On a text-only terminal, the Emacs display occupies the whole screen. On the X Window System, Emacs creates its own X windows to use. We use the term frame to mean an entire text-only screen or an entire X window used by Emacs. Emacs uses both kinds of frames in the same way to display your editing. Emacs normally starts out with just one frame, but under X you can create additional frames if you wish. See section Frames and X Windows.
When you start Emacs, the entire frame except for the last line is devoted to the text you are editing. This area is called window. The last line is a special echo area or minibuffer window where prompts appear and where you can enter responses. You can subdivide the large text window horizontally or vertically into multiple text windows, each of which can be used for a different file (see section Multiple Windows). In this manual, the word "window" always refers to the subdivisions of a frame within Emacs.
The window that the cursor is in is the selected window, in which editing takes place. Most Emacs commands implicitly apply to the text in the selected window (though mouse commands generally operate on whatever window you click them in, whether selected or not). The other windows display text for reference only, unless/until you select them. If you use multiple frames under the X Window System, then giving the input focus to a particular frame selects a window in that frame.
Each window's last line is a mode line which describes what is going on in that window. It appears in inverse video if the terminal supports that, and contains text that starts like `-----Emacs: something'. Its purpose is to indicate what buffer is being displayed above it in the window; what major and minor modes are in use; and whether the buffer contains unsaved changes.
Within Emacs, the terminal's cursor shows the location at which editing commands will take effect. This location is called point. Many Emacs commands move point through the text, so that you can edit at different places in it. You can also place point by clicking mouse button 1.
While the cursor appears to point at a character, you should think of point as between two characters; it points before the character that appears under the cursor. For example, if your text looks like `frob' with the cursor over the `b', then point is between the `o' and the `b'. If you insert the character `!' at that position, the result is `fro!b', with point between the `!' and the `b'. Thus, the cursor remains over the `b', as before.
Sometimes people speak of "the cursor" when they mean "point", or speak of commands that move point as "cursor motion" commands.
Terminals have only one cursor, and when output is in progress it must appear where the typing is being done. This does not mean that point is moving. It is only that Emacs has no way to show you the location of point except when the terminal is idle.
If you are editing several files in Emacs, each in its own buffer, each buffer has its own point location. A buffer that is not currently displayed remembers where point is in case you display it again later.
When there are multiple windows in a frame, each window has its own point location. The cursor shows the location of point in the selected window. This also is how you can tell which window is selected. If the same buffer appears in more than one window, each window has its own position for point in that buffer.
When there are multiple frames, each frame can display one cursor. The cursor in the selected frame is solid; the cursor in other frames is a hollow box, and appears in the window that would be selected if you give the input focus to that frame.
The term `point' comes from the character `.', which was the command in TECO (the language in which the original Emacs was written) for accessing the value now called `point'.
The line at the bottom of the frame (below the mode line) is the echo area. It is used to display small amounts of text for several purposes.
Echoing means displaying the characters that you type. Outside Emacs, the operating system normally echoes all your input. Emacs handles echoing differently.
Single-character commands do not echo in Emacs, and multi-character commands echo only if you pause while typing them. As soon as you pause for more than a second in the middle of a command, Emacs echoes all the characters of the command so far. This is to prompt you for the rest of the command. Once echoing has started, the rest of the command echoes immediately as you type it. This behavior is designed to give confident users fast response, while giving hesitant users maximum feedback. You can change this behavior by setting a variable (see section Variables Controlling Display).
If a command cannot be executed, it may print an error message in the echo area. Error messages are accompanied by a beep or by flashing the screen. Also, any input you have typed ahead is thrown away when an error happens.
Some commands print informative messages in the echo area. These messages look much like error messages, but they are not announced with a beep and do not throw away input. Sometimes the message tells you what the command has done, when this is not obvious from looking at the text being edited. Sometimes the sole purpose of a command is to print a message giving you specific information--for example, C-x = prints a message describing the character position of point in the text and its current column in the window. Commands that take a long time often display messages ending in `...' while they are working, and add `done' at the end when they are finished.
The echo area is also used to display the minibuffer, a window that is used for reading arguments to commands, such as the name of a file to be edited. When the minibuffer is in use, the echo area begins with a prompt string that usually ends with a colon; also, the cursor appears in that line because it is the selected window. You can always get out of the minibuffer by typing C-g. See section The Minibuffer.
Each text window's last line is a mode line which describes what is going on in that window. When there is only one text window, the mode line appears right above the echo area. The mode line is in inverse video if the terminal supports that, it starts and ends with dashes, and it contains text like `Emacs: something'.
A few special editing modes, such as Dired and Rmail, display something else in place of `Emacs: something'. The rest of the mode line still has the usual meaning.
Normally, the mode line looks like this:
--ch-Emacs: buf (major minor)----pos------
This gives information about the buffer being displayed in the window: the buffer's name, what major and minor modes are in use, whether the buffer's text has been changed, and how far down the buffer you are currently looking.
ch contains two stars `**' if the text in the buffer has been edited (the buffer is "modified"), or `--' if the buffer has not been edited. For a read-only buffer, it is `%*' if the buffer is modified, and `%%' otherwise.
buf is the name of the window's buffer. In most cases this is the same as the name of a file you are editing. See section Using Multiple Buffers.
The buffer displayed in the selected window (the window that the cursor is in) is also Emacs's selected buffer, the one that editing takes place in. When we speak of what some command does to "the buffer", we are talking about the currently selected buffer.
pos tells you whether there is additional text above the top of the window, or below the bottom. If your buffer is small and it is all visible in the window, pos is `All'. Otherwise, it is `Top' if you are looking at the beginning of the buffer, `Bot' if you are looking at the end of the buffer, or `nn%', where nn is the percentage of the buffer above the top of the window.
major is the name of the major mode in effect in the buffer. At any time, each buffer is in one and only one of the possible major modes. The major modes available include Fundamental mode (the least specialized), Text mode, Lisp mode, C mode, Texinfo mode, and many others. See section Major Modes, for details of how the modes differ and how to select one.
Some major modes display additional information after the major mode name. For example, Rmail buffers display the current message number and the total number of messages. Compilation buffers and Shell buffers display the status of the subprocess.
minor is a list of some of the minor modes that are turned on at the moment in the window's chosen buffer. For example, `Fill' means that Auto Fill mode is on. `Abbrev' means that Word Abbrev mode is on. `Ovwrt' means that Overwrite mode is on. See section Minor Modes, for more information. `Narrow' means that the buffer being displayed has editing restricted to only a portion of its text. This is not really a minor mode, but is like one. See section Narrowing. `Def' means that a keyboard macro is being defined. See section Keyboard Macros.
In addition, if Emacs is currently inside a recursive editing level, square brackets (`[...]') appear around the parentheses that surround the modes. If Emacs is in one recursive editing level within another, double square brackets appear, and so on. Since recursive editing levels affect Emacs globally, not just one buffer, the square brackets appear in every window's mode line or not in any of them. See section Recursive Editing Levels.
See section Optional Mode Line Features, for features that add other handy information to the mode line, such as the current line number of point, the current time, and whether new mail for you has arrived.