Customizing Vim

Some great customizations to Vim's default behavior—make Vim work for you.
Even Better Searching: ignorecase and smartcase

Programmers often don't capitalize code consistently. I'm no exception here. From one program to another—and sometimes even, to my shame, within the same program—my capitalization scheme changes.

“Let's see, was that subroutine named “CrashAndBurn”, “CRASHANDBURN”, “crashandburn” or “Crashandburn”?” If your editor is too picky about distinguishing upper-case from lower-case letters in its search patterns, you'll have a hard time matching the string. On the other hand, sometimes case is significant, and you do want to find “CrashAndBurn” and not “crashandburn”. What to do?

By default, both vi and Vim won't match anywhere in the text where the capitalization isn't exactly the same as the search pattern you entered; however, we can change this default behavior. Vim has a couple of options that, when used together, can take the pain out of upper/lower-case confusion. You can try these options by pressing the ESCAPE key, then typing the following two commands, pressing ENTER after each one:

:set ignorecase
:set smartcase

The ignorecase option is supported in vi as well as in Vim. It entirely disregards upper- and lower-case distinctions in search patterns. With ignorecase set, a search for the pattern “crashandburn” will match “CrAsHaNdBuRn” and “crashANDburn” as well as “crashandburn” in the text.

This is an improvement over the default behavior in some cases, but what if I really do want to search based on case distinctions? Will I have to set and unset ignorecase each time I want to search a different way?

In vi, the answer, unfortunately, is yes. Vim is a little more subtle, though, in that it offers the smartcase option as well. If both ignorecase and smartcase are set, Vim will ignore the case of the search only if the search pattern is all in lower-case. But if there are any upper-case characters in the search pattern, Vim will assume you really want to do a case-sensitive search and will do its matching accordingly.

For example, with both ignorecase and smartcase turned on, Vim will match “crashandburn” with both “CrashAndBurn” and “crashandburn”. If you enter “CrashAndBurn” as your search pattern, however, Vim will only match the string “CrashAndBurn” in the text. It won't match “crashaNDBUrn”.

In practice, this combination of options works out to be a good compromise, letting you balance case-sensitive and case-insensitive searches nicely without having to set or unset an option to do them.

Keep Some Context: scrolloff

When I'm editing a program or document, I like to have a little context around my work by keeping the line of text I'm working on a couple of lines away from the edge of the window at all times.

In vi, I would maintain this bit of context by scrolling a few lines either above or below the line I wished to edit, then moving back to my destination and doing my editing. It wasn't great, but it was better than typing blind, which is how I felt whenever I worked on the first or last line of the screen.

Luckily, Vim can maintain some context for you automatically through the use of the scrolloff option. You can try setting this option by pressing the ESC key and entering

:set scrolloff=2

The 2 means I want at least two lines of context visible around the cursor at all times. You can set this to any number you like. Vim will scroll your file so that your cursor will never be closer to the top and bottom edge of the screen than the number of lines you specify.

Vim won't always be able to honor your scrolloff specification. If you're near the bottom or top of the file, there may not be enough lines left between your cursor and the file's beginning or end to give you the context you asked for. It will do the best it can, though.

I recommend the scrolloff feature highly. It's been a great help to me.

File Name Completion: wildmode

I hate typing file names. Why should I have to type out a file name like “thelongestfilenameintheworld.html” if the starting characters “thelong” will uniquely identify it from all other files in the current subdirectory? I also have the habit of wanting to edit a file deep within an unfamiliar directory structure.

Luckily, Vim has file name completion. File name completion lets you enter a partial file name into Vim, then press the TAB key to have Vim search for a file or directory name that could complete it. If Vim finds exactly one file or directory that matches, it fills in the rest of the name. If Vim can't find any match, it beeps.

What if Vim finds more than one file or directory name that matches? You can specify what Vim does next in this case by setting the wildmode option. The default setting for wildmode is “full”. When wildmode is set like this, the first time you press TAB, Vim will fill in one of the files or directory names that match what you have typed so far. If you hit TAB again, Vim will show you another file that completes your match. As you keep pressing TAB, Vim will go through all the possible completions. When it runs out, the next time you press TAB, Vim will show you the original incomplete string you entered. Now you're back where you started. If you press TAB again, Vim will show you the first match again.

While this is good, I prefer my file name completion to work a little differently. Here's how I like to have wildmode set:

:set wildmode=longest,list

Setting wildmode this way makes Vim act as follows. When I enter part of a file name and press TAB, Vim completes my file name to the longest common string among the alternatives. It then waits for me to do one of the following: press ENTER to accept that as the file name, keep typing the file name from that place, press ESC to cancel the command, or press TAB again. The second time I press TAB, Vim will list all possible files that could complete my partial file or directory name.

Don't like either of the file completion methods I listed above? Not to worry: wildmode has many different options. For details, enter

:help wildmode

and Vim will show you every possible option.



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setting incremental search in vim problems

sanon's picture

Hi do you know of any reason why set incsearch wouldn't work?
Im using osx 10.5 and have tried :set incsearch inside vim 7.2 and macvim and also in .vimrc set incsearch.

thank you

Updated guide to customizing VIM for version 7.1+

Steve Francia's picture

While this guide is still applicable, Vim has added a ton of new features since this was published. I have posted an updated "customize vim" guide which can be found here Customizing Vim .

Good stuff

Anonymous's picture

hey, good advice... i have a few more questions. How do we see to it that vim always opens in a full window with a particular color scheme? and... how do we copy lines between two windows of vim. the "y" and "p" jig works well within a window, but doesn't seem work properly between windows...

thanks for the help...

For colors, add

Anonymous's picture

For colors, add colors=darkblue to your .vimrc and that's it.

Lovely advice, thanks!

Anonymous Coward's picture

Lovely advice, thanks!

Excellent examples

Anthony Ettinger's picture

I like the incremental search function, and re-added smartcase to my profile, as that is a definite :)