Copying and Pasting in Emacs

The Emacs documentation on copying and pasting, which is in the GNU info format and can be accessed by C-h i from Emacs, is very detailed and comprehensive. In my version of emacs (26), it is in section 12, “Killing and Moving Text”. I can see the Emacs info documentation on this topic with shell command info “(emacs)Killing” | less

It is also a lot to read. This document aims to be an introduction and quick reference.

Emacs Terminology

Emacs terms were established a long time ago and are not typical.

Table: Emacs Lexicon

Standard term Emacs term
to cut to kill
to copy to save to the kill ring
to paste to yank
the clipboard the kill ring
the cursor point
Alt Meta, usually (e.g., M-w is usually Alt-w)
selected text the region, bounded by the cursor (point) and mark
NA mark: start or end of selected text

Copying in Emacs

Copying in Emacs does not have as many commands as cutting. For example, there are two commands for cutting lines (kill-line & kill-whole-line), but not for copying lines. Copying can be achieved by doing a cut (kill) followed either by an undo (C-x u) or by a yank (paste) (C-y), or by selecting text (either with mouse or keyboard) then doing kill-ring-save (M-w).

Emacs Clipboard a.k.a. Kill Ring

The kill ring (clipboard) of Emacs contains more than the most recently copied/cut text; the kill ring contains a list (by default 60 at most) of recent copied/cut text. This is a very useful feature. It is a list with wraparound behavior—when you access past its end, it goes back to the beginning, and vice versa. Hence, it behaves like a circular list or “ring”.

Viewing the Clipboard (Kill Ring) and Selecting an Entry to Paste

Pasting, by default, accesses the most recently cut/copied text. With Emacs, you have a history of text entries to choose from. In a GUI version of Emacs, click the Edit menu (or hit F10 if it’s not visible), then move the mouse over “Paste from Kill Menu”, and you will see many of the recent entries. You can click on one to paste it. In a text-only version of Emacs, you achieve the same thing by navigating with keys instead of a mouse. Again, start with menu-bar-open F10.

Useful Commands

Table: Useful commands for copying and pasting in Emacs

Command Key(s) Summary Note
kill-region C-w cut selected text like Control-x
kill-ring-save M-w copy selected text like Control-c
yank C-y paste like Control-v
menu-bar-open F10 Edit menu is useful
kill-line C-k cut line to end
kill-whole-line C-S-backspace cut entire line key works only in GUI
kill-word M-d
kill-sentence M-k
set-mark-command C-SPC or C-@ start selecting text
undo C-/ or C-_ or C-x u use after kill to restore text

Selecting Text With the Keyboard

In Emacs, you can use the keyboard to select the text, then copy or cut it. First, put the cursor (or “point”) at the start of the text you want to select, then press C-SPC. Then, navigate the cursor to the end of the text you want to select. You should see the selected text highlighted. Now, use C-w or M-w to cut or copy.


This article highlighted the process of copying and pasting using Emacs through the use of the Emacs terminology. In addition, useful commands and the efficient use of the keyboard to utilize the copy and paste commands were discussed. We hope you found these tips helpful and encourage you to check out our other articles at Linux Hint.

About the author

Greg Reagle

Greg Reagle is a life-long computer learner, having started with video games and Basic in his early childhood. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and several certifications, including LPIC-1 which goes with his special interest in Linux. He does diverse computer consulting and tech support work. See linkedin.