An Online Editor[1]

L. Peter Deutsch and Butler W. Lampson

University of California,[2] Berkeley, California


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Citation: Comm. ACM 10, 12 (Dec. 1967), pp 793-799

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An online, interactive system for text editing is described in detail, with remarks on the theoretical and experimental justification for its form. Emphasis throughout the system is on providing maximum convenience and power for the user. Notable features are its ability to handle any piece of text, the content-searching facility, and the character-by-character editing operations. The editor can be programmed to a limited extent.


One of the fundamental requirements for many computer users is some means of creating and altering text, i.e., strings of characters. Such texts are usually programs written in some symbolic language, but they may be reports, messages, or visual representations. The most common means of text handling in the last few years has been the punched card deck. Paper tape and magnetic tape have also been used as input, but the fact that individual cards can be inserted and deleted manually in the middle of a deck has made the keypunch the most convenient and popular device for text editing.

With the appearance of online systems, however, in which text is stored permanently within the system and never appears on external storage media, serious competition to the punched card has arisen. Since the online user has no access to his text except through his console and the computer, a program is needed, however minimal, to allow him to create and modify the text. Such a program is called an editor and presupposes a reasonably large and powerful machine equipped with disk or drum storage. The user therefore gains more convenience than even the most elaborate keypunch can provide. The characteristics of a good online editor and some of the techniques which can be used in implementing it are the subjects of this paper.

The number of such editors known to the author is not large. Time sharing systems on the 7094 at Project MAC [1] and the AN/FSQ32 at the System Development Corporation [2] have them, and at least two have been written for the PDP-1 [6]. The present paper is built around a description of the editor in the Berkeley time sharing system for the SDS-930 [3, 4], which is called QED. An attempt is made to discuss all the valuable features which have been built into editors for teletypes or typewriters, with the exception of the “runoff” [1] facility for producing properly formatted final documents. Systems for CRT displays are not considered, since many of their design considerations are quite different.

The most important characteristic of an editor is its convenience for the user. Such convenience requires a simple and mnemonic command language, and a method of text organization which allows the user to think in terms of the structure of his text rather than in some framework fixed by the system. In view of the speed and characteristics of a teletype, there are substantial advantages to a line-oriented system. However, the physical mechanism of the teletype makes it difficult to deal with individual characters, and the speed makes a larger unit somewhat inconvenient.

Fortunately, line orientation does not impose any restrictions on the text which can be handled by the editor, since all forms of text fall of necessity into lines. Preservation of this generality is one of the important design criteria, and it will be seen from the description below that very little has to be sacrificed to this end.

In order to allow the user to orient himself in the text, the concept of searches or content addressing has been introduced. In its simplest form, a content address allows the user to reference the lines of his text by the labels which he has naturally attached to them in the course of the construction. More general searches allow him to find occurrences of specified strings of characters. This device allows the user a maximum amount of freedom to arrange his text as he sees fit without compromising his ability to address it. Many particular conventions can be accommodated within the general framework.

The basic characteristics of QED are line organization and content addressing. For the casual user of the system, four or five commands and understanding of the addressing scheme will provide ample power. A more frequent user will, however, be able to make good use of additional features, which include: (1) a line editing mode which permits character-by-character editing of a line; (2) buffers for storing frequently used text or command sequences; (3) a substitute command; (4) the ability to save a set of editing commands and later repeat the edit automatically; (5) automatic adjustable tab stops.

Another important consideration in the design of QED has been simplicity of implementation. The original version of the system, admittedly without many of the elaborate features, was designed, written, and debugged by one man in less than a week, and the entire program now occupies less than 4000 words of reentrant code.

Basic Editing Operations

QED regards the text on which it is operating as a single long string of characters called the main text buffer. Structure is imposed on this string by the interpretation of carriage returns as line delimiters. Lines can be addressed by absolute line number, and the characters on line n are those between the (n — l)st and the nth carriage returns, including the latter but excluding the former. The line number of a particular line may, of course, change if carriage returns are added or deleted earlier in the buffer. These absolute line numbers are in principle sufficient, together with three simple commands, for any editing operation. All the other devices for addressing text are syntactically equivalent to line numbers; i.e., any address can be replaced by the line number of the line it addresses. It will be convenient in the remainder of this section to take advantage of this fact and defer discussion of other addressing mechanisms until the basic commands have been presented.

The normal state of the editor is its command mode. Whenever this mode is entered, it prints a carriage return and a “*” to indicate its readiness for a command. The other modes are text mode and line edit mode; they will be explained in turn.

All commands take one of the following forms:


(address) (command)

(address), (address) (command)

Some commands also take additional arguments. The command itself is in most cases specified by a single letter. The time sharing system in which the editor runs allows programs to interact with the teletype on a character-by-character basis, and the QED command recognizer makes use of this capability to supply the remaining letters of the command. This has proved to be a valuable aid to the beginning and to the occasional user of the editor. An expert user can suppress the command completion.

After a command has been given, it must be confirmed by a period. The teletypes used in the system are full duplex, so that the period may be typed in while the command is being completed. It is therefore unnecessary for the user to synchronize his typing with the computer’s responses.

The three basic editing commands are INSERT, DELETE, and PRINT. An insert command has the form


The computer generates a carriage return and goes into text mode, in which it will accept a string of characters to be inserted in the text immediately preceding line 12. The text is terminated by a teletype control character, control D, which is generated by holding down the CONTROL shift key and pushing the “D” key. (Control characters appear in boldface type in this paper.)

The existence of control characters, which do not, with a few exceptions, produce any effect on the teletype, makes it possible for the user to give instructions to the editor while he is in text mode without any escape character convention. In addition to D for terminating text input, three delete characters are available. A deletes the last character typed which has not already been deleted and Q the last line. The third delete character, W, deletes a word, which is defined as all the immediately preceding blanks and all the characters up to the next preceding blank. These characters permit the immediate correction of minor errors in text input.

Although the delete characters themselves are nonprinting, it is desirable that something should appear on the paper when they are used, since otherwise it becomes very difficult to keepi track of the state of the text being entered from the keyboard. It has therefore been arranged that A will cause a “↑” to be printed, Q a “←”, and W a “\”. This convention has the unfortunate result that text containing these characters becomes confusing when the delete characters are used. No confusion is possible, however, when the text is typed out by the editor.

Another important feature of QED’s text mode is the tab stop. The user can set tab stops to any positions he desires, using the TABS command. For example:


5, 10, 15, 20.

After the command has been given, there are tab stops at positions 5, 10, 15, and 20 on the line. Thereafter the character I (labeled TAB on the keyboard) will generate enough blanks to bring the printing element of the teletype to the next tab stop.

A command complementary to INSERT is DELETE, which takes the form


and causes line 12 to be deleted from the text. Another form is


which causes lines 12, 13, and 14 to be deleted.

These two commands are sufficient for any editing operation. The third basic QED command is PRINT, which may also be given with one or two addresses.


prints line 12.


prints lines 12, 13, and 14. When a line is printed, all printing characters (those in the teletype type box) are printed in their proper sequence. Nonprinting characters such as control characters, are printed as

&(letter corresponding to the control character)

An editor must also be able to read in data from some storage medium and write out data for later use. These functions are provided in QED by READ and WRITE commands, which take the form




The READ command appends the contents of the file to the main text buffer. The WRITE command may be preceded by two line numbers, in which case only the specified portion of the text will be written out.

Figure 1 illustrates the creation and correction of a small program using the commands which have just been described. It also makes use of the APPEND command, an INSERT which puts the new text after the line addressed. An APPEND with no argument puts the text at the end of the buffer. Perusal of this example will suggest the utility of a number of additional conveniences in the editor. The simplest of these is the CHANGE command, which combines the functions of INSERT and DELETE. In fact,


is exactly equivalent to


Like DELETE, CHANGE can be used with two line numbers. The number of lines inserted has no relation to the number of lines deleted.

Two minor extensions of PRINT are single-character commands to print the next line of text (line feed) and to print the preceding line (↑). There is also a command which prints the text in pages 11 inches long; it provides page headings and numbers if requested.

In the original implementation of QED, the main text buffer was stored as a string of consecutive characters in memory. This simple storage allocation scheme makes it easy to implement the commands so far discussed. A deletion, for example, is accomplished by moving the character following the deleted section towards the beginning of the buffer to cover the ones being deleted. See Figure 2.

Insertion is slightly more complex. The text to be inserted is collected in a special storage area. When it has been completely typed in, the characters after the point at which the insertion is to be made are moved far enough toward the end of the buffer to make room for the new text, which is copied into the space created for it.

Only three pointers to the text are maintained by the system: one to the beginning of the buffer, one to the end, and one to the current line. This means that no readjustment of pointers is required by the displacements described above.


10       REARA t D, 100, N

         SUM = 0

         DO 20 I = 1, 1, N




10 READ 100, N



         READ 101, X

20       SUM - SUM Q

20       SUM = SUM + X

         WRITE 201, S, W\101, SUM

100      FORMAT (61)

101      FORMAT (F10.5)





100      FORMAT (16)




         DO 20 I = 1, N, 1



10       READ 100, N

         SUM = 0

         DO 20 I = 1, N

         READ 101, X

20       SUM = SUM + X

         WRITE 101, SUM

100      FORMAT (16)

101      FORMAT (F10.5)


fig. 1. Example of basic QED commands. Note that control characters (in boldface here) do not print anything


(a) Main text buffer before deletion

                       line 1     line 12 (old line 15)     line 37 (old line 40)

(b) After deletion


        line 1        line 12   line 15        line 40

fig. 2. Action of the command *12,14DELETE

When the amount of text being edited becomes large, these simple algorithms begin to become unattractive in terms of efficiency. This problem can be alleviated, however, by dividing the text into artificial pages and leaving a reasonable amount of free space at the end of every page. The effect of nearly all the displacements discussed above can then be confined to a single page. When large insertions or deletions are made it may be necessary to redo the paging completely, but this is an infrequent occurrence. Such a paging scheme is further recommended by the fact that it permits most of the text to be kept out of main memory most of the time. Only one or two pages need to be available for any single editing operation.

Efficiency can be further increased, in a machine which is basically word-oriented, by storing each line in an integral number of words. Since the line always ends with exactly one carriage return, the last word can be filled out if necessary with additional carriage returns without any possibility of confusion being introduced. This arrangement greatly speeds up most searches and all insertions or deletions, since the text can now be handled a word at a time. It may also be convenient to keep the number of words in each line at the beginning of the line.

All these improvements have been incorporated in the latest implementation of QED. The result has been that most editing operations, even on files of 50 or 100 thousand characters, can be done with less than a tenth of a second of computation.


As we have already noted, and as even the trivial example in Figure 1 suggests, absolute line numbers are not a sufficiently powerful addressing mechanism. An attempt to edit a 1000-line program would illustrate this point even more forcibly. It is necessary to be able to address a line by its contents as well as by its location. The simplest way to arrange this is to provide each line with a sequence number, generated either automatically by the editor or manually by the user. The lines are kept ordered by sequence number and can be addressed directly. There are two objections to this scheme.

(1) It requires the user to concern himself with an artificial device which has no relevance to his text but nonetheless intrudes on it, wasting space and time on output and reducing its usefulness as a document.

(2) Insertions and deletions will eventually force renumbering of the lines. When this happens, a complete new listing must be generated if the sequence numbers are to be of any use. Furthermore, as a result of this process numbers do not stay attached to lines.

A more satisfactory scheme is a more general kind of content addressing. In its simplest form this allows the user to refer to the line

XYZ   ADD    =14

with the address :XYZ:. The meaning of this construction is that the text is to be searched for a line beginning with the characters inside the colons, with the requirement that they be followed by a character which is not a letter or digit. A line such as

XYZA   SUB    = 24

will therefore not be found. The search begins with the line after the one last accessed and continues, cycling to the beginning of the buffer if it runs off the end, until a line beginning with the specified string is found, or until the entire buffer has been scanned. In the latter case, QED prints “?” and awaits a new command.

This kind of content addressing, called label addressing, is convenient for many kinds of text, including most programs. It is also possible, however, to search for a line containing any string of characters in any position by using the construct [(string)], where (string) refers to any string of characters not containing “]”.

The usefulness of content addresses is enhanced by the fact that they may be followed by integer displacements, positive or negative. Thus in Figure 1, the third line could be addressed in any of the following ways:







[1 = 1]

[101, SUM]-3




since :10: refers to line 1

since :20: refers to line 5

since only line 3 contains the string “1=1”

since only line 6 contains the string “101, SUM”


The search can be started at any line, rather than at the current one, by putting the starting line immediately before the search construct. Thus in Figure 1, 4[I] would find line 6, as would :20:[101].

Two minor devices offer additional convenience. The character “.” refers to the current line and the character “$” to the last line in the buffer. The “current line” is defined according to rigid rules which are set forth in the listing of Table I. The reason for this careful specification is that an experienced user of the editor makes frequent use of “.” in performing insert and delete operations. If he cannot be perfectly sure of its value, he is forced to print the lines he intends to work on before doing the edits, which is very time-consuming.

Another very useful convention is that “.” is assumed as the argument of a command which is given without one. Thus PRINT, will print the current line. Exceptions to this rule are READ and APPEND, which assume “$” unless told otherwise, and WRITE, which assumes “1,$”.

Two minor commands permit an address to be displayed either as an absolute line number (= command) or in symbolic form, as the label of the nearest preceding line which does not begin with a blank or asterisk, followed by an integer displacement ( command). Thus with the text of Figure 1 in the buffer, QED would respond to :10:= with 1, to :100:= with 7, to 6← with :20:+1, to [SUM+X]-1← with :10:+3.


table I. Rules for determining the value of “.”

Last operation performed

Successful search

Unsuccessful search

Any insertion

Any deletion

Print or write

Value of “.”

Line found


Last line inserted

Line preceding first deleted line

Last line printed or written

Line Editing

Circumstances frequently arise in which it is necessary to make small changes to a line already in the text: two or three characters may need to be inserted or deleted. This is an area in which the weaknesses of the teletype make themselves felt, and a truly satisfactory solution can only be had with a display device on which the user can point to the characters he wishes to change. There are, unfortunately, no mechanisms for addressing characters within a line on a teletype which are not more trouble than they are worth.

QED does, however, contain a character editing mechanism which provides many of the features a user might want. This power has been purchased at the cost of considerable complexity; although the basic idea of the line edit is simple, there is a profusion of commands to speed up the handling of special cases which is somewhat bewildering to the new user.

The command *12EDIT. will cause line 12 to be typed out, followed by a carriage return. The editor is now in its line edit mode, in which it will recognize a number of teletype control characters in addition to the A, Q, W, and D which are normally recognized when text is being typed in. The new characters are interpreted as instructions for the creation of a new line from the old one which was typed out. These instructions cause characters to be copied from the old line into the new one, skipped over without being copied, replaced or inserted. When the new line is complete, it will replace the old one, and QED will return to command mode. The simple examples in Figure 3 will clarify the process.

old line

control characters input

ordinary characters input

output during edit

new line


old line

control characters input

ordinary characters input

output during edit

new line


old line

control characters input

ordinary characters input

output during edit

remainder of old line

new line so far

control characters input

ordinary characters input

output during edit

new line



   Y               N      





Z     X    E      D

O     U    ST THOU





CCCSE   Z      C C T

    OUGHO       E ,


                    AND THRU CURTAINS CALL ON US?


                 Z        C  Z        D

                 R       O GHN       E



fig. 3. Examples of line edits.

The first example shows the use of C to copy characters and S to skip over them. Note that when a character is skipped, a “%” is printed so as to keep the new line aligned with the old one. When an ordinary character is typed in, it replaces the corresponding character in the old line. To save repetition of C, a Z causes the old line to be copied up to and including the next occurrence of the following character. Note that the latter is not printed when it is typed in, but when it is reached in the line. This is accomplished by suppressing the echo for the character after the Z, another application of the full-duplex capabilities of the teletype. The result is that the edited line continues to be properly aligned with the old one.

The second example illustrates the use of X to skip to the next occurrence of a character; this instruction is exactly analogous to Z. Also shown is the insertion of characters: an E causes ordinary characters to be inserted rather than replace characters already existing. The E causes a “<“ to be printed. A second E will switch back to replacing and print a “>”. Insertion of course spoils the alignment. It can be restored with a TYPE instruction (T), which types the remainder of the old line and the portion of the new line so far constructed, and aligns the ends properly. The third example illustrates this process.

A line edit is usually terminated by a carriage return, which suppresses the remainder of the old line, or by a D, which copies the remainder of the old line into the new line. Both are illustrated, in the first and second examples, respectively.

Figure 4 is a list of the control characters recognized in a line edit. The ones dealing with tabs are useful for editing one field of a fixed-field line. Illegal instructions, such as Z followed by a character not in the old line, cause the teletype bell to ring and are otherwise ignored. Characters typed after the whole of the old line has been copied are appended to the new line, regardless of whether the mode is replace or insert. Note that the escape character V allows any character to be added to the text regardless of its normal interpretation as a command. It works throughout the system, not just in the line edit mode.






Delete preceding character in new line


Delete preceding character in new line. Backspace pointer to old line if deleted character was copied from old line.


Delete preceding word


Restore old line


Copy character from old to new line


Skip character in old line, print %


Copy up to and including the next occurrence of following character


Copy up to but not including the next occurrence of the following character


Skip up to and including next occurrence of following character, print %


Skip up to but not including the next occurrence of the following character, print %


Type old and new lines


Copy remainder of old line to new one, without print­ing, and start edit over on new line


Copy to end of old line


Tab, i.e., replace old line with blanks up to next tab


Copy old line up to next tab


Skip rest of old line and terminate edit


Copy and print rest of old line and terminate edit


Copy rest of old line without printing and terminate edit

fig. 4. Line edit instructions




10       REARAD, 100, N

         SUM = 0

         DO 20 I = 1, 1, N



ZD         SD

10 READ% 100, N


         READ 101, X

20       SUM - SUM Q←

20       SUM = SUM + X

         WRITE 201, S, W\101, SUM

100      FORMAT (6I)

101      FORMAT (F10.5) END



Z(               16D

100      FORMAT (16)


Z,                    N, 1D

         DO 20 I = 1, N, 1


fig. 5. The example of Figure 1 redone. The lines paired with braces are the editing characters in a line edit (above) and the characters typed out during the edit (below).

Figure 5 is a repetition of the edit performed in Figure 1. The same errors are made, but many of the features described above are used to speed the process. It illustrates the MODIFY command, which is identical to EDIT except that it suppresses the initial printing of the old line.


An alternative method of altering a few characters in the middle of a line is the SUBSTITUTE command, which is modeled after the CHANGE command in the Project MAC editor [1]. Its simplest form is illustrated by the following example. Suppose the current line is


Then the user’s command

SUBSTITUTE /DAY/ FOR /TIME/ would result in


The italicized characters in the command above are the ones supplied by the user. The “/” is the delimiter for this substitution; the delimiter is taken to be the first nonblank character after the initial “S”, and it terminates both new and old strings. If command completion had been turned off, the command would have appeared as


Figure 6 illustrates the edits which were performed in Figure 4 with the line edit as they might be done with SUBSTITUTE.




















fig. 6. Examples of substitution





Display each substitution before making it and wait for the user to accept or reject it.


Display each substitution after making it.

: (decimal number)

Terminate the command after the specified number of substitutions have been made.

fig. 7. Options for the SUBSTITUTE command

The substitution may be done for the text in a number of lines in the obvious way. Thus


changes every “-” in the main text buffer to a “+”. A number of options may also be specified: They take the form


and come immediately after the initial “S”. Because of this convention, “:” may not be used as a delimiter. The most important options are listed in Figure 7. For example,


will change the first occurrence of “BETA” in the text buffer to “ALPHA”.

String Buffers

Although QED is not a programming language, it does have one feature which makes it possible, among other things, to write simple programs in it, and that is the 36 string buffers, identified by the digits 0 through 9 and the letters A through Z. Each string buffer can be loaded with an arbitrary string of characters, either from specified lines of main text buffer or from teletype input. The buffer can be called by the two characters Bn where n is a letter or digit. The editor then behaves exactly as though the characters in the buffer were being typed in on the teletype.

This fact has a number of implications. First of all, it permits the user to insert a frequently used phrase in the text by typing just two characters. Secondly, it permits him to move around sections of his text by loading them into string buffers and inserting the buffers at the desired points. To facilitate this operation, a command is available which loads a section of the text buffer into a string buffer and deletes it from the text buffer.

Thirdly, it is possible to put frequently used commands into string buffers. The existence of the escape character, V, which causes the next character to be taken literally no matter what it is, allows control characters such as A to appear in buffers. In particular, it allows calls on other buffers to appear in a buffer, and the convention that a call on the buffer itself is taken as a loop command permits simple functions to be performed repeatedly. For example, if the string


is put into buffer A, then a call on this buffer in command mode will cause the second, third, and fourth characters to be removed from every line in the buffer following the current one.

The possibility of extending this elementary program-writing capability in QED has been seriously considered. The most obvious addition is some kind of conditional facility, and a pattern-matching feature similar to the one in snobol [5] has also received attention. The tentative conclusion has been that such features would be of marginal utility, since small programs can readily be written in snobol or other string-processing languages to accomplish repetitive editing operations.

Several of the numbered buffers are automatically loaded by QED under certain conditions. In particular, the argument of a search is put into buffer 0, any block of text deleted by a DELETE or CHANGE is put into buffer 1 (unless it is too big), as is the text altered by an EDIT or SUBSTITUTE command. This allows an erroneous editing operation to be undone with a small amount of work. Finally, the new and old strings in a SUBSTITUTE command are put into buffers 2 and 3.


It is possible to regard the commands given to QED during an editing session as text which the system can be told to store. At a later time this text can be retrieved and fed back to QED as commands. In this way it is possible to maintain several slightly different versions of a body of text without using up a great deal of storage space, simply by keeping one copy of the text and some small files containing editing commands which create the various versions from the single standard one. In addition to the saving in space, there is the further advantage that changes in the text which are common to all versions need be made only once. Furthermore, since the commands are simply text, they can themselves be modified using QED before they are used to perform the edit. This is sometimes a good way of correcting errors in editing.

Another use for saved commands is in combining several edits into a single one in a normalized form in which the commands are reduced to INSERT, DELETE, and CHANGE and ordered by the absolute line numbers of the lines of text affected. This combination and normalization is not a trivial operation, since it is not in general true that QED commands commute, but it is possible, and a program to accomplish it has been designed. The result is a complete and easily referenced record of all the changes made to a body of text over what may be a long period of time.


We have now considered in some detail all of the significant features which are present in one online editor. QED has been used extensively for about two and a half years, and in its present form reflects the judgment of the group which developed the Berkeley system as to the desirable characteristics of an online teletype text editor. The primary emphasis throughout the design has been on accommodating the system to the needs of the users, both novices and experts. The addressing devices have proved extremely convenient to use on a wide variety of text. These and the line edit are the facilities which attract the most attention, but many other aspects of the editor are of importance to the user, even though he may not be consciously aware of them. Many small details throughout the system have been arranged to permit smooth and rapid operation.


Acknowledgments. The basic framework of QED was designed and the program written by Mr. Deutsch. Many people have contributed suggestions for its improvement; we are especially indebted to M. W. Pirtle and R. Morris in this respect.


received august, 1966; revised august, 1967


1.     Crisman, P. A. (Ed.). The Compatible Time-Sharing System: A Programmer’s Guide, 2nd ed. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1965, Section AH.9.01.

2.     Aranda, S. M. Q-32 Time-sharing system user’s guide, executive service: context editing (EDTXT). SDC-TM-2708/204/ 00, Sys. Devel. Corp., Santa Monica, Calif., Mar. 1966.

3.     Lampson, B. W., Lichtenberger, W. W., and Pirtle, M. W. A user machine in a time-sharing system. Proc. IEEE 54, 12 (Dec. 1966), 1766-1774.

4.     Angluin, D. C., and Deutsch, L. P. Reference manual: QED Time-sharing editor. Project Genie Doc. R-15, U. of California, Berkeley, Calif., Jan. 1967.

5.     Farber, D. J., Griswold, R. E., and polonsky, I. P. The SNOBOL3 programming language. Bell Sys. Tech. J. 45, 6 (July 1966), 845-944.

6.     Murphy, D. TECO. Memorandum, Bolt, Beranek and Newman, Cambridge, Mass. (Nov. 1966).


[1] Communications of the ACM 10, 12 (December 1967), pp 793-803

[2] Project Genie. The work described in this paper was supported by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense under Contract SD-185.