This document isn’t intended to start, fuel, or even contribute to the vim/Emacs holy war. I used to be a nano person, for crying out loud. Eventually I migrated to vi simply because it was readily available in my Unix environments.

If you’re looking for a more gentle intro to vim, or you just want to dive deeper into what I’ve done here, Google can help.

With that bit of nonsense aside, I was asked by some of my colleagues to publish some of my favorite vi tricks, so here we go.

Configuration File

I’ll break my .vimrc down into different bits:

Beautifying the Editor

"256-color Mode
:set t_Co=256
:colorscheme desert
"used to dark background, use cyan instead of blue for comments
:highlight darkComment ctermfg=6
:highlight cComment ctermfg=6
:highlight texComment ctermfg=6
:highlight shComment ctermfg=6
:highlight cshComment ctermfg=6
:highlight makeComment ctermfg=2
:highlight gnuplotComment ctermfg=6
General Highlighting
"Basic Settings
:filetype on
:syntax on
"Highlight Searching
:set hlsearch
Highlight Spelling Errors
" Spelling
highlight clear SpellBad
highlight SpellBad term=standout ctermfg=1 term=underline cterm=underline
highlight clear SpellCap
highlight SpellCap term=underline cterm=underline
highlight clear SpellRare
highlight SpellRare term=underline cterm=underline
highlight clear SpellLocal
highlight SpellLocal term=underline cterm=underline

Tab/Line Widths and Syntax Highlighting

I write a decent amount of Python, and I am very nitpicky about whitespace in my documents (and I do a lot of ASCII-art for diagrams and such in notes), so it was natural for me to change my the \t character to render as spaces. I also hate having 8-space tabs, so I moved to 4-space tabs.

Modifying Tab
"Tab width is 4
:set ts=4
:set tabstop=4
:set shiftwidth=4
"Tabs = Spaces
:set expandtab

I generally try to stick to 80-character lines. Why? I like it. If you care, here’s a few links with more to say:

In general, I’d like to have vim auto-wrap my lines at 80 characters, but only when I’m writing prose. If I’m writing code, I generally want to be told that I’m over 80 characters, but I don’t want it to auto-wrap. Auto-wrapping in code is about as bad as Microsoft products trying to auto-correct things. As to why you want to line break at 80 characters, I’ll let you try to edit prose that’s over 80 characters that’s word-wrapped in vim (soft instead of hard line break). You’ll immediately understand.

So, here’s how I fixed that. I have a bit of code which renders an underline under all characters after 80 in a line. This lets me see when my code line is too long and allows me to actually decide that I want to fix it. This is particularly important for things like Python. One thing to mention is that rendering 80-character code in the LaTeX lstlisting environment, especially comments, will tend to overflow in a IEEE two-column layout. But… there you have it.

Line Widths
"80 char limit
highlight OverLength term=underline cterm=underline
match OverLength /\%81v.\+/"

Now, how do I go about doing file-specific line wrapping? Well, fortunately there’s stuff for that in vim.

File-Specific Line Wrapping and Syntax Highlighting
""asciidoc syntax highlighting
au BufRead,BufNewFile *.txt set filetype=asciidoc|set tw=80|setlocal spell spelllang=en_us
au! Syntax asciidoc source /opt/local/share/vim/vimfiles/syntax/asciidoc.vim
""spice syntax highlighting
au BufRead,BufNewFile *.spi set filetype=spice
au! Syntax spice source ~/.vim/syntax/spice.vim
""LaTeX 80 char limit
au BufRead,BufNewFile *.tex set tw=80|setlocal spell spelllang=en_us

Above, you can see how I’ve set up syntax highlighting and line widths for three different filetypes:

  • *.txt: I want 80 character lines and syntax highlighting. You can also see that I’ve turned on American English spellchecking.

  • *.spi: These are SPICE files (code) where line breaks are important, so I want syntax highlighting only. vim doesn’t know how to highlight SPICE natively, so I had to give it a syntax file.

  • *.tex: My LaTeX is basically prose, so I want 80 character lines. vim already knows how to handle LaTeX files for highlighting so I’ll let it do its thing. I also turned on spellchecking, just like for txt files.

Various Tricks


80-character lines are going to be all broken and jagged. Fortunately, vim has a command for that. You can just do gq on a highlighted block. It’s also a movement command or whatever the cool kids are calling it these days. Unfortunately, none of us have the time to manually do everything nowadays, so you can use the vipgq command.

Ben Hill found this, which sheds some light on what vipgq actually is:

vipgq is visual mode, select inner paragraph, gq (reflow)

Anyway, what that mess actually does is highlight the entire paragraph you’re working on and reformat it so that every line is as long as possible and within the 80-character limit (or whatever you’ve set tw to).


When you’re writing asciidoc, you often need to put a special character under titles/section headings:

asciidoc Sections
This Is My Title

Section Level 2

Section Level 3

In any case, you can copy the current line with yy, paste it under the current line with p. This moves your cursor below the original line. Then you start highlighting with v, highlight to the end of the line with $, and then replace all the characters with r?. In practice, ? will be whatever character you need.


Sometimes you’ll need to do some line drawing in your files. Remember you can specify an integer before most vim commands and then it will do whatever command you wanted that many times. In this case, vim will insert 80 - characters, forming a nice horizontal rule.