Vim patterns

Vim features a regular expression matching engine which, while roughly as powerful as Perl's, is unfortunately quite different in terms of syntax.

To illustrate, consider a task I recently faced. I wanted to sweep through a large collection of Ruby files replacing a bunch of require lines that used relative paths with equivalent absolute paths.

This meant replacing lines of the form:

require File.dirname(__FILE__) + "/../spec_helper"


require File.expand_path('../spec_helper', File.dirname(__FILE__))

The invocation to do this with Vim is:

:%s/require .\+\("\|'\)\/\?\(.\+spec_helper\)\("\|')/require File.expand_path('\2', File.dirname(__FILE__))/c

While the basic format is familiar:


Note that almost all "meta" characters which usually have special meaning in regular expressions must be escaped (characters like (, ), |, ? and +). Other "meta" characters like ., however, must not be escaped. The additional escaping makes for very punctuation-heavy regular expressions. What would be written in perl as:

/require .+("|')\/?(.+spec_helper)("|')/


/require .+["']\/?(.+spec_helper)["']/

Is written in Vim as:

/require .\+\("\|'\)\/\?\(.\+spec_helper\)\("\|'\)/

You can start the pattern with \v to activate "very magic" behavior, meaning that just about every character that can possibly be interpreted with a "meta" meaning will be interpreted that way even without the preceding backslash. This brings us back a little closer to the familiar perl syntax:

/\vrequire .+("|')\/?(.+spec_helper)("\')/

See also