Search in Vim for newbies

Now that we’ve seen moving across files I think it is time to get back to the current buffer and see what is possible here as well.

One thing that seems to happen consistently on the way from beginning newbie to not-so-much newbie is that moment when you realize that mashing hjkl or holding w/b is not the most efficient way to move around. Personally, I don’t think counting words is any efficient either. To take an example (where I use ^ as indicator for the cursor position):

String result = new String(anotherString + "hello");

What count do you need for w to get to hello? The answer might surprise you. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

OK, so we all came to the conclusion of 9w to get to hello? Vim has the interestingly decided that =, (, ), +, and " started words so we had to add 4 to our initial count, which makes it hard count correctly and, if we were wrong, there isn’t a “repeat” command for [count]w.

There is another line-wise motion in vim that is slightly more efficient, even if slightly less precise. Consider our former example, but this time we want to get to the e of hello: we can type fe and repeat the search with ;. Since this is a line-wise search and e happens to be the last e you could just hold down ; and you will hit the correct spot. That’s not nearly as precise, but I don’t have to count the e’s to get to where I want to go. This, in my counting deficient brain, is a plus as holding w will certainly overshoot the target. But what happens when you have something like the following and you want to move to apply?

var oldUnload = window.onbeforeunload;
window.onbeforeunload = function() {
    if (oldUnload) {
        return oldUnload.apply(this, arguments);

Should you count to get down four lines, then 4w to get to apply? Or use relative numbers to move down and then fa;?

There is a better way and it is simply to search: you look at where you want to go, press / and start typing the word. To make this more user-friendly, we want to see where we would end up if we pressed enter now. So we enable incremental search with :set incsearch and we try again, with our previous example:

Four keystrokes and we knew at the third keystrokes that we had hit the correct spot. This is the closest I’ve come to point and click, and it is super fast.

Addendum for previous motions

So, I covered f, w and /, and I think it is worth mentioning some opposites, additions, and silly mnemonics.

Opposites and additions

So f searches forward on the line, but how should you move back? Well, there is F<char> which allows you to search backwards but that might be more work than we’re willing to do if we simply overshot our target. So if we are at the e in hello and we really wanted the e in anotherString, we can simply press , to repeat the last move in the opposite direction.

Another complementary search for f is t which searches until the character, and its opposite T which moves backward.

w is another story, though. w moves you to the start of the next word and we might expect W to move to the previous word. Instead, it does… the exact same thing as w, at first glance. I’ll leave the specifics up to the manual (which you should read), but an easy example of the difference is this:

public void importantFunction(Type1 t1);

W will not care about the ( or ) and jump straight to t1.

/something will search forward for the first something that it finds. To find the next something, press n. To find the previous something, press N. Just like F for f there’s ? for / which searches backward, with n moving to the previous something and N moving to the next. Remember that all of these motions can be preceded with a count.


Here are the mnemonic tricks I use to remember what those motions do:

Command Mnemonic
f forward search (see :help f)
t ‘til, as in until (see :help t)
w word (see :help w)
/ forward search, if you draw the slash from bottom then the slash goes from left to right (see :help /)
? backward search, if you draw the question mark from the bottom it points backward (see :help ?)

I hope you weren’t expecting anything fancy…

/ is one of the supreme features (IMHO)

Imagine that you have:

String result1 = new String(anotherString + "hello");
String result2 = new String(anotherString + "hello");
String result3 = new String(anotherString + "hello");
String result4 = new String(anotherString + "hello");
String result5 = new String(anotherString + "hello");
String result6 = new String(anotherString + "hello");
String result7 = new String(anotherString + "hello");
String result8 = new String(anotherString + "hello");

Say you don’t need result2-8. One easy way to remove those lines is to just hold d and after a while it will all be deleted. But as vimmers we should try to do most things in one go, since it is easier to undo or put somewhere. One fun and intuitive way is to use visual mode:


and you have marked all the lines that you want to delete and you can press d knowing that this is exactly what you wanted. A more direct approach could be to do:


but this is not removing everything at once. Luckily we can just search again in the same query:


and you have done exactly what you wanted. Let’s break that one down

  • d accepts a motion and luckily / is a motion

  • /8 is a normal search for 8

  • / marks the end of the pattern

  • ; shows that the next part is a new search

  • /; searches for the next ;

  • /e leaves the cursor at the end of the match

For fun, and to illustrate our point rather than be a good vimmer, you can do something like:


to obtain the exact same result. For more information checkout :help /, especially the section on offset.

Still for fun, but this time to be a good vimmer, one could use visual-line mode to cast whatever motion follows to a line-wise motion:


Another thing that makes search very easy to use is that you have history which you can access with <Up> and <Down> when you have the / or ? on the command-line. So we could do d/ and go through our previous searches. Which is nice if we have a search that involves complex regular expressions.

Something else that is fun with search is that it can be repeated with // or ??. Now this is probably completely useless, right? You can just press n or N to do the exact same search again. True, but you can do it in other commands! So imagine that we are working with the same sample as above. result might not be the best name so we want to change it to something else. We do /result<cr>, to see that we’re describing our target correctly, and we substitute out the meaningless name:


to rename it to something more meaningful.


Now you might be thinking “That last command is nice and all, but what happens if that is in the middle of a 5000 lines of code? I can’t be held accountable for what happens with the other 4992 lines of code!”. Well luckily you wont have to, you can use search to choose the range of lines that you want to hit:


and you’re done, thanks to <C-r> / inserting the last search into your command. See :help c_ctrl-r.

But what happens if your code has multiple result1 or result8? Basically the same as when you do a normal search: from where your cursor currently is until you hit the first result1 and then until you hit the first result8 after result1. An interesting behaviour I found here is that if you are doing the same command again and you have one result1 above your current cursor it will still find your result1 and perform the substitution while, if for some reason result8 is before result1 it will ask you if you want to switch the backward range.

See :help cmdline-ranges.

Obvious(?) other uses of search and some tips

I mentioned briefly (very briefly) that / takes regular expression patterns. This is matter for a dozen articles, but I should demonstrate it with a quick example: search for any result1-8 in one go instead of just result. You would do:

" search for 'result' followed by a number


" search for 're',
" followed by any character,
" followed by 'ult',
" followed by a number


" search for 'res',
" followed by a 'keyword' character
" followed by 'lt',
" followed by a number

As usual, the manual is here to quench your thirst for knowledge.

You can use

:g/<search here>/d

to delete all lines that contain pattern or you can use:

:v/<search here>/d

to delete all lines that don’t contain pattern. You can also use ranges on those 2 command and the ranges can use search. And don’t get me started on what can come after v/.../ or g/.../ because I don’t know that much about it to begin with and I would like someone to do an article on this (wink, wink).

In the mean time, much can be learned from :help :global.

You can repeat d/<search> or c/<search> with ..

I think you can begin to see a pattern where if the command changes text and accepts a motion you can repeat it with .. For example, a cheap substitute for:


could actually be to do:


then n to get to the next match and . to repeat the change. See :help gn.

I like to use / to move around or visually selecting. But when I’ve gotten to where I want to work I’ll go to insert mode to insert text, change text with ct; (I usually come to where I want to assign a variable and remove the text from: <text to remove>;), or when I change a function signature I’ll let my quickfix list get populated with the problematic method calls, go to those locations, do /something to get to the offending parameter and follow up with any of the following:

  • df,x,

  • d2w,

  • dw.,

  • d/<the next parameter> to remove the parameter,

  • ct,

  • c/<the next parameter> to change the parameter,

  • etc.