The Definitive Guide To Syntax Highlighting

What do you expect your editor to highlight? What are the different ways that we can highlight code without calling external tools? Whilst most editors have converged on a common set of base functionality, there’s still innovation occurring in this field.

The limitation of highlighting tools is that you can’t use all of them at the same time. We’ll explore what’s available to help you choose.

I’m taking these examples from Emacs, but many of these are available on other editors too. We’ll limit ourselves to programming language highlighting that the editor itself can do, ignoring lint tools and VCS integrations.

Lexical Highlighting

js-mode in the standard Emacs theme

A programmer typically expects syntax highlighting to look like this. Different lexical categories – function names, keywords, comments and so on – are each shown in a different colour. Virtually all editors provide this, with the notable exception of Acme. In Emacs, this is largely done with font-lock-syntax-table, though font-lock-keywords is usually used too.

Simple lexical highlighting is already useful. Syntactic mistakes, such as typos in keywords or unclosed string or comments, become obvious.

A note on screenshots: The above image is the default colour scheme in Emacs. In other images I’ve customised the styling to only show the highlighting that’s related to the feature mentioned. The code samples aren’t particularly idiomatic or elegant, I’ve simply chosen them to show off relevant parts of the syntax.

It’s interesting to see that default Emacs colour scheme does not choose a washed out grey for comments, preferring to make comments prominent.

Extended Lexical Highlighting

Depending on your taste for ‘angry fruit salad’ highlighting, you might choose to distinguish more lexical classes. Emacs has font-lock-maximum-decoration to adjust how many distinct things are highlighted, but it’s rarely used in practice.

There are variety of minor modes that offer additional highlighting of specific syntactic features. What’s great about these minor-modes is that they compose nicely, allowing them to be reused for highlighting many different languages.

highlight-numbers

This is highlight-numbers. It’s a simple, non-intrusive extension to highlighting that makes sense in pretty much every language.

highlight-quoted

Fun fact: Vim has a Common Lisp highlighting mode that highlights more syntax classes that Emacs does! Here’s a screenshot. One great feature of Vim’s mode is highlighting quoted values. This is available with highlight-quoted. As pictured above, it highlights quotes, backticks, and quoted symbols.

highlight-escapes

highlight-escape-sequences is another minor mode with a simple goal. In this case, it highlights escape sequences inside strings. It currently only supports Ruby and JavaScript.

enh-ruby-mode

All these minor modes are matters of preference. If a major mode developer likes this extended highlighting, they tend to include it in their major mode anyway. In the above example, enh-ruby-mode highlights all infix operators (in addition the standard Ruby highlighting).

Semantic Highlighting

Some modes include a full parser rather than just a lexer. This enables more sophisticated highlighting techniques.

js2-mode

js2-mode is the best example of this. js2-mode includes a full-blown recursive-descent ECMAScript parser, plus a number of common JS extensions. This enables js2-mode to distinguish more syntax types. For example, it can distinguish parameters and global variables (pictured above).

This is an amazing achievement and even allows the editor to do many checks that are traditionally done by lint tools. Highlighting globals is particularly useful because use of a global is not necessarily an error, but it’s useful information about the code. js2-mode can also be configured to highlight globals specific to your current project or JS platform (see js2-additional-externs).

S-expression Highlighting

Emacs also offers a number of specialist highlighting modes for s-expressions.

paren-face

paren-face is a simple minor mode that assigns an additional face to brackets, enabling you to style brackets separately. It’s intended to fade out the brackets, so you can focus on the rest of your code.

rainbow-delimeters

rainbow-delimeters takes the opposite approach. Each level of brackets is assigned a unique face, enabling you give each one a different colour. This works particularly well when using cond, as it’s easy to spot the different boolean expressions.

By default it allows nine levels of nesting before cycling colours (see rainbow-delimeters-max-face-count) but you will have to choose a tradeoff between more levels and contrast between the colours of the different levels. I settled for six levels that are very distinct (the defaults are rather subtle).

rainbow-blocks

If you like rainbow-delimeters, rainbow-blocks applies the same technique, but colours everything according to the nesting depth. It’s fantastic for seeing nesting, but it does limit how much else you can highlight.

highlight-stages

highlight-stages specifically targets quoted and quasi-quoted s-expressions. It enables the reader to easily spot unquoted parts of a quasi-quote, and is particularly useful if you’re nesting quasi-quotes.

Standard Library Highlighting

Another school of thought is that you should highlight all functions from the language standard or standard library. Xah Lee subscribes to this philosophy, and has released JS and elisp modes that provide this.

xah-elisp-mode

This is difficult to do in elisp as it’s a lisp-2, and this mode can confuse variables and functions slots (so list is highlighted even when used as a variable).

python-mode

The default Python mode in Emacs takes a similar approach, highlighting the 80 built-in functions and some methods on built-in types. This is hard to do in general, and python-mode will incorrectly highlight similarly-named methods on other types or methods whose name matches built-in functions.

Docstring Highlighting

docstrings in elisp

Docstrings are conceptually between strings and comments: they’re for the reader (like comments), but they’re available at runtime (like strings). Emacs exposes separate faces for comments, strings and docstrings (font-lock-comment-face, font-lock-string-face and font-lock-doc-face respectively).

Elisp docstrings may also contain additional syntax for cross-references. Emacs will highlight these differently too (though their primary purpose is linking cross-references in *Help* buffers).

js2-mode with JSDoc

Some languages support elaborate syntax in their comments, both to help the reader and to aid automatic documentation tools. In this example, js2-mode offers additional highlighting of JSDoc comments.

Contextual Highlighting

Another important area of highlighting is to highlight elements based on where the cursor (‘point’ in Emacs terminology) is currently located.

show-paren-mode

The most basic contextual highlighting is showing the matching bracket to the bracket currently at the cursor. This is part of Emacs, but off by default: show-paren-mode will switch it on.

hl-line-mode

Highlighting the current line is a very common feature of editor highlighting, and Emacs provides hl-line-mode for this. This works well for line-oriented programming languages.

hl-sexp-mode

When dealing with s-expressions, you can take this a step further with hl-sexp. This shows the entire s-expression under point, avoiding confusion when editing deeply nested expressions.

highlight-parentheses-mode

highlight-parentheses takes a more subtle approach. It highlights the current bracket as ‘hot’, and highlight outer brackets in progressively ‘cooler’ colours.

highlight-symbol-mode

The last example in this section is the superb highlight-symbol. This is invaluable for showing you where else the current symbol is being used. highlight-symbol is conservative and only does when the point isn’t moving, but set highlight-symbol-idle-delay to 0 to override this.

highlight-symbol-mode is particularly clever in that it’s able to inspect the current syntax table. This prevents it from becoming confused with strings like x-1, which is usually a single symbol in lisps, but equivalent to x - 1 in many other languages.

Explicit Highlighting

hi-lock-mode

There comes a point where automatic highlighting isn’t sufficient, and you want to explicitly highlight something. Emacs provides hi-lock-mode for this, and support a special comment syntax that allows other readers to see the same highlighting.

Substitutions

It’s also possible to configure Emacs to change how it display the text itself.

pretty-symbols-mode

There are several modes in Emacs for substituting strings like lambda or <= with their mathematical counterparts. Emacs 24.4 will also include a prettify-symbols-mode that provides this.

This works very well when editing LaTeX documents, but can be tricky with code. In cases like lambda you’re replacing with a shorter string, which means you end up indenting differently depending on whether you have substitutions switched on.

glasses-mode

glasses-mode is a fun minor mode for users who don’t like CamelCase. It displays camel case symbols with underscores, so FooBar becomes Foo_Bar, without changing the underlying text.

Hashed Highlighting

color-identifiers-mode

One novel approach to highlighting code is to give each symbol a different colour. You simply hash each string and assign a colour accordingly. This means that variables with similar spellings get completely different colours.

This was popularised recently by an article by Evan Brooks and color-identifiers-mode was released as a result (pictured above). KDevelop has had this feature for some time, calling it ‘semantic highlighting’. IRC clients often use this technique for nickname highlighting.

Whilst powerful, it’s tricky to get right. Too few colours, and different symbols end up the same colour. Too many colours, and it’s hard to visually distinguish some pairs of colours. In the above image, url and encodeURIComponent are quite similar. This small code snippet does not really take full advantage of hashed-based highlighting: it’s most effective when you have a larger piece of code with more distinct symbols.

Introspective Highlighting

highlight-defined-mode

Finally, self-hosting environments, such as Emacs or Smalltalk, can offer additional highlighting possibilities. highlight-defined enables you to highlight functions, variables or macros that are currently defined.

This works well for spotting typos in variable names, but it’s a little more sophisticated. In the above image, we can see that fibonacci has been evaluated, so the recursive calls are highlighted. We can even see whether we’ve forgotten to evaluate any library imports!

Pharo Workspace highlighting selectors

Pharo (a Smalltalk implementation) is also able to do this. The methods of classes (called ‘selectors’) may be changed at any point, but the environment can introspect to see if the current selector is appropriate for the value it is being called on.

This is quite different from the traditional Java-style IDE integration, as it’s based on runtime information in the current process, instead of static analysis.

In practice however, many of the benefits of introspective highlighting are provided by calling an external language-specific lint tool from the editor.

Conclusions

It’s really hard to compose syntax highlighting tools. Some of the examples here are very intrusive (particularly rainbow-blocks color-identifiers-mode), preventing you from using them in addition to other tools. The contextual highlighting tools are the best in this regard.

There’s a lot of information that could be displayed by the editor, but relatively little can be shown at once. The primary options for highlighting are only text colour, background colour, weight, lines (underline, overline, strikethrough) and fringes (colours shown at the left edge of the editor window).

If you’re writing a highlighting tool in Emacs, try to define your own faces wherever possible. For example, highlight-stages doesn’t provide a face, so it can only highlight quasi-quotes by changing the background colour. If you’re already using the background colour to highlight something else, you cannot make highlight-stages use underlines instead. I had similar problems with modes that dynamically define faces, as you can’t customise them in the normal way.

When you release a highlighting tool, please include screenshots. It’s amazing how many tools that I’ve listed have no screenshots on their GitHub pages.

Personally, I like angry fruit salad. Lots of contrasting colours for different lexical classes, plus tons of contextual highlighting, is the sweet spot for me. Experiment, and see what suits you.