Adventures with bash's word erase (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Tue, 17 Jul 2007

Adventures with bash's word erase

I've been a happy csh/tcsh user for decades. But every now and then I bow to pressure and try to join the normal bash-using Linux world.

But I always come up against one problem right away: word erase (Control-W). For those who don't use ^W, suppose I type something like:

% ls /backups/images/trips/arizona/2007
Then I suddenly realize I want utah in 2007, not arizona. In csh, I can hit ^W twice and it erases the last two words, and I'm ready to type u<tab>. In bash, ^W erases the whole path leaving only "ls", so it's no help here. It may seem like a small thing, but I use word erase hundreds of times a day and it's hard to give it up. Google was no help, except to tell me I wasn't the only one asking.

Then the other day I was chatting about this issue with a friend who uses zsh for that reason (zsh is much more flexible at defining key bindings) and someone asked, "Is that like Meta-Delete?"

It turned out that Alt-Backspace (like many Linux applications, bash calls the Alt key "Meta", and Linux often confuses Delete and Backspace) did exactly what I wanted. Very promising!

But Alt-Backspace is not easy to type, since it's not reachable from the "home" typing position. What I needed, now that I knew bash and readline had the function, was a way to bind it to ^W.

Bash's binding syntax is documented, though the functions available don't seem to be. But bind -p | grep word gave me some useful information. It seems that \C-w was bound to "unix-word-rubout" (that was the one I didn't want) whereas "\e\C-?" was bound to "backward-kill-word". ("\e\C-?" is an obscure way of saying Meta-DEL: \e is escape, and apparently bash, like emacs, treats ESC followed by a key as the same as pressing Alt and the key simultaneously. And Control-question-mark is the Delete character in ASCII.)

So my task was to bind \C-w to backward-kill-word. It looked like this ought to work:

bind '\C-w:backward-kill-word'

... Except it didn't. bind -p | grep w showed that C-W was still bound to "unix-word-rubout".

It turned out that it was the terminal (stty) settings causing the problem: when the terminal's werase (word erase) character is set, readline hardwires that character to do unix-word-rubout and ignores any attempts to change it.

I found the answer in a bash bug report. The stty business was introduced in readline 5.0, but due to complaints, 5.1 was slated to add a way to override the stty settings. And happily, I had 5.2! So what was this new way override method? The posting gave no hint, but eventually I found it.

Put in your .inputrc:

set bind-tty-special-chars Off

And finally my word erase worked properly and I could use bash!

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[ 15:22 Jul 17, 2007    More linux | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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