Vim Toolbox, 2010 Edition

I've been using Vim for close to a decade. I've often said that "Unix is my IDE" — because Vim is built in the Unix philosophy, allowing me to pipe input into it, out of it, and every which way I want. It fits very nicely with the Unix philosophy of doing one task well, and allowing redirection. I've found it ideal for web development in general and PHP development specifically — in fact, I've had excellent experiences in every language I've tried my hand at developing in when using Vim.

Vim is also my chosen productivity suite. When I want to write a document, I don't go into OO.o Writer or MS Word or some other word processor; I open up a window and start typing. In most cases, I can either cut and paste my work into other tools, or pipe it to transformation tools. I worry about the content first, and the presentation later… like any good MVC application. ;-)

Like any good tool, you have to invest time in it in order to reap its benefits. My learning has, to date, fallen into three time periods:

  • The initial months in which I first learned Vim, via vimtutor and Steve Oualline's Vim book.
  • A period in 2006-2007 when I felt the need to make my coding more efficient, and first started playing with exuberant-ctags and omni-completion.
  • The last quarter of 2010 (yes, that's now) when I was introduced to a number of new tools via Twitter.

So, this is my Vim Toolbox, 2010 edition.

Getting Plugins

I've added two primary ways to add new plugins to my arsenal:

  • Vimana, which is a command-line tool for discovering, downloading, installing, and upgrading scripts found on It's not perfect, but if you know the name of the script, and it's provided in either a vimball format and/or follows the Vim runtime file structure, it's a great way to keep your plugins, syntax files, etc. up-to-date.

  • Vim Pathogen allows you to install plugins as "bundles", allowing you to keep them up-to-date separately, in their own file tree. This looks like the following:


    In short, a "bundle" mimics the structure of a Vim directory.

The latter, Pathogen, is my preferred installation method of choice at this point. Why? One acronym: DVCS.

A ton of popular Vim plugins are now being either developed or mirrored on GitHub or other DVCS sites. This allows you to clone them and then create a branch that's specific to your configuration. As an example, the popular snipMate plugin has its key-bindings hard-coded — which causes problems if you're already using those bindings. Which, if you're using any form of omni-completion, is all too likely. I simply cloned the snipMate repo, and created a branch for my configuration (I use <Leader><tab> to invoke it).

Now, it gets even better: I've made a git repository for my Vim configuration; with judicious use of git submodule, I can now add pathogen bundles as submodules of my repository. Right now, I've got bundles for html5.vim, mustache.vim, NErdtree, snipMate, TagList, vim-fugitive, vim-task, and vimwiki. This keeps my repository lean, while retaining the features I need and use daily.

As part of creating my Vim configuration repository, I also made a few changes to facilitate the process. First, I moved $HOME/.vimrc to $HOME/.vim/vimrc, and symlinked the former to the latter. This allows me to keep all my Vim configuration in one place.

Next, I moved my Vim view files outside the directory; this data is volatile and constantly changing, and really does not need to be versioned. These are now in my $HOME/.vim.view/ directory. Finally, I moved my tag files into a new $HOME/.vim.tags/ directory. More on that later, but, again, the rationale is that this data is volatile and does not need to be versioned.


I mentioned I created a Git repository for my Vim configuration. In part, this is due to the fact that I'm proficient with Git — I use it day-in, day-out. Hg and other DVCS systems are also great; I'm not using them nearly as often, however.

To that end, I'm now using vim-fugitive. The author boasts that it's "a Git wrapper so awesome, it should be illegal"; I wouldn't necessarily go that far, but I do find it incredibly useful. While I'm typically working in a console, I also find myself in GVim windows regularly as well — and having a nice, familiar interface to Git is very useful. If you use both Vim and Git, I highly recommend checking out vim-fugitive.

Filesystem Navigation and Projects

At some point, unless you're one of those developers who likes to code everything in a single file, you need to do some sort of navigation. A couple years back, Andrei Zmievski introduced me to NErdtree, a dead-simple, colorized navigation. I use this every. single. day.

I also use a tool called Project. This tool allows you to specify "files of interest" to a project — either by automatically scanning a tree, or manually. Additionally, the way you specify the hierarchy can be entirely arbitrary — allowing you to flatten the tree when it's getting in the way. I use this tool regularly as well, though not quite as much as NErdtree.

Navigating Code

One often touted feature of modern IDEs is code completion and hinting. These are definitely useful features, particularly when working on unfamiliar code, or code you haven't touched in some time.

Vim actually has some great tools for this already. One is built-in: omni-completion (:he new-omni-completion for Vim's help on the feature). By default, it inspects the files in open buffers to provide completion (assuming it has a definition for that language and/or syntax highlighting) — but it can also utilize tag files.

The built-in omni-completion for PHP is reasonable — you can jump around by class names, function/method names, variables, etc. It gets much, much more useful, however, when you utilize tag files, as you don't need the files already open in order to get completion. I've blogged about ctags before; however, I've updated my scripts a bit.

First, exuberant-ctags is much more PHP aware now than when I blogged. This means you don't need to do any special regex-fu in order to properly identify abstract classes, interfaces, and methods. Second, I found that I could generate a single script with prompts to indicate the directory and tag file name. That script basically looks like this:

if [ $# -ge 2 ] ; then
    # Two arguments: first is directory, second is "alias"
    if [ $# -eq 1 ] ; then
        # One argument: use as directory, and use basename of directory as alias
        name=`basename $1`
        # Otherwise: prompt
        echo "Enter the path to a directory containing PHP code you wish"
        echo "to create tags for:"
        read dir
        echo "Enter the name of the tagfile you wish to create:"
        read name

echo "Creating tags for directory '$dir' using alias '$name'"
cd $dir
exec ctags-exuberant -f ~/.vim.tags/$name \
-h ".php" -R \
--exclude="\.svn" \
--totals=yes \
--tag-relative=yes \
--fields=+afkst \
echo "[DONE]"

Two things to note:

  • It creates the tag files in $HOME/.vim.tags/. I do this as my tag files change fairly regularly, and can be re-generated on the fly as needed. There's no reason to version them.
  • Once generated, you need to load them. I created a "LoadTags" Vim function that will load a tag file by the given name from the $HOME/.vim.tags/ directory. By default, I load the ones I most commonly use (ZF1, ZF2, PHPUnit). Otherwise, a quick :Ltag <tag filename> will load on-demand.

Once the tags are created, you can use Vim's normal tag features to load files, jump to files, etc. The most common commands I use are:

  • :stag <tagname>, which splits the current window and loads the given tag in the newly created split.
  • <Ctrl-w>], when on text you suspect of being a tag (such as a classname), will split the current window and load that tag file in the new pane.

These two commands I use constantly, and are huge timesavers — I can basically use the code as my documentation.

Additionally, the main use of omni-completion is to give tab-completion for known tags. This means that you can start typing, hit <Tab>, and either have it immediately complete, or give you a list of potential matches. It's not quite as useful as a good IDE — it's not context-aware, so you'll get any potential match from any class — but it's better than nothing, provides reasonable hinting, and helps protect you from spelling errors.

That said, there's also something to be said about just having the signatures and prototypes of the various methods easily accessible. For that, there's the Vim TagList plugin. This plugin will scan open files and produce a list of classes, variables, and methods. With this list, you can get the method prototypes, as well as jump directly to their definitions. Pressing <Space> will show you the prototype, <CR> will jump to it.

Between these two features (omni-completion with tags and TagList), I have most of the useful features of any IDE immediately available.

Working With Code

Since I sling code for a living, it's useful to have some plugins and syntax highlighting to make working with code easier.

First off, I've been experimenting with HTML5; as such, I added the html5.vim syntax highlighting as a Pathogen module. This adds support for a bunch of HTML5-specific features, while retaining the fantastic HTML support already in the official HTML syntax provided with Vim.

Next, I use the php.vim syntax file from This particular syntax file has support for PHP 5.3 features, which come in very handy while I'm coding for ZF2. The author of this syntax has also created a script (php_vimgen.php) for generating syntax files for core classes as well as extensions using the Reflection API. I've modified the tool in my repository to strip out the generated syntax, and instead source it from the file created with the php_vimgen.php script; I've also altered said script to create the syntax in __DIR__ . '/php_syntax_vimgen.vim', ensuring I can always source it from the same location. This allows me to keep my PHP syntax highlighting up-to-date.

Finally, I use snipMate, a tool that emulates TextMate's "snippet" features. Basically, this is dead-simple, templated code generation. You can write your own files (I did), or use those that come with it. Once you've got some snippets, you type a word (usually a mnemonic for the operation you're trying to perform), and it will either just spit up a template, or optionally provide "prompts" for you to fill in (along with variable completion!). Basically, I never code accessors and mutators anymore; snipMate does these for me, with a little prompting.


I use Vim day-in, day-out, for all sorts of things: mail, drafting blog posts, drafting presentation outlines, taking meeting notes, managing my todo list, and more. As such, I try to keep as much of my "organization" within Vim — it's just easier.

I've tried a number of tools over the years. For a good 4 or 5 years, my primary tool was VimOutliner. It provided decent syntax, decent folding, and reasonable HTML generation from the outline. However, in recent years, I feel the project had stalled, and I also found that the way I wanted to use it had changed: outlining is great, but I often want to use the outline as a starting point for generating content; task tracking is fine, but I found, for whatever reason, that the way VimOutliner handled task status often didn't work well — either from a tooling or a syntax standpoint.

At some point, Travis Swicegood introduced me to vimwiki. This tool provides a personal wiki within Vim. This tool allowed me to organize my notes in an ad-hoc, semi-hierarchical way, link back and forth between them, and have not only reasonable in-editor highlighting, but great HTML generation. This allowed me to ditch VimOutliner for everything but task tracking. Once I made my "wiki" directory a Git repository, I then received versioning basically for free (especially with vim-fugitive, which makes it easy for me to hit :Gwrite and :Gcommit when I create and/or update files).

Another feature vimwiki provides is a "diary". You access it using <Leader>w<Leader>w, which opens up a new wiki page for the current day (or, if you already opened it before, re-opens the one created earlier in the day). This is a really useful tool for taking notes during meetings, or when doing research, etc.

Couple these features with integrated search (:VWS /pattern/), and vimwiki is the killer productivity tool in my toolbox.

At another point, Travis then pointed out another tool: vim-task. This is perhaps the most dead-simple task tracker I've ever used; each line is a task, and is either incomplete (starts with a "-"), or complete (starts with a checkmark). A simple keybinding, which I've mapped to <Leader>m, toggles status - and complete items get highlighted in green and italicized, making you feel good and giving a good visual queue as to what you've completed.

At some point, Travis also tossed out the idea that combining vimwiki with vim-task would be useful — and I latched onto this idea. I've now created a fork of vimwiki with vim-task integration, which allows me to keep my tasks and notes in a single place… and, since my wiki is versioned, my tasks are as well.

Various Oddities

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I've been using Vim for close to a decade. Part of the reason Vim was appealing to me was due to the fact that it kept me in the "home row" of the keyboard — which provides a huge amount of efficency. You don't have to move to the arrow keys to scroll, no leaving the keyboard for the mouse, etc. That said, some key combinations are difficult to reach:

  • The placement of the <Esc> key varies from keyboard to keyboard, and is rarely in a place that is easy to reach. On my current keyboard, it's in the top left corner, above the function keys; it's impossible to reach without moving my hand. A tip I picked up pretty much when I began using Vim was to map jj to <Esc>; it's rare to type a j repeatedly in the English language, and it's dead-center on the home row. This is incredibly efficent.
  • I've mapped my Caps Lock key to <Ctrl> on every system I've owned in the past decade. I never used it, and it's almst always on the home row. Again, hugely efficient.
  • Keybindings are great, but there's so many already in use that it's hard not to overwrite existing ones. Using the <Leader> key to define keybindings has been great. As examples, I mapped <Leader>m to toggle tasks, and <Leader><Tab> to invoke snipMate.

In Vim, <C-m> has long been the "make" binding, and <C-l> for linters. In languages like PHP and JavaScript, these often don't make sense. However, I've bound these in both languages — in PHP, "make" executes the current script using the PHP executable, while "lint" runs it through the PHP linter. In JS, I leave "make" unbound, while "lint" runs the script through jslint.

I've also added the "php-doc.vim" plugin, and mapped <C-P> to create PHP docblocks; the plugin is context aware, and will create appropriate annotations.

Cloning my repo

As noted, I've created a repository for my Vim configuration. If you want to clone it and explore it, you can do so as follows:

Be aware that there a number of git submodules in play (all the pathogen modules are git submodules). To initialize these, simply run git submodule init followed by git submodule update after you clone the repository.


I didn't learn all this overnight. As with any toolset, it's only as good as the amount of time you invest learning it. For me, my primary resources lately have been:

  • #vim hashtag on Twitter
  • VimCasts are a fantastic source of information, provided by Drew Neil. Seriously, these are completely worth the time spent watching them.
  • Travis Swicegood has tweeted a number of times about interesting things he does with Vim and Git, and inspired me to write the vim-task syntax for vimwiki.

More Tools

This post has been on my Vim toolbox. I've also been usig a number of other tools lately — tmux, zsh (in particular, git prompts), Hotot (GTK2 + WebKit Twitter client), and more; I may blog about those in the future — using Vim. ;-)