode)
By now, you are probably starting to realize both the simplicity and flexibility of use-package. Let’s have a look at one final example.
Use-package in action: Example 3
Say I want to turn on the visualization of matching parentheses. That is, when my cursor stops at a parenthesis/bracket/brace, the matching instance on the other end is highlighted. This requires tweaking the “paren” package, which is a built-in package in Emacs already. To prevent use-package from looking for the paren package in the internet archives, we turn off the
:ensure flag. Then, in the
:config section, we specify the desired show-paren-mode:
1 2 3 4 (use-package paren :ensure nil :config (show-paren-mode +1))
You notice that there is always a slight lag before the matching parenthesis is highlighted. This is actually not a performance issue from Emacs, but rather because the default value of show-paren-delay is set to 0.125. Weird choice, if I may say so myself. Let’s make it 0. Now this special variable “show-paren-delay” needs to be set “before” the paren package is loaded, so we can’t put in under the section of
:config as usual. Luckily, use-package provides the
:init keyword for exactly this purpose.
Putting it all together, we have:
1 2 3 4 5 6 (use-package paren :ensure nil :init (setq show-paren-delay 0) :config (show-paren-mode +1))
That’s all I have for you this time, hope you enjoyed my quick tutorial on use-package! If you’re an Emacs beginner feeling lost about where to start, I might just have the perfect solution for you. I’m maintaining the Yay-evil-emacs project, which is a lightweight literate Emacs config with better defaults. The actual goal of my project is not to give people a plug-and-play starter config (though of course you may use it that way), but rather to document neatly the meaning behind each configuration snippet in a structural manner, so Emacs beginners wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the syntax of Emacs Lisp right off the bat.