March 11, 2019

Find & Replace Helpers for Vim


The post, how do you handle these common find / replace use cases, from the Vim subreddit was the spark that led me down a find & replace rabbit-hole.

Programming often entails refactoring code, that may be as simple as renaming a local variable or as complex as changing a typename throughout a project’s entire codebase.

Vim does not prescribe a way to do such refactors, for example: one may execute a find followed by cw (change-word) and then repeat with n.n.n., or one may use the :%substitute command, to name a couple choices among many.

This post will highlight my new helpers for finding & replacing in Vim for the following three scenarios:

In each scenario the text to be replaced will either be the word under the cursor when in normal mode (similar to the * operator), or the highlighted text when in visual mode (similar to the visual-star-search plugin).

Note, I am not proclaiming these helpers as best-in-class, rather they should be viewed as a resource of possibilities.


A modern version of Vim, at least Vim 7.4.858 or Neovim 0.2.0, is required since some helpers make use of the modern gn and :cfdo commands.

The project-wide helper will also make use of the ripgrep command-line search tool. The ripgrep tool is documented in this article.

Please set ripgrep as the preferred grep tool in your ~/.vimrc:

set grepprg=rg\ --vimgrep\ --smart-case
set grepformat=%f:%l:%c:%m,%f:%l:%m

The :substitute-based helpers assume global replacement has been set in your ~/.vimrc

set gdefault

:bomb: I am aware this is a controversial setting since it may break some plugins. But, after many years I have yet to experience any deleterious effects with the plugins I use, whilst I thoroughly detest the need to enter /g with every :substitute command prior to that. Your mileage may vary.

Nearby Find & Replace

Editors such as Visual Studio Code, Atom and Sublime provide a multi-cursor option which allows a user to mark multiple locations, after a search, and then batch-edit simultaneously at those locations. That pattern works well for finding and replacing instances that are nearby.

With Vim, I recommend against the use of any multi-cursor plugins, instead the modern gn command is the natural operator for this scenario.

Helpers to add to ~/.vimrc

nnoremap <silent> <Leader>c :let @/='\<'.expand('<cword>').'\>'<CR>cgn
xnoremap <silent> <Leader>c "sy:let @/=@s<CR>cgn
nnoremap <CR> gnzz
xmap <CR> .<Esc>gnzz
xnoremap ! <Esc>ngnzz
autocmd! BufReadPost quickfix nnoremap <buffer> <CR> <CR>
autocmd! CmdwinEnter *        nnoremap <buffer> <CR> <CR>

Initiate nearby replacements by executing <Leader>c on the word to be replaced, or for the current visual selection, type the new text and then hit Esc to complete the change. The dot operator will immediately repeat that change forward for the next match, hit dot again to continue repeating the change. However, if one wishes to individually accept or reject each change then the enter and exclamation mark mappings listed above will prove useful; Enter will accept the change and then move forward to the next match, ! will reject the change whilst also moving forward to the next match.

Note, we restore the default Enter behaviour, via an autocmd, when in the quickfix list, that being the ability to go to the entry selected.

Why <Leader>c as the mapping? The c is for change. So the mnemonic behind <Leader>c is find-and-change. Please replace it with whatever key-sequence works best for you.

Find & Replace in the Current File

Helpers to add to ~/.vimrc

nnoremap <Leader>s :%s/<C-r><C-w>//<Left>
xnoremap <Leader>s "sy:%s/<C-r>s//<Left>

As most Vim users will be aware, the :substitute command when prefixed with % is all that is required to substitute throughout the current file. The <Leader>s helper will pre-populate the source field of the :%substitute command with either the word under the cursor or the current visual selection, one is then free to simply enter the replacement text followed by Enter to perform the substitutions.

Note, if confirmation for each replacement is required than append /c to the end of the :%substitute command.

Similar to the <Leader>c mapping above, the mnemonic behind <Leader>s is find-and-substitute, s for substitute. Please replace that mapping with whatever key-sequence works best for you.

:bulb: Neovim provides an option, inccommand, to live preview the :substitute command. If you use Neovim then I recommend this turning on this setting.

if has("nvim")
    set inccommand=nosplit

This Vimcast by Drew Neil highlights the live preview feature.

Project-wide Find & Replace

Helpers to add to ~/.vimrc

nnoremap <Leader>S
  \ :let @s='\<'.expand('<cword>').'\>'<CR>
  \ :let &grepprg=&grepprg . ' -w'<CR>
  \ :silent grep <C-r><C-w><CR>
  \ :let &grepprg='rg --vimgrep --smart-case'<CR>
  \ :cfdo %s/<C-r>s// \| update
  \ <Left><Left><Left><Left><Left><Left><Left><Left><Left><Left><Left>
xnoremap <Leader>S
  \ "sy\|
  \ :silent grep <C-r>s<CR>
  \ :cfdo %s/<C-r>s// \| update
  \ <Left><Left><Left><Left><Left><Left><Left><Left><Left><Left><Left>

Note, please make sure ripgrep is available on the host. Again for reference, I have documented both the ripgrep tool here.

The above-listed <Leader>S helpers use ripgrep, via the grep command, to do a project-wide search on either the word under the cursor or the current visual selection, followed by a pre-populated substitution by way of the :cfdo command on the grep matched files in the quickfix list. Yes, the mapping and the explanation are convoluted, but in use it really is quite simple.

Note, if confirmation for each replacement is required than append /c to the end of the :%substitute command.

The mnemonic behind <Leader>S is find-and-SUBSTITUTE, capital S for substitute across many files. As per usual, please replace that mapping with a key-sequence that works best for you.


I am sure there are many other fine Vim-related find & replace solutions beyond those I have listed here. Hopefully this article stimulates you to improve your Vim workflow similar to how this Reddit post did for me :beer: