Indirect buffers allow you to edit the same buffer in another buffer. The most interesting thing, however, is that the indirect buffer can have a different major mode.

This is great: If you want to write some elisp in a mail, start writing the mail, create an indirect buffer, put it in emacs-lisp-mode, write your lisp function, switch back to the original mail, and send it.

A comment: if I do as suggested above, although I can turn on lisp mode in the cloned buffer (Emacs 21) and get indentation etc correct, font locking is still as in the original buffer. Why? – MaDa

I have the opposite problem. Font locking works fine in the indirect buffer with the new mode, but when i go back, the rest of the base buffer is also colored according to the indirect major mode. Anyone with insights into the workings of font-lock-mode and indirect buffers/narrowing? – Anonymous

The indirect buffer shares its text with the original buffer, including properties. – PeterMielke

That’s OK – no problem. Just toggle ‘font-lock-mode’ in the base buffer (twice) to get back its font-locking. You can have different major modes in the buffers, and they can use different font-locking. – DrewAdams

Also see Edit Indirect, which lets you edit regions in a separate buffer, with its own major mode and text properties. – Anonymous

Indirect Buffers that Clone and Narrow Other Buffers

Library NarrowIndirect provides simple commands to create an indirect buffer that is a clone of the current buffer and that is narrowed to a particular portion of it. By default, it helps you distinguish such indirect buffers from non-indirect buffers, by using a buffer-name prefix (default ‘I-’) and by using a different face for the buffer name in the mode line.

Emacs 21 and More Recent

Emacs 21 provides functions to do this easily:

This creates an indirect buffer visiting the same file as the current buffer.
Use this for *Info* and *Help* buffers. You cannot clone buffers visiting files. You can clone buffers with inferior processes; anything which uses comint, such as SQL, shell, and ssh buffers. A new inferior process is spawned for the cloned buffer.

Also see view-indirect-buffer-other-window over at ViewMode

Emacs 20

Here’s the code to put in your ~/.emacs in order to get something like clone-indirect-buffer.

    (defun indirect-buffer ()
      "Edit stuff in this buffer in an indirect buffer.
    The indirect buffer can have another major mode."
      (let ((buffer-name (generate-new-buffer-name "*indirect*")))
        (pop-to-buffer (make-indirect-buffer (current-buffer) buffer-name))))

Use ‘M-x indirect-buffer’ to create an indirect buffer of the current buffer.

Indirect Region Extension to Vanilla Emacs

And this is what I use now regularly for reading book material containing sourcecode examples.

    (defvar indirect-mode-name nil
      "Mode to set for indirect buffers.")
    (make-variable-buffer-local 'indirect-mode-name)
    (defun indirect-region (start end)
      "Edit the current region in another buffer.
    If the buffer-local variable `indirect-mode-name' is not set, prompt
    for mode name to choose for the indirect buffer interactively.
    Otherwise, use the value of said variable as argument to a funcall."
      (interactive "r")
      (let ((buffer-name (generate-new-buffer-name "*indirect*"))
             (if (not indirect-mode-name)
                 (setq indirect-mode-name
                         "Mode: "
                         (mapcar (lambda (e) 
                                   (list (symbol-name e)))
                                 (apropos-internal "-mode$" 'commandp))
                         nil t)))
        (pop-to-buffer (make-indirect-buffer (current-buffer) buffer-name))
        (funcall mode)
        (narrow-to-region start end)
        (goto-char (point-min))


It seems one can also set the mode from a fake buffer-file-name (using auto-mode-alist in the usual way). At least with Emacs v20. So a fake-file-name of say “x.el” will result in emacs-lisp-mode.

     (with-current-buffer the-indirect-buffer
       (set 'buffer-file-name fake-file-name)
       (set-auto-mode) ; in files.el
       ; (set 'buffer-file-name nil) doesn't appear necessary.

CategoryDotEmacs CategoryRegion CategoryCode