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So that each type of text file can be treated appropriately, emacs supports various major modes of operation. In the status line you will see something like

--:**  emacs.tex    (TeX)--L1-----16%---------

The major mode of the buffer is in brackets. emacs tries to pick the most appropriate mode by looking at the file name, but you can explicitly set modes. For example, you can type M-x C-mode to enter a mode with support for those writing C programs.

Minor modes are mutually independant and independant of major modes. For instance, if you type M-x auto-fill-mode, the status line will display something like

--:**  emacs.tex    (TeX Fill)--L1-26%-------

and emacs will create a new line for you when you reach the right edge of your window.

To find out which modes are available and what they provide, look in emacs' Info files.