Last updated: December 12, 2018
Vi Editor: Why Programmers Think This Old Editor is Still Awesome
Vi is a text editor originally created for the Unix operating system. Instead of menus, vi uses combinations of keystrokes in order to accomplish commands. As such, there is no need for the use of a mouse or a touchpad — everything is done exclusively with the keyboard.
Vi traces its origins back to the earliest command line editor used in Unix systems called ed. Ed worked extremely well with teletypes but wasn’t suited for display terminals. Quite a few people considered ed unfriendly and took it upon themselves to create a better version. Among them is George Coulouris, at the time a lecturer at Queen Mary College, who created em, the editor designed for display terminals.
In 1976, he visited UC Berkeley and showed em to various people. The reactions were mixed but a couple of students, Bill Joy and Chuck Haley, were impressed with em and used it as the base for their own editor called en which was then extended to create ex version 0.1. After Haley left Berkeley, Joy redesigned the editor in 1977, when he added a full-screen visual mode to ex, allowing text to be viewed on a full screen rather than only one line at a time.
Ex 1.1 was officially included in the first BSD Unix release in 1978 and it became known as vi after the release of ex 2.0 as part of the second Berkeley Software Distribution in 1979 when the editor was installed under the name “vi” because it automatically took users straight into ex’s visual mode.
Considering the fact that the source code for the original vi wasn’t freely available until 2002, many clones of the vi editor were created. They had similar appearance and functionality but were written entirely from scratch. This made it possible to add more features and port the editor to other operating systems.
The list of vi clones includes calvin, elvis, elwin, lemmy, nvi, stevie, vile, viper, BusyBox, and xvi. The most popular clone, though, is Vim, which is an improved version of the vi editor distributed with most UNIX systems.
Vim stands for Vi IMproved and it includes even more features than vi, making it a favorite among many programmers. The features include (scriptable) syntax highlighting, mouse support, graphical versions, visual mode, new editing commands, and extensions for ex commands. It’s included with almost every Linux distribution and ships with every copy of Apple MacOS.
Because of the fact that some vi features are missing from Vim, it has a vi compatibility mode, which makes it conform more strictly with vi. This feature can be controlled by the
:set compatible option.
Vim can be customized in many ways — including its user interface and basic functionality. You can define personalized macros to automate sequences of keystrokes, set internal user functions, and take advantage of numerous plugins which add new functionality to Vim. The plugins are written in Vim’s internal scripting language called vimscript. It also supports scripting using Lua, Perl, Python, Ruby, Tcl, and Racket.
The Vi Basics
This section will take you through all the basics of vi so that you can start editing documents productively right away. But remember: there’s a whole lot more to know, and everything you learn will make you more productive.
What Does Vi Do?
With vi you can edit text files using just the keyboard. This includes XML, TeX, HTML, and programming languages, but not binary files like Word or OpenDocument. To edit a file, type the command line:
When vi runs, it takes over the terminal window. If the file already exists, the beginning of it will fill up the screen. The file’s name will appear on the last line. If it doesn’t already exist, the screen will fill with lines that are blank except for a tilde in the left margin. The bottom line will show “[New File]” after the name.
Initially, you’re in command mode. This is one of vi’s three main modes. In command mode, any keystroke is a command. You can start by pressing “i.” You’re now in insert mode, as the word “– INSERT –” at the bottom of the window reminds you. Everything you type will be inserted as text. To get back from insert to command mode, hit the <esc> key.
The third mode is last line mode. You get to it from command mode by typing the colon (:) key. While you’re in last line mode, you’re entering a command line at the bottom of the window. It’s executed only when you press <enter>. To save what you’ve inserted, type “:w” (colon followed by lower-case w and <enter>). That will write the file out. If it is a new file, you will need to provide a file name. This is done by entering “:w filename” followed by <enter>. After this, you will return you to command mode.
All keystrokes in vi are case-sensitive! If you accidentally leave caps lock on, strange things can happen.
This article describes only some basic vi commands. For more advanced information, look at the vim documentation.
You can move the cursor with the arrow keys, or with “j” (down), “k” (up), “h” or <backspace>(left), and “l” or <space> (right). It is best to avoid the arrow keys for a number of reasons. The biggest is that your fingers don’t need to leave the home position. Another is that they aren’t always available — if you find an old version or one where the terminal type is not set correctly. Finally, if you us the :map function (see below), it is easier to use the letter commands.
You can advance one word with “w” or go back a word with “b.”
Typing “0” will take you to the beginning of the line, and “$” to the end. Similarly, “:0” will take you to the beginning of the file, and “:$” will take you to the end of it. This is part of a general system where “:num” will take you to line number num. So “:101” will take you to line number 101. (If there are less than 101 lines in the file, it will take you to the end of the file.)
Vi usually allows you to do important things in more than one way. So you can go to a particular line with “Gnum” where num is the line number. It has the advantage of requiring one less character. But it has the disadvantage of not being consistent with “0” and “$” so that “0G” does not take you to the beginning of the file and “$G” doesn’t take you to the end.
Two more critical navigation commands are ctrl-b to go back a page, and ctrl-f to go forward a page.
Adding and Modifying Text
You’ve already seen the “i” command to insert text. It will place what you type starting at the cursor position. The “a” command will insert text starting at the character after the one you are at. So it is easy to think of these two commands are insert (i) and append (a). If you remember those, you can easily remember the capitalized versions of these commands. The “A” command inserts text at the end of the line, and the “I” command inserts text at the beginning of the line. The capital “A” command will append what you type at the end of the line.
Typing “o” will open up a new line after the cursor line and let you start typing into it. Capital “O” will do the same before the cursor line.
The deletion commands are highly versatile. Typing “dw” will delete a word, starting at the cursor position. You can put a number in front of it to delete that many words. So “3dw” will delete three words. Typing “d$” or “D” will delete to the end of the line. The “dd” command will delete the whole line, and “10dd” will delete ten lines. Typing “d ” (the letter d followed by a space) or “x” will delete a single character. Typing “20x” will delete up to 20 characters but won’t go past the current line.
The command to change text is “c.” It works exactly the same as the “d” command except that it then goes into insert mode where the text was deleted. So 3cw will delete three words and replace them with whatever you type until you hit <enter>.
Don’t panic if you deleted the wrong thing. The “u” command will undo the last change you made. In most implementations, you can enter it multiple times to undo recent changes. If you undo one time too many, ctrl-r will redo what you just undid.
One of the most powerful things in vi is the “.” command. This repeats your last change. So if you just used “3cw” to change some text, entering “.” will cause the next three words (wherever you are) to whatever you changed the last three words to. Or, if you just deleted ten lines with “10dd,” entering “.” will delete the next ten lines. This is also very useful with the “:map” command.
You can move text from one place to another by deleting and pasting. The command to paste is “p” to paste after the cursor or “P” to paste before it. If you delete one or more full lines of text, the text will appear below (with “p”) or above (with “P”) the current line.
The “y” command, for “yank,” copies rather than deleting. It puts the text into a temporary buffer which you can paste elsewhere, once or multiple times. The options are like the ones for deletion, except that “yy” is used to yank a whole line. (This corresponds with “dd” to delete a whole line.)
Be careful. Each time you yank or delete, the text goes into the unnamed buffer, which is like the clipboard in other applications. It replaces the previous unnamed buffer. If you want to keep text around a little longer, you can use one of the 26 named buffers. You specify it by preceding its letter with a double-quote character. To yank four lines into the buffer named “c,” type ‘4″cyy’ (quoted in single quotes just for clarity). To paste it, you use the same double-quote character and buffer letter before the paste command. So if you want to paste the four lines we just copied to the “c” buffer to the line below the current one, you would use the ‘”cp’ command.
To search for text, type “/” followed by the search string and <enter>. It will find the next match after the cursor, wrapping around to the top if necessary. To search backward, type “?” instead of “/.”
Searching is case-sensitive by default. To do a case-insensitive search, start the search string with “c”. So if you use “/cthis” followed by <enter>, vi will find “this” regardless of its capitalization. You can also change the default by entering “:set ignorecase” followed by <enter>. You can also enter “:set ic.” To go back to case-sensitive searches, you would enter “:set noignorecase” or “:set noic.”
You can repeat the last search with the “n” command. If you wish to search in the opposite direction, use the “N” command.
The search string is actually a regular expression. This lets you search for patterns, but certain characters don’t work as literal matches. As a simple example, searching for “w..d” will find “wood,” “wind,” or “w00d.” This is because “.” in a search matches any character. If you want to search for the “.” you enter a backslash before it. So you would enter the “/.” command.
For more information on regular expressions, check out our article, Regular Expressions Primer and Resource.
Working With Files
As already mentioned, “:w” will save the file. If you want to save it to a different file, type “:w newfilename.” When you’re all done with vi, you can type “:wq” to save and exit. Don’t forget that a last-line command starting with a colon requires you to type <enter> to complete it. As a result, many vi enthusiasts use the “ZZ” command, which does the same thing.
To switch to a different file, type “:e newfilename“. If you haven’t saved the previous file, vi will warn you. If you really want to discard your changes, use “e! newfilename“. You can use “:e!” without a filename if you’ve messed up and want to return to the last saved version of the current file.
You can switch between the current file and the last file you edited by using the “:e#” command. With this, you can switch back and forth between two files, which is similar to editing two files at once, which we discuss below.
You can edit multiple files at once and switch among them. In vi terminology, you’re switching among their edit buffers. To edit multiple files in one session, launch vi with a command line like this:
vi file1 file2 file3
The first file you list will appear on the screen. To cycle through them, you can use “:bn” (next buffer) or “:bp” (previous buffer). You can yank into named buffers to copy text from one file to another. (Edit buffers and paste buffers are two different things. It’s a little confusing.)
Shell Commands from Vi
You can run shell commands without leaving vi. To do this, type “:!” (colon and exclamation mark) followed by the command. You’ll see the output of the command, and then you need to hit <enter> to get back to command mode. You can even type “:!sh” to run a shell from within vi, perform multiple commands, and then exit back to vi. This is handy if you’re editing some code and want to test your changes.
You can run a shell command and insert its output into the current file by typing “:r!command“.
One of the most powerful things about vi is its ability to map commands onto keys. It is done as follows:
:map key commands
The key is a single character. It can be any character, but you are best off not using a key that is already a command like “c” or “a.” The commands can be quite complicated. They can, for example, include the enter key with “<enter>” and the escape key with “<esc>.” So if you have a repetitive task, you can easily map it to a single key. For example, the following command will cause the “q” key to move to the second word of the next row, change it to “Help!” and return to the first character of the original row:
:map q j0wcwHelp!<esc>k
The map command is at its most powerful when combined with regular expressions and the repeat (“.”) command. Whenever you find yourself doing something boring while in vi, see if you can construct a mapping that can do it. In most cases, you can.
This has been a very quick overview of what’s possible in vi. Again, check the documentation for complete information. You might want to bookmark a cheat sheet, such as vimsheet.com or the Vim Cheat Sheet for Programmers. Here are some more resources:
The following resources consist of various articles, tutorials, and even cheat sheets.
- The Traditional Vi: the official homepage for the vi editor with download links.
- Vi FAQ: a great place to start as it answers some of the most commonly asked questions about vi and why it’s worth learning it.
- An Introduction to Display Editing with Vi: a tutorial on vi geared for more advanced users, covering its features and how to use it.
- Vi Manual Page: provides a description of the available commands.
- Unix — The Vi Editor Tutorial: a very short and to the point tutorial for vi, aimed at complete beginners.
- How to Use Vi: another tutorial aimed at complete beginners to serve as a “gentle introduction” to the editor, but it can also be used as a reference material for intermediate users.
- Vi Cheat Sheet: a handy cheat sheet of the core vi commands.
- Vim: the official homepage for Vim.
- Interactive Vim Tutorial: like the name suggests, this tutorial is interactive — emulating the command line and the keyboard right in your browser so you can test it out and learn Vim without the fear of breaking your computer.
- Graphical Vi-Vim Cheat Sheet and Tutorial: a graphical cheat sheet showing the core commands on a keyboard GIF with an accompanying tutorial.
- Vim Awesome: a fairly large collection of plugins for Vim.
- An Extremely Quick and Simple Introduction to the Vi Text Editor: this tutorial by Norm Matloff provides a “5-minute introduction” to vi. It is probably a bit too terse for true beginners, but it is a great document if you just need a quick reminder.
- Vi Text Editor: this Ryan’s Tutorial provides a basic introduction that will take you a ways from knowing nothing.
- Learn Vim Progressively: this tutorial starts at the beginning but gets into a lot of advanced subjects quickly.
- Mapping keys in Vim: this is a thorough guide to mapping using vim. If you want to become a vi power-user, you need to check this out.
Several video tutorials are available if you prefer to learn as you go along.
- The Vi/Vim Editor: an introductory tutorial on how to use the vi/vim editor, including how to open a file, insert text, write the text to a file, and quit vi.
- Learn to Love Vim: not a tutorial per se, but it highlights why you should use Vim.
- Learning Vim in a Week: a talk presented by Mike Coutermash, based on his blog post Learning Vim in a Week. Aimed at beginners, it covers getting up and running with Vim.
Given the popularity of both vi and Vim, the following books cover the editors in great depth.
- Learning the Vi and Vim Editors (2008) by Robbins, Hannah, and Lamb: covers editing basics and advanced tools for both editors and programmers, such as multi-window editing, how to write both interactive macros and scripts to extend the editor, and more.
- Mastering Vim (2014) by Damien Conway: best suited for intermediate users, covers Vim’s more advanced features, configuration options, and several plugins that make the editing experience better.
- How To Use the UNIX-LINUX Vi Text Editor: Tips, Tricks, and Techniques (And Tutorials Too!) (2006) by Larry L Smith: this is a short and simple introduction to the editor. If you want to get up and running in a weekend, this is the book to use.
- Practical Vim: Edit Text at the Speed of Thought (2015) by Drew Neil: if you already know the vi editor and want to become a power-user, this is the book to use. It consists of 126 tips that will show you why some people are lost without vi.
- Vi and Vim Editors Pocket Reference (2011) by Arnold Robbins: covers the most valuable commands for vi, Vim, and vi’s main clones.
It takes a while to become a vi expert, but once you get there, you’ll wonder why you ever bothered with a mouse.
Among serious developers (at least in the Unix world), there really are only two editors worth mentioning: Emacs and vi. They both have their advantages and disadvantages. And different people have strong opinions about which editor you should use.
Richard Stallman is the founder of the GNU Project and the free software movement. In addition to writing the initial GNU compiler (GCC), he wrote GNU Emacs. Here he is having a little fun at vi’s expense:
Emacs allows you to do a lot more — especially if you code in Lisp. But vi is extremely light-weight and for someone who knows it well, extremely powerful and fast.
The above resources will help you become a vi master in no time — and greatly improve your productivity.
Further Reading and Resources
We have more guides, tutorials, and infographics related to coding and development:
- Mantis Hosting: find out what web hosting companies offer good deals that include this popular bug tracking program, an essential tool for serious coders.
- Ubuntu Primer: learn all about one of the most popular Linux distributions. It’s a great system to develop on — and it comes with vim!
- Object-Oriented Programming: learn about the concepts of object-oriented languages and the specifics of a wide range of object-oriented programming languages. Some may surprise you. Object-oriented Fortran?!
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