Paris Vim Meetup #11

I went to the 11th Paris Vim Meetup last week. As usual, it took place at Silex Labs (near Place de Clichy), and we were a small group of about 10 people.

Thomas started by giving a talk about vimscript, then I talked about Syntastic. And finally, we all discussed vim and plugins, and common issues and how to fix them.


Do you really need a plugin?

This talk by Thomas was a way to explain what's involved in the writing of a vim plugin. It covers the vimscript aspect and all its quirks and was a really nice introduction for anyone wanting to jump in. Both Thomas and I learned vimscript from the awesome work of Steve Losh and his Learn Vimscript the Hard Way online book.

Before jumping into making your own plugin, there are a few questions you should ask yourself.

Isn't this feature already part of vim? Vim is such a huge piece of software that it is filled with features that you might not know. Do a quick Google search or skim through the :h to check if this isn't already included.

Isn't there already a plugin for that? Vim has a huge ecosystem of plugins (of varying quality). Check the GitHub mirror of for an easy to clone list.

And finally, ask yourself if your plugin is really useful. Don't forget that you can call any commandline tool from Vim, so maybe you do not have to code a whole plugin if an existing tool already does the job. I like to quote this vim koan on this subject:

A Markdown acolyte came to Master Wq to demonstrate his Vim plugin.

"See, master," he said, "I have nearly finished the Vim macros that translate Markdown into HTML. My functions interweave, my parser is a paragon of efficiency, and the results nearly flawless. I daresay I have mastered Vimscript, and my work will validate Vim as a modern editor for the enlightened developer! Have I done rightly?"

Master Wq read the acolyte-s code for several minutes without saying anything. Then he opened a Markdown document, and typed:


HTML filled the buffer instantly. The acolyte began to cry.

Anybody can make a plugin

Once you know you need your plugin, it's time to start, and it's really easy. @bling, the author of vim-bufferline and vim-airline, two popular plugins, didn't known how to write vimscript before starting writing those two. Everybody has to start somewhere, so it is better to write a plugin that you would yourself use, this will give you more motivation into doing it.

A vim plugin can add almost any new feature to vim. It can be new motions or text objects, or even a wrapper on an existing commandline tool or even some syntax highlight.

The vimscript language is a bit special. I like to say that if you've ever had to write something in bash and did not like it, you will not like vimscript either. There are initiatives, like underscore.vim, to bring a bit more sanity to it, but it is still hackish anyway.

Vimscript basics

First thing first, the variables. You assign variables in vimscript with let a = 'foo';. If you ever want to change the value of a, you'll have to re-assign it, and using the let keyword again.

You add branching with if and endif and loops with for i in [] and endfor. Strings are concatenated using the . operator and list elements can be accessed through their index (it even understand ranges and negative indices). You can also use Dictionaries, that are a bit like hashes, where each key is named (but will be forced to a string, no matter what).

You can define functions with the function keyword, but vim will scream if you try to redefine a function that was already defined. To suppress the warning, just use function!, with a final exclamation mark. This is really useful when developping and sourcing the same file over and over again.

Variables in vimscript are scoped, and the scope is defined in the variable name. a:foo accesses the foo argument, while b:foo accesses the buffer variable foo. You also have w: for window and g: for global.

WTF Vimscript

And after all this basics, we start to enter the what the fuck territory.

If you try to concatenate strings with + instead of . (maybe because you're used to code in JavaScript), things will kind of work. + will actually force the variables to become integers. But in Vimscript, if a string starts with an integer, it will be casts as this integer. 123foo will become 123. While if it does not, it will simply be casts as 0. foo will become 0.

This can get tricky really quickly, for example if you want to react to the word under the cursor and do something only if it is an integer. You'll have a lot of false positives that you do not expect.

Another WTF‽ is that the equality operator == is actually dependent on the user ignorecase setting. If you :set ignorecase, then "foo" == "FOO" will be true, while it will stay false if the option is not set. Having default equality operators being dependent on the user configuration is... fucked up. Fortunatly, Vimscript also have the ==# operators that is always case-insensitive, so that's the one you should ALWAYS use.

Directory structure

Most Vim plugin packagers (Bundle, Vundle and Pathogen) expect you, as a plugin author, to put your files in specific directories based on what they do. Most of this structure is actually taken from the vim structure itself.

ftdetects will hold the code that is used to assign a specific filetype to files based on their name. ftplugin contains all the specific configuration to apply to a file based on its filetype (so those two usually works together).

For all the vim plugin writers out there, Thomas suggested using scriptease that provides a lot of debug tools.

Tips and tricks

Something you often see in plugin code is the execute "normal! XXXXX". execute lets you pass an argument that is the command to execute, as a string. This allows you to build the string yourself from variables. The normal! tells vim to execute the following set of keys just like when in normal mode. The ! at the end of normal is mandatory to override the user mappings. With everything wrapped in a execute you can even use special chars like <CR> to act as an Enter press.


After Thomas talk, I briefly talked about Syntastic, the syntax checker for vim.

I use syntasic a lot with various linters. Linters are commandline tools that analyze your code and output possible errors. The most basic ones only check for syntax correctness, but some can even warn you about unused variables, deprecated methods or even style violation (like camelCase vs snake_case naming).

I use linters a lot in my workflow, and every code I push goes through a linter on our Continuous Integration platform (TravisCI). Travis is awesome, but it is asynchronous, meaning I will receive an email a few minutes after my push if the build fails. And this kills my flow.

This is where syntastic comes in play. Syntastic lets you add instant linter feedback while you're in vim. The way I have it configured is to run the specified linters on the file I'm working whenever I save that file. If errors are found, they are displayed on screen, on the lines that contains the error, along with a small text message telling me what I did wrong.

It is then just a matter of fixing the issues until they all disappear. Because the feedback loop is so quick, I find it extremely useful when learning new languages. I recently started a project in python, a language I never used before.

The first thing I did was install pylint and configure syntastic for it. Everytime I saved my file, it was like having a personnal teacher telling me what I did wrong, warning me about deprecated methods and teaching me the best practices from the get go.

I really recommend adding a linter to your workflow as soon as possible. A linter is not something you add once you know the language, but something you use to learn the language.

Syntastic has support for more than a hundred language, so there's a great chance that yours is listed. Even if your language is not in the list, it is really easy to add a Syntastic wrapper to an existing linter. Without knowing much to Vimscript myself, I added 4 of them (Recess, Flog, Stylelint, Dockerfile_lint). All you need is a commandline linter that outputs the errors in a parsable format (json is preferred, but any text output could work).


After those two talks, we all gathered together to discuss vim in a more friendly way, exchanging tips and plugins. Thanks again to Silex Labs for hosting us, this meetup is a nice place to discover vim, whatever your experience with it.

Tags : #vim

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