Avoiding the arrow keys

For shell users, moving to the arrow keys on the keyboard is something of an antipattern, moving away from the home row so central to touch typists. It therefore helps to find ways to avoid using the arrow keys in order to maintain your flow.


The arrow keys in Bash are used to move back and forth on the current command line (left and right), and up and down through the command history (up and down). This leads to the old shell user’s maxim:

“Those that don’t remember history are doomed to press Up repeatedly.”

There are alternatives to both functions. To move left or right by one character on the command line without deleting characters already placed, we can use Ctrl-B and Ctrl-F.

However, to make things a bit faster, there are four other key combinations to move back and forth on a line that are worth learning too:

  • Alt-B — Move back a word
  • Alt-F — Move forward a word
  • Ctrl-A — Move to the start of the line
  • Ctrl-E — Move to the end of the line

Similarly, to move up and down through history, we can use Ctrl-P and Ctrl-N respectively. Don’t forget that rather than keep tapping one of these, you can search backward or forward through history with Ctrl-R and Ctrl-S.

Whoops, I think I just taught you some Emacs.


To avoid the arrow keys in normal mode in Vim, use h, j, k, and l instead. This can take a little getting used to, but the benefits in terms of comfort for your hands and speed is easily worth it; using the arrow keys is one of the Vim anti-patterns.

If you’re asking “How do I avoid the arrow keys to move in insert mode?”, the answer is that you shouldn’t be moving in insert mode at all; it’s inefficient. When in insert mode you should be inserting text, and maybe using backspace or delete every now and then. To move through text, switching back to normal mode is vastly more efficient.

Moving in command mode is similar. If you need to move around on the command line, in most cases you should pull up the command window so that you can edit the command in normal mode, and then just tap Enter to run it.

In general, when you start thinking about moving through any kind of text, you should reflexively hit Esc or Ctrl-[ to go into normal mode, in order to take advantage of a whole keyboard’s worth of navigation shortcuts.

8 thoughts on “Avoiding the arrow keys

  1. Pingback: BASH history articles | kossboss

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