Unix - The vi Editor Tutorial


There are many ways to edit files in Unix and for me one of the best ways is using screen-oriented text editor vi. This editor enable you to edit lines in context with other lines in the file.

Now a days you would find an improved version of vi editor which is called VIM. Here VIM stands for Vi IMproved.

The vi is generally considered the de facto standard in Unix editors because:

  • It's usually available on all the flavors of Unix system.

  • Its implementations are very similar across the board.

  • It requires very few resources.

  • It is more user friendly than any other editors like ed or ex.

You can use vi editor to edit an existing file or to create a new file from scratch. You can also use this editor to just read a text file.

Starting the vi Editor:

There are following way you can start using vi editor:

vi filenameCreates a new file if it already does not exist, otherwise opens existing file.
vi -R filenameOpens an existing file in read only mode.
view filenameOpens an existing file in read only mode.

Following is the example to create a new file testfile if it already does not exist in the current working directory:

$vi testfile

As a result you would see a screen something like as follows:

"testfile" [New File]    

You will notice a tilde (~) on each line following the cursor. A tilde represents an unused line. If a line does not begin with a tilde and appears to be blank, there is a space, tab, newline, or some other nonviewable character present.

So now you have opened one file to start with. Before proceeding further let us understanding few minor but important concepts explained below.

Operation Modes:

While working with vi editor you would come across following two modes:

  1. Command mode: This mode enables you to perform administrative tasks such as saving files, executing commands, moving the cursor, cutting (yanking) and pasting lines or words, and finding and replacing. In this mode, whatever you type is interpreted as a command.

  2. Insert mode: This mode enables you to insert text into the file. Everything that's typed in this mode is interpreted as input and finally it is put in the file .

The vi always starts in command mode. To enter text, you must be in insert mode. To come in insert mode you simply type i. To get out of insert mode, press the Esc key, which will put you back into command mode.

Hint: If you are not sure which mode you are in, press the Esc key twice, and then you'll be in command mode. You open a file using vi editor and start type some characters and then come in command mode to understand the difference.

Getting Out of vi:

The command to quit out of vi is :q. Once in command mode, type colon, and 'q', followed by return. If your file has been modified in any way, the editor will warn you of this, and not let you quit. To ignore this message, the command to quit out of vi without saving is :q!. This lets you exit vi without saving any of the changes.

The command to save the contents of the editor is :w. You can combine the above command with the quit command, or :wq and return.

The easiest way to save your changes and exit out of vi is the ZZ command. When you are in command mode, type ZZ and it will do the equivalent of :wq.

You can specify a different file name to save to by specifying the name after the :w. For example, if you wanted to save the file you were working as another filename called filename2, you would type :w filename2 and return. Try it once.

Moving within a File:

To move around within a file without affecting your text, you must be in command mode (press Esc twice). Here are some of the commands you can use to move around one character at a time:

kMoves the cursor up one line.
jMoves the cursor down one line.
hMoves the cursor to the left one character position.
lMoves the cursor to the right one character position.

There are following two important points to be noted:

  • The vi is case-sensitive, so you need to pay special attention to capitalization when using commands.

  • Most commands in vi can be prefaced by the number of times you want the action to occur. For example, 2j moves cursor two lines down the cursor location.

There are many other ways to move within a file in vi. Remember that you must be in command mode (press Esc twice). Here are some more commands you can use to move around the file:

0 or |Positions cursor at beginning of line.
$Positions cursor at end of line.
wPositions cursor to the next word.
bPositions cursor to previous word.
(Positions cursor to beginning of current sentence.
)Positions cursor to beginning of next sentence.
EMove to the end of Blank delimited word
{Move a paragraph back
}Move a paragraph forward
[[Move a section back
]]Move a section forward
n|Moves to the column n in the current line
1GMove to the first line of the file
GMove to the last line of the file
nGMove to nth line of the file
:nMove to nth line of the file
fcMove forward to c
FcMove back to c
HMove to top of screen
nHMoves to nth line from the top of the screen
MMove to middle of screen
LMove to botton of screen
nLMoves to nth line from the bottom of the screen
:xColon followed by a number would position the cursor on line number represented by x

Control Commands:

There are following useful command which you can use along with Control Key:

CTRL+dMove forward 1/2 screen
CTRL+dMove forward 1/2 screen
CTRL+fMove forward one full screen
CTRL+uMove backward 1/2 screen
CTRL+bMove backward one full screen
CTRL+eMoves screen up one line
CTRL+yMoves screen down one line
CTRL+uMoves screen up 1/2 page
CTRL+dMoves screen down 1/2 page
CTRL+bMoves screen up one page
CTRL+fMoves screen down one page
CTRL+IRedraws screen

Editing Files:

To edit the file, you need to be in the insert mode. There are many ways to enter insert mode from the command mode:

iInserts text before current cursor location.
IInserts text at beginning of current line.
aInserts text after current cursor location.
AInserts text at end of current line.
oCreates a new line for text entry below cursor location.
OCreates a new line for text entry above cursor location.

Deleting Characters:

Here is the list of important commands which can be used to delete characters and lines in an opened file:

xDeletes the character under the cursor location.
XDeletes the character before the cursor location.
dwDeletes from the current cursor location to the next word.
d^Deletes from current cursor position to the beginning of the line.
d$Deletes from current cursor position to the end of the line.
DDeletes from the cursor position to the end of the current line.
ddDeletes the line the cursor is on.

As mentioned above, most commands in vi can be prefaced by the number of times you want the action to occur. For example, 2x deletes two character under the cursor location and 2dd deletes two lines the cursor is on.

I would highly recommend to exercise all the above commands properly before proceeding further.

Change Commands:

You also have the capability to change characters, words, or lines in vi without deleting them. Here are the relevant commands:

ccRemoves contents of the line, leaving you in insert mode.
cwChanges the word the cursor is on from the cursor to the lowercase w end of the word.
rReplaces the character under the cursor. vi returns to command mode after the replacement is entered.
ROverwrites multiple characters beginning with the character currently under the cursor. You must use Esc to stop the overwriting.
sReplaces the current character with the character you type. Afterward, you are left in insert mode.
SDeletes the line the cursor is on and replaces with new text. After the new text is entered, vi remains in insert mode.

Copy and Past Commands:

You can copy lines or words from one place and then you can past them at another place using following commands:

yyCopies the current line.
ywCopies the current word from the character the lowercase w cursor is on until the end of the word.
pPuts the copied text after the cursor.
PPuts the yanked text before the cursor.

Advanced Commands:

There are some advanced commands that simplify day-to-day editing and allow for more efficient use of vi:

JJoin the current line with the next one. A count joins that many lines.
<<Shifts the current line to the left by one shift width.
>>Shifts the current line to the right by one shift width.
~Switch the case of the character under the cursor.
^GPress CNTRL and G keys at the same time to show the current filename and the status.
URestore the current line to the state it was in before the cursor entered the line.
uUndo the last change to the file. Typing 'u' again will re-do the change.
JJoin the current line with the next one. A count joins that many lines.
:fDisplays current position in the file in % and file name, total number of file.
:f filenameRenames current file to filename.
:w filenameWrite to file filename.
:e filenameOpens another file with filename.
:cd dirnameChanges current working directory to dirname.
:e #Use to toggle between two opened files.
:nIn case you open multiple files using vi, use :n to go to next file in the series.
:pIn case you open multiple files using vi, use :p to go to previous file in the series.
:NIn case you open multiple files using vi, use :N to go to previous file in the series.
:r fileReads file and inserts it after current line
:nr fileReads file and inserts it after line n.

Word and Character Searching:

The vi editor has two kinds of searches: string and character. For a string search, the / and ? commands are used. When you start these commands, the command just typed will be shown on the bottom line, where you type the particular string to look for.

These two commands differ only in the direction where the search takes place:

  • The / command searches forwards (downwards) in the file.

  • The ? command searches backwards (upwards) in the file.

The n and N commands repeat the previous search command in the same or opposite direction, respectively. Some characters have special meanings while using in search command and preceded by a backslash (\) to be included as part of the search expression.

^Search at the beginning of the line. (Use at the beginning of a search expression.)
.Matches a single character.
*Matches zero or more of the previous character.
$End of the line (Use at the end of the search expression.)
[Starts a set of matching, or non-matching expressions.
<Put in an expression escaped with the backslash to find the ending or beginning of a word.
>See the '<' character description above.

The character search searches within one line to find a character entered after the command. The f and F commands search for a character on the current line only. f searches forwards and F searches backwards and the cursor moves to the position of the found character.

The t and T commands search for a character on the current line only, but for t, the cursor moves to the position before the character, and T searches the line backwards to the position after the character.

Set Commands:

You can change the look and feel of your vi screen using the following :set commands. To use these commands you have to come in command mode then type :set followed by any of the following options:

:set icIgnores case when searching
:set aiSets autoindent
:set noaiTo unset autoindent.
:set nuDisplays lines with line numbers on the left side.
:set swSets the width of a software tabstop. For example you would set a shift width of 4 with this command: :set sw=4
:set wsIf wrapscan is set, if the word is not found at the bottom of the file, it will try to search for it at the beginning.
:set wmIf this option has a value greater than zero, the editor will automatically "word wrap". For example, to set the wrap margin to two characters, you would type this: :set wm=2
:set roChanges file type to "read only"
:set termPrints terminal type
:set bfDiscards control characters from input

Running Commands:

The vi has the capability to run commands from within the editor. To run a command, you only need to go into command mode and type :! command.

For example, if you want to check whether a file exists before you try to save your file to that filename, you can type :! ls and you will see the output of ls on the screen.

When you press any key (or the command's escape sequence), you are returned to your vi session.

Replacing Text:

The substitution command (:s/) enables you to quickly replace words or groups of words within your files. Here is the simple syntax:


The g stands for globally. The result of this command is that all occurrences on the cursor's line are changed.


Here are the key points to your success with vi:

  • You must be in command mode to use commands. (Press Esc twice at any time to ensure that you are in command mode.)

  • You must be careful to use the proper case (capitalization) for all commands.

  • You must be in insert mode to enter text.