Sometimes there are files that are too wide to be displayed comfortably. One option to deal with them is hard-wrapping or in other words, inserting physical newlines in the file with M-q. The other option is displaying the lines by wrapping them visually and inserting visual newlines in the window, this is what Emacs is doing by default, in a graphical instance it even displays visual indicators in the fringe at the wrapping points.

There is one problem with this mechanism though. First of all, soft-wrapping uses the window border as its ruler for word-breaking. This is kind of annoying with today’s wide screens as they easily go beyond the ancient standard of 80 columns. The other problem is that words are broken up which doesn’t look as good as breaking after whitespace.

Emacs used to offer a solution to both issues, longlines-mode. As of 24.4 it got marked as obsolete though, with the remark that it is replaced by visual-line-mode. Quick experimentation shows that while it avoids breaking words, it does not obey fill-column and will therefore be no good on wide windows.

A reddit discussion made me investigate into what exactly the difference between both minor modes was, simply because I wanted to know why they behaved differently, what the reason for the deprecation of the former was and how the regression of the latter could be fixed. I’ll let the code speak for itself this time, you can look at both longlines.el and simple.el.

First of all, longlines.el has 400 SLOC, the code in simple.el making up visual-line-mode amounts to 80 SLOC. The reduction in code size by a factor of five can be explained easily by looking its method of operation: visual-line-mode modifies a few tunables of the display engine and lets it do the heavy work. Apparently there is no tunable for the equivalent of fill-column yet which explains the apparent limitation.

longlines-mode however does something entirely different. It actually goes ahead and inserts specially marked up newlines at the breakpoints as determined by scanning forward and backward with Emacs Lisp code, then employs several hacks to convince Emacs that the text didn’t change and that it should neither include these extra newlines into copied text[1] nor should save them to disk. Additionally to that, a number of mode-specific hacks (including changing the default search function) is employed and the text rewrapped manually after each command and window size change. To me it’s pretty clear why this hackfest got obsoleted.

Fortunately there’s good news as well. It looks like someone already wrote a package to address the “deficiency” of using visual-line-mode as replacement for longlines-mode, visual-fill-column. So, as long as you weren’t relying on the implementation details of longlines-mode to work around another ugly bug[2], using the following in your init file after installing the package should do the trick:

(add-hook 'visual-line-mode-hook 'visual-fill-column-mode)
[1]Emacs comes with support for filtering buffer contents before passing them on commands, see the Buffer Contents section of the Emacs Lisp manual.
[2]There is a long-standing display engine problem that makes the redisplay excruciatingly slow for files with long lines. A commonly cited workaround is hard-wrapping these lines if possible, considering that longlines-mode is doing exactly that (and its extra hacks on top of it to make it look otherwise), it doesn’t surprise me that using it over visual-line-mode is a possible remedy for that bug.