You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?

– Steven Wright

Attack of the 5,000-line vimrc

Vim is an endlessly configurable and extensible editor, with a culture of users sharing configuration for their ~/.vimrc or ~/.vim/vimrc startup files. These files tend to expand over time. New users start by setting only a few global defaults for options like 'expandtab' and 'wrap', and then add custom mappings, functions, filetype-specific logic, and third-party plugins, often under an ever-shifting mantle of plugin managers. Their vimrc files grow not only larger, but more intricate and complex.

If you have one of these longer files, you’re in good company. Damian Conway, a Vim guru specializing in Perl, published a vimrc with 1,855 lines, and at the time of writing, Steve Losh’s is a whopping 3,160 lines. I’m sure you can find vimrc files that are even longer—perhaps yours already is.

The issue with very long vimrc files isn’t the sheer amount of configuration—after all, all of that power is there for a reason. However, if you’ve been programming for a while, you’ll know from experience that it’s best to avoid very large files with code that does many disparate things, because it makes code hard to find, manage, and understand. Vim configuration is no exception. Instead of a single large configuration file, there’s a case to be made for having a set of smaller, well-organized files. Those files go in ~/.vim.

Creating a directory hierarchy in ~/.vim to replace your large vimrc keeps your configuration manageable. It improves efficiency by loading code only when needed. It becomes clearer from a file’s position in the hierarchy what its purpose is. It also makes it easier to package configuration for others to use.

Your own personal $VIMRUNTIME

Most of the benefit of an organized ~/.vim directory comes from leaning on Vim’s built-in behavior, which gives you a lot of control over how configuration files are loaded.

Let’s start by looking at the structure of the runtime files that come with Vim itself. You can find the path for this directory in the $VIMRUNTIME variable:


If you’re using the version of Vim that was packaged with your operating system, it will very likely be something like /usr/share/vim/vim81.

Let’s take a look at the contents of that directory:

$ ls /usr/share/vim/vim81
autoload/     bugreport.vim       colors/     compiler/
defaults.vim  delmenu.vim         doc/        evim.vim
filetype.vim  ftoff.vim           ftplugin/   ftplugin.vim
ftplugof.vim  gvimrc_example.vim  indent/     indent.vim
indoff.vim    keymap/             lang/       macros/
menu.vim      mswin.vim           optwin.vim  pack/
plugin/       print/              rgb.txt     scripts.vim
spell/        synmenu.vim         syntax/     tools/
tutor/        vimrc_example.vim

A quick-and-dirty count in the shell shows us there are 1,674 files in this directory tree:

$ find /usr/share/vim/vim81 -type f | wc -l

Of those, 1,335 are .vim files:

$ find /usr/share/vim/vim81 -type f -name \*.vim | wc -l

All of these are just plain Vim script files, like your vimrc. Their location within this directory determines when they are loaded. Only a few of them are loaded on Vim startup. That’s well over a thousand files ready to be loaded only when relevant. We should take a hint from Bram on that!

If we look at the value of the 'runtimepath' option in Vim, we can see a few other paths:

:set runtimepath?

The very first entry of 'runtimepath' is ~/.vim, and that’s where you can build a structure mimicking that of $VIMRUNTIME. This is your personal Vim runtime directory.

Lose the :source, Luke

If you’ve worked with Vim script for a while, you probably know how to use the :source command to read it from a file. To load a separate file with something like mapping definitions in it, you might have a line like this in your vimrc:

source ~/.vim/mappings.vim

Vim has another command named :runtime for loading files that works with the file layout of the 'runtimepath' directories we just inspected. Used without an exclamation mark, it reads Vim script commands from the first path it finds in any of its 'runtimepath' directories. With an exclamation mark added, it reads all of them. In both cases, we can include filename pattern matching with globs: * and ? characters.

runtime syntax/c.vim
runtime! syntax/c.vim
runtime! */maps.vim
runtime! **/maps.vim

Note that we don’t include the leading ~/.vim path in these patterns.

The double asterisk in the last example here represents a set of directory path elements, which can be up to 100 levels deep. This means that a file in ~/.vim/foo/bar/baz/quux/maps.vim would still be found and loaded.

Unlike :source, :runtime doesn’t raise errors if it can’t find any matching files. This avoids boilerplate checks for file existence if a file’s absence is not an error condition.

Much of Vim’s startup process is just thin wrappers around :runtime commands. So are some of its other commands, including :filetype. We can leverage this to run our own code before, instead of, or after Vim’s bundled runtime code, in order to disable, replace, modify, or extend it.

Turn on, plugin, drop out

You can start the process of breaking up your vimrc file by looking for blocks of code that have expanded beyond simple configuration, and can be grouped together meaningfully. We can extract these into self-contained files in the plugin subdirectory.

As an example, if you read others’ vimrc files, you will often see approaches to solving the problem of conveniently removing trailing whitespace at line endings. Here’s one approach, in a function from the Vim Tips wiki:

function StripTrailingWhitespace()
  if !&binary && &filetype != 'diff'
    normal mz
    normal Hmy
    normal 'yz<CR>
    normal `z

This kind of function is usually followed by a mapping to call it:

nnoremap <Leader>x :<C-U>call StripTrailingWhitespace()<CR>

This function doesn’t need to be loaded every time vimrc is sourced. Once defined, it can just sit there, ready for calling when appropriate. In fact, Vim throws an error if a vimrc with this function is reloaded. We could fix that by declaring the function with function!, but there’s another way: instead of putting the function definition in ~/.vimrc, we can drop it into a .vim file in ~/.vim/plugin. We’ll use ~/.vim/plugin/strip_trailing_whitespace.vim.

Once this file is created, we can restart Vim, and then confirm our plugin has been loaded by checking its path is in the output of :scriptnames:

  10: ~/.vim/plugin/strip_trailing_whitespace.vim

Note that the <Leader>x mapping left in the vimrc still works, despite being set before the function it calls was defined.

What’s a plugin, anyway?

Why should we put the script in ~/.vim/plugin? You might object that our example isn’t a real plugin; it’s just a single function. However, that’s not a meaningful distinction to Vim. At startup, it sources any and all .vim files in the plugins subdirectory of each of the directories in 'runtimepath'. It makes no difference what those files actually contain. A set of related abbreviations? Custom commands? Code dependent on one particular machine or operating system? Sure, why not?

Plugin subdirectories

Similarly, because *.vim files are loaded from the plugin directory recursively, you can organize them in subdirectories if you want to:


The names of the subdirectories aren’t significant; Vim will search them all. Remember how we mentioned Vim’s thinly-veiled :runtime wrappers? This is one of them. A clue here is in the command that :help load-plugins suggests as an analogue to what Vim does internally at this step:

:runtime! plugin/**/*.vim

Local script scope

Putting blocks of code like this in distinct files in ~/.vim/plugin has some other advantages. One of these is Vim’s script-variable scoping for functions and variables that are only needed within the script:

let s:myvar = 'value'
function s:Myfunc()

This applies a unique prefix to all of your function names and variable names at the time the file is sourced. That means you don’t have to worry about trampling on any other variables defined elsewhere in your configuration.

There are some caveats here for defining mappings; make sure you read :help script-variable carefully to make sure you understand how to use <SID> prefixes.

Short-circuiting and load guards

Another advantage of separate script files is the ability to short-circuit a script, to prevent it from loading if it’s not appropriate to do so. This is done by checking at the start of the script whether the rest of it should be loaded, and skipping it with :finish if it shouldn’t.

We can use this to check options like 'compatible', the Vim version number, the availability of a feature, or whether the plugin has already been loaded:

if &compatible
      \ || v:version < 700
      \ || has('folding')
      \ || exists('g:loaded_myplugin')
let g:loaded_myplugin = 1

This way, you don’t have to wrap all your feature-dependent code in clumsy :if blocks.

The question of mappings

Should you include a mapping that uses a defined function in the plugin itself? It’s up to you, but the author likes to think of vimrc files as where user-level preferences go, and plugins where the code they call should go. Mapping choices are personal, and fall into the former category.

If you want to keep some abstraction between what the plugin does and how it’s called, you can use <Plug> prefix mappings to expose an interface from the plugin file:

function s:StripTrailingWhitespace()
nnoremap <Plug>StripTrailingWhitespace
      \ :<C-U>call <SID>StripTrailingWhitespace()<CR>

You can then put your choice of mapping for that target in your vimrc:

nmap <Leader>x <Plug>StripTrailingWhitespace

If someone else wants to use your plugin, this makes choosing their own mappings for it more straightforward. There’s more general advice about good mapping practices in writing fully-fledged plugin files in :help write-plugin.

Not really my :filetype

Another pattern in big vimrc files is setting options only for buffers of a certain filetype. For example, this line of code is intended to set the 'spell' option, to highlight possible spelling errors in the text, but only for mail filetype buffers:

autocmd FileType mail setlocal spell

The first thing to note here is that this should be surrounded in a self-clearing augroup, so that reloading it doesn’t make multiple definitions for the same hook:

augroup ftmail
  autocmd FileType mail setlocal spell
augroup END

This is annoying, but there’s a way to avoid this boilerplate.

The second thing to note about our autocmd is that it’s set every time vimrc is loaded, regardless of whether a mail file is actually edited in that session. It therefore makes more sense to put this into a filetype plugin or ftplugin, so that it’s only loaded when relevant.

The autocmd hooks that set a buffer’s filetype are defined in $VIMRUNTIME/filetype.vim. They apply heuristics to guess and then set the type of a buffer, and then Vim runs any appropriate filetype plugins afterwards: files in 'runtimepath' directories named ftplugin/FILETYPE.vim will be sourced.

This means there’s no need for the autocmd hooks around our 'spell' setting. We already have hooks for changes of filetype available to us, and we can just put this single line in ~/.vim/ftplugin/mail.vim to use them:

setlocal spell

With this done, upon editing a new mail buffer, we can confirm that our filetype plugin was loaded when the filetype was chosen using :scriptnames:

:set filetype=mail
  20: ~/.vim/ftplugin/mail.vim
:set spell?

This is better, but we can improve it further.

Loading filetype configuration afterwards

Rather than putting our 'spell' setting in ~/.vim/ftplugin/mail.vim, we can put it in ~/.vim/after/ftplugin/mail.vim—note the extra directory named after in the path.

Files in the after runtime directory are loaded after the analogous runtime files included in Vim. Using this path, we can ensure that our option is set after the mail filetype plugin in $VIMRUNTIME/ftplugin/mail.vim has been sourced. This is how to override something a filetype plugin does if you don’t like it.

Breaking up filetype plugins

If you need to make this even more granular, you can also put files in subdirectories named after the filetype:


The filetype followed by an underscore and then a script name works, too:


You may have guessed by now that filetype switching is yet another :runtime wrapper. Switching to a filetype of mail effectively runs this command:

:runtime! ftplugin/mail.vim ftplugin/mail_*.vim ftplugin/mail/*.vim

Undoing filetype settings

If the filetype of a buffer changes, we should reverse any local configuration we applied. We can do this with the b:undo_ftplugin variable, which contains a list of pipe-separated (|) commands. When a buffer’s filetype changes, the commands undo the buffer-specific settings for the previous filetype, ready for the new filetype’s plugins to be loaded.

After each filetype plugin setting we make, we should append corresponding commands to reverse that change to b:undo_ftplugin. For our 'spell' example, we’d do this:

setlocal spell
let b:undo_ftplugin .= '|setlocal spell<'

The spell< syntax used here, with a trailing left angle bracket, specifies that the local value of 'spell' should be restored to match the global value of 'spell' when the mail filetype is unloaded.

After setting a filetype, we can check the b:undo_ftplugin variable’s value with :let:

:set filetype=mail
:let b:undo_ftplugin
  b:undo_ftplugin        setl modeline< tw< fo< comments<|setlocal spell<

The difference with indent

Filetype-specific code related to indentation goes in a different location again: ~/.vim/indent/FILETYPE.vim or ~/.vim/after/indent/FILETYPE.vim. Those files are sourced if you include the word indent in your vimrc’s :filetype call. You should use this layout for files that change 'autoindent' or 'indentexpr' settings, for example.

You can put indent settings in your filetype plugin if you want to, but remember that we’re trying to find the right place for things. Doing it this way keeps your indentation settings separate from all other filetype-specific settings. This gives users an easy way to load only what they want, using appropriate arguments to their vimrc’s :filetype call.

Detecting filetypes

As a final note for filetype-dependent logic, if you have any hooks to set a buffer’s filetype in the first place, based on its filename or contents, those go in the ftdetect directory. You might put this in ~/.vim/ftdetect/irssilog, for example:

autocmd BufNewFile,BufRead */irc/*.log setfiletype irssilog

Putting the hooks in ~/.vim/ftdetect means they are sourced as part of the filetypedetect augroup defined in filetype.vim. This is another context in which you don’t need to surround autocmd definitions in a self-clearing augroup, because it’s already been done for you.

Be water, my friend

All of the above is just the beginning. We haven’t even touched on lazy-loading functions for speed with definitions in ~/.vim/autoload, or custom :compiler definitions for setting 'makeprg' and 'errorformat' in ~/.vim/compiler. These are yet more examples of Vim functionality that wraps around :runtime loading.

While Vim gives you a lot of flexibility in configuring and customizing, there is definitely a Way of Vim for the timely loading of relevant configuration, and if you learn a little about how it works, you’ll fight with your editor that much less. If this seems stringent to you, think back to when you first learned Vim. Do you remember how strange using the HJKL keys for movement seemed, before it made sense? Do you remember how you wanted to stay in insert mode all the time, before normal mode made sense?

Working within the Vim runtime file structure instead of ignoring it or fighting with it makes your ~/.vim directory into a refined toolbox, with a place for everything, and everything in its place. It’s well worth the effort!

If you’d like to see an example of how this layout can end up looking when you make it work for you, the author’s personal ~/.vim directory is available for download.

CC BY 4.0