Vim Tips

Posted on with tags: vim / linux

Ubuntu 18.04 comes with a stripped down version of Vim. If you want to use Vim for serious work, you want the full version. I am using Vim 8.0 under Linux Mint 19.03. Some settings discussed in this article may not apply to your system, so keep that in mind.

Vim Installation

The default version is started via command vi. The vi --version command shows the version information. Note the Line 5 below shows “Small version without GUI”. The output also contains the list of setting files Vim will load during startup.

VIM - Vi IMproved 8.0 (2016 Sep 12, compiled Apr 10 2018 21:31:58)
Small version without GUI.  Features included (+) or not (-):
   system vimrc file: "$VIM/vimrc"
     user vimrc file: "$HOME/.vimrc"

If you type command vim in bash, it will tell you that “command vim not found”. Those three commands remove the existing vim-tiny and install the full version with GUI vim-gtk3 in Ubuntu/Linux Mint.

sudo apt-get remove vim-tiny
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install vim-gtk3

You can then check the vim version by command vim --version.

Basic Vim Settings

Vim automatically loads ~/.vimrc file during startup. Some default settings of vim do not make sense. Below are some basic vim settings. I am using those settings under Linux Mint. Other OS settings may differ slightly.

" ~/.vimrc file, keep it short and neat

set nocompatible              " required
filetype plugin on
syntax enable

"path and find, fuzzy file finder
set path+=**  " search subdir recursively, find ...
set wildmenu
set wildignore+=**/node_modules/**
set wildignore+=**/venv/**

set number

" Set ignore case, highlight, and incremental searches
set ignorecase
set hlsearch
set incsearch

set lines=38
set columns=140

" Ctrl + s to save file
noremap <silent> <C-S>  :update<CR>
vnoremap <silent> <C-S> :<C-C>:update<CR>
inoremap <silent> <C-S> <C-O>:update<CR>

"shortcut ^l to mute highlighting
nnoremap <silent> <C-l> :<C-u>nohlsearch<CR><C-l>

autocmd BufEnter * let &titlestring = ' ' . expand("%:p")
set title

" show tab char as >---
set list
set listchars=tab:>-

" create command :Showspace for double spaces before line end
command Showspace highlight ExtraWhitespace ctermbg=red guibg=red | 
        \ match ExtraWhitespace /\s\s$/
command Shownospace match none 

" spell check command type :Spellcheck to turn on, :set nospell to turn off
command Spellcheck setlocal spell spelllang=en_us 

I try to keep the .vimrc file simple so people can easily understand the script and modify it. Some contents are removed (such as mapping Esc key to CapsLock) if they are not used in an extended period of time.

Vim Tips


Vim loads ~/.vimrc by default, and you can change the behavior by using -u option on command line.

$vim -u ~/.simple.vimrc filename
$vim -u NONE  # do not load any config file

Set Initial Console Window Size

On Linux Mint terminal, you can use set lines=50 columns=100 to set initial console size. I have those lines in my ~/.vimrc file. Those numbers seem to work well in Linux Mint.

set lines=38
set columns=140

Source: an article on

Fuzzy Find

The following two settings help the :find command to do file fuzzy finding.

set path+=**
set wildmenu
:find *cache # Press Tab key to find file name with cache

To exclude a directory from the search, use this setting.

set wildignore+=**/node_modules/**
set wildignore+=**/venv/**

Source: a video talk on youtube, Source #2: Stackexchange Q&A.

Auto Complete

Vim itself has auto complete function built in. In the insert mode, you can type a few letters such as ‘Com’, and then press ^n to bring up auto complete menu. It is very handy when you are programming because you often need to type variable and class names multiple times on a file.

search in this file, ^ represents Ctrl key
search filename
search tag
search by default
^n ^p
next prev on the menu
confirm selection, yes
exit menu

Current Filename

Command ^g shows the name of the current file. Or you can type the following vim commands.

:echo @%
:!ls %:p  # will show absolute path of file

The two lines of code below show the file path and name as the title of Gnome Terminal window (under Linux Mint). Source is this online Q&A post.

autocmd BufEnter * let &titlestring = ' ' . expand("%:p")
set title


Keys h j k l are the basic navigation commands in normal mode. Commands w b e jump cursor to next word, begin of word, or end of word. Other common navigation commands are listed below.

move cursor to top
move cursor to bottom
jump cursor to line number n, or <n>G
show an extra line
opposite of ^e
move down half screen
move up half screen
matching ( { or [
H, M, L
move cursor to top, middle, and lower corner
go to old cursor position
go to next cursor position
move down one displayed line when a long line is auto wrapped

Common Shortcuts

Vim is in a different league comparing to other text editors. It does not have some common shortcuts other editors have. But some of those shortcuts are so common, it is better to customize vim to support them.

The settings below add Ctrl+s shortcut for saving file. Command :update is like :write, but only write when buffer has been modified.

noremap <silent> <C-S>  :update<CR>
vnoremap <silent> <C-S> :<C-C>:update<CR>
inoremap <silent> <C-S> <C-O>:update<CR>

This shortcut also needs a setting in .bashrc file to work.

stty -ixon  # stop tele-typewriter, 
            # -ixon enable xon/xoff flow control -i

By default command ^s freezes vim in Ubuntu Linux, and ^q un-freeze it. This stackoverflow Q&A explains it very well.

Ctrl + s is a common command to terminals to stop updating, it was a way to slow the output so you could read it on terminals that did not have a scrollback buffer. Ctrl + q command gets terminal going again. Put this line in .bashrc to disable flow control for terminal entirely.

This is one of those things that turn people off, especially new Vim users.

Spell Check

Vim has a built in spell checker. You use set spell to turn it on and set nospell to turn it off. Here are some other commands on how to use it.

setlocal spell
for current buffer only
setlocal spell spelllang=en_us
check current buffer for US English
move to next misspelled word
previous misspelled word
cursor on the word, list of suggested words
the word is correct, add it to personal dictionary

The spelllang settings is to specify the language, and the default is en. You can set it to en_us to specify American English. You can also use spellfile setting to specify a personal dictionary file for zg command.

English is my second language, and I often rely on the spell checker. It is one of those Vim features that some people do not need but other people use it all the time.

Source: an article on & a blog post by Jake Harding.

GNOME Terminal Shortcuts

The Linux Mint comes with Gnome Terminal (Ctrl + Alt + t to launch). You can open additional tabs by pressing shortcut Ctrl + Shift + t, and move to next tab by pressing Ctrl + PageDown. This does not necessarily relate to Vim, but I often use them so they are listed here.

Another useful terminal shortcut is Ctrl + z which puts current application Vim in the background and suspended. After running some bash commands, you can type fg command to bring Vim back to foreground. Or you can use :! followed by a bash command to execute the command inside Vim.

Copy and Paste via Clipboard

Copying texts to and from Vim using the Ctrl + c and Ctrl + v does not work. The command ^c is to generate a signal which tells the current process to terminate, and command ^v invokes “verbatim insert” in bash (see an online article) . You could use Gnome terminal shortcuts Ctrl + Shift + c and Ctrl + Shift + v, but sometimes it does not work very well.

I often use the clipboard register ("+) to copy and paste texts in and out of Vim. Here are the steps to copy texts into Vim,

  1. Copy texts in another program such as Firefox.
  2. Alt + Tab switch focus to Vim.
  3. Use command "+p to paste the texts.

Here are the steps to copy texts out of Vim to another program.

  1. Use v command to visually select texts in Vim.
  2. Type command "+y to copy the texts to clipboard.
  3. In another program, use ^v to paste the texts.

There is an online Q&A on how to map ^c and ^v to copy and paste behavior, but I have not set it up in my .vimrc file.

Work Sessions

When you have 10 or more text files open in Vim and need to reboot your computer, you can use session commands to save the Vim work status and load them later.

:mksession ~/work1.session
save the current work status
:source ~/work1.session
load the saved session in Vim
vim -S ~/work1.session
bash command to load vim and work session

Manage Buffers

Text files opened in Vim are called buffers. You can open multiple files with bash command like this vim *.py, and all python files in current directory will open in Vim as buffers. The command :ls shows all buffers in current vim session. Note that command :!ls will execute a single bash command ls.

On the list generated by the :ls command, % represents current buffer and # represents alternate buffer. You can switch between the current buffer and alternate buffer. The + symbol on the list represents the file has been modified but not saved. The commands listed below are for navigating between buffers.

When writing Python programs in Vim, you can run the command :!python3 % to run the current file.

:bnext, bprevious, bfirst, blast
next, previous, first, and last buffer
open buffer number 5
:bdelete 5, 6, 8
close buffer numbers 5, 6, and 8
delete buffer numbers 5, 6, and 7
:edit file1
open file1 as an additional buffer
:find file1
open file1, this command also searches sub-directories
:b# or ^6
switch between current buffer and alternate buffer

Vim Command to Reflow Texts to 80 Columns.

When writting articles in Vim, I often need to reflow texts after some editing. To reflow texts, the first step is to set the textwidth and the second step is to select texts and reflow with command gq.

You can set the textwidth to 80 (:set textwidth=80 or :set tw=80), then use gg to move cursor to the start of the file and type gqG to reflow the whole article. The command gq also works with visual selection. You can use command vipgq to select the paragraph first and then reflow. Or you can use gqap to reflow current paragraph, and gq} reflow texts from current cursor to end of the paragraph. Note you can select a paragraph by typing vip or vap

Command gw is similar to gq. Here is the quote from help page.

gw: Format the lines that {motion} moves over. Similar to gq but puts the cursor back at the same position in the text.

Source: an stackoverflow Q&A

Run Commands on Multiple Lines

If you want to run a normal mode command on a range of lines, you can use the normal command. For example if you want to comment out line 4 to 6 of .bashrc file, you can use V to select those lines and apply command :'<,'>normal i# to insert a character (#) in font of each line.

# Load pyenv automatically by adding
# the following to ~/.bashrc:

export PATH="/home/george/.pyenv/bin:$PATH"
eval "$(pyenv init -)"
eval "$(pyenv virtualenv-init -)"

Source: Practical Vim Second Edition by Drew Neil Page 63, Tip 30

Save Readonly File

Here is an online post about how to save read only files in vim.

This is the command to save a readonly file in Vim.

w !sudo tee % >/dev/null

The bash command tee is itself somewhat magical, and I do not fully understand how the above command works.

Auto Indent

The >> command is to indent a line in normal mode. The operator > is for an object or visual selection. When indenting or un-indenting, lines are shifted one shiftwidth to the right or left (e.g., :set shiftwidth=4).

The == command is auto indent, and 4== command will auto indent 4 lines.

Convert Tabs to Spaces

If you want to convert tabs to spaces for copied text, the simple answer is to use those two commands.

:set tabstop=4

If the expandtab option is set, vim will insert space when the tab key is pressed (:set expandtab). The option tabstop controls the number of spaces that will be inserted when the tab key is pressed (:set tabstop=4). The shiftwidth option is for indent command >>. Yes, those option names are confusing.

Source: article

Show Tabs As Visible Characters

To show tabs as visible characters in Vim, use those two settings.

set list
set listchars=tab:>-

The second line will set tabs as something like this >---.

To highlight two trailing spaces before the line end, use those two commands.

:highlight ExtraWhitespace ctermbg=red guibg=red
:match ExtraWhitespace /\s\s$/

Or add this line to the .vimrc file. This is mainly for markdown (.md) files. Enter command :Showspace to display double spaces before line end, and :Shownospace to clear the highlight.

command Showspace highlight ExtraWhitespace ctermbg=red guibg=red | 
             \ match ExtraWhitespace /\s\s$/
command Shownospace match none 

Source: Q&A, SO Q&A for Trailing Space

Find and Search

The command to scan line for a character is f{char}, and F{char} reverse the order and scan backward. Press ; for repeat and , for reverse. The command t{char} stops the cursor before the character. Command f is for find and t is for til.

The command /pattern<CR> is to search a word pattern. Press n for next and N for reverse search. Command * is to search the word that is under the cursor.

Substitution command is :s/target/replacement. Press & for repeat. Command :%s/... is to search all lines. Add an option /g to the end :s/tar/rep/g to replace multiple matches on a line.

Source: Page 9 of Drew Neil’s Practical Vim Book

Change Letter Case

The command U is to change visually selected text to uppercase, and u to lowercase. Tilde ~ command is to swap cases in a visual selection.

Without using a visual selection, gU is the command to make characters uppercase, and gu for lowercase.

Source: Stackoverflow Q&A

Bash Tree Command

I often use tree command to list files in a directory (need apt install in Linux Mint). If you want to exclude a sub directory such as venv, the command looks like this.

$tree -I venv
$tree -I 'venv|__pycache__'   # note the quote(') around two sub dirs
$tree -L 2        # -L is for levels down
$tree -I venv -v  # sort by name, or --sort=name

This is not necessary a Vim tip, but I can’t find a good place to put it.

Source: blog post

Nerdtree Plugin

Vim has a built in file/directory management tool, but it is not very good. Nerdtree plugin is nice when you are working on a large project. Here are the steps for managing plugins with Vundle.

  • Use git to download Vundle.
$ git clone \ 
  • Setup a new .plugin.vimrc file and add those statements. Note at the end of this file it loads .vimrc file, so you do not need to keep two copies of .vimrc.
" ~/.plugin.vimrc file

set nocompatible              " required
filetype off

set rtp+=~/.vim/bundle/Vundle.vim
call vundle#begin()

Plugin 'gmarik/Vundle.vim'

" add all your plugins here

Plugin 'scrooloose/nerdtree'
Plugin 'jistr/vim-nerdtree-tabs'

Plugin 'mattn/emmet-vim'
Plugin 'nvie/vim-flake8'

" plugin add ends here

call vundle#end()            " required
filetype plugin on    " required

" for Nerdtree
let NERDTreeIgnore=['\.pyc$', '\~$'] "ignore files in NERDTree
nnoremap <C-N> :NERDTree<CR>
autocmd VimEnter * NERDTree

noremap <C-H><C-H> <C-W><C-H>
noremap <C-L><C-L> <C-W><C-L>
noremap <C-J><C-J> <C-W><C-J>
noremap <C-K><C-K> <C-W><C-K>

let g:user_emmet_mode='n'    "only enable normal mode functions.
let g:user_emmet_leader_key=',' "activate two ,

source ~/.vimrc
  • Inside Vim, run command :PluginInstall. Vundle will download and setup the plugins listed in .plugin.vimrc file. Run command :NERDTree to bring up Nerdtree window on the left.
  • Setup a bash alias for vimplugin in .bashrc file.
alias pytree="tree -I 'venv|__pycache__' --sort=name "  # for tree
alias vimplugin="vim -u ~/.plugin.vimrc "

Source: article, Nerdtree github repo

Nerdtree Shortcuts

Here are some shortcuts in Nerdtree. Once you become familiar with them, it is faster to navigate than a GUI file browser.

  • Press m to modify dir, a to add dir or file
  • o to open, O recursively open
  • x to close open dir, X recursively close
  • C-W + h j k l to move between windows
  • Map C-H C-H to move cursor to left side and C-L C-L to right side
noremap <C-H><C-H> <C-W><C-H>
noremap <C-L><C-L> <C-W><C-L>

Emmet Vim Plugin

The other Vim plugin I use is the emmet-vim. It is tedious to type html tags like <div></div> when coding web pages.

If you follow above steps and install Vundle to manage plugins, you can add this line to the .plugin.vimrc file.

Plugin 'mattn/emmet-vim'

I also added those two settings in the same file as suggested in a youtube tutorial video.

let g:user_emmet_mode='n'    "only enable normal mode functions.
let g:user_emmet_leader_key=',' "activate two commas  

Here is the link to the youtube tutorial.

Link to the Github emmet-vim source code repo.

Vim-Flake8 Plugin

I am adding a Python linter to my Vim setup. Below are the steps to set it up.

  • Install flake8 to a virtual environment
$python -m venv .flake8.venv
$source .flake8.venv/bin/activate
$pip install flake8
$which flake8
  • Add two lines to .plugin.vimrc file.
Plugin 'nvie/vim-flake8'
let g:flake8_cmd="/home/george/.flake8.venv/bin/flake8"
  • Config flake8 to change max line lengths, add those two lines to ~/.config/flake8 file.
max-line-length = 120
  • Run :PluginInstall vim command to install vim-flake8.

  • When a Python file is open, press <F7> to run the linter.

References: vim-flake8 repo

Links and References

Vim Cheat Sheet is a nice single web page which includes common vim commands.