Learning Vim

A brief (and somewhat complete) history: In the beginning, the UNIX standard editor was ed, created by Ken Thompson in 1969. ed is a very powerful, very terse, command line interface for editing text, but user-friendliness is not one of it's strengths. In 1976 Bill Joy came along on his ADM-3A and extended ed to become ex, and then a couple years later made a visual interface and called it vi. Later on, around 1988, Bram Moolenar took Vi and improved it with a lot more features, and around 1991 released it and called it Vim.

Vi (and hence Vim) is unlike most any other editor. Vim is modal. That means things you do in one "mode" will have a different effect than what happens in another mode. Almost every other editor will let you start typing text as soon as you open it. If you do that in Vim there's no telling what will happen.


On many systems, Vim will start in compatible mode, which tries to maintain backwards compatibility with the old Vi editor. You can disable this by running :set nocompatible, or by starting with vim -N, or by creating a vimrc file, which we'll try to create a bit later.

Vim's default mode is normal mode which uses the letters on the keyboard as mnemonics for commands. To put text into your document with Vim you need to enter insert mode, which you can get to with i, but there are several other ways that we'll cover. To get back to normal mode you should press <Esc>, and to quit without saving you can run :q!, or to save and quit you can do ZZ.

If you make a mistake in Vim, remember that u in normal mode is undo and <C-r> (read as Ctrl+r) is redo.

If you're not sure which mode you're in, push <Esc> a couple times and you can guarantee you're back in normal mode. You should really try to default back to normal mode as often as you can, and by that I mean don't just stay in insert mode all day.

If you're the more "hands-on" type, you might prefer to skip down to A Simple Vimrc and then come back to here afterwards.


I think the best thing to learn first in Vim is how to move the cursor. There are literally dozens and dozens of motions, so let's start with some of the basics:


h j k l move the cursor left, down, up, and right, respectively. h and l are easy to remember because they are at the left and right, but j and k can be easy to mix up at first, so it's helpful to note that j kinda almost resembles a down arrow with the way the it exceeds the baseline. We can prepend a [count] to any of these, so if we want to move forward by 10 chars we can use 10l or if we want to go up 3 lines we can use 3k.

But moving your cursor around by individual characters isn't the most efficient way to do anything, even with adding a [count] it's not much better than the arrow-keys. If we want to move the cursor to a specific character on the line we can use f F t T.

f moves the cursor to the next occurrence of the next letter we give it. If we have "foo bar" on a line and our cursor at the beginning, we can move to the space by typing f<space> (where <space> is literally the space bar), or we can move to the "b" in "bar" by typing fb. So f works by moving the cursor to the next character given to it. F works similar, but instead of moving from the right of the cursor, it moves backwards from the left of the cursor.

t is very similar to f, but it moves the cursor to before the next character, so going back to our foo bar line, if we were to type tb our cursor would now be on the space. Hopefully you can guess how T works, it works like t, except it works from the left of the cursor.

I remember f as "find" and t as "to", and their uppercase counterparts move backwards.

There are then two more keys that expand on the power of f F t T, and those are ; and ,. The ; key works by repeating the last motion with f F t T, and , repeats the last f F t T but in the opposite direction. We can then prepend a [count] to any of these, so if we want to jump to the second occurrence of "o" from the right of the cursor we could use 2fo.

Home work: read :h left-right-motions and find out what the following motions do: $ ^ | % gg G }


Text-objects are, for me, the most compelling feature of Vim. Let's start with words, but first we should understand that Vim has two definitions of a word: word and WORD. WORD is the easiest to define, it's any group of characters surrounded by whitespace, while word is slightly harder to define, it's by ranges of similar characters. So foo b@r is two WORDs, but is four words, because the @ in b@r is it's own separate word. I strongly suggest that you read :help WORD to see what Vim's built-in help has to say about it (and when that gets in the way, you can close the split with <C-w>q, which is read as Ctrl+w then q).

Now that's out of the way, let's learn some motions for dealing with words. w moves the cursor forward one word, and we can move backwards a word with b. Their WORD counterparts are simply the uppercase versions: W moves the cursor forward a WORD and B moves backwards a WORD. You can move to the end of a word with e, and you can move backwards a word with ge (or E and gE respectively).

I think now is a good time to introduce another mode: visual mode. You can start visual mode with v, which will let you visually select regions of text starting from the cursor position, similar to holding shift in other editors. If your cursor is at the beginning of a word, you can visually select that word by typing ve. You can continue to select more words by successive presses of e, but what if your cursor isn't at the beginning of the word? This is where Vim's text-objects really show their true power. From any point in the word you can select the entire WORD with viW, which you could read as "visually select inside WORD".

There are, of course, many text-objects besides words. How about a sentence? We can navigate forward a sentence with ) and backwards a sentence with (. Unfortunately the syntax for selecting a sentence as a text-object differs slightly here, vis would select the sentence, because if we were to run vi) it would look for a group of parentheses. That's pretty key there, because I just introduced another text-object: groups of parentheses. You can visually select inside groups of () by using either vi) or vi( (they're both the same to Vim), and to take this one step further, you select things inside curly braces with vi}. What's that? You want to select the curly braces as well as their contents? Well let's visually select around them, with va}. We can take this inside/around idea to nearly any text-object. If we vaW it will select a WORD and also a whitespace character around the word. If we do vas it will also include a whitespace character around the sentence.

Visual selections aren't just limited to text objects though, you can use any motion. If you wanted to select from the cursor to the next occurrence of a comma, you could use vf, and then use the ; to jump to more commas. Visual mode started with v puts you in a character select mode, so you can select as much text as you want by moving the cursor with any motion. You can also select by lines by using V, and you can even make rectangular selections with ^v (that's control+v), which is something I haven't seen in any other editor.


Now that you've learned a dozen motions, and learned how to select text, what can you do with them? This is where operators come in. If you were to think of motions and text-objects as nouns, then operators are verbs.

Deleting is an often used operation in text editing, and in Vim it's done with d. Of course, d by itself doesn't do anything, "delete what?" Vim asks, and waits patiently for you to tell it. It is at this point where the "composable" nature of Vim's key-bindings shine. Any motion or text-object can almost always be chained to an operator. You want to delete the current word the cursor is on? daw. You want to delete the entire sentence? das. Similar to the d command is x which deletes the character under the cursor, while X deletes the character before the cursor.

What if you wanted to change a word? Your first thought might be to visually select with viw then delete with d, and then use i to get to insert mode, or you could diwi, but there's actually an operator for this: change, with c! With this you can ciw to change inside words, or you can ci) to change inside parentheses.

The last operator I'm going to cover here is yank, which is done with y. Yank is similar to copy in most editors: it leaves the text intact while adding it to your "clipboard". You could yank the next 3 words with y3w, or the entire paragraph with yap. Pasting is done with p which will insert the last yanked text after the cursor, or with P which will insert before the cursor. p/P also work with text deleted with d, and will also restore the text changed with c.

The key take-away here is worth repeating: Any operator can be used with any motion or text-object. If you learn a new motion or operator, you can use it together with your existing operators or motions.

Home work: read the short list of operators :h operator and experiment a bit with them.

A Simple Vimrc

Now that we've got a bit of a handle on moving around and editing text, let's exercise this knowledge and create a configuration file for Vim.

On Linux (and Mac) you should create a file called .vimrc in your $HOME directory, and on Windows this will be _vimrc in your User folder.

I'd like to demonstrate a couple of different ways to edit and insert text while adding settings to the file.

Press i to start insert mode, and type the following:

set backspace=indent,eol,start " make backspace a bit more sane

When you're done typing, press Esc to exit insert mode.
Then press yy to yank the entire line, and then press p to paste it below.
You should now have two lines of the same thing.
Type 2G then w to jump to the second word of the second line where it declares the backspace option, then type cE to change the backspace setting to showmode, then Esc back to normal mode.
Use f" then w to navigate to the start of the comment, and then use C to change the rest of the line so it looks like below:

set showcmd " show operator/motion commands as they're typed

Now press o to start insert mode in a new line below the current one type the following:

set hidden " allow buffers to persist in the background without saving

And try and follow roughly the same pattern as above for this next line:

set ruler " show a ruler with line numbers at the bottom

Save this (with :w), and then tell Vim to execute this with :so %.

:so is short for :source and '%' is a shortcut to the path of the currently edited file.

Home work: what do D and C do, and how do they differ from Y?


  • ex commands like :s and :g
  • block selection with insert/append
  • Registers
    • Unnamed register, where yanked, deleted, and changed text go.
  • Macros


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