GNU/Linux Howtos

Linux and what you can do with it, including hosting, applications, and Raspberry Pi

From Vi to Vim

Bill Joy, of Joy's Law fame1, among other things, wrote the code for Vi in 1976 as the visual editing component of the ex editor.

Then In 1979, Joy released Vi into the wild as a standalone editor. It did well but ran up against licensing restrictions.

Then in 2000, Gunnar Ritter ported Joy's original Vi to the modern Unix-like operating systems, producing the default editor.2

Vim emerges

Bram Moolenaar then added an astonishingly extensive, powerful feature set to create what we know now as Vim3

Moolenaar released Vim as free and open source software under a GNU General Public License (GPL) compatible license, adding a charity clause encouraging Vim users to donate to an organization helping hungry children in Uganda.4

He's doing real work to feed hungry children with the help of Vim users who've donated to this cause.

Vim is everywhere

Even if you're still not convinced that Vim is worth the trouble, consider that it's so ubiquitous on Unix-like operating systems that many configuration utilities use "Vim" by default.

To the end of helping users develop quick competence, Vim has a built-in help function called vimtutor that you can run from the command line, along with excellent documentation.

Understanding modes

The key to learning Vim quickly is understanding the two primary modes: the command mode and the Insert mode. Once you understand the modal editor model, the basics of using Vim fall into place.

Command mode

Vim starts in command mode, enabling you to enter commands. Vim is too much to take in with one drink, so here are some commands that will give you an immediate boost to your productivity, serving as a sound foundation for further progress.

Basic commands

You can get around your file efficiently with these commands.5

Up Arrow Navigate up
Down Arrow Navigate down
Right Arrow Navigate right
Left Arrow Navigate left
CTRL-D Page Down
CTRL-U Page Up
CTRL-E Down one line
CTRL-Y Up one line

Turn the efficiency knob to 7

You'll notice an increase in your effectiveness in Vim with each new command you learn.

iInsert text before cursor
aInsert text after cursor
IInsert text at start of line
AInsert text at end of line
oOpen a new line below current line
OOpen a new line above current line
$To end of the line
wForward one word
bBackwards one word
GNavigate to end of file
ggNavigate to the beginning of file
.Navigate to the last edit

If you want to turn the efficiency up to 11, fear not, Vim is the perfect vehicle for turning it up to 11. The resources referenced below will get you the rest of the way there.

Insert Mode

When you're ready to edit the file, you'll type the letter I to switch to Insert Mode. This mode is just for Inserting text whether you're typing it or copying and pasting.

When you're ready to save the file, you'll hit Esc to switch to command-mode, then enter`:wq (write to disk, then quit) or just enter :w to _save without quitting or :q! to _quit without saving if you munge up the document or realize you're in the wrong config file.

There is at least one other mode but extra modes would be a distraction to the perfection possible toggling back and forth between I for Insert mode and Escfor command-mode.

A couple more key features

Vim has considerably extended regex capabilities, but start with a simple find and replace. In command mode, enter a : followed by the %s (substitute) command.mFor example, :%s/foo/bar/g replaces each instance of foo with bar.

Another command you'll likely find useful is :set number, which toggles line numbering in Vim.5

The next steps

When you've mastered the basics, you'll realize an immediate increase in your efficiency. You could now continue on as a moderately competent Vim user, getting stuff done, yet the model rocket only going about 20 feet off the ground.

• Here's a good article outlining Vim's astonishing feature set.

• If you're after some more quick efficiency gains, then Vim Tips and Tricks is your next stop.

• If you seek to reach higher levels of Vim mastery, then go to the source: Vim's website

I've heard it is possible to reach the highest level of Vim mastery if you can resist succumbing to astonishment at the vastness of this seemingly unassuming text editor. The good news is that the Vim community writes good documentation.


  1. "No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else (other than you)."

  2. Vim's Wikipedia page.

  3. Jovica's history of Vim

  4. The Sponsorship page and the Sponsorship Hall of Honor.

  5. You can also use the letters k, j, i, or h to navigate up, down, right, and left.

  6. The Vim documentation hub and Vim Adventures.

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