Parse and generate vim-like key notation for modern browsers.

Usage no npm install needed!

<script type="module">
  import vimLikeKeyNotation from '';


Overview Build Status

Parse and generate vim-like key notation for modern browsers, with support for different keyboard layouts especially in mind.

A sneak peek:

var notation = require("vim-like-key-notation")

document.addEventListener("keydown", function(event) {
  // The usual way.
  if (
    event.key === "Escape" &&
    event.shiftKey && event.ctrlKey &&
    !event.altKey && !event.metaKey
  ) {

  // With vim-like-key-notation.
  if (notation.stringify(event) === "<c-s-escape>") {
}, true)

vim-like-key-notation is used by VimFx.


npm install vim-like-key-notation

var notation = require("vim-like-key-notation")

The notation

In short

  • Simple characters: a, A, /, >.
  • Others: <Escape>, <Enter>, <ArrowLeft>.
  • Modifiers: <c-a>, <c-A>, <a-m-/>, <c-gt>.
  • Sequences: <c-w>a, <2j, <Esc>>, <lt>Esc>>.

In detail

The basic rule is that each character represents itself.

a means that an “a” (lowercase) should be typed, which usually means hitting the key labeled with an “A” on your keyboard.

A means that an “A” (uppercase) should be typed. Most likely you’d do that by holding a shift key and pressing the same key as you did when typing an “a” (lowercase).

/ means that a “/” (slash) should be typed, regardless of whether that means hitting a key labeled with a “/” (en-US QWERTY layout), or holding a shift key and pressing a key labeled “7” (sv-SE QWERTY layout), or whatever.

The notation allows writing sequences of keys to be pressed in order. ab means that an “a” should be typed, and then a “b” (both lowercase). Esc means that an “E” (uppercase), followed by an “s” (lowercase), followed by a “c” (lowercase) should be typed.

So how do you express the “Esc” (or “Escape”) key?

<Esc> means that the “Esc” key should be typed, which usually means hitting the key labeled “Esc” or “Escape” on your keyboard. “Esc” normally doesn’t result in a character on the screen, like “a”, “A”, “/” and “?” mentioned before. Instead, it triggers other things.

“Esc”, as well as many other keys such as “Backspace”, “Shift” and “ArrowLeft” are so called non-printable keys, while “a”, “A”, “/” and “?” are printable keys.

In short, printable keys are notated the way they are, while non-printable keys are notated by their name enclosed by < and >. In other words, the non-printable keys in the previous paragraph would be notated as <Backspace>, <Shift> and <ArrowLeft>.

The names of non-printable keys are case-insensitive, so you can say <backspace>, <SHIFT> and <arrowLEFT> as well.

There is a list of the names for non-printable keys available on MDN. Beyond those, there are a couple of aliases, mostly to support names used by vim. After all, this module is called vim-like-key-notation.

Just like printable keys, you can type sequences of non-printable keys as well. <Esc><Backspace> means first hitting the “Esc” key and then the “Backspace” key. You may mix printable and non-printable keys as well. <Esc>a means hitting “Esc” and then typing “a”.

But if < and > are used to denote non-printable keys, how do you express the < and > keys themselves? < and > will do fine. Just watch out if you want to use both < and > in a sequence. <>bs, ><bs and bs<> all mean that the characters “<”, “>”, “b” and “s” should be typed in different orders, while <bs> means that the “Backspace” key should be pressed (“bs” is an alias for “Backspace”). To escape that meaning, there is an alternate way of expressing the < and > keys: <lt> and <gt>, respectively. (You may use their aliases <less> and greater). While they look like non-printable keys named “lt” and “gt”, they actually represent the printable keys < and >. This allows to write <lt>bs>, <bs<gt> or <lt>bs<gt> to escape the meaning of “Backslash”.

While talking about notation that looks like non-printable keys, there is yet one: Space. It is denoted as <Space>, not . That’s because isn’t very readable. It is the same way for tabs and newlines; they’re called <Tab> and <Enter>, respectively. (All three of those keys can actually be considered to be in a middle-ground between printable and non-printable keys.)

Actually, you may put any printable character inside < and > (other than < and >). In other words <a>, <A>, </> and <?> are equivalent to a, A, / and ?, respectively. The shorter forms are nothing other than just that—shorter forms.

There are a few special keys of the keyboard called modifiers, that can be held while pressing another key. That other key is then modified, which makes it carry along a list of all modifier keys that were held down when the key in question was pressed. The pressed key then usually gets different behavior. vim-like-key-notation supports the alt, ctrl and meta modifiers.

<c-a> means that an “a” (lowercase) should be typed while the ctrl modifier is held. <m-a> means the same thing, but this time the meta modifier should be held instead. As yet an example, <a-a> concerns the alt modifier.

You may specify more than one modifier. <c-a-m-a> means that an “a” (lowercase) should be typed while all three of the ctrl, alt and meta modifiers are held. In other words, to specify a modifier, make sure that the key is wrapped with < and > and put the first letter of the name of the modifier followed by a - after the <. (To modify < and > use <c-lt> and <m-a-gt>, for example.)

The order of the modifiers does not matter. Neither does the case of the modifier letters. <c-a-m-a> and <M-c-A-a> are equivalent.

What about shift? Isn’t that modifier, too? It is actually a bit of an odd bird. It’s both a modifier and a layer switch. (The other modifiers can technically work like shift does as well, but that is less common.)

Holding shift while pressing a printable key usually makes the key output a different character than it normally would. For example, holding shift while pressing the key labeled “A” outputs an “A” in the majority of keyboard layouts, while the key would have produced an “a” if the shift key hadn’t been held. Holding shift while pressing the key labeled with a “7” might produce an “&” or a “/” (depending on the keyboard layout). In these cases shift enables a different layer of your keyboard, making keys do other things than they do otherwise.

For non-printable keys, holding shift usually makes no difference. Instead, shift works as modifier.

Therefore, it is allowed to specify shift as a modifier for non-printable keys—but only for them.

<s-Esc> means that the “Esc” key should be pressed while shift is held.

(In some systems it is technically possible to make shift work as a layer switch even on non-printable keys, but in practice nobody does that.)

<s-a> is an error. Write <A> or A instead (or whatever is produced by holding shift and pressing the key that otherwise would output an “a”). Likewise for <s-/>. It is invalid. For the en-US QWERTY layout, use ?.

There are a few printable keys that are exceptions to the above rule. <Space>, <Tab> and <Enter> are all allowed to have the shift modifier specified. (Again, they are a middle-ground between printable and non-printable keys).

The part about shift is important to remember. In many programs you may see instructions to press something like ctrl+shift+a. Don’t try to recreate such a shortcut in vim-like-key-notation by writing <c-s-a>. That’s an error. The correct way is most likely <c-A>.

Why have this restriction on the shift “modifier”? The technical answer is that browsers do not have access to the current keyboard layout. While it is extremely likely that “<s-a>” means A, it is impossible to know if “<s-/>” means ?, some other character or if the shift modifier is even required to type a / (such as when / is typed by pressing “<s-7>”).

This “untraditional” handling of shift might seem odd, but it depends on your point of view. vim-like keys are different. In most other circumstances, pressing “a” and “A” means the same thing: Hitting the key labeled “A”, without holding shift. But not in vim. There, case matters. “a” means lowercase only, and “A” uppercase only. vim does not care whether or not you need to press shift to produce any of those characters. Moreover, in most other circumstances, ctrl+shift+a and CTRL+SHIFT+A means the same thing (even though the former uses a lowercase “a” while the latter uses an uppercase “A”). Since unmodified “a” and “A” are different in vim, it is the most consistent if <c-a> and <c-A> are different too. By distinguishing between “a” and “A” specifying shift is redundant—even ambigous: For example, try to explain the differences between <c-4>, <c-gt;, <c-s-4> and <c-s-gt; in the en-US QWERTY layout. (Even if the browser would have access to the current keyboard layout it is difficult to consistently define them all!)

An alternate rule for shift could be to always require it to be explicitly specified in the notation. For example, <c-gt; would not be possible to enter using the en-US keyboard layout (because in that layout it is impossible to type a $ without holding shift), but <c-s-gt; would be. However, this poses a couple of problems. First off, to be consistent you’d have to write <s-A> instead of A. Secondly, it would be very surprising that <s-a> would not work as you’d probably expect (<s-A> would be the correct notation). Thirdly, it complicates sharing shortcuts with other people. For example, the standard keyboard shortcut for searching in vim is /. Let’s say that you’ve created an alternate search mode. To make the shortcut easy to remember, you’ve bound it to <c-/>. If you try to share that setup with a user of the sv-SE QWERTY layout, that person would not be able to trigger your alternate search mode. In that layout the shortcut would be <c-s-/>.

That’s the reason the shift “modifier” is handled the way it is. Complicated? Nah. You just might to get used to it.

Technical notes

vim-like-key-notation requires that event.key and event.code are available on keyboard events. When this was written, only Firefox 38+ supports both of those by default.

In case you haven’t heard about those two new properties of keyboard event objects, here’s a little summary.

event.key is the character that would be typed by the keypress (such as “a”, “A”, “/” and “?”), or a name of the key that would be sent if the key is non-printable (such as “Escape”, “ArrowLeft” and “Shift”). This property takes your current keyboard layout as well as shift in account, so the same physical key on your keyboard might give a different event.key value if you switch layouts or depending on if you hold shift or not.

event.code is a unique name for each key of your keyboard, that stays the same regardless of your current layout, and regardless of whether shift is held or not. The names come from the standard en-US QWERTY layout, such as “Escape”, “ShiftLeft”, “KeyA” and “Digit1”. If the standard en-US QWERTY layout is used, it is easy to guess what those keys do. However, we cannot know that for sure. Fo example, if the AZERTY layout is used, “KeyA” will produce a “q”, not an “a”!

Both event.key and event.code are the same in all three keyboard events—keydown, keypress and keyup. Best of all, the values are standardized, which should reduce cross-browser problems in the future.

If you’ve ever worked with event.keyCode, event.charCode and event.which you might see why event.key and event.code are superior. They are far easier to use (meaningful string names instead of integer codes), and far more reliable when it comes to international keyboard layouts.

For vim-like-key-notation’s purposes, event.key is perfect, so that is used mainly. event.key lets you specify a keyboard shortcut as / (slash), and it will work both for an en-US QWERTY user who has a key labeled “/”, and at the same time for an sv-SE QWERTY user who needs to hold shift and press a key labeled “7” to type a “/”. It doesn’t matter that the two users press two different keys and that one of them needs to hold shift—it just works in both cases.

However, many people use more than one keyboard layout. This is common when you need to type both using the latin alphabet as well as the cyrillc or the greek alphabet, or whatever. As far as I know, the most common setup is the usage of the en-US QWERTY layout in combination with a non-latin layout. On most cyrillic keyboards both the en-US QWERTY characters as well as the local ones are printed on the keys.

The problem arises when there’s a shortcut such as a and the user currently happens to not use the en-US QWERTY layout. Even if he presses the key labeled “A”, the a shortcut won’t trigger, because the character that would be typed—and event.key—is a Cyrillic character, not “a”!

Another problem is that characters that are common between layouts, such as ., might be at different locations. While the user might not have any problems with the . key to be in different locations while typing in different languages, it most certainly will be a problem for keyboard shortcuts. Using shortcuts isn’t typing. After a while it is mostly muscle memory, which means that moving things around is a very bad idea.

Therefore vim-like-key-notation allows you to ignore the current layout. Instead, the en-US QWERTY layout will be assumed. For this purpose, event.code is perfect.

If the current layout is ignored, it doesn’t matter which layout the user currently happens to use. The keyboard shortcuts stay on the same keys anyway.

Then why not always use event.code? Because users of only one keyboard layout want the keyboard shortcuts to just work. They do not want to learn the en-US QWERTY layout by heart just to be able to trigger keyboard shortcuts. Using event.code in this case means that the user can never read documentation telling which keys to press without first having to translate those keys to their own keyboard layout. For example, an instruction might tell the user to type “/”, but might in fact mean that he should press the key labeled “-” on his keyboard. (People who only use the en-US QWERTY layout are an exception of course—but the world is far larger than that.)

If the option to ignore the current keyboard layout is enabled, event.code is translated into more event.key-like values, taking shift into account. For example, KeyA is turned into a or A. Digit1 is turned into 1 or !.

Note that while the current state of shift is available, the current state of capslock isn’t, which means that capslock cannot be taken into account. Instead it is assumed to always be off.

The numpad is an exception. event.key is used there even if the current layout is set to be ignored. That’s because it is not possible to correctly emulate it.

Just as with capslock, we don’t know the state of numlock. This means that we cannot know if Numpad1 should result in 1 or <End>, for example. Therefore, it is much more useful to the user if we actually rely on the current layout in this case, in order not to break the numpad. This is especially important on laptops, where <Home>, <End>, <PageUp> and <PageDown> usually only exist there. The keypad usually doesn’t change between layouts anyway—at least not enough to warrant drastic changes to it.

Finally, what about those who use several layouts, but not the en-US QWERTY layout? For example, it could be someone using the sv-SE QWERTY layout as well as a Greek layout.

As I said, when the current keyboard layout is set to be ignored, the event.code values are translated into event.key-like ones. This is trivial for the en-US QWERTY layout, since the values are based on that layout.

There is another option that lets you translate the event.code values in a custom way, which is a way of working around the problem. It requires the shortcut setup to somehow allow to define these translations and some more work from the user, but at least we’re not leaving them behind. Of course users may share their translations to help others using the same main layout, or you may choose to bundle a few such translations with your program. The reason no translations other than for en-US QWERTY comes with this module, is that it would be too much maintenance, and almost impossible to make it complete.

It is possible to provide translations even if the current layout isn’t set to be ignored, though it is of limited usefulness. One use case could be to distinguish between the numpad numbers and the regular number keys. (There’s an example of this in the API section.)

You don’t have to specify translations for every key of your keyboard—only as much as you need. If something isn’t provided in your translations table the regular method of using event.key or translating event.code into en-US QWERTY is used (depending on if the current layout is set to be ignored).


stringify(event, options)

Takes a keyboard event event—that has the key and code properties—and returns the equivalent vim-like-key-notation, in a standardized way.

  • All keynames are lowercase only. For example, <space>, not <Space>.
  • Aliased keynames are changed to the standard event.key name.
  • Modifiers, if any, are lowercase and sorted alphabetically. For example, <a-c-s-esc>, not <A-s-c-esc>.
  • Printable characters are never enclosed in < and > unless they need to. For example, a, not <a>.
  • < and > are always returned as <lt> and <gt>, respectively. This is so that you can safely concatenate return values from this function and then parse that and get the same sequence back. For example, "<" + "a" + ">" would be parsed as <a>, while "<ls>" + "a" + "<gt>" would be parsed as <ls>, a, <gt>.
  • For unrecognized keys and modifiers the empty string is used. vim-like keyboard shortcuts do not use such keys.

options: (See Technical Notes for more information).

  • ignoreCtrlAlt: Boolean.

    If enabled, ignores ctrl+alt for printable keys. <a-c-gt; becomes $ and <a-c-A> becomes A, while <a-c-enter> stays the same.

    This option is suitable on Windows, which treats AltGr as ctrl+alt. For example, if a user of the sv-SE layout on Windows holds AltGr and presses the key labeled 4, in order to produce a $, the result would be <a-c-gt; without this option, making it impossible to trigger a keyboard shortcut containing $. With this option the result is $, as expected (and as on GNU/Linux). On the other hand it won’t be possible to trigger keyboard shortcuts such as <a-c-a>, but ctrl+alt keyboard shortcuts are discouraged on Windows anyway because of this reason.

  • ignoreKeyboardLayout: Boolean.

    If enabled, ignores the current keyboard layout and assumes that the en-US QWERTY layout is used.

  • translations: Object.

    The keys are event.code strings that should be translated.

    The values are either strings or arrays of two strings. The strings are event.key-like values that the keys should be translated into. If only one string is provided, the key is always translated into that string. If an array is provided, the first value of it is used when shift is not held, and the other value when shift is held.

    stringify(event, {ignoreKeyboardLayout: true, translations: {
      // AZERTY mappings.
      "KeyQ": ["a", "A"],
      "KeyA": ["q", "Q"],
      // etc.
      // Swapped capslock and ctrl.
      "CapsLock":    "Control",
      "ControlLeft": "CapsLock",
      // Distinguish between regular numbers and numpad numbers by translating the
      // numpad numbers into made-up names (regardless of numlock state).
      "Numpad0": "K0",
      "Numpad1": "K1",
      "Numpad2": "K2",
      "Numpad3": "K3",
      "Numpad4": "K4",
      "Numpad5": "K5",
      "Numpad6": "K6",
      "Numpad7": "K7",
      "Numpad8": "K8",
      "Numpad9": "K9"


The inverse of stringify. Takes a keyString, and returns an event-like object. Throws errors for invalid keyStrings.

The key property will contain the key in question, with casing exactly like in the input.

The altKey, ctrlKey, metaKey and shiftKey properties will be set to true if the corresponding modifiers are present.

parse("a") // {key: "a"}
parse("A") // {key: "A"}

parse("<c-m-a>")    // {key: "a", ctrlKey: true, metaKey: true}
parse("<s-escape>") // {key: "escape", shiftKey: true}


Simply a shortcut for stringify(parse(keyString)). Useful to compare different keyStrings: normalize("<c-s-esc>") === normalize("<s-c-Escape>").


Takes a keySequence and splits it into an array of individual keys. It does not validate each individual key; you may use parse or normalize for that.

parseSequence("<c-w>v")  // ["<c-w>", "v"]
parseSequence("<c-w")    // ["<", "c", "-", "w"]
parseSequence("<<c-w>>") // ["<", "<c-w>", ">"]

// Invalid keys.
parseSequence("<x-a><s-a><ctrl-a> <++>") // ["<x-a>", "<s-a>", "<ctrl-a>", " ", "<++>"]
parseSequence("<x-a><s-a><ctrl-a> <++>").map(parse) // Throws an error.


All errors thrown by vim-like-key-notation have an id property, which is a string, and a subject key, which is what caused the error. Some errors have a context key as well. The values of these keys are strings (unless otherwise stated).

These are the different ids:


  • thrown by: stringify(event, options)
  • context: a key in options.translations mapped to a bad value
  • subject: the bad value (which may be of any type)


  • thrown by: parse(keyString) and normalize(keyString)
  • subject: the invalid keyString


  • thrown by: parse(keyString) and normalize(keyString)
  • context: the keyString containing the invalid modifier
  • subject: an unknown modifier in keyString


  • thrown by: parse(keyString) and normalize(keyString)
  • context: the keyString containing the duplicate modifier
  • subject: a duplicate modifier in keyString


  • thrown by: parse(keyString) and normalize(keyString)
  • context: the keyString containing the disallowed modifier
  • subject: a disallowed modifier in keyString (in effect either s or S)

This error is thrown if you try to parse a key such as <s-a> (explained in detail the notation section).


The X11 (“MIT”) License.