Set 4 Space Indent in Emacs in Text Mode


I've been unsuccessful in getting Emacs to switch from 8 space tabs to 4 space tabs when pressing the TAB in buffers with the major mode text-mode. I've added the following to my .emacs:

(setq-default indent-tabs-mode nil)
(setq-default tab-width 4)

;;; And I have tried
(setq indent-tabs-mode nil)
(setq tab-width 4)

No matter how I change my .emacs file (or my buffer's local variables) the TAB button always does the same thing.

  1. If there is no text above, indent 8 spaces
  2. If there is text on the previous line, indent to the beginning of the second word

As much as I love Emacs this is getting annoying. Is there a way to make Emacs to at least indent 4 space when there's not text in the previous line?

Best Solution

Short answer:

The key point is to tell emacs to insert whatever you want when indenting, this is done by changing the indent-line-function. It is easier to change it to insert a tab and then change tabs into 4 spaces than change it to insert 4 spaces. The following configuration will solve your problem:

(setq-default indent-tabs-mode nil)
(setq-default tab-width 4)
(setq indent-line-function 'insert-tab)


From Indentation Controlled by Major Mode @ emacs manual:

An important function of each major mode is to customize the key to indent properly for the language being edited.


The indent-line-function variable is the function to be used by (and various commands, like when calling indent-region) to indent the current line. The command indent-according-to-mode does no more than call this function.


The default value is indent-relative for many modes.

From indent-relative @ emacs manual:

Indent-relative Space out to under next indent point in previous nonblank line.


If the previous nonblank line has no indent points beyond the column point starts at, `tab-to-tab-stop' is done instead.

Just change the value of indent-line-function to the insert-tab function and configure tab insertion as 4 spaces.