Jon's Dev Blog

Vim Presentation

June 05, 2020

These are notes for a presentation that I gave to coworkers at Charter on the history of vim and how to configure it for development. I included some example vim configs in the original presentation, which can be found here.


History of Vim

  • Started with ed. Written by Ken Thompson and others of Bell Labs in 1971 for Unix.
    • Short for "editor" because they needed one, so they wrote it (actually adapted from qed).
    • Notoriously terse: Shows one line at a time, and you have to query the file you're editing. Why? Teletype.
    • But supported regular expressions. Actually the origin of the word "grep".
  • Starting the trend of these things one-upping each other with their names, ex was "ed extended". Developed by Bill Joy in 1976.
    • Still one-line at a time, but much more feature-rich.
    • Many of the features are familiar to modern day users of vim. In particular, ex added the colon for entering commands, as well as marks and tags.
  • ex eventually implemented a fullscreen mode, accessed with the command vi. This began the evolution of ex into vi.
    • Introduced modes (insert/normal).
    • Recognizable to the modern day user, although very feature poor compared to modern vim.
  • vi was rewritten for lots of different systems and eventually in 1986, Bram Moolenaar wrote vim, which was a port of stevie, which was a port of vi. vim has a much expanded feature set, including syntax highlighting and a "visual select" mode. It has been updated ever since and is on version 8 currently.
    • Standard text editor for nearly all linux systems.
    • (Maybe?) introduced vimscript, which allowed the editor to be extended via plugins and settings.
  • While vim is still actively maintained, in 2015, neovim released its first public release. This is an ongoing project which seeks to "aggresively" refactor and modernize the vim codebase. Naturally, people are angry about it, but it is superior to vim for a few reasons:
    • Gets rid of the "benevolent dictator" problem and has a more open community.
    • It has an API which allows it to be embedded into GUI editors like IDEs.
    • Supports an embedded terminal emulator.
    • Support for asynchronous job control, which allows for LSP plugins.
    • Refactored codebase drops support for a bunch of obselete hardware and will be maintainable going forward.
    • Super popular on linux youtube.

My History with Vim

  • Started in 2015 because I got cool-shamed into using it for LaTeX.
  • Learned some basic commands, mostly for configuring the look and feel, and used it more or less like any other text editor for a long time.
  • Wrote my dissertation in vim.
  • Got enough familiarity to use as a daily driver for python and general text editing (but not scala) by 2018.
  • Gave up for a while and used Intellij + vim plugin, but I didn't like the lack of configurability of the vim bindings in Intellij.
  • Learned about plugins and extensibility of vim and set up for scala development.

Why Use It

  1. Optimized for editing text, not writing text.
    1. Provides a language for changes
    2. Repeatable
    3. Undoable
  2. Composable language
    1. EMACS, Atom, VSCode all focus on extensibility, but lack the composable lalanguage of vim
    2. Meantime, neovim is catching up in terms of extensibility as well.
  3. Cross platform and lightweight.
  4. Cool
  5. Why not?

Some Jokes

Vi has two modes: beep repeatedly and break everything.

Easy Mode

Learning Curve

Hottest Editors

Vim as a Grammar of Text Movement and Text Objects

"Typing is not the bottleneck, thinking is" - Learning vim isn't about speed, it's about expressive power without thought.

High Level Paradigm

Vim is a modal text editor. This means there are multiple layers of interacting with your files. Some of the common modes are:

  • Normal mode (where you do text editing) - Esc
  • Insert mode (where you do text writing) - i/I, a/A, s/S, etc.
  • Visual mode (selecting text, etc.) - v/V, etc.
  • Command mode (entering commands to the editor) ":"

Basic Syntax

Verb + Noun.

For example: d for "delete" and "w" for word combine to produce the command dw for "delete word"

  • Repeat commands with .
  • Undo commands with u
  • Redo commands with Ctrl+r

Verbs in Vim

  • d - Delete
  • c - Change (delete + inter insert mode)
  • > - Indent
  • v - Select
  • y - Yank (copy)

Movement Nouns

  • w - word (forward by one word object)
  • e - end of word (forward to end of current/next word object)
  • 0, ^, $ - Beginning/end of line
  • gg, G - Beginning/end of document
  • b - back (backward by one word object)
  • h, j, k, l - character movements
  • {, } - Skip paragraph
  • (, ) - Skip sentence

These can be repeated within commands, too. For instance 2dw and d2w both mean delete 2 words. But only c2w means "change two words."

Text Object Nouns

Those were all simple, but this is where you start to see the expressive power.

  • iw - "inside word" (also aw to include whitespace)
  • i" - "inside quotes". Similarly i{, i(, etc. These are super useful in coding. Aso a", etc. to include enclosing characters.
  • ip - "inside paragraph" (also ap to include whitespace)
  • is, as - inside/around sentence.

Parameterized Text Objects

  • f, F - "find" the next character
  • t, T - "until" the next character (think 'till)
  • / - Search through the document for a match

These can also be repeated, for instance c2t) will change until the second closing parenthesis after the cursor.

Moving around

  • Ctrl+e, Ctrl+y - Scroll the page around
  • Ctrl+f, Ctrl+b - Page up/down
  • Ctrl+u, Ctrl+d - Half page up/down
  • H, M, L - Top, middle, bottom of text
  • zt, zz, zb - Move current line to top, middle, bottom

More Advanced Topics

  1. Macros: Record with qq. Replay with @q
  2. Relative numbers help with relative movement.
  3. Use marks to hold a spot.
  4. Remap commands and write your own.
  5. Use buffers for tabs, tabs for layouts

Configuring Vim

TLDR: Use Vim-plug. It is a very easy-to-use plugin manager by github superuser junegunn (who also writes lots of other good plugins). Once installed, you can simply place statements like Plug 'tpope/commentary.vim' in your vimrc and run the install command. The string specifies a partial or complete github URL to a published vim plugin.

Initial setup

Run this command.

WARNING: If you already have a vim config, you should back it up first.

curl -fLo ~/.vim/autoload/plug.vim --create-dirs \

Good Practice

Map plugin commands to leader, g-space, or control/alt+. Don't go too crazy with plugins (like I have).

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Written by Jon Lamar: Machine learning engineer, former aspiring mathematician, cyclist, family person.