Don't repeat yourself (DRY): Use vim macros!

@ 2011-12-28 by João Paulo Pizani Flor

It’s been a long time since the last post, but FEAR NO MORE, dear readers, for I am still alive. :) And this time I will talk about something a bit more technical: the almighty vim macros! For those who know me, it’s no secret that I admire - and use - the vim text editor.

So… I was doing some Java programming these days, using vim, and I came across the problem of replacing several similar but not equal pieces of code with a variable name I had just factored out. There were big blocks of code to be replaced by this name, with slight variations, so simple find/replace was not an option…

I started with the traditional “.” key trick: I manually replaced the big block with the identifier in the first time, and then proceeded to select each subsequent block and press “.”. It was efficient, but not enough, as I still had to skim through the file selecting each similar but not equal block and pressing “.”. It was going to take just too much time to replace the approx. 200 blocks I needed :O So it was time to use a feature of vim I recently heard about: macros!

Macros in vim are a VERY generic mechanism: your start recording a macro and then everything you do is recorded - every movement, every edit, in normal mode as in insert - whatever mode. Then your replay your macro and the commands are repeated exactly. This can be very useful, and I hope to illustrate this usefulness with my concrete example. Here’s my typical block of code, before and after the transformation I needed to do:

// <before>
put(bnome_en, new ValidationRule() {
    protected ValidationResult check(String userInput) {
        if(isEmpty(userInput)) return ValidationError.empty;
        else return intact(userInput);
// <after>
put(bnome_en, BaseRules.nonEmptyRule);

After fidgeting a bit, I found that what I needed to do was to change everything between new and }) (the closing of the anonymous class parameter) to BaseRules.emptyRule. So my commands were:

To start recording a macro in vim, your press q, and the macro will be stored in the register identified by . You’ll need this letter to replay the macro later. My EXACT sequence of keypresses to record the entire macro were then:


where <CR> is carriage-return (enter) and <ESC> is the escape key. Notice that I’ve stored the macro in the n register, and that in the end of my command sequence I pressed q again to stop the recording. Now I only went to wherever I wanted to perform a big code block substitution and typed


That is, the at (@) key, followed by the name of the register where the macro was stored. And BOOM! It worked like a charm. So I gained confidence and tried:


That means I repeated the macro 50 times. It worked and was beautiful :D Conclusion: macros in vim are useful AND easy to use, they even make sense! So, dear prospective, novice or veteran vim user, whenever you’re repeating yourself and it’s harder than a simple find/replace, press q and record a macro :)

Important tip: Macros in vim are completely context-free. What this means is that the exact same sequence of commands (including the same motions) will be executed when you replay the macro, regardless of where (in the file) you replay it. So, my tip is: always use features like search (/) when recording a macro, so that you know you are in the right place when editing…