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How to Make Vim Productive: vi Tips and Tricks

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How to Make Vim Productive: vi Tips and Tricks

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Vim and other vi editors can make developers super productive if they know some of the key tips and tricks to using them.  vi has a lot of power and depth, but if you don't have a basic understanding of the language that vi speaks, you won't get any more productivity out of it than you would with a classical editor.  

A great explanation of the numerous productivity methods and their benefits in Vim was written by Jim Dennis.  For a number of years Jim Dennis was "The Answer Guy" columnist for the Linux Gazette.  Also known as "curses curmudgeon" for using the Lynx browser many years after Netscape/Mozilla and IE became the dominant browsers, Dennis is a now a service engineer for Yahoo.  Dennis' thorough explanation has now been posted here for the benefit of the DZone community.

The following explanations were prompted by a developer's question about productive shortcuts for Vim.  The developer had two specific complaints about Vim.  In Vim's search and replace, they were having to put "/" in front of each special character.  They also had to use yy to copy one line, but usually they did not want to copy the whole line.  The developer could put [number xx]yy to copy xx number of lines into the buffer, but they never knew if they were selecting exactly what they wanted.

Here is Jim Dennis' comprehensive response:

Your problem with Vim is that you don't grok vi.

You mention cutting with yy and complain that you almost never want to cut whole lines. In fact programmers, editing source code, very often want to work on whole lines, ranges of lines and blocks of code. However, yy is only one of many way to yank text into the anonymous copy buffer (or "register" as it's called in vi).

The "Zen" of vi is that you're speaking a language. The initial y is a verb. The statement yy is a simple statement which is, essentially, an abbreviation for 0 y$:

  1. 0 go to the beginning of this line.
  2. y yank from here (up to where?)
  3. $ up to the end of this line.

This can also be expressed as dd P (delete the current line and paste a copy back into place; leaving a copy in the anonymous register as a side effect). The y and d "verbs" take any movement as their "subject." Thus yW is "yank from here (the cursor) to the end of the current/next (big) word" and y'a is "yank from here to the line containing the mark named 'a'."

If you only understand basic up, down, left, and right cursor movements then vi will be no more productive than a copy of "notepad" for you. (Okay, you'll still have syntax highlighting and the ability to handle files larger than a piddling ~45KB or so; but work with me here).

vi has 26 "marks" and 26 "registers." A mark is set to any cursor location using the m command. Each mark is designated by a single lower case letter. Thus ma sets the 'a' mark to the current location, and mz sets the 'z' mark. You can move to the line containing a mark using the ' (single quote) command. Thus 'a moves to the beginning of the line containing the 'a' mark. You can move to the precise location of any mark using the ` (backquote) command. Thus `z will move directly to the exact location of the 'z' mark.

Because these are "movements" they can also be used as subjects for other "statements."

So, one way to cut an arbitrary selection of text would be to drop a mark (I usually use 'a' as my "first" mark, 'z' as my next mark, 'b' as another, and 'e' as yet another (I don't recall ever having interactively used more than four marks in 15 years of using vi; one creates one's own conventions regarding how marks and registers are used by macros that don't disturb one's interactive context). Then we go the the other end of our desired text; we can start at either end, it doesn't matter. Then we can simply use d`a to cut or y`a to copy. Thus the whole process has a 5 keystrokes overhead (six if we started in "insert" mode and needed to Esc out command mode). Once we've cut or copied then pasting in a copy is a single keystroke: p.

I say that this is one way to cut or copy text. However, it is only one of many. Frequently we can more succinctly describe the range of text without moving our cursor around and dropping a mark. For example if I'm in a paragraph of text I can use { and } movements to the beginning or end of the paragraph respectively. So, to move a paragraph of text I cut it using { d} (3 keystrokes). (If I happen to already be on the first or last line of the paragraph I can then simply use d} or d{ respectively.

The notion of "paragraph" defaults to something which is usually intuitively reasonable. Thus it often works for code as well as prose.

Frequently we know some pattern (regular expression) that marks one end or the other of the text in which we're interested. Searching forwards or backwards are movements in vi. Thus they can also be used as "subjects" in our "statements." So I can use d/foo to cut from the current line to the next line containing the string "foo" and y?bar to copy from the current line to the most recent (previous) line containing "bar." If I don't want whole lines I can still use the search movements (as statements of their own), drop my mark(s) and use the `x commands as described previously.

In addition to "verbs" and "subjects" vi also has "objects" (in the grammatical sense of the term). So far I've only described the use of the anonymous register. However, I can use any of the 26 "named" registers by prefixing the "object" reference with " (the double quote modifier). This if I use "add I'm cutting the current line into the 'a' register and if I use "by/foo then I'm yanking a copy of the text from here to the next line containing "foo" into the 'b' register. To paste from a register I simply prefix the paste with the same modifier sequence: "ap pastes a copy of the 'a' register's contents into the text after the cursor and "bP pastes a copy from 'b' to before the current line.

This notion of "prefixes" also adds the analogs of grammatical "adjectives" and "adverbs' to our text manipulation "language." Most commands (verbs) and movement (verbs or objects, depending on context) can also take numeric prefixes. Thus 3J means "join the next three lines" and d5} means "delete from the current line through the end of the fifth paragraph down from here."

This is all intermediate level vi. None of it is Vim specific and there are far more advanced tricks in vi if you're ready to learn them. If you were to master just these intermediate concepts then you'd probably find that you rarely need to write any macros because the text manipulation language is sufficiently concise and expressive to do most things easily enough using the editor's "native" language.

A sampling of more advanced tricks:

There are a number of : commands, most notably the :% s/foo/bar/g global substitution technique. (That's not advanced but other : commands can be). The whole : set of commands was historically inherited by vi's previous incarnations as the ed (line editor) and later the ex (extended line editor) utilities. In fact vi is so named because it's the visual interface to ex.

: commands normally operate over lines of text. ed and ex were written in an era when terminal screens were uncommon and many terminals were "teletype" (TTY) devices. So it was common to work from printed copies of the text, using commands through an extremely terse interface (common connection speeds were 110 baud, or, roughly, characters per second -- which is slower than a fast typist; lags were common on multi-user interactive sessions; additionally there was often some motivation to conserve paper).

So the syntax of most : commands includes an address or range of addresses (line number) followed by a command. Naturally one could use literal line numbers: :127,215 s/foo/bar to change the first occurrence of "foo" into "bar" on each line between 127 and 215. One could also use some abbreviations such as . or $ for current and last lines respectively. One could also use relative prefixes + and - to refer to offsets after or before the curent line, respectively. Thus: :.,$j meaning "from the current line to the last line, join them all into one line". :% is synonymous with :1,$ (all the lines).

The :... g and :... v commands bear some explanation as they are incredibly powerful. :... g is a prefix for "globally" applying a subsequent command to all lines which match a pattern (regular expression) while :... v applies such a command too all lines which do NOT match the given pattern. As with other ex commands these can be prefixed by addressing/range references. Thus :.,+21g/foo/d means "delete any lines containing the string "foo" from the current one through the next 21 lines" while :.,$v/bar/d means "from here to the end of the file, delete any lines which DON'T contain the string "bar."

It's interesting that the common Unix command grep was actually inspired by this ex command (and is named after the way in which it was documented). The ex command :g/re/p (grep) was the way they documented how to "globally" "print" lines containing a "regular expression" (re). When ed and ex were used, the :p command was one of the first that anyone learned and often the first one used when editing any file. It was how you printed the current contents (usually just one page full at a time using :.,+25p or some such).

The : addresses can also refer to marks. Thus you can use: :'a,'bg/foo/j to join any line containing the string foo to its subsequent line, if it lies between the lines between the 'a' and 'b' marks.

That's pretty obscure (I've only used something like that a few times in the last 15 years). However, I'll freely admit that I've often done things iteratively and interactively that could probably have been done more efficiently if I'd taken the time to think out the correct incantation.

Another very useful vi or ex command is :r to read in the contents of another file. Thus: :rfoo inserts the contents of the file named "foo" at the current line.

More powerful is the :r! command. This reads the results of a command. It's the same as suspending the vi session, running a command, redirecting its output to a temporary file, resuming your vi session, and reading in the contents from the temp. file.

Even more powerful are the ! (bang) and :... ! (ex bang) commands. These also execute external commands and read the results into the current text. However, they also filter selections of our text through the command! This we can sort all the lines in our file using 1G!Gsort (G is the vi "goto" command; it defaults to going to the last line of the file, but can be prefixed by a line number, such as 1, the first line). This is equivalent to the ex variant :1,$!sort. Writers often use ! with the Unix fmt or fold utilities for reformating or "word wrapping" selections of text. A very common macro is {!}fmt (reformat the current paragraph). Programmers sometimes use it to run their code, or just portions of it, through indent or other code reformatting tools.

Using the :r! and ! commands means that any external utility or filter can be treated as an extension of our editor. I have occasionally used these with scripts that pulled data from a database, or with wget or lynx commands that pulled data off a website, or ssh commands that pulled data from remote systems.

Another useful ex command is :so (short for :source). This reads the contents of a file as a series of commands. When you start vi it normally, implicitly, performs a :source on ~/.exinitrc file (and Vim usually does this on ~/.vimrc, naturally enough). The use of this is that you can change your editor profile on the fly by simply sourcing in a new set of macros, abbreviations, and editor settings. If you're sneaky you can even use this as a trick for storing sequences of ex editing commands to apply to files on demand.

For example I have a seven line file (36 characters) which runs a file through wc, and inserts a C-style comment at the top of the file containing that word count data. I can apply that "macro" to a file by using a command like: vim +'so mymacro.ex' ./mytarget

(The + command line option to vi and Vim is normally used to start the editing session at a given line number. However it's a little known fact that one can follow the + by any valid ex command/expression, such as a "source" command as I've done here).

Usually it's far easier to write such "macros" using Perl, AWK, sed (which is, in fact, like grep a utility inspired by the ed command).

The @ command is probably the most obscure vi command. In occasionally teaching advanced systems administration courses for close to a decade I've met very few people who've ever used it. @ executes the contents of a register as if it were a vi or ex command.
Example: I often use: :r!locate ... to find some file on my system and read its name into my document. From there I delete any extraneous hits, leaving only the full path to the file I'm interested in. Rather than laboriously Tab-ing through each component of the path (or worse, if I happen to be stuck on a machine without Tab completion support in its copy of vi) I just use:

  1. 0i:r (to turn the current line into a valid :r command),
  2. "cdd (to delete the line into the "c" register) and
  3. @c execute that command.

That's only 10 keystrokes (and the expression "cdd @c is effectively a finger macro for me, so I can type it almost as quickly as any common six letter word).

A sobering thought

I've only scratched to surface of vi's power and none of what I've described here isn't even part of the "improvements" for which vim is named! All of what I've described here should work on any old copy of vi from 20 or 30 years ago.

There are people who have used considerably more of vi's power than I ever will.

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