Thomas' writings, builds, toys


How I get the job done, using Vim

I wrote down tips and tricks I use with VIM.

The Keyboard

-- One board to fit them all

First things first...

I switched from my country's keymap (AZERTY) to QWERTY years ago. Even when everybody else is using another layout, using QWERTY proved to be as I suspected: a bless.

Important characters ([], {}, ~!@#$,...) are put in very awkward places on the AZERTY layout. When working on a UNIX machine or coding (this is not even specific to the C language) this results in unnecessary stress on your hands. An example is the use of ALT-GR to type the @ and \ characters.

Switching to QWERTY is not that hard. Apart from the obvious fact that AQ ZW and other letters are switched, you do have to re-train your reflexes for a lot of symbols.

Vi's keystrokes were designed for the QWERTY layout, something I noticed quickly when learning Vim back in the day.


Even if you don't like Vim, you might still want to try Cream, a distribution of Vim witch retains lots of the powerful features, but neutered to the point of mode-less editing.


Old-school Vim users will be happy to hear that there is a Firefox addon that brings vi workflow to the browser, read more about it in the Vimperator section of this page.

The eternal home-row

asdf jkl;

Why do I have to move my hands when I'm working with the computer? I don't like using the cursor keys in my shells, but I just couldn't get used to readline's vi-mode. Perhaps I should give it another try.


Instead of hitting the ESC key, you can use Ctrl-[. The Ctrl key is placed horrible on standard keyboards. If you don't have a use for the shiftlock key, you can replace its function with a second ctrl key by putting this line in the keyboard section of your /etc/X11/xorg.conf file.

Option  "XkbOptions"    "ctrl:nocaps"

Now you can use both pinkie fingers instead of reaching out for ESC.

On Ubuntu intrepid, go to keyboard preferences -> layouts -> other options -> Ctrl key position -> make capslock an additional Ctrl.

Typing accents

QWERTY keyboards don't have mappings for letters with accents, but Vim makes it very easy to type them. Just type

:set keymap=accents

You can get a list of the mappings by executing


Spell checking in Vim

When I'm entering French (for instance), Vim's spelling checker comes in very handy:

:setlocal spell spellang=fr

Enabling checking for a specific language (or multiple) can be done by including the folowing line in your file (I use it extensively with my writings in Restructured Text):

/* vim : spell:spelllang=en */
.. vim : spell:spelllang=nl

I believe I had to pull the dutch spell file from because Ubuntu doesn't ship them.

You can set spelllang=nl,en in your ~/.vimrc so you only have to do :set spell.

Editing Files

To enable syntax highlighting, add something like this to your ~/.vimrc

colo koehler
set nu!
syntax on


You can do regex searches with /. I set the match colors to something a bit more eye-catching:

hi Search ctermfg=red ctermbg=green
hi Todo ctermbg=blue ctermfg=red
set hlsearch

It's worth the time to learn regex replaces if you have to do structured substitution on several lines:

  • use v (visual) to select the lines
  • hit :
  • the prompt :'<,'> appears.
  • type s/ and enter the regex.
  • use \( and \) to mark groups and \1 and \2 to put the matched groups in the result


My default configuration (add to ~/.vimrc):

set ts=8
set sts=4
set shiftwidth=4
set expandtab

Documentation (obtained using :help);

'expandtab' 'et' boolean (default off)

In Insert mode: Use the appropriate number of spaces to insert a <Tab>. Spaces are used in indents with the '>' and '<' commands and

'tabstop' 'ts' number (default 8)

Number of spaces that a <Tab> in the file counts for. Also see :retab command, and 'softtabstop' option.

'softtabstop' 'sts' number (default 0)

Number of spaces that a <Tab> counts for while performing editing operations, like inserting a <Tab> or using <BS>. It "feels" like <Tab>s are being inserted, while in fact a mix of spaces and <Tab>s is used.

Operations on the current buffer

If you run shell commands on the Ex prompt (ESC,:) like :!, the character % gets substituted with the filename of the buffer that has focus. The same goes for %:p:h, this refers to the directory the file is in.

This is really handy if you want to do repetitive stuff like checking if a file well formed (pyflakes does this for python source code), or uploading a html file with ftp (pub is a lftp bookmark).

:!pyflakes %
:!sql < %
:!echo put % |lftp pub

You can open the matching headerfile of a C source file with:

:sp %:t:r.h

(replace .h with .c to jump from header to source)


You can browse folders with Vim. To open the folder of the active buffer you can do :sp %:p:h.

  • To vertical split the file under the cursor, hit v.
  • By pressing I you can switch the folder view. I like the tree-like view, should figure out a way to make that default.

Buffers & tabs

You can open a file in a new buffer with :sp secondfile, or a new with C-w n. Afterwards you can move focus to another buffer with C-w h/j/k/l.

Tabs are opened with :tabnew secondfile and you can cycle between them using gt and gT.


You can get a nice visual diff by running

:vert diffsplit otherfile

Or using the vimdiff command.


Run ctags-exuberant *.[ch] (or *.py) to build the tags file. You can now jump to definitions of the word under the cursor by hitting C-] and C-w ] (open in a new buffer).


Vim can do basic completion of words that are already in the buffer: C-n.

General settings

Using this regex match the parts of a line that pass 80 characters are colored black on yellow.

highlight rightMargin term=bold ctermfg=black ctermbg=yellow
match rightMargin /.\%>80v/

Wildmenu will show tab-completion results of the ex command line above the commandline. Use left/right arrows to pick easily.

set modeline
set wildmenu


You can save a syntax-highlit copy of the current buffer as an HTML file using the :TOhtml command. I have these two preferences

let html_use_css = 1
let use_xhtml = 1


Taglist plugin

The taglist plugin provides a handy list of function and variable names. Install it by copying the plugin and helpfile from the zip archive to ~/.vim/ Add the following lines to your ~/.vimrc to automatically enable the taglist when Vim starts.

let Tlist_Use_Right_Window = 1
let Tlist_Auto_Open = 1


Vimperator's designer(s) used a brilliant way to 'click' hyperlinks on webpages; If you hit f (or F to open in tab) numbers appear on each hyperlink. You just have to enter the link's number to jump to the corresponding page. Also keep in mind that:

  • u un-closes a tab
  • ZZ quits Firefox while saving the session
  • y copies the current page URL to the X11 clipboard
  • p and P reads an URL from the X11 clipboard and opens it.

Read more on the Vimperator website.