29Moving through programs

The creator of Vim is a computer programmer. It's no surprise that Vim contains many features to aid in writing programs. Jump around to find where identifiers are defined and used. Preview declarations in a separate window. There is more in the next chapter.

    Table of contents

  1. Using tags
  2. The preview window
  3. Moving through a program
  4. Finding global identifiers
  5. Finding local identifiers

29.1Using tags

What is a tag? It is a location where an identifier is defined. An example is a function definition in a C or C++ program. A list of tags is kept in a tags file. This can be used by Vim to directly jump from any place to the tag, the place where an identifier is defined.

To generate the tags file for all C files in the current directory, use the following command:

ctags *.c

ctags is a separate program. Most Unix systems already have it installed. If you do not have it yet, you can find Exuberant ctags here:


Now when you are in Vim and you want to go to a function definition, you can jump to it by using the following command:

:tag startlist

This command will find the function startlist even if it is in another file.

The CTRL‑] command jumps to the tag of the word that is under the cursor. This makes it easy to explore a tangle of C code. Suppose, for example, that you are in the function write_block. You can see that it calls write_line. But what does write_line do? By placing the cursor on the call to write_line and pressing CTRL‑], you jump to the definition of this function.

The write_line function calls write_char. You need to figure out what it does. So you position the cursor over the call to write_char and press CTRL‑]. Now you are at the definition of write_char.

|void write_block(char **s; int cnt)  |
|{				      |
|   int i;			      |
|   for (i = 0; i < cnt; ++i)	      |
|      write_line(s[i]);	      |
|}	    |			      |
     CTRL-] |
	    |	 +----------------------------+
	    +--> |void write_line(char *s)    |
		 |{			      |
		 |   while (*s != 0)	      |
		 |	write_char(*s++);     |
		 |}	  |		      |
		   CTRL-] |
			  |    +------------------------------------+
			  +--> |void write_char(char c)		    |
			       |{				    |
			       |    putchar((int)(unsigned char)c); |
			       |}				    |

The :tags command shows the list of tags that you traversed through:

  # TO tag	   FROM line  in file/text
  1  1 write_line	   8  write_block.c
  2  1 write_char	   7  write_line.c

Now to go back. The CTRL‑T command goes to the preceding tag. In the example above you get back to the write_line function, in the call to write_char.

This command takes a count argument that indicates how many tags to jump back. You have gone forward, and now back. Let's go forward again. The following command goes to the tag on top of the list:


You can prefix it with a count and jump forward that many tags. For example: :3tag. CTRL‑T also can be preceded with a count.

These commands thus allow you to go down a call tree with CTRL‑] and back up again with CTRL‑T. Use :tags to find out where you are.

#Split windows

The :tag command replaces the file in the current window with the one containing the new function. But suppose you want to see not only the old function but also the new one? You can split the window using the :split command followed by the :tag command. Vim has a shorthand command that does both:

:stag tagname

To split the current window and jump to the tag under the cursor use this command:


If a count is specified, the new window will be that many lines high.

#More tags files

When you have files in many directories, you can create a tags file in each of them. Vim will then only be able to jump to tags within that directory.

To find more tags files, set the tags option to include all the relevant tags files. Example:

:set tags=./tags,./../tags,./*/tags

This finds a tags file in the same directory as the current file, one directory level higher and in all subdirectories.

This is quite a number of tags files, but it may still not be enough. For example, when editing a file in ~/proj/src, you will not find the tags file ~/proj/sub/tags. For this situation Vim offers to search a whole directory tree for tags files. Example:

:set tags=~/proj/**/tags

#One tags file

When Vim has to search many places for tags files, you can hear the disk rattling. It may get a bit slow. In that case it's better to spend this time while generating one big tags file. You might do this overnight.

This requires the Exuberant ctags program, mentioned above. It offers an argument to search a whole directory tree:

cd ~/proj
ctags -R .

The nice thing about this is that Exuberant ctags recognizes various file types. Thus this doesn't work just for C and C++ programs, also for Eiffel and even Vim scripts. See the ctags documentation to tune this.

Now you only need to tell Vim where your big tags file is:

:set tags=~/proj/tags

#Multiple matches

When a function is defined multiple times (or a method in several classes), the :tag command will jump to the first one. If there is a match in the current file, that one is used first.

You can now jump to other matches for the same tag with:


Repeat this to find further matches. If there are many, you can select which one to jump to:

:tselect tagname

Vim will present you with a list of choices:

  # pri kind tag	       file
  1 F	f    mch_init	       os_amiga.c
  2 F	f    mch_init	       os_mac.c
  3 F	f    mch_init	       os_msdos.c
  4 F	f    mch_init	       os_riscos.c
Enter nr of choice (<CR> to abort): 

You can now enter the number (in the first column) of the match that you would like to jump to. The information in the other columns give you a good idea of where the match is defined.

To move between the matching tags, these commands can be used:

:tfirstgo to first match
:[count]tpreviousgo to [count] previous match
:[count]tnextgo to [count] next match
:tlastgo to last match

If [count] is omitted then one is used.

#Guessing tag names

Command line completion is a good way to avoid typing a long tag name. Just type the first bit and press <Tab>:

:tag write_<Tab>

You will get the first match. If it's not the one you want, press <Tab> until you find the right one.

Sometimes you only know part of the name of a function. Or you have many tags that start with the same string, but end differently. Then you can tell Vim to use a pattern to find the tag.

Suppose you want to jump to a tag that contains block. First type this:

:tag /block

Now use command line completion: press <Tab>. Vim will find all tags that contain block and use the first match.

The / before a tag name tells Vim that what follows is not a literal tag name, but a pattern. You can use all the items for search patterns here. For example, suppose you want to select a tag that starts with write_:

:tselect /^write_

The ^ specifies that the tag starts with write_. Otherwise it would also be found halfway a tag name. Similarly $ at the end makes sure the pattern matches until the end of a tag.

#A tags browser

Since CTRL‑] takes you to the definition of the identifier under the cursor, you can use a list of identifier names as a table of contents. Here is an example.

First create a list of identifiers (this requires Exuberant ctags):

ctags --c-types=f -f functions *.c

Now start Vim without a file, and edit this file in Vim, in a vertically split window:

:vsplit functions

The window contains a list of all the functions. There is some more stuff, but you can ignore that. Do :setlocal ts=99 to clean it up a bit.

In this window, define a mapping:

:nnoremap <buffer> <CR> 0ye<C-W>w:tag <C-R>"<CR>

Move the cursor to the line that contains the function you want to go to. Now press <Enter>. Vim will go to the other window and jump to the selected function.

To make case in tag names be ignored, you can set ignorecase while leaving tagcase as followic, or set tagcase to ignore.

The tagbsearch option tells if the tags file is sorted or not. The default is to assume a sorted tags file, which makes a tags search a lot faster, but doesn't work if the tags file isn't sorted.

The taglength option can be used to tell Vim the number of significant characters in a tag.

Cscope is a free program. It does not only find places where an identifier is declared, but also where it is used. See cscope.

29.2The preview window

When you edit code that contains a function call, you need to use the correct arguments. To know what values to pass you can look at how the function is defined. The tags mechanism works very well for this. Preferably the definition is displayed in another window. For this the preview window can be used.

To open a preview window to display the function write_char:

:ptag write_char

Vim will open a window, and jumps to the tag write_char. Then it takes you back to the original position. Thus you can continue typing without the need to use a CTRL‑W command.

If the name of a function appears in the text, you can get its definition in the preview window with:


There is a script that automatically displays the text where the word under the cursor was defined. See CursorHold‑example.

To close the preview window use this command:


To edit a specific file in the preview window, use :pedit. This can be useful to edit a header file, for example:

:pedit defs.h

Finally, :psearch can be used to find a word in the current file and any included files and display the match in the preview window. This is especially useful when using library functions, for which you do not have a tags file. Example:

:psearch popen

This will show the stdio.h file in the preview window, with the function prototype for popen():

FILE	*popen __P((const char *, const char *));

You can specify the height of the preview window, when it is opened, with the previewheight option.

29.3Moving through a program

Since a program is structured, Vim can recognize items in it. Specific commands can be used to move around.

C programs often contain constructs like this:

#ifdef USE_POPEN
    fd = popen("ls", "r")
    fd = fopen("tmp", "w")

But then much longer, and possibly nested. Position the cursor on the #ifdef and press %. Vim will jump to the #else. Pressing % again takes you to the #endif. Another % takes you to the #ifdef again.

When the construct is nested, Vim will find the matching items. This is a good way to check if you didn't forget an #endif.

When you are somewhere inside a #if - #endif, you can jump to the start of it with:


If you are not after a #if or #ifdef Vim will beep. To jump forward to the next #else or #endif use:


These two commands skip any #if - #endif blocks that they encounter. Example:

#if defined(HAS_INC_H)
    a = a + inc();
# ifdef USE_THEME
    a += 3;
# endif

With the cursor in the last line, [# moves to the first line. The #ifdef

#Moving in code blocks

In C code blocks are enclosed in {}. These can get pretty long. To move to the start of the outer block use the [[ command. Use ][ to find the end. This assumes that the { and } are in the first column.

The [{ command moves to the start of the current block. It skips over pairs of {} at the same level. ]} jumps to the end.

An overview:

		function(int a)
   +->		{
   |		    if (a)
   |	   +->	    {
[[ |	   |		for (;;)	       --+
   |	   |	  +->	{			 |
   |	[{ |	  |	    foo(32);		 |     --+
   |	   |   [{ |	    if (bar(a))  --+	 | ]}	 |
   +--	   |	  +--		break;	   | ]}  |	 |
	   |		}		 <-+	 |	 | ][
	   +--		foobar(a)		 |	 |
		    }			       <-+	 |
		}				       <-+

When writing C++ or Java, the outer {} block is for the class. The next level of {} is for a method. When somewhere inside a class use [m to find the previous start of a method. ]m finds the next start of a method.

Additionally, [] moves backward to the end of a function and ]] moves forward to the start of the next function. The end of a function is defined by a } in the first column.

			int func1(void)
				return 1;
	  +---------->  }
      []  |		int func2(void)
	  |	   +->	{
	  |    [[  |		if (flag)
start	  +--	   +--			return flag;
	  |    ][  |		return 2;
	  |	   +->	}
      ]]  |
	  |		int func3(void)
	  +---------->	{
				return 3;

Don't forget you can also use % to move between matching (), {} and []. That also works when they are many lines apart.

#Moving in braces

The [( and ]) commands work similar to [{ and ]}, except that they work on () pairs instead of {} pairs.

if (a == b && (c == d || (e > f)) && x > y) ~
	  --------------------------------> >

#Moving in comments

To move back to the start of a comment use [/. Move forward to the end of a comment with ]/. This only works for /* - */ comments.

	  +->	  +-> /*
	  |    [/ |    * A comment about      --+
       [/ |	  +--  * wonderful life.	| ]/
	  |	       */		      <-+
	  +--	       foo = bar * 3;	      --+
						| ]/
		       /* a short comment */  <-+

29.4Finding global identifiers

You are editing a C program and wonder if a variable is declared as int or unsigned. A quick way to find this is with the [I command.

Suppose the cursor is on the word column. Type:


Vim will list the matching lines it can find. Not only in the current file, but also in all included files (and files included in them, etc.). The result looks like this:

 1:   29     unsigned     column;    /* column number */

The advantage over using tags or the preview window is that included files are searched. In most cases this results in the right declaration to be found. Also when the tags file is out of date. Also when you don't have tags for the included files.

However, a few things must be right for [I to do its work. First of all, the include option must specify how a file is included. The default value works for C and C++. For other languages you will have to change it.

#Locating included files

Vim will find included files in the places specified with the path option. If a directory is missing, some include files will not be found. You can discover this with this command:


It will list the include files that could not be found. Also files included by the files that could be found. An example of the output:

--- Included files not found in path ---
vim.h -->

The io.h file is included by the current file and can't be found. vim.h can be found, thus :checkpath goes into this file and checks what it includes. The functions.h and clib/exec_protos.h files, included by vim.h are not found.

Vim is not a compiler. It does not recognize #ifdef statements. This means every #include statement is used, also when it comes after #if NEVER.

To fix the files that could not be found, add a directory to the path option. A good place to find out about this is the Makefile. Look out for lines that contain -I items, like -I/usr/local/X11. To add this directory use:

:set path+=/usr/local/X11

When there are many subdirectories, you can use the * wildcard. Example:

:set path+=/usr/*/include

This would find files in /usr/local/include as well as /usr/X11/include.

When working on a project with a whole nested tree of included files, the ** items is useful. This will search down in all subdirectories. Example:

:set path+=/projects/invent/**/include

This will find files in the directories:


There are even more possibilities. Check out the path option for info.

If you want to see which included files are actually found, use this command:


You will get a (very long) list of included files, the files they include, and so on. To shorten the list a bit, Vim shows "(Already listed)" for files that were found before and doesn't list the included files in there again.

#Jumping to a match

[I produces a list with only one line of text. When you want to have a closer look at the first item, you can jump to that line with the command:


You can also use "[ CTRL‑I", since CTRL‑I is the same as pressing <Tab>.

The list that [I produces has a number at the start of each line. When you want to jump to another item than the first one, type the number first:


Will jump to the third item in the list. Remember that you can use CTRL‑O to jump back to where you started from.

[ionly lists the first match
]Ionly lists items below the cursor
]ionly lists the first item below the cursor

#Finding defined identifiers

The [I command finds any identifier. To find only macros, defined with #define use:


Again, this searches in included files. The define option specifies what a line looks like that defines the items for [D. You could change it to make it work with other languages than C or C++.

The commands related to [D are:

[donly lists the first match
]Donly lists items below the cursor
]donly lists the first item below the cursor

29.5Finding local identifiers

The [I command searches included files. To search in the current file only, and jump to the first place where the word under the cursor is used:


Hint: Goto Definition. This command is very useful to find a variable or function that was declared locally (static, in C terms). Example (cursor on counter):

   +->   static int counter = 0;
   |     int get_counter(void)
gD |     {
   |	     ++counter;
   +--	     return counter;

To restrict the search even further, and look only in the current function, use this command:


This will go back to the start of the current function and find the first occurrence of the word under the cursor. Actually, it searches backwards to an empty line above a { in the first column. From there it searches forward for the identifier. Example (cursor on idx):

	int find_entry(char *name)
   +->	    int idx;
gd |	    for (idx = 0; idx < table_len; ++idx)
   |		if (strcmp(table[idx].name, name) == 0)
   +--		    return idx;