Vim for C Programmers

You don't have to move to an integrated development environment to get luxury coding features. From variable autocompletions all the way up to integration with ctags and make, Vim makes a C programmer's life easier and more productive.
Vim with Exuberant ctags

Exuberant ctags (see the on-line Resources) is an external program that can generate tags for Vim to navigate source code. If all of your source code is contained in only one directory, simply go to the directory in the shell and enter:

$ ctags .

This generates a tags file called tags. Vim reads this file for jumping to functions, enums, #defines and other C constructs.

If the source code is distributed across several directories, ctags has to generate tags for all of them relative to a certain directory. To do this, go to the root directory of the source code and execute:

$ ctags -R .

Check whether the tags file has been generated. You also can open and read the tags file in Vim.

Now, let us move on to navigating the source code using tags. Navigating the source code using ctags is one of the most fascinating tools that a programmer has. You can read the code so nicely and quickly that you wonder how it would have been without ctags.

Once the tags file has been generated, open the file in Vim as normal, except that if the file is deep inside, open it from the root directory. For instance, your source code is organized like this:

    ----> gui --> wxpython
    |       |
    |       ------>Tk
    ----> backend --> networking



If you want to edit tcp.c under the common/backend/networking directory, you should open it like this:

$ vim common/backend/networking/tcp.c

instead of like this:

$ cd common/backend/networking


$ vim tcp.c

The tags file is situated in the directory above common, and Vim automatically knows the location of the tags file this way.

Alternatively, you can open the file using the second method mentioned above and execute this from inside of Vim:

:se tags=../../../tags

The first method is easier for navigation. Once you open the file, you can jump from one function definition to another easily by using the key combination Ctrl-].

If you want to go to the definition of anything, be it a function, macro or anything else, simply press Ctrl-] when the cursor is positioned on it. Thus, from invocation, we can move to the definition. It takes you there no matter which file contains it. Assuming that we call drawscreen() from tcp.c, it automatically takes you there, even if the file is contained under common/gui.

If you want to go back to what you were reading, press Ctrl-T, and you return to where you left. You can jump to another invocation from there by pressing Ctrl-] again. You can continue this process ad infinitum, and you can keep coming back by pressing Ctrl-T.

Another way to find a function definition if you know only a part of the name is:

:ta /function

This command takes you to the first match if there are multiple matches. You can go to the next match with :tn.

If there are multiple definitions and you want to choose among them, you can press G Ctrl-] or type :tselect <tagname>. This way you can modify the source code by navigating with tags without even knowing which file contains what.

Vim with cscope

Cscope is another powerful source code navigation tool with which we can perform a variety of searches. Here is a sample output of the Cscope menu:

Find this C symbol:
Find this global definition:
Find functions called by this function:
Find functions calling this function:
Find this text string:
Change this text string:
Find this egrep pattern:
Find this file:
Find files #including this file:

Now, Vim has integrated Cscope into its repertoire, making it convenient for programmers to use the same features in Cscope from the cool comfort of Vim. All you have to do is establish a Cscope connection by issuing :cs add cscope.out.

As we discussed before with ctags, Cscope generates an index called cscope.out that can be generated by using the shell command:

$ cscope -Rbq 

This generates the file cscope.out. It is to be executed from the source code root directory à lá Ctags. You then open the file as before, relative to the source code root directory, and make a Cscope connection with the command :cs add cscope.out. You can verify existing Cscope connections by typing :cs show.

. What you can search for from inside of Vim can be seen using :cs<CR>. For instance, to go to a particular file, or a header of a source file, simply type :cs f f stdio.h for opening stdio.h or :cs f f foo.c.

For searching for functions called by a function foo.c, type :cs f d foo.c. This lists out the functions called by foo.c. For functions calling foo.c, type :cs f c foo.c.

To search for an egrep pattern, type :cs f e varName and so on. For a list of the available options, type :cs. It displays a range of available options.

Now, if you have both ctags and Cscope, you can type :cstag /foo to search for a function or enum or whatever that contains foo.



Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Please Help

neo_nuggets's picture

Hello sirs,
I have Vim and Code Blocks and am very much new to Vim and would like to know how does one build and run a script? (Yes...I am a newbie).

Nice article, concise and

Anonymous's picture

Nice article, concise and useful.

Seems like the author was trying to educate newcomers without trying to impress readers with unix-speak. I hope I can find more of his articles.

(windows programmer).

Try c.vimYou can get this

Shankar's picture

Try c.vim
You can get this from
An amazing plugin for working with C files in gvim.

Editing between marks

Gary T's picture

Excellent article, here's another little tip for marks and replacing.

Mark two points in the file with say ma and mb, you can then replace between the marks with


or a single mark and then you can do current position to the mark with


I find this incredibly useful, hopefully you will to.

Adding a small note

jagadeeshbp's picture

The article was quite marvellous and useful.

I just wanted to add, for those who are new to vim, that most of the settings like "se nu" can be made to persist across logins by just putting that setting in .vimrc file in the user's home directory.