Johan Andersson

Software Engineer with an M.S. in Computer Science. Based in Lund

Notice: migration to in progress

How Vim saved my fingers

06 Jul 2018

Once, I found myself migrating a large codebase for a web application from Bootstrap 3 to Bootstrap 4. There are a lot of small changes that make this a daunting task and one of those is the change to breadcrumbs.

In the codebase, there were 39 instances (each in a separate file) of Bootstrap’s breadcrumb, with a total of 127 li elements inside.

In Bootstrap 3, the following code would work:

<ol class="breadcrumb">
    <li><a href="/home/johan/">Home</a></li>
    <li><a href="/home/johan/code/">Code</a></li>

In Bootstrap 4, however, a tiny change has been introduced that completely breaks this layout. In the new version, children of breadcrumb are required to have the class breadcrumb-item like so:

<ol class="breadcrumb">
    <li class="breadcrumb-item"><a href="/home/johan/">Home</a></li>
    <li class="breadcrumb-item"><a href="/home/johan/code/">Code</a></li>

In migrating from Bootstrap 3 to 4, this was definitely not the hardest change I had to do. But it was here I first discovered the magic and wonders of Vim. Since it seemed such a mind-numbing task to do, I had to figure out how I could automate at least some part of it, lest I wished to become a zombie.

So what did I do? To the experienced Vim user it comes as no surprise that I used macros.

Macros let you record keystrokes, so that you can repeat patterns of editing. In this case, I wanted to record a macro that updates a breadcrumb from Bootstrap 3 to 4.

Having opened the file I did the following:

  1. /breadcrumb<E> (jump to the first occurrence of “breadcrumb”)
  2. j (go down one line)
  3. qq (start a recording and bind it to q)
  4. 0 (go to line beginning)
  5. /li<E> (jump to the first occurrence of “li”)
  6. ea (go to the end of “li” and start appending text)
  7. <space> class="breadcrumb-item" (insert the change)
  8. <Esc> (exit append mode)
  9. q (finish recording)

Having recorded the macro, it was time to use it. With two terminal windows open in split screen, one with Vim and one with the output of rg breadcrumb, I went through all files and performed the upgrade. To switch files inside Vim, and thus retaining my macro, I used fzf which I had bound to <s-f> (in the following demonstration I used :find instead, but it’s practically the same).

I performed the above sequence one time, and then used it in each of the 39 files, 127 times in total, which understandably sped up the process while preventing it from becoming a boring task.

While I didn’t manage to do it with one keystroke per file or with one keystroke for all files (there is however a tradeoff), I am still giddy that I managed to reduce the cognitive load of updating the breadcrumbs.

It was a defining moment for me, since it was here I caught my first glimpse into why and how Vim is more powerful than the regular editors that I have previously used.

I also learned (accidentally) that you can make recursive macros. I have yet to figure out why you would want to do so though.


After some sleep I’ve already had my first use case for recursive macros! I had to rename 101 filenames for a TV show so that Kodi could parse it and add it to my library. Each filename had the same structure, but Kodi could not understand that structure.

To rename all the files, I fired up ranger and used :bulkrename which loads all the filenames into a Vim buffer. Inside Vim, I then recorded a macro that would change the current line’s filename and then go one line down and call itself. The macro stopped at EOF since it encountered an error (trying to find a character that didn’t exist).

Hurray for recursion!

Update 2: An exercise for the reader

  1. Find a site with a lot of quotes (e.g. this one)
  2. Save the raw html file and open it in Vim
  3. Record and run a recursive macro that formats the quotes in the .html file with a % character between each quote like this:
Computers do not solve problems, they execute solutions.
While you were minoring in Gender Studies and singing a capella, I was getting root access to NSA servers.
$ make me a sandwich.
> no, make it yourself
$ sudo make me a sandwich
> OK
  1. Install fortune-mod
  2. Remove all files in /usr/share/games/fortunes/
  3. Run strfile -c % your-parsed-html-doc your-parsed-html-doc.dat
  4. Copy your-parsed-html-doc and your-parsed-html-doc.dat to /usr/share/games/fortunes/
  5. Profit