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C editing with VIM HOWTO

Siddharth Heroor

Revision History                                                             
Revision v1.0           Jan 14, 2001             Revised by: sh              
Second Revision. Corrected some typos.                                       
Revision v0.1           Dec 04, 2000             Revised by: sh              
First Revision. I would love to have your feedback                           

This document gives an introduction to editing C and other language files,
whose syntax is similar, like C++ and Java in vi/VIM.

Table of Contents
1. Introduction
2. Moving around.
    2.1. w, e and b keystrokes
    2.2. {, }, [[ and ]] keystrokes
    2.3. % keystroke
3. Jumping to random positions in C files
    3.1. ctags
    3.2. marks
    3.3. gd keystroke
4. Auto-Completing Words
5. Formating automatically
    5.1. Restricting column width
    5.2. Automatically indent code
6. Multi-file editing
7. Quickfix
8. Copyright
9. References

1. Introduction

The purpose of this document is to introduce the novice VIM user to the
editing options available in VIM for C files. The document introduces some
commands and keystrokes which will help in improving the productivity of
programmers using VIM to edit C files.

The scope of the document is to describe how one can edit C files with VIM.
However most of what is described is also applicable for vi. Plus what is
mentioned here about editing C files is more or less applicable to C++, Java
and other similar languages.

2. Moving around.

2.1. w, e and b keystrokes

One can use the w, e and b keys to move around a file. VIM is capable of
recognizing the different tokens within a C expression.

Consider the following C code

Figure 1. A C snippet

                  if(( NULL == x ) && y > z )                                

Assume that the cursor is positioned at the beginning of the if statement. By
pressing w once the cursor jumps to the first (. By typing w again the cursor
moves to NULL. Next time the cursor will move to the == token. Further
keystrokes will take you as follows. x... )... &&... y... >... z... and
finally )...

e is similar to w only that it takes you to the end of the current word and
not to the beginning of the next word.

b does the exact opposite of w. It moves the cursor in the opposite
direction. So you can moving backwards using the b keystroke.

2.2. {, }, [[ and ]] keystrokes

The { and } keys are used to move from paragraph to paragraph. When editing C
files these keys have a slightly different meaning. Here a paragraph is taken
as a bunch of lines separated by an empty line.

For Example

Figure 2. Another C snippet


The above snippet shows two paragraphs. One can easily move from the
beginning of one to the other, by using the { and } keys. { will take the
cursor to the paragraph above and } will take the cursor to the paragraph

Many people have the coding style where a logical set of statements are
grouped together and separated by one or more blank lines.

For Example

Figure 3. Another C snippet


The { and } keys are very useful in such situations. One can very easily move
from one "paragraph" to another.

Another set of keys which are useful are the [[ and ]] keys. These keys allow
you to jump to the previous { or next { in the first column.

For Example

Figure 4. The next snippet of C code


Lets say you were editing foo() and now you want to edit bar(). Just type ]]
and the cursor will take you to the opening { of the bar() function. The
reverse is slightly different. If you were in the middle of bar() and you
type [[ the cursor will move to the first { above i.e. the beginning of bar()
itself. One has to type [[ again to move to the beginning of foo(). The
number of keystrokes can be minimized by typing 2[[ to take the cursor to the
beginning of the previous function.

Another set of similar keystrokes are the ][ and [] keystrokes. ][ takes the
cursor to next } in the first column. If you were editing foo() and wanted to
go to the end of foo() then ][ will take you there. Similarly if you were
editing bar() and wanted to go to the end of foo() then [] would take the
cursor there.

The way to remember the keystrokes is by breaking them up. The first
keystroke will indicated whether to move up or down. [ will move up and ]
will move down. The next keystroke indicates the type of brace to match. If
it same same as the previous keystroke then the cursor will move to {. If the
keystroke is different then the cursor will move to }.

One caveat of the ]], ][, [[ and [] keystrokes is that they match the braces
which are in the first column. If one wants to match all braces upwards and
downwards regardless of whether its in the first column or not is not
possible. The VIM documentation has a workaround. One has to map the
keystrokes to find the braces. Without spending too much time on mapping, the
suggested mappings are

:map [[ ?{<CTRL-VCTRL-M>w99[{

:map ][ /}<CTRL-VCTRL-M>b99]}

:map ]] j0[[%/{<CTRL-VCTRL-M>

:map [] k$][%?}<CTRL-VCTRL-M>

2.3. % keystroke

The % is used to match the item under the cursor. The item under the cursor
can be a parenthesis, a curly bracket or a square bracket. By pressing the %
key the cursor will jump to the corresponding match.

Amongst other things, the % keystroke can be used to match #if, #ifdef, #else
#elif and #endif also.

This keystroke is very useful in validating code that one has written. For

Figure 5. The next snippet of C code


Checking the above code will involve checking the correctness of the
parenthesis. The % can be used to jump from one ( to its corresponding ) and
vice versa. Thus, one can find which opening parenthesis corresponds to which
closing parenthesis and use the information to validate the code.

Similarly the % can also be used to jump from a { to its corresponding }.

3. Jumping to random positions in C files

3.1. ctags

A Tag is a sort of placeholder. Tags are very useful in understanding and
editing C. Tags are a set of book-marks to each function in a C file. Tags
are very useful in jumping to the definition of a function from where it is
called and then jumping back.

Take the following example.

Figure 6. Tags Example


Lets say that you are editing the function foo() and you come across the
function bar(). Now, to see what bar() does, one makes uses of Tags. One can
jump to the definition of bar() and then jump back later. If need be, one can
jump to another function called within bar() and back.

To use Tags one must first run the program ctags on all the source files.
This creates a file called tags. This file contains pointers to all the
function definitions and is used by VIM to take you to the function

The actual keystrokes for jumping to and fro are CTRL-] and CTRL-T. By
hitting CTRL-] in foo() at the place where bar() is called, takes the cursor
to the beginning of bar(). One can jump back from bar() to foo() by just
hitting CTRL-T.

ctags are called by
            $ ctags options file(s)                                          

To make a tags file from all the *.c files in the current directory all one
needs to say is
            $ ctags *.c                                                      

In case of a source tree which contains C files in different sub directories,
one can call ctags in the root directory of the source tree with the -R
option and a tags file containing Tags to all functions in the source tree
will be created. For Example.
            $ ctags -R *.c                                                   

There are many other options to use with ctags. These options are explained
in the man file for ctags.

3.2. marks

Marks are place-holders like Tags. However, marks can be set at any point in
a file and is not limited to only functions, enums etc.. Plus marks have be
set manually by the user.

By setting a mark there is no visible indication of the same. A mark is just
a position in a file which is remembered by VIM. Consider the following code

Figure 7. The marks example


Suppose you are editing the line x++; and you want to come back to that line
after editing some other line. You can set a mark on that line with the
keystroke m' and come back to the same line later by hitting ''.

VIM allows you to set more than one mark. These marks are stored in registers
a-z, A-Z and 1-0. To set a mark and store the same in a register say j, all
one has to hit is mj. To go back to the mark one has to hit 'j.

Multiple marks are really useful in going back and fro within a piece of
code. Taking the same example, one might want one mark at x++; and another at
y=x; and jump between them or to any other place and then jump back.

Marks can span across files. To use such marks one has to use upper-case
registers i.e. A-Z. Lower-case registers are used only within files and do
not span files. That's to say, if you were to set a mark in a file foo.c in
register "a" and then move to another file and hit 'a, the cursor will not
jump back to the previous location. If you want a mark which will take you to
a different file then you will need to use an upper-case register. For
example, use mA instead of ma. I'll talk about editing multiple files in a
later section.

3.3. gd keystroke

Consider the following piece of code.

Figure 8. The third example


For some reason you've forgotten what y and z are and want to go to their
declaration double quick. One way of doing this is by searching backwards for
y or z. VIM offers a simpler and quicker solution. The gd keystroke stands
for Goto Declaration. With the cursor on "y" if you hit gd the cursor will
take you to the declaration :- struct Y y;.

A similar keystroke is gD. This takes you to the global declaration of the
variable under the cursor. So if one want to go to the declaration of x, then
all one needs to do is hit gD and the cursor will move to the declaration of

4. Auto-Completing Words

Consider the following code

Figure 9. Auto-completion example


The function A_Very_Long_Function_Name() can be quite exasperating to type
over and over again. While still in insert-mode, one can auto-complete a word
by either searching forwards or backwards. In function, Another_Function()
one can type A_Very... and hit CTRL-P. The first matching word will be
displayed first. In this case it would be A_Very_Long_Variable_Name. To
complete it correctly, one can hit CTRL-P again and the search continues
upwards to the next matching word, which is A_Very_Long_Function_Name. As
soon as the correct word is matched you can continue typing. VIM remains in
insert-mode during the entire process.

Similar to CTRL-P is the keystroke CTRL-N. This searches forwards instead of
backwards. Both the keystrokes continue to search until they hit the top or

Both CTRL-P and CTRL-N are part of a mode known as CTRL-X mode. CTRL-X mode
is a sub-mode of the insert mode. So you can enter this mode when you are in
the insert-mode. To leave CTRL-X mode you can hit any keystroke other than
CTRL-X, CTRL-P and CTRL-N. Once you leave CTRL-X mode you return to

CTRL-X mode allows you do auto-completion in a variety of ways. One can even
autocomplete filenames. This is particularly useful when you have to include
header files. Using CTRL-X mode you can include a file foo.h using the
following mechanism.
         #include "f CTRL-X CTRL-F"                                          

That's CTRL-X CTRL-F. I know... I know... Its sounds like emacs ;-). There
are other things you can do in the CTRL-X mode. One of them is dictionary
completion. Dictionary completion allows one to specify a file containing a
list of words which are used for completion. By default the dictionary option
is not set. This option is set by the command :set dictionary=file. Typically
one can put in C keywords, typedefs, #defines in the dictionary file. C++ and
Java programmers may be interested in adding class names as well.

The format of a dictionary file is simple. Just put a word you want in line
by itself. So a C dictionary file would look something like this.

Figure 10. A sample dictionary file


To use the dictionary completion, one needs to hit CTRL-X CTRL-K. The
completion is similar to the CTRL-P and CTRL-N keystrokes. So... to type
"typedef" all one needs to do is t CTRL-X CTRL-K and poof... the name

5. Formating automatically

5.1. Restricting column width

One often has to restrict the column width to 80 or 75 or whatever. One can
set this quite easily by using the command
            :set textwidth=80                                                

To do this automatically just put the command in your .vimrc.

In addition to textwidth you may want the text to wrap at a certain column.
Often such choices are dictated by the terminal one is using or it could just
be by choice. The command for such a case is
            :set wrapwidth=60                                                

The above command makes the text wrap at 60 columns.

5.2. Automatically indent code

While coding in C, one often indents inner-blocks of code. To do this
automatically while coding, VIM has an option called cindent. To set this,
just use the command
            :set cindent                                                     

By setting cindent, code is automatically beautified. To set this command
automatically, just add it to your .vimrc


VIM also allows you to auto-format comments. You can split comments into 3
stages: The first part, the middle part and the end part. For example your
coding style requirements may require comments to be in the following style
            * This is the comment                                            

In such a case the following command can be used
            :set comments=sl:/*,mb:*,elx:*/                                  

Let me decipher the command for you. The commands has three parts. The first
part is sl:/*. This tells VIM that three piece comments begin with /*. The
next part tells VIM that the middle part of the comment is *. The last part
of the command tells vim a couple of things. One that the command should end
with */ and that it should automatically complete the comment when you hit
just /.

Let me give another example. Lets say your coding guidelines are as follows
            ** This is the comment                                           

In such a situation you can use following command for comments
            :set comments=sl:/*,mb:**,elx:*                                  

to insert a comment just type /* and hit enter. The next line will
automatically contain the **. After you've finished the comment just hit
enter again and another ** will be inserted. However to end the comment you
want a */ and not **/. VIM is quite clever here. You don't need to delete the
last * and replace it with /. Instead, just hit / and VIM will recognise it
as the end of the comment and will automatically change the line from ** to *

For more info hit :h comments

6. Multi-file editing

One often needs to edit more than one file at a time. For example one maybe
editing a header file and a source file at the same time. To edit more than
one file at a time, invoke VIM using the following command
         $ vim file1 file2 ...                                               

Now you can edit the first file and move onto the next file using the command

You can jump back using the command

It may be useful while coding if you could see both the files at the same
time and switch between the two. In other words, it would be useful if the
screen was split and you could see the header file at the top and the source
file at the bottom. VIM has such a command to split the screen. To invoke i,
simply say :split

The same file will be displayed in both the windows. Whatever command is
invoked, will affect only the window in focus. So one can edit another file
in another window by using the command :e file2

After executing that command, you'll find that there are two files visible.
One window shows the first file and the other shows the second file. To
switch between the files one has to use the keystroke CTRL-W CTRL-W. To learn
more about split windows, just run help on it.

7. Quickfix

When coding in C one often has a edit-compile-edit cycle. Typically you would
edit C file using some the things I've mentioned earlier, save the file,
compile the code and go to the error(s) and start editing again. VIM helps
save the cycle time slightly using a mode called quickfix. Basically, one has
to save the compiler errors in a file and open the file with VIM using the
         $ vim -q compiler_error_file                                        

VIM automatically opens the file containing the error and positions the
cursor at the location of the first error.

There is a shortcut to the cycle. Using the command "make", one can
automatically compile code and goto the position where the first error
occurs. To invoke the make command type the following

Basically, this command calls make in a shell and goes to the first error.
However, if you are not compiling using make and are compiling using a
command such as cc, then you have to set a variable called makeprg to the
command you want invoked when you use the make command. For eg. :set makeprg=
cc\ foo.c

After setting makeprg, you can just call the make command and quickfix will
come into play.

After you have corrected the first error, the next thing to do would be go to
the next error and correct that. The following command is used go to the next
error. :cn

To go back, you can use the command :cN

Let me demonstrate this using an example. Consider the following code

Figure 11. Quickfile Program Listing


As you can see there is an error on line number 5. The file is saved as
test.c and makeprg is set using the command
         :set makeprg=gcc\ test.c                                            

Next the make command is invoked using the command :make. gcc gives an error
and the output of the make command is something like this

Figure 12. :make error


On pressing RETURN, the cursor moves to line number 6.

Now, the command :cn will move the cursor to the line number 4.

To move back to the previous error, one can use the command :cN and the
cursor will move back to the line 6.

After correcting the error on line 5 and adding "return 1;", one can run :
make again and the output will be

Figure 13. No Error


That was just a small example. You can use quickfix to solve your compile
time problems and hopefully reduce the edit-compile-edit cycle.

8. Copyright

Copyright (c) 2000,2001 Siddharth Heroor.

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under
the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later
version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant
Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of
the license can be found at

9. References

You can get more information on VIM and download it at

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