Reassign Caps Lock to Backspace

Three years ago I switched to the Colemak keyboard layout. It’s supposed to be more efficient and ergonomic than the standard QWERTY layout. But it’s hard to measure these things. I switched – or, rather, began switching – due to a bit of RSI over a Thanksgiving weekend with a dearth of plans.

One of those.

It’s hard to measure efficiency when you go beyond the layout of the keys and begin looking at how erratic actual typing practices are. I will sometimes type the same word three different ways, depending on the snack I’m holding at the time.

One of my favourite things about Colemak is that it reassigns the Caps Lock key to Backspace. (If you’re a Mac user, you call this key Delete.)

Unless you spend a lot of time shouting on the internet, the Caps Lock key is redundant. But which function to assign to it? The traditional choice was either Esc or Control, depending on whether you were a Vim or Emacs user. But if your textual predilections run to 21st century software, like Sublime Text or Scrivener, there is no real reason to switch to either.

Mapping Caps Lock to Backspace is one of Colemak’s greatest ideas. The two obvious effects are:

  1. You can backspace without moving from the home row, which is where you fingers are resting. (That is, if you’re a touch typist; and if you’re not, then you should become one.)
  2. You can backspace, regardless of which hand is holding the sandwich.

The subtler idea is that backspacing belongs to the same order of operation as the space and the new line. Typing is thinking. And sometimes, when thinking, you need to take a step or three back. And maybe have a bite from that sandwich.

People think faster than they can type. This is why slow typists always prefer paper. Thinking with a keyboard is just not an option for them. But even if you’re a touch typist, the keyboard will always be a bottleneck. There will always be some friction between having a thought in your head and externalizing it on the screen. Optimizing your typing, even by something as small as mapping Caps Lock to Backspace, reduces this friction. It might even help your thinking.

Drafting, in particular, is a process where the distinction between typing and thinking falls apart. Drafting generally consists of repeatedly yanking the topmost thought out of your brain so the next one can tumble out. At the same time, trying to shape those thoughts so they can stand on their own. I suppose there is a point of diminishing returns, after which typing efficiency has no impact on the thought process, but I’ve yet to reach it.

Being a Colemak user, I’m used to being disoriented when using someone else’s computer. But the biggest pain point when going back to the QWERTY layout is the missing Backspace, precisely because I make more mistakes. While I can still use a computer with a QWERTY layout, I can’t think with it. I might as well go write with a quill.

Do yourself a favour: remap your Caps Lock key to Backspace. Your fingers and your brain will both thank you.

And, maybe, if I have to use your computer I won’t be so hopelessly confused.

Resources

Reassigning keys without changing the entire keyboard layout depends on the whims of your operating system. The following resources are likely to go out of date fast.

  • How to Disable or Reassign The Caps Lock Key on Any Operating System, by How-to Geek, covers most of the bases.

  • Linux. Just add the following command to your startup applications:

    setxkbmap -option caps:backspace -option shift:both_capslock

    This command will assign Caps Lock to Backspace and also allow you to toggle Caps Lock by pressing both Shift keys.

    If your prefer GUI tools, GNOME Tweak allows you to configure both options.

  • Windows. The How-To Geek guide suggest editing the registry.

    I’ve generally used AutoHotKey which provides all sorts of happy automation options. If you’re in a corporate environment, AutoHotKey is easier to smuggle in without triggering the wrath of the IT department. If memory serves, all you need to do is to include CapsLock::BS in your script.

    Update (26 January 2015). SharpKeys looks like a great tool for this job. (Thanks to Francesco Figari for the recommendation.)

  • OS X. I haven’t tried it, but the recommendation seems to be to use Seil.

And, of course, you can always switch to Colemak.

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