TweetFollow Us on Twitter

I Heart vi

Volume Number: 22 (2006)
Issue Number: 12
Column Tag: Mac in the Shell

I Heart vi

Text editing in a shell

by Edward Marczak


It's amazing that a basic function like text editing can be so...obtuse. vi and emacs have confounded new users since they arrived on the scene. However, editing text is such an important part of any Unix or Unix—like system, that I'd be remiss if I didn't address it. This month, I'll cover basic vi — enough to make you comfortable the next time you've ssh—ed into a remote machine and need to edit a file.

Growing Up

Practically each month, this column asks you to type something into a text editor. Of course, this can be TextWrangler, SubEthaEdit or even Dreamweaver or the XCode IDE. But if you already have a shell open, or, only have the option of a shell, then an editor like vi, emacs or pico are your best options. I'm well aware of the vi/emacs debates. Emacs is truly a Swiss Army Knife of an application. Perhaps I'll cover it someday. However, for some reason, I just dug into vi more, and have stuck with it; Turns out to have been a useful choice. If you've ever needed to alter privileges for sudo users, you'll note that the 'right' way to edit the sudoers file is by using visudo — basically, a stripped down version of vi. On other Unix systems, there's typically a vipw and vigroup app. All three, by default, use vi as the editor. Also, ever notice which editor you use when editing crontabs with crontab —e? So, vi is very good to know — at least the basics.

Quick little secret before we start: traditional vi is pretty much gone, and has been supplanted with vim, VI Improved. You'll note that vi is simply a link to vim:

$ ls —ld /usr/bin/vi*
lrwxr—xr—x	1	root wheel	3	Jan	18 2006 /usr/bin/vi —> vim
lrwxr—xr—x	1	root wheel	3	Jan	18 2006 /usr/bin/view —> vim
—rwxr—xr—x	1	root wheel	2060380 	Dec	25 2005 /usr/bin/vim
lrwxr—xr—x	1	root wheel	3	Jan	18 2006 /usr/bin/vimdiff —> vim
—rwxr—xr—x	1	root wheel	1068 	Dec	25 2005 /usr/bin/vimtutor
—r—xr—xr—x	1	root wheel	34472 	Dec	25 2005 /usr/bin/vis

OS X v10.4 ships with vim v6.2. You can download the latest — version 7 — and compile it up, as it compiles and runs cleanly under OS X. However, there's no need to do that to follow this particular column.

The Tower That Ate People

If you've never used vi, we'll take it step—by—step. So, open up your favorite terminal app and get a shell. You may as well stay in your home directory, as we're not going to make too much of a mess.

To start the editor, simply type vi, and you'll be greeted with a startup screen. Unlike Word or Pages, you can't simply start typing. Well, you can, but each keystroke may not do what you expect. Those of us that go back to Mac OS 9 will remember modal dialogs. Basically, a modal dialog box stopped you from using anything else until you acknowledged it. You were put in the mode of having to deal with whatever message it presented. vi is a modal editor. You'll either be in one of three modes: normal mode, 'edit' mode, or ex command mode. What you're looking at now is normal mode: vi awaits your instruction.

Press i. Now, I should tell you here that commands in vi are case sensitive. Typically, the lowercase version means one thing, and the uppercase/shifted version negates, or is the opposite of the lower case (or, non—shift) version — this makes commands a little easier to remember. So, you've pressed i, and you now see "— INSERT —" at the bottom of the window. Great! Your first vi command. No sweat, right? Now you're in insert mode. This is pretty much what you expect. Go ahead, type. How about we all type the same thing. We'll start out easy; try this, pressing return at the end of each line, mistakes and all:

trust a few people
love all
do wrong to none

Not too terrible, right? Pressing the escape key on your keyboard will put you back in normal mode. The "— INSERT —" should disappear.

Now, I didn't get the quote quite right. Let's fix it. Apple has nicely mapped most keys sanely; they do what you expect. This includes the arrow keys. However, this may not be the case on all systems, so, if you'd like to get used to the vim way, I'll show you now. This will also help your Nethack skills ( k is cursor up, j is cursor down, while h moves the cursor left, and l moves it right. Perhaps not the easiest to remember. Different people have different ways to remember this, but, I simply suggest a Post—it note and some practice. Why these keys? Vim and vi strive to be efficient editors. I love to use vi as I never have to take my hands off of the keyboard, nor stray too far from the home row. That's efficiency. If you're 100% Mac—dedicated, though, the arrow keys will suit you just fine, too. Digression aside, please move the cursor to the first character, the 't' in 'trust'.

Well, if that's the beginning of a sentence, it should be uppercase. There's two ways to tackle this, and we'll start with the easier of the two. With the cursor on the 't', press ~ (tilde). This toggles the character under the cursor between upper and lower—case, and then advances the cursor. Ah, but wait, that's not the correct beginning of that quote! With your cursor on that line, type dd, which will delete the line and place it in the yank buffer. Now, press p which pastes the contents of the yank buffer on the line following.

Now, our capital letter leads the second sentence, which naturally isn't right. Twiddle it back using the tilde key (~). Cursor up and onto the 'l' in 'love', and we'll replace it with an uppercase version — this time, though we'll do just that: replace. Type r, followed by 'L'. r will replace one character. So, when you typed the 'L', you simply replaced what was there. Time for the correct punctuation.

With the cursor still on the first line, type A, for 'append to end of line' (make sure it's capital A!). Your cursor will jump to the end of the line and you'll enter insert mode — look for the "— INSERT —" message in the status line. Type a comma, and press escape to get back into normal mode.

Cursor down to the second line, and then right to the 'p' in 'people'. Delete, one character at a time using the x command, the word 'people', but leave the space after 'few'. Replace the space with a comma, using r, followed by a comma. At this point, you should have:

Love all, 
trust a few,
do wrong to none

...with your cursor on the comma after 'few'. Cursor down to the third line and type $ — jump to the end of the current line. Press a (the letter 'a') — append after the cursor — and type a '.' (period). (Those of you paying attention will realize that this could have been done in one step with capital A...but how else was I to stick in the $ command to jump to the end of a line?) Press escape to go back to normal mode.

Cursor up to the first line and press J (capital J). This will join this line with the one following. Do it again, and you'll end up with one single line:

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.

And Through The Wire

So, now you have the very basics of editing with vi. I mentioned that vi begat vim, but I didn't yet tell you that ex begat vi. The foundation of certain commands are ex commands. You enter ex command mode, by typing a colon (":"). You'll see a colon appear on the status line, and the cursor will jump down to immediately follow it. Type w ws.txt. 'w' is for 'write', and will write the file 'ws.txt'.

If you need to take a break, you can type :q to quit. Re—enter vi while loading the file like this: vi ws.txt.

We've looked at three ways to get into insert mode so far: 'i', for insert in place, 'a' for append at the cursor and 'A', which appends at the end of the current line. Here's one more: o. This opens a new line beneath the current line. Try it now.

Don't forget! vi inherits all of the integration that using brings OS X users. The best is drag—and—drop. While in insert mode, you can pick up a text or .clipping file and drop it on the terminal. The contents will insert at the cursor.

Figure 1: Dragging a .clipping file to while editing in vi

Try it now, while you're still in insert mode!

At this point, I encourage you to quit vi — :q — and type vimtutor. It's an interactive vi tutorial that takes about 15—20 minutes. Good, basic practice and tips.

More Than This

vimtutor does a good job of covering the basics. Let me wrap up with some of my favorites that neither I or vimtutor have introduced you to.

:shell — this ex command lets you escape to a shell, do your work, and then when you exit, you'll find yourself right where you left off. Now, certainly, this function has lost some value in the days of multi—window machines, but sometimes, it's really handy. It let's you get a lay of the land, and then pick up right from where you left off.

vimtutor shows you how to run an external shell command, but at times, there's even something more useful: running a command and inserting its output at the cursor. To preface this, you can read in a file using the r ex command. You can even read in the file you're working on. Try it now with :r ws.txt. You'll see the contents of the file — as it is on disk — appear inserted into your file after your cursor. Similarly, you can read in the output of a shell command with r !. Insert all of the users from Directory Services into your file with:

:r !dscl localhost list /Search/Users

This comes in very handy. Instead of running a command, redirecting output to a file and then editing that file, you can do it in one step in vi.

vimtutor also shows you how to search using the / normal command. If you didn't run through vimtutor, do it now. Really. Here's two things they didn't get into fully. Load up vimtutor, as it provides ample text for us (quit your current session with :q, and then type vimtutor at the shell prompt). Put the cursor on the first occurrence of the word "commands". You should see several of them. Press * (asterisk). vi automatically starts searching on that word, and jumps to the next occurrence. You can jump between occurrences with n and N. n jumping to the next (forward) occurrence, and N jumping backward.

Anyone familiar with sed will feel right at home with vim's search and replace function. vimtutor showed you searching with /. Search and replace is accomplished with :% s/old/new/g. The "%" represents the entire file. Without it, you're only searching the current line. Additionally the "/g" means global, and without that flag, only the first occurrence on each line would be replaced. You can also use the c flag to have vi ask for a confirmation. Go to the top of the file and try this:

:% s/commands/friends/gc

All occurrences of "commands" will be changed to "friends" and you'll be asked for confirmation of each change. You may notice that this substitution works surprisingly well!

Finally, one option I use quite often: changing line endings. Since a file is just a stream of bytes, the computer needs some way to recognize when humans want to see a new line. Unfortunately, the three major platforms all decided on different ways. Unix and Unix—like systems use a line—feed character (LF), ascii 0x0A. DOS uses both a new line (NL, or carriage return CR) and line feed. When DOS sees CRLF, ascii 0x0D 0x0A, it knows to show us humans a new line. Finally, Mac systems traditionally have used a new line only. The current state of line endings under OS X is a bit of a mish—mash. Most GUI apps still use CR, where most (if not all) shell apps use LF.

Many times, you'll receive a DOS line—ending—formatted file that should have Unix line endings. vi handles this with aplomb. Use :set ff=unix and then write the file with :w. Done! Go the other way with :set ff=dos. Sometimes this shows up as ^M (ctrl—M) characters — that's the extra CR character. Just change the file type and write it out.

Don't Give Up

vi is a craftsman's tool. Like any tool, it requires a little work and practice to learn in depth, or to make second nature. I hope next time that you're into a remote system and need to edit a file, or for some reason are forced to use vi, that you'll be confident in your usage. In the spirit of self exploration, take a look at all of the settings that can be changed to tailor vi to your style by trying :set all.

Be aware that there is a GUI version of vim available at <>. It may not be a GUI app the way you think of one, but it is integrated with the Aqua environment. Frankly, though, I never really saw the point in X11 or GUI versions of vi or emacs. In those environments, you'll have access to a shell, so why not use it as intended?

Media of the month: Up, by Peter Gabriel. A masterpiece. Seriously. If, for some reason, that doesn't do it for you, just take some time to put on some headphones (real cans, not those iPod things), lay down, and really listen to some music.

See everyone next month at MacWorld, I hope! I'm presenting two sessions, and will be hanging around the MacTech booth, so please make sure you stop by and say hello!


The vi man page

Vim home:


"All's Well That Ends Well," William Shakespeare

Ed Marczak owns and operates Radiotope, a technology consulting practice with a focus on business process enhancement, network and system integration, and, more generally, all things Mac.


Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

macOS Server 5.4 - Quickly and easily tu...
macOS Server, designed for macOS and iOS devices, makes it easy to share files, schedule meetings, synchronize contacts, develop software, host your own website, publish wikis, configure Mac, iPhone... Read more
CleanMyMac 3.9.0 - $39.95
CleanMyMac makes space for the things you love. Sporting a range of ingenious new features, CleanMyMac lets you safely and intelligently scan and clean your entire system, delete large, unused files... Read more
Apple High Sierra 10.13 - The latest OS...
macOS High Sierra introduces new core technologies that improve the most important functions of your Mac. From rearchitecting how it stores your data to improving the efficiency of video streaming to... Read more
OmniGraffle Pro 7.4.3 - Create diagrams,...
OmniGraffle Pro helps you draw beautiful diagrams, family trees, flow charts, org charts, layouts, and (mathematically speaking) any other directed or non-directed graphs. We've had people use... Read more
OmniGraffle 7.4.3 - Create diagrams, flo...
OmniGraffle helps you draw beautiful diagrams, family trees, flow charts, org charts, layouts, and (mathematically speaking) any other directed or non-directed graphs. We've had people use Graffle to... Read more
VueScan 9.5.86 - Scanner software with a...
VueScan is a scanning program that works with most high-quality flatbed and film scanners to produce scans that have excellent color fidelity and color balance. VueScan is easy to use, and has... Read more
ExpanDrive 6.1.0 - Access cloud storage...
ExpanDrive builds cloud storage in every application, acts just like a USB drive plugged into your Mac. With ExpanDrive, you can securely access any remote file server directly from the Finder or... Read more
Yojimbo 4.1 - Data information organizer...
Yojimbo empowers Mac users to manage, effortlessly and securely, the onslaught of information encountered every day at work and at home, even across multiple computers. Yojimbo stores different data... Read more
Airmail 3.5 - Powerful, minimal email cl...
Airmail is an mail client with fast performance and intuitive interaction. Support for iCloud, MS Exchange, Gmail, Google Apps, IMAP, POP3, Yahoo!, AOL,, Airmail was designed... Read more
Cocktail 11.0 - General maintenance and...
Cocktail is a general purpose utility for macOS that lets you clean, repair and optimize your Mac. It is a powerful digital toolset that helps hundreds of thousands of Mac users around the world get... Read more

Morphite guide - how to explore like a p...
The much anticipated space exploration game, Morphite, has finally arrived, and we can't get enough of it. The game is essentially everything we wanted No Man's Sky to be. It's a game that puts a heavy focus on exploring foreign worlds, but the... | Read more »
The best visual novels on mobile
Narrative games have been around for ages, but only now have they been creeping into the mainstream spotlight. These games tell some of the industry's finest stories, and they break new ground in terms of gameplay and mechanics regularly. Here are... | Read more »
The best new games we played this week -...
It's pretty much been one big release after another. We were privy to a bunch of surprises this week, with a lot of games we'd been waiting for quite some time dropping unexpectedly. We hope you're free this weekend, because there is a lot for... | Read more »
Stormbound: Kingdom Wars guide - how to...
Stormbound: Kingdom Wars is an excellent new RTS turned card battler out now on iOS and Android. Lovers of strategy will get a lot of enjoyment out of Stormbound's chess-like mechanics, and it's cardbased units are perfect for anyone who loves the... | Read more »
The best AR apps and games on iOS right...
iOS 11 has officially launched, and with it comes Apple's ARKit, a helpful framework that makes it easier than ever for developers to create mobile AR experiences. To celebrate the occassion, we're featuring some of the best AR apps and games on... | Read more »
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Spirit of...
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Spirit of Justice 1.00.00 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $.99, Version: 1.00.00 (iTunes) Description: ************************************************※IMPORTANT※・Please read the “When... | Read more »
Kpressor (Utilities)
Kpressor 1.0.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Utilities Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0.0 (iTunes) Description: The ultimate ZIP compression application for iPhone and iPad. - Full integration of iOS 11 with support for multitasking.-... | Read more »
Find out how you can save £35 and win a...
Nothing raises excitement like a good competition, and we’re thrilled to announce our latest contest. We’ll be sending one lucky reader and a friend to the Summoners War World Arena Championship at Le Comedia in Paris on October 7th. It’s the... | Read more »
Another Lost Phone: Laura's Story...
Another Lost Phone: Laura's Story 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Another Lost Phone is a game about exploring the social life of a young woman whose phone you have just... | Read more »
The Witness (Games)
The Witness 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $9.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: You wake up, alone, on a strange island full of puzzles that will challenge and surprise you. You don't remember who you are, and... | Read more »

Price Scanner via

Snag a Certified Refurbished Apple Pencil for...
Apple has Certified Refurbished Apple Pencils available for $85 including free shipping. Their price is $14 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price available for a Pencil. Read more
12-inch 64GB iPad Pro on sale for $749, save...
Adorama has 12″ 64GB iPad Pros on sale today for $749 including free shipping plus NY & NJ sales tax only. Their price is $50 off MSRP. Read more
Apple Certified Refurbished iPad minis availa...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 128GB iPad minis available today for $339 including free shipping. Apple’s standard one-year warranty is included. Their price is $60 off MSRP. Read more
12-inch 1.2GHz Retina MacBook Pros on sale fo...
B&H Photo has 2017 12″ 1.2GHz Retina MacBooks on sale for $100 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges sales tax in NY & NJ only: 12″ 1.2GHz Space Gray MacBook: $1199 $100 off MSRP 12... Read more
Sunday sale: 13-inch 3.1GHz MacBook Pros for...
Amazon has 2017 13″ 3.1GHz MacBook Pros on sale today for up to $150 off MSRP, each including free shipping: – 13″ 3.1GHz/256GB Space Gray MacBook Pro (MPXV2LL/A): $1649.99 $150 off MSRP – 13″ 3.1GHz... Read more
Looking for a 2017 12″ Retina MacBook? Save $...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 2017 12″ Retina MacBooks available for $200-$240 off the cost of new models. Apple will include a standard one-year warranty with each MacBook, and shipping is free.... Read more
Apple Offering Up To $455 Credit Toward iPhon...
iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are now available at the Apple Store, and you can receive up to $375 credit toward a new iPhone purchase when you trade in your eligible smartphone. Photo Courtesy Apple Just... Read more
AnyTrans Offers iOS Users Three Ways For Movi...
iMobie Inc. today announceed AnyTrans v6.0.1, which now can help iOS users move all data to iPhone 8/8 Plus seamlessly. The software is available both on Mac and Windows and fully able to move all... Read more
Snag a 13-inch 2.3GHz MacBook Pro for $100 of...
B&H Photo has 2017 13″ 2.3GHz MacBook Pros in stock today and on sale for $100 off MSRP, each including free shipping plus NY & NJ sales tax only: – 13-inch 2.3GHz/128GB Space Gray MacBook... Read more
Verizon offers new iPhone 8 for $100-$300 off...
Verizon is offering the new iPhone 8 for up to $300 off MSRP with an eligible trade-in: • $300 off: iPhone 6S/6S Plus/7/7 Plus, Google Pixel XL, LG G6, Moto Z2 Force, Samsung Galaxy S7/S7 edge/S8/S8... Read more

Jobs Board

Data Engineer - *Apple* Media Products - Ap...
Job Summary Apple is seeking a highly skilled data engineer to join the Data Engineering team within Apple Media Products. AMP (home to Apple Music, App Read more
Development Operations and Site Reliability E...
Development Operations and Site Reliability Engineer, Apple Payment Gateway Job Number: 57572631 Santa Clara Valley, California, United States Posted: Jul. 27, 2017 Read more
Development Operations and Site Reliability E...
Development Operations and Site Reliability Engineer, Apple Payment Gateway Job Number: 57572631 Santa Clara Valley, California, United States Posted: Jul. 27, 2017 Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions - Apple,...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
Instructional Designer, *Apple* Product Doc...
Job Summary The Apple Product Documentation team is looking for an instructional designer or a video editor to write user documentation for its professional video Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.