The Power of Recursive Macros in Vim

If for some crazy reason you’re not already a user of Vim, shutdown your computer and go think about your life choices.

Joking aside, Vim is really a great editor. And if you didn’t know – Vim supports macros.

Basics of macros in Vim

Macros represent a simple concept which can be described as “record the sequence of my actions, save them, and anytime I need them again, execute them.”

This is probably the most underused Vim feature which can improve your productivity dramatically. You can do all sorts of amazing stuff with your code using macros.

Incredibly powerful. Here’s a simple example:

What’s happening here:

  • qa – start recording macro in register a
  • i<Tab>' – enter Insert mode, insert Tab and 
  • Esc – get back to Normal mode (so I can run next command)
  • AAppend command, which places cursor at the end of the current line, in Insert mode
  • ', – Insert ',
  • Esc – get back to Normal mode again
  • j – Go down one line
  • ^ – Go to the start of the current line
  • q – Stop recording the macro

Then, using command @a I run the macro on the current line. After that, I can just hit @@ to run the macro I previously run.

Recursive macros

Using macros can be even more effective with recursion. Recursive macros are especially useful when you need to act on many lines in a file.

In order to record a recursive macro, you need to start with an empty register. You can make the register a empty by hitting qaq.

Now, let’s see recursive macro in action, with a slightly different example:


Let’s see what’s going on here:

  • qa followed by Tab and ' followed by Esc – same as in first example
  • f: – find the first occurrence of : and place cursor on it
  • C – command to delete everything from cursor to the end of the line, and enter Insert mode
  • ', followed by Escj and ^ – same as in the first example: insert ', get to Normal mode, move one line below and jump to beginning
  • @a – this is the key step: while recording a macro in register a, we call it inside itself!
  • q – stop recording the macro
  • @a – now we run the recursive macro – and there you go – magic! :)


There’s so much more you can do with macros in Vim!

My colleagues sometimes stare at my screen and wonder wtf is going on, when my hands are even not on the keyboard – and my code is being edited by a macro :D

You can master this magic too!

Get Macros chapter (plus three other!) from my book Mastering Vim Quickly for free.

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The “dot” command in Vim

This post is a part of a chapter from my book Mastering Vim Quickly: From WTF to OMG in no time

I believe you have already heard of the principle Don’t Repeat Yourself.

In software engineering, this is a principle of software development where your focus is on reducing repetition of all kinds. As you’ll see throughout the book, Vim has many ways and commands to automate different kinds of tasks, so you don’t have to repeat your actions.

One of the most powerful Vim command when it comes to avoiding repetition is the . (“the dot”) command.

Hitting . in Normal mode will repeat the last native Vim command you’ve executed.

Let’s say you want to delete 5 words from the cursor forward. As you already know, you could press 5dw and it’s done. However, sometimes it’s not convenient to mentally count the number of words.

An alternative would be to use dw to delete one word. And then press .... to call the dot command four times. In this case, you would repeat the latest, dw command, four more times, and in this way achieve the same effect without counting the words.

If you used dd to delete a line, and you want to delete 4 more lines, you could also execute 4. instead of pressing .... . That also works.

It’s very important to understand what is actually repeatable by the dot command. For example, if you have a sample code like this:

my $i
my $learn
my $quickly

and your cursor is positioned on the first line. You want to append ; to all three lines.
You could run a command like: A;<Esc>j

• A – would place your cursor at the end of the first line in Insert mode.
• ; – you press to actually insert it, and then you press Esc to get back to Normal mode.
• j – to move one line down

Now, your cursor is at the second line. If you then press . to repeat the change in next (second) line, this won’t work. Here’s what you’d get:

my $i;
my $learn;
my $quickly

Your cursor will still be at the second line rather than on the third line, but ; will be appended. This brings us to conclusion that only this part of our original command was repeated: A;<Esc>.

Now, why is this the case? It’s important to remember that with the dot command, you can repeat the commands which change the contents of the buffer.

A change is any command which you can use to modify your text. In our example, we had the case that command j wasn’t repeated, and our cursor wasn’t moved to the third line.

Commands like j are called motions (or nouns)—and they don’t affect the text itself. Command j just moves the cursor, but doesn’t change text anyhow, so it can’t be repeated.

Think in terms of the grammar of your native language: Not nouns, but verbs are used to express some sort of action. The same is true in Vim: nouns (or motions) can’t affect the text, so they can’t be repeated with the dot command.

Of course, if you’d like to repeat multiple changes, or a combination of movements and changes, you can easily record those into a macro. You can learn all you need on macros from Macros chapter of my book Mastering Vim Quickly-download it here. To see all the commands which can affect the text in a buffer, take a look at :help change.txt

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