Rodrigo Rosenfeld Rosas

Achieving Productivity with Vim as IDE

Fri, 10 Sep 2010 20:00:00 +0000 (last updated at Tue, 20 Mar 2012 21:30:00 +0000)

Finally I've got some time to finish translating my Vim original article in Portuguese (written in September/2010):

I've long insisted on trying to use Java written IDEs like Netbeans, RubyMine, Aptana/Eclipse or IntelliJ IDEA for software developing. They are fine except that they use too much system resources and you never know when the next garbage collection will happen (usually in the greatest inspiration moment).

I was so upset with memory usage (my 4GB RAM computer was swapping very often) and garbage collection that I decided to take 3 full days of my last holiday to learn how to get productivity with Vim. The result was good enough and here is the summary of what I could get from Vim and what I could not.

Note 1: if you are already a Vim user, backup your configuration files before trying this setup. Note 2: I would like to thank Michael Durrant and Vim spelling support for helping with translation.

What to expect?

  • Light speed!
  • Auto-complete (with current setup, works well for HTML, CSS, XML, leaving the desire for others IDEs for Java)
  • Snippets
  • Tabbed editing
  • Recording Session
  • Auto-completion of words contained in the document
  • Support for browsing RDoc (Ruby)
  • File browser
  • Fast file opening
  • View number of rows and "go to line n";
  • Switch to the definition of the class / method / tag under the cursor
  • Spell check (getting spelling support for Netbeans was really hard when I tried to, while it is built-in for Vim 7 and easy to add new dictionaries)

In addition to these features, I've got much more ones that I've never used on my prior IDEs experience, as shown in this article.


Here are the install procedures tested on a Debian Unstable Linux distribution that should work almost seamless with Ubuntu too. In Windows, apparently the change is that the configuration directory of Vim is called "vimfiles" instead of ".vim". If you have any questions about the installation process, just post a comment.

You need to be root (or use sudo in Ubuntu) for installing the required packages.

1apt-get install exuberant-ctags vim-gtk git
3git clone --recursive git:// .vim
4ln -s .vim/vimrc .vimrc

Some additional notes in case you have any issues with the above steps or are just curious:

  • If you further install gitk and git-gui, there are shortcuts for launching them from Vim.
  • Gnome users might prefer installing vim-gnome instead of vim-gtk. Some shortcuts (like Ctrl+S) won't work on Vim when running in some terminal emulator as Konsole or gnome-terminal because they will capture the shortcuts before Vim can handle them and gVim is recommended instead.
  • The exuberant-ctags package is required for tag navigation.


Vim has much more features than what I'll introduce on this article. I would suggest reading other resources on the subject if you have some free time.


Editing, saving, navigation and quiting

Unlike other editors, Vim has different modes. It starts in Normal mode, in which typed chars are interpreted as commands. Pressing 'i' or 'Insert', enter Vim in insert mode, from which you can type anything. To exit insert mode, just press 'Escape'.

Most commands are available through a command line that shows up when a colon (':') is pressed. Some of them are:

  • ':q': Quit without saving. Vim will warn you instead of leaving when any changes are unsaved.
  • ':w': Write buffer to current file (save the file).
  • 'Ctrl+x, s': Save current file, while on Insert mode.
  • ':x' or ':wq' or 'ZZ': Quit saving changes.
  • ':q!': Quit discarding changes.
  • ':qa': Quit closing all buffers (read "files", for simplicity sake). Actually, prior commands will only act on current buffer.
  • ':e path/to/file': Open file in the current window (auto-complete is achieved with the TAB key). If a relative path is given, the current Vim directory (':pwd' will show it) is used. This can be changed with the ':cd /new/path' command or ':lcd' for changing the path just for current window (more on windows later).
  • ',f path/relative/to/file': ',f' expands current file path and puts you on the command line
  • ':tabe' and ',t': the same thing bug open file in a tab instead of the current window.
  • 'Ctrl+PageUp/PageDown': navigate through tabs (may not work on terminal Vim)
  • ':tabnew': Open an empty buffer on a new tab
  • ':e!': Discard file changes and load last saved content
  • 'w': Position the cursor to the beginning of next word
  • 'e': Position the cursor to the end of next word
  • 'b': Position the cursor backward to the beginning of the word
  • ',w' and ',b': The same considering CamelCase words
  • '0': Position the cursor at start of current line
  • '^': Position the cursor at the first non-blank character of the current line
  • '$': Position the cursor at the end of the line
  • '%': Go to the corresponding pair of '[]', '()' and '{}'
  • 'gg': Go to the beginning of current buffer (document)
  • 'G': Go to the end of buffer
  • '45G': Go to line 45
  • '~': Change the case of the letter under cursor
  • 'u': Undo
  • 'Ctrl-r': Redo
  • '.': repeat last command
  • 'J': join lines
  • Ctrl+e: scrolls one line down without moving the cursor
  • Ctrl+y: scrolls one line up without moving the cursor

On insert/editing mode, you can call normal mode commands by pressing Ctrl+O before the command. While on normal mode, it is possible to change to insert mode using some commands:

  • i: doesn't change current cursor position
  • I: position the cursor in the beginning of the line
  • o: appends a new line below the current line
  • O: appends a new line above the current line
  • a: position the cursor one character after current cursor position
  • A: position the cursor at the end of current lines

Commands for deleting lines, words, blocks, managing surrounds and toggling comments:

  • dd: delete current line (actually, moves it to Vim internal clipboard)
  • D: delete until the end of the line
  • x or Delete: deletes a character under cursor
  • Backspace: deletes a character backward
  • dw: delete from current cursor until the end of the word under cursor
  • diw: delete inner word (the entire word under the cursor)
  • db: delete until the beginning of the word or a word backward if the cursor is already in the beginning of some word
  • ds', ds", ds{, ds[, ds(: delete surrounds ('', "", {}, (), [])
  • dst: delete surrounding tag
  • di', di", di{, di[, di(: delete content inside the given surround
  • da', da", da{, da[, da(: delete all content of the given surround, including the surround characters
  • dit: delete inner tag content
  • cs: works like ds, but replacing the surround instead of deleting them. For instance, ci"' will turn "text" into 'text'. ci"t<div> will result in <div>text</div>...
  • yss*: apply surround around the entire line. Ex.: yss' will apply an apostrophe around the line, while yss<div> will surround the line with a div tag.
  • s*: adds a surround while on visual mode (click and drag with mouse or press 'v' to ender visual mode and use the movement commands)
  • ys<movement command>: applies surround around the region described by the movement command. Ex.: With cursor under "word" ysiw<span> results in <span>word</span>
  • C, cw, ciw, cb, ci*, etc: Works like the delete commands but finish the command on insert mode (c stands for change)
  • gv: Reselect last visual selection
  • \c<space>: toggle line (or block in visual mode) commenting
  • ggdG: [d]eletes entire buffer - from beginning [gg] to end [G] of the document

Copy and paste

In normal mode (don't use ':'):

  • yy: copy (yank) current line to clipboard
  • p: paste content from clipboard
  • yyp: duplicate current line
  • ':%y': copy the whole buffer (document) for internal use in Vim, only
  • ':%y+': copy the whole document to system clipboard
  • ':%y': the * register is a clipboard register associated with the middle button on nix systems. This command copies the document to this clipboard area.
  • "+yy (or Ctrl+X, c): copy current line to the system clipboard (register +)
  • "yy: copy current line to the middle-click associated clipboard (register )
  • Ctrl+R,+ (ou Ctrl+X, v) e Ctrl+R * (ou Ctrl+X, b): paste from system clipboard and middle-click clipboard respectively
  • Ctrl+C: In visual mode, copy selection to system clipboard

In visual mode, 'y' copies the selection, while '"+y' / '"y' copy the content to registers + and .

Windows and Tabs

I've already commented about basic tabs-related commands. Further commands follow below:

  • Ctrl+w, s: (Press Ctrl+w, then 's') - split window horizontally
  • Ctrl+w, v: (Press Ctrl+w, then 'v') - split window vertically
  • Ctrl+w, c: Close current buffer or tab if has a single window
  • Ctrl+w, o: Keep Only current window on tab, closing the others
  • Ctrl+w, w: Alternate to next window
  • Ctrl+w, arrow key: Alternate to window pointed by the arrow key
  • Ctrl+w, T: Note the capital T. Move current buffer to a new tab

Quick file open

The '<c-x><c-f>' (Ctrl+X Ctrl+F) shortcut activates the quick open file dialog.

Vim will list files in your current dir (launch ':pwd' command to see what is it and ':cd ~/new/path' to change to a new path). While you type, files are filtered considering the typed expression. For instance, 'a/c/uc' will list 'app/controllers/user_controller.rb' as an option.

Hit Enter to open the file in the current buffer. Ctrl+t will open it in a new tab. Ctrl+Enter will open in a new window.


Snippets are expanded with the TAB key. For instance, div<TAB> will expand to <div id="?">?</div>.

The bundled snippets are located in ~/.vim/bundle/snipmate/snippets and ~/.vim/bundle/rosenfeld/snippets.

Feel free to modify them and include new ones on bundle/*/snippets and ~/.vim/snippets.

Editing HTML, XML, ERB, ASP, JSP, PHP, GSP, etc

Shortcuts for working with HTML/XML also work on PHP, ASP, ERB, JSP, etc, once the file type is properly configured like "html.erb". This can be achieved with command ":set ft=html.erb", for ERB files, for instance. You can also set these associations automatically according to file extension. See some examples in ~/.vim/filetype.vim.

Some shortcuts for working on HTML have been already discussed. Here are some more shorcuts, for being used on insert mode:

  • Ctrl+x, /: Closes the last open tag.
  • Ctrl+x, space: convert word in a tag and put the cursor inside it. Ex.: div<C-x><space> results in <div>|</div>, where '|' denotes the final cursor position
  • Ctrl+x, Enter: similar to prior command, but with a line break between the tag start and its end
  • Ctrl+x, ': creates to a comment tag
  • Ctrl+x, ": comment current line
  • Ctrl+x, !: open a menu with DOCTYPE choices to choose from to insert on document
  • Ctrl+x, @: inserts a stylesheet tag
  • Ctrl+x, #: inserts a meta tag with charset=utf8
  • Ctrl+x, $: inserts a script tag for the Javascript language

For template files, like ERB, JSP, PHP, etc:

  • Ctrl+x, =: <%= | %> or the equivalent for the file format
  • Ctrl+x, -: <% | %> or the equivalent for the file format

For ERB (Ruby), I've created the following alternative snippets:

  • re: <%= | %>
  • rc: <% | %>

If you use KDE, it's possible to launch kcolorchooser for returning a hex color into the document (a CSS, for instance), hitting F12. Take a look at ~/.vim/initializers/kcolorchooser-mapping.vim for changing your software of choice.

Spelling check


  • spen: enable spelling check for English
  • ':set nospell': disable spelling check
  • z= or right-clicking the word: open a menu with spelling correction suggestions to choose one from
  • Ctrl+x, s: the same while on insert mode
  • ]s: next misspelled word
  • [s: prior misspelled word
  • zg: add word under cursor as a Good word. The word is added to a local dictionary, which can be configured with the spellfile variable (":set spellfile=~/.vim/spell/custom")
  • zw: mark word as wrong, commenting it on the spellfile if it already appears there
  • zG and zW: the same, but doesn't persist changes, making them valid only in the current Vim session
  • zug, zuw, zuG e zuW: undo related command
  • ':spellr': repeat the replacement done by z= for all matches with the replaced word in the current window


There are some alternatives for working with tags in Vim:

Plugin tag-list


  • F8: Alternate tag window with tags created from current buffer or those found by the following command:
  • ':TlistAddFilesRecursive . .rb .js': This creates a tags list for all ruby and javascript files from current project (see :pwd).

Native support integrated to ctags program (provided by exuberant-ctags, for instance)

For this to work, you must create a "tags" file in the current directory. Take a look at the output of "ctags --list-languages" to see the supported languages:

1ctags -R --languages=Ruby,Javascript

Groovy is not supported by standard exuberant-ctags, but adding this content to ~/.ctags file seems to work. You can do that with this command (in Linux or Mac):

1curl >> ~/.ctags

Then, use the following commands for jumping to tag definition of the word under cursor: - Ctrl+] or Ctrl+<LeftMouse> or g<LeftMouse>: jump to definition in current window - Ctrl+T or Ctrl+<RightMouse> or g<RightMouse>: go back to position before jump - Ctrl+w, ]: split horizontally and jump to tag definition - g, Ctrl+] and Ctrl+w, g, ]: presents a list of definitions before jumping if there are multiple definitions - ':tag TagName': go to 'TagName' tag definition - ':ts TagName': open a list with found definitions to choose from - Ctrl+: go to definition in a new tab



  • ==: indents current line
  • =: in visual mode, indents the selected block
  • gg=G: go to beginning of the buffer (gg) and indents (=) until the end of buffer (G)
  • < and >: indents a block (in visual mode) to left or right. Press '.' to repeat last indenting and 'u' to undo.

Finding and Replacing


  • F4: replace text in interactive mode
  • /search_pattern: Find next match. Examples: "/function" or "/\d\{4}-\d\{2}-\d\{2}" to locate some date like "1981-06-13"
  • ?search_pattern: Find match backward.
  • n: repeat the next '/' or '?' command.
  • N: same as 'n' but in reverse direction.
  • ':%s/text/other/': Replace 'text' by 'other' in the whole document (some commands accepts ranges and % stands for the whole document range - see ':h range')
  • ':s/text/other/': Replace 'text' by 'other' in the current line. Actually, any character can be used instead of '/', like 's.7/11/2010.11/7/2010.'
  • ":'<,'>s/text/other/": Replace 'text' by 'other' in the last visual selection. '< and '> are the markers for the beginning and ending of the visual selection. Pressing ':' while on visual mode, these markers are automatically inserted in the command line.
  • &: repeat last substitution command
  • ':Rgrep word .rb': search for 'word' recursively in all '.rb' files in the project. The ':vimgrep' command can also be used if the external programs 'grep' and 'find' aren't available but the search will be much slower. There are also other differences - take a look at ':h vimgrep'. For instance, you can open the file in the matched line by typing ':cc 33' (go to 33th result, numbers are listed with ':cl'). Ex.: ':vimgrep word */.rb'



  • ma: mark current position in the 'a' register. Any letter can be used as a register name.
  • 'a: go to register 'a' mark
  • '' (two simple quotes): go to the position before the latest jump
  • Ctrl+O, Ctrl+i: go to the prior and next positions

Changes list

Commands: - ':changes': list all changes in the current buffer - g;: go to the last change - g,: go to next change - 4g;: go to the change #4 (numbers are displayed by the ':changes' command)

Navigation among buffers


  • Ctrl+x Ctrl+x: in any mode, opens a window presenting the opened buffers to switch to (press 'q' to cancel or 'Enter' to choose an option)

File tree navigation

  • Ctrl+n: alternate file navigation window
  • \n: the same but expand the tree in the location of the file being currently edited
  • ':e.': replace current window by a file browser starting in the project root, that allows you to choose any file to open in the current window
  • ':Ex': the same but uses the current file path as the start location

File tree shortcuts:

  • Enter: open the file in a new horizontal split or in the same window if the file is not modified
  • t: open in a new tab
  • ?: list the other shortcuts

External commands

For running an external command:

  • ':! git gui&': execute 'git gui' in background (doesn't work on Windows, of course)
  • ':.! ls .txt': replaces current line with the output of the command 'ls .txt'
  • ':+! ls .txt': creates a new line below the current line with the output of the command 'ls .txt' (use '-' instead for creating the line above the current line)

Git integration

  • \g: Starts the git gui for the current project (doesn't work on Windows currently). Use ':lcd ~/project/path' for changing the project directory in the current window, or ':cd' for changing the path for the hole vim session
  • \k: Starts gitk in background (doesn't work on Windows)

See $VIMHOME/bundle/vcscommand/doc/vcscommand.txt for other commands. For instance: - \cd: show the diff for the current file in a new horizontal split - \cr: review the last committed version of the file in a new window

Suppose you want to know what are the differences from your current unsaved changes and the original file: - \cr: split the original version in a new horizontal split. If you want the split to be vertical, you can move the window to the left (Ctrl+w, H) or right (Ctrl+w, L). H and L must be capital. - run ':diffthis' in both windows: see next topic on diff.

You can also take a look at $VIMHOME/bundle/fugitive/doc/fugitive.txt for further git shortcuts, like: - ':Gstatus': show the output of 'git status' and allows you to stage or unstage files under cursor pressing '-', or viewing the diff in a vertical window (pressing 'D') or in a horizontal window (pressing 'dh'). - ':Gcommit', ':Gblame' and ':Gmove' are other self-explanatory examples. Take a look at fugitive documentation for more details.

Viewing files difference

Open at least two windows with the text you want to see the differences and type ':diffthis' on each window. For turning the diff off, type ':diffoff'. Use 'dp' in one highlighted diff for putting it in the other window or 'do' to obtain the difference content from the other window. Use '[c' and ']c' for navigating backwards and forwards to the next start of a change. See ':h diff' for more details.

Getting vim help

  • ':h' or F1: open the Vim main help
  • ':h command': open the command help in a the help window
  • Ctrl+]: open a link in the help
  • Ctrl+T: go back to the prior help position

Ruby specifics (Rspec, RDoc, etc)

Commands (won't work in some terminals, use gVim or MacVim):

  • Ctrl+s, r: get the RDoc for the word under cursor
  • Ctrl+s, s: run rspec in the current opened spec
  • Ctrl+s, x: alternate between spec and model

Rails commands (use tab for auto-complete most commands):

  • ':Rview users/list.erb': open the view
  • ':Rcontroller users' and ':Rmodel user' are similar commands
  • 'gf': when pressed over a line such as 'render "users/list"' will open 'users/list.erb' for instance. When pressed over the 'ApplicationController' word, it will take you to 'application_controller.rb'.
  • ':R': Alternate between the controller action and the view when you follow the conventions.


You need to install the 'ruby-debug-ide19' or 'ruby-debug-ide' gem for this to work:

  • ':Rdebugger bin/ruby_script' or 'Rdebugger script/rails server' for a Rails application
  • \db: alternate breakpoint
  • \dn: step over
  • \ds: step into
  • \df: step out
  • \dc: continue
  • \dv: open variables window
  • \dm: open breakpoints window
  • \dt: open backtrace window
  • \dd: remove all breakpoints
  • ':RdbEval User.count' will evaluate 'User.count'
  • ':RdbCommand where' will send the 'where' command to rdebug
  • ':RdbCond user.admin?' will set the condition 'user.admin?' to the breakpoint
  • ':RdbCatch Errno::ENOENT' will catch the file not found exception, jumping to the file line of the exception, allowing you to investigate the stack-trace, variables, etc.
  • ':RdbStop' stops the debugger


Although Vim doesn't allow you to directly refactor some variable for instance (at least, I don't know how to do that in Vim), it can help you refactoring your code in many ways, from substitution commands to variable extraction like the example above:

Suppose you want to refactor the code below as follows:

1 if User.find(params[:id]) and current_user.admin?
2 # ...
3 end


1 @user = User.find(params[:id])
2 raise NotFoundException unless @user and current_user.admin?
3 # ...

For extracting the "User.find(params[:id])" to the "@user" variable, you can position the cursor under the "U" and run the commands "c% @user" (change the content "User.find(params[:id])" with "@user"), "Ctrl+o, O" (execute the 'O' command while on insert mode [Ctrl+o] - create a new line above the current), "@user = " (just typing), 'Ctrl+R "' (paste the cut content).

With all these explanations, it may seem hard, but take a look at how we can achieve this with so few keystrokes: c% @user <Ctrl+O>O @user = <Ctrl+R>".

Learning how to use Vim in its full power will allow you to do many tasks quicker than any other editor or IDE in the overall. For instance, RubyMine will allow you to do the same with less keystrokes for this specific case, but for special cases, Vim will still be more useful and not much less productive than RubyMine for this common case. Actually, cutting "User.find(params[:id])" is much faster in Vim ("c%") than selecting the whole text in RubyMine or any other IDE. The same apply for change the content inside quotes, parenthesis, XML tags, etc among other features.

What doesn't work?

Unfortunately, I couldn't find every feature I wanted in Vim yet. Some of them present on regular IDEs include:

  • Except from Ruby, integrated debugging is probably missing for most languages
  • Recent tab navigation using Ctrl+Tab like usually work in most IDEs
  • Seamless integration with the system clipboard, unless using vim in 'easy' mode with 'evim' or 'vim -y' commands
  • For Java development, traditional IDEs like Netbeans, Eclipse or IntelliJ are more competent with auto-completion and other language features
  • Jumping to a tag in an existent tab, or open in a new one (currently I could just open in a new one). Maybe we should get used to work with buffers instead of tabs in Vim
  • Integration with the Rails i18n infrastructure with the default backend. Rubymine has a great integration and a friend of mine has also developed something similar as a Netbeans plugin

More to come

There are still more useful commands like folding and other interesting features that I'll comment when I have more time available.

I've already commented about several commands and I suggest you to start learning those that you use more often, like snippets, simple search and replace, quick file opening, tabs usage and buffer navigation. For those that work with HTML, I would recommend taking a look at the "surround" plug-in, that are specially useful for working with XML/HTML tags.

As a last keynote, this article was written with Vim in the Markdown format. Many of these examples include tags and for escaping them in the document, I've used the command ':%HTMLSpecialChars' from the plug-in 'htmlspecialchars'.

If you can take some time to improve your Vim skills it will save you many coding time during your coder life.

Good advantage and have fun!

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