Temporary overlays in Emacs

#emacs #tutorial #ide

For some reason, no-one online seems to have a simple explanation of how to setup temporary overlays (think higlights/messages) that disappear as soon as the user moves.

This isn't some arcane art - many common emacs packages seem to use this kind of functionality, but no one (to my knowledge) has actually written this up in a neat format for others to follow.

Disclaimer: I didn't invent this - the following is basically a generalization of patterns I've seen in a couple emacs packages (i.e merlin-mode).


The key component for implementing this kind of functionality is the function #(sit-for)# provided by emacs which waits for a given time or until the user provides input and then runs the provided function:

(sit-for time after-fn)

It's usually best to wrap this with an #unwind-protect# to prevent errors bubbling up.

Full code

Combining these two components together, we can implement a temporary highlight function as follows:

(defun temporary-highlight (bounds face)
  "Temporarily highlight the region BOUNDS with FACE."
  ;; remove old highlights
  (remove-overlays nil nil 'temporary-higlight t)
  ;; create overlay and setup
  (lexical-let ((overlay (make-overlay (car bounds) (cdr bounds))))
    (overlay-put overlay 'face face)
    (overlay-put overlay 'temporary-highlight t)
    ;; now - keep the overlay around for 60-seconds 
    (unwind-protect (sit-for 60) 
        ;; after the timeout/user-input delete overlay
        (delete-overlay overlay))

Here we've done it just using a simple single overlay, but you can imagine how this might be used to highlight multiple separate sections temporarily - i.e highlight all matches.