Austin Bingham from Good With Computers
In the first article in this series we looked at how to define the simplest
company-mode backend. This backend drew completion candidates from a
predefined list of options, and allowed you to do completion in buffers in
fundamental mode. The main purpose of that article was to introduce the
essential plumbing of a company-mode backend.
In this article we'll expand upon the work of the first, adding some
useful UI elements like annotations and metadata. We'll also implement a
rough form of fuzzy matching, wherein candidates will be presented to
the user when they mostly match the prefix. After this article you'll
know almost everything you need to know about writing company-mode
backends, and you'll be in a great position to learn the rest on your
Most of what we'll be doing in the article revolves around handling
completion candidate "metadata", data associated in some way with our
completion candidates. In practice this kind of data covers things like
documentation strings, function signatures, symbols types, and so forth,
but for our purposes we'll simply associate some biographical data with
the names in our completion set sample-completions.
company-mode provides affordances for displaying metadata as part of
the completion process. For example, if your backend is showing
completions for function names, you could display the currently-selected
function's signature in the echo area. We'll develop a backend that
displays a sentence about the selected candidate in the echo area, and
we'll also display their initials as an annotation in the candidate
selection popup menu.
Adding more data to our completion candidates
First we need to add some metadata to our existing completion candidates. To do
this we'll use Emacs text properties. ((Text properties allow you to associate
arbitrary data with strings. You can read about them here.
Specifically, we use the special read syntax for text properties.))
For each completion candidate we define an :initials property containing
their initials and a :summary property containing a one-sentence summary of
the candidate. To add these properties, update sample-completions to
look like this:
'(#("alan" 0 1
(concat "Alan Mathison Turing, OBE, FRS (/ˈtjʊərɪŋ/ "
"tewr-ing; 23 June 1912 – 7 June 1954) was a "
"British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, "
"philosopher, pioneering computer scientist, "
"mathematical biologist, and marathon and ultra "
#("john" 0 1
(concat "John von Neumann (/vɒn ˈnɔɪmən/; December 28, "
"1903 – February 8, 1957) was a Hungarian and "
"American pure and applied mathematician, physicist, "
"inventor and polymath.")))
#("ada" 0 1
(concat "Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (10 December "
"1815 – 27 November 1852), born Augusta Ada Byron "
"and now commonly known as Ada Lovelace, was an "
"English mathematician and writer chiefly known for "
"her work on Charles Babbage's early mechanical "
"general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine.")))
#("don" 0 1
(concat "Donald Ervin Knuth (/kəˈnuːθ/ kə-nooth; born "
"January 10, 1938) is an American computer "
"scientist, mathematician, and Professor Emeritus "
"at Stanford University.")))))
Attaching properties like this is a very convenient way to store
metadata for completion candidates. Of course in a real backend you
probably wouldn't have a hard-coded list of candidates, and you'd be
fetching them dynamically from a server, database, or external process.
In that case, you'd need to also dynamically fetch the metadata you want
and attach it to the candidate strings you serve through your backend.
In the end, text properties work well in this context because they
transparently transport the metadata - which company-mode doesn't
know about - with the completion strings that company-mode
definitely knows about.
As a final improvement to our backend, let's add support for fuzzy matching.
This will let us do completion on prefixes which don't exactly match a
candidate, but which are close enough. For our purposes we'll implement a very crude
form of fuzzy matching wherein a prefix matches a candidate if the set of
letters in the prefix is a subset of the set of letters in the candidate. The
function for performing fuzzy matching looks like this:
(defun sample-fuzzy-match (prefix candidate )
(cl-subsetp (string-to-list prefix)
Now we just need to modify our backend a bit. First we need to modify our
response to the candidates command to use our new fuzzy matcher. Then we
need to respond to the no-cache command by returning true. Here's how
(defun company-sample-backend (command &optional arg &rest ignored)
(interactive (list 'interactive))
(interactive (company-begin-backend 'company-sample-backend))
(prefix (and (eq major-mode 'fundamental-mode)
(lambda (c) (sample-fuzzy-match arg c))
(annotation (sample-annotation arg))
(meta (sample-meta arg))
As you can see, we've replaced string-prefix-p in the candidates
response with sample-fuzzy-match, and we've added (no-cache 't).
Here's how our fuzzy matching looks in action:
That's all, folks
We've seen how to use Emacs' text properties to attach metadata to
candidate strings. This is a really useful technique to use when
developing company-mode backends, and one that you'll see used in
real-world backends. With that metadata in place, we've also seen that
it's very straightforward to tell your backend to display annotations in
popup menus and metadata in the echo area. Once you've got the basic
techniques under your belt, you can display anything you want as part of
There are still more aspects to developing company-mode backends,
but with what we've covered in this series you can get very far. More
importantly, you know the main concepts and infrastructure for the
backends, so you can learn the rest on your own. If you want to delve
into all of the gory details, you'll need to read the company-mode
source code, and specifically the documentation for
For an example of a fairly full-featured backend implementation that's
currently in use (and under active development), you can see the
emacs-ycmd project. Happy hacking!