Learn Vim



One useful feature in text editing is being able to go to any definition quickly. In this chapter, you will learn how to use Vim tags to do that.

Tag Overview

Suppose someone handed you a new codebase:

one = One.new

One? donut? Well, these might have been obvious to the developers writing the code way back then, but now those developers are no longer here and it is up to you to understand these obscure codes. One way to help understand this is to follow the source code where One and donut are defined.

You can search for them with either fzf or grep (or vimgrep), but in this case, tags are faster.

Think of tags like an address book:

Name Address
Iggy1 1234 Cool St, 11111
Iggy2 9876 Awesome Ave, 2222

Instead of having a name-address pair, tags store definitions paired with addresses.

Let's assume that you have these two Ruby files inside the same directory:

## one.rb
class One
def initialize
puts "Initialized"
def donut
puts "Bar"


## two.rb
require './one'
one = One.new

To jump to a definition, you can use Ctrl-] in the normal mode. Inside two.rb, go to the line where one.donut is and move the cursor over donut. Press Ctrl-].

Whoops, Vim could not find the tag file. You need to generate the tag file first.

Tag Generator

Modern Vim does not come with tag generator, so you will have to download an external tag generator. There are several options to choose:

  • ctags = C only. Available almost everywhere.
  • exuberant ctags = One of the most popular ones. Has many language support.
  • universal ctags = Similar to exuberant ctags, but newer.
  • etags = For Emacs. Hmm...
  • JTags = Java
  • ptags.py = Python
  • ptags = Perl
  • gnatxref = Ada

If you look at Vim tutorials online, many will recommend exuberant ctags. It supports 41 programming languages. I used it and it worked great. However, because it has not been maintained since 2009, Universal ctags would be a better choice. It works similar to exuberant ctags and is currently being maintained.

I won't go into details on how to install the universal ctags. Check out the universal ctags repository for more instructions.

Assuming you have the universal ctags installed, let's generate a basic tag file. Run:

ctags -R .

The R option tells ctags to run a recursive scan from your current location (.). You should see a tags file in your current directory. Inside you will see something like this:

!_TAG_FILE_FORMAT 2 /extended format; --format=1 will not append ;" to lines/
!_TAG_FILE_SORTED 1 /0=unsorted, 1=sorted, 2=foldcase/
!_TAG_OUTPUT_FILESEP slash /slash or backslash/
!_TAG_OUTPUT_MODE u-ctags /u-ctags or e-ctags/
!_TAG_PATTERN_LENGTH_LIMIT 96 /0 for no limit/
!_TAG_PROGRAM_AUTHOR Universal Ctags Team //
!_TAG_PROGRAM_NAME Universal Ctags /Derived from Exuberant Ctags/
!_TAG_PROGRAM_URL <https://ctags.io/> /official site/
!_TAG_PROGRAM_VERSION 0.0.0 /b43eb39/
One one.rb /^class One$/;" c
donut one.rb /^ def donut$/;" f class:One
initialize one.rb /^ def initialize$/;" f class:One

Yours might look a little different depending on your Vim setting and the ctags generator. A tag file is composed of two parts: the tag metadata and the tag list. These metadata (!TAG_FILE...) are usually controlled by the ctags generator. I won't discuss it here, but feel free to check their docs for more! The tag list is a list of all the definitions indexed by ctags.

Now go to two.rb, put the cursor on donut, and type Ctrl-]. Vim will take you to the file one.rb on the line where def donut is. Success! But how did Vim do this?

Tags Anatomy

Let's look at the donut tag item:

donut one.rb /^ def donut$/;" f class:One

The above tag item is composed of four components: a tagname, a tagfile, a tagaddress, and tag options.

  • donut is the tagname. When your cursor is on "donut", Vim searches the tag file for a line that has the "donut" string.
  • one.rb is the tagfile. Vim looks for a file one.rb.
  • /^ def donut$/ is the tagaddress. /.../ is a pattern indicator. ^ is a pattern for the first element on a line. It is followed by two spaces, then the string def donut. Finally, $ is a pattern for the last element on a line.
  • f class:One is the tag option that tells Vim that the function donut is a function (f) and is part of the One class.

Let's look at another item in the tag list:

One one.rb /^class One$/;" c

This line works the same way as the donut pattern:

  • One is the tagname. Note that with tags, the first scan is case sensitive. If you have One and one on the list, Vim will prioritize One over one.
  • one.rb is the tagfile. Vim looks for a file one.rb.
  • /^class One$/ is the tagaddress pattern. Vim looks for a line that starts with (^) class and ends with ($) One.
  • c is one of the possible tag options. Since One is a ruby class and not a procedure, it marks it with a c.

Depending on which tag generator you use, the content of your tag file may look different. At minimum, a tag file must have either one of these formats:

1. {tagname} {TAB} {tagfile} {TAB} {tagaddress}
2. {tagname} {TAB} {tagfile} {TAB} {tagaddress} {term} {field} ..

The Tag File

You have learned that a new file, tags, is created after running ctags -R .. How does Vim know where to look for the tag file?

If you run :set tags?, you might see tags=./tags,tags (depending on your Vim settings, it might be different). Here Vim looks for all tags in the path of the current file in the case of ./tags and the current directory (your project root) in the case of tags.

Also in the case of ./tags, Vim will first look for a tag file inside the path of your current file regardless how nested it is, then it will look for a tag file of the current directory (project root). Vim stops after it finds the first match.

If your 'tags' file had said tags=./tags,tags,/user/iggy/mytags/tags, then Vim will also look at the /user/iggy/mytags directory for a tag file after Vim finishes searching ./tags and tags directory. You don't have to store your tag file inside your project, you can keep them separate.

To add a new tag file location, use the following:

set tags+=path/to/my/tags/file

Generating Tags For A Large Project

If you tried to run ctags in a large project, it may take a long time because Vim also looks inside every nested directories. If you are a Javascript developer, you know that node_modules can be very large. Imagine if you have a five sub-projects and each contains its own node_modules directory. If you run ctags -R ., ctags will try to scan through all 5 node_modules. You probably don't need to run ctags on node_modules.

To run ctags excluding the node_modules, run:

ctags -R --exclude=node_modules .

This time it should take less than a second. By the way, you can use the exclude option multiple times:

ctags -R --exclude=.git --exclude=vendor --exclude=node_modules --exclude=db --exclude=log .

The point is, if you want to omit a directory, --exclude is your best friend.

Tags Navigation

You can get good mileage using only Ctrl-], but let's learn a few more tricks. The tag jump key Ctrl-] has an command-line mode alternative: :tag {tag-name}. If you run:

:tag donut

Vim will jump to the donut method, just like doing Ctrl-] on "donut" string. You can autocomplete the argument too, with <Tab>:

:tag d<Tab>

Vim lists all tags that starts with "d". In this case, "donut".

In a real project, you may encounter multiple methods with the same name. Let's update the two ruby files from earlier. Inside one.rb:

## one.rb
class One
def initialize
puts "Initialized"
def donut
puts "one donut"
def pancake
puts "one pancake"

Inside two.rb:

## two.rb
require './one.rb'
def pancake
"Two pancakes"
one = One.new
puts pancake

If you are coding along, don't forget to run ctags -R . again since you now have several new procedures. You have two instances of the pancake procedure. If you are inside two.rb and you pressed Ctrl-], what would happen?

Vim will jump to def pancake inside two.rb, not the def pancake inside one.rb. This is because Vim sees the pancake procedure inside two.rb as having a higher priority than the other pancake procedure.

Tag Priority

Not all tags are equal. Some tags have higher priorities. If Vim is presented with duplicate item names, Vim checks the priority of the keyword. The order is:

  1. A fully matched static tag in the current file.
  2. A fully matched global tag in the current file.
  3. A fully matched global tag in a different file.
  4. A fully matched static tag in another file.
  5. A case-insensitively matched static tag in the current file.
  6. A case-insensitively matched global tag in the current file.
  7. A case-insensitively matched global tag in the a different file.
  8. A case-insensitively matched static tag in the current file.

According to the priority list, Vim prioritizes the exact match found on the same file. That's why Vim chooses the pancake procedure inside two.rb over the pancake procedure inside one.rb. There are some exceptions to the priority list above depending on your 'tagcase', 'ignorecase', and 'smartcase' settings, but I will not discuss them here. If you are interested, check out :h tag-priority.

Selective Tag Jumps

It would be nice if you can choose which tag items to jump to instead of always going to the highest priority tag item. Maybe you actually need to jump to the pancake method in one.rb and not the one in two.rb. To do that, you can use :tselect. Run:

:tselect pancake

You will see, on the bottom of the screen:

## pri kind tag file
1 F C f pancake two.rb
def pancake
2 F f pancake one.rb
def pancake

If you type 2, Vim will jump to the procedure in one.rb. If you type 1, Vim will jump to the procedure in two.rb.

Pay attention to the pri column. You have F C on the first match and F on the second match. This is what Vim uses to determine the tag priotity. F C means a fully-matched (F) global tag in the current (C) file. F means only a fully-matched (F) global tag. F C always have a higher priority than F.

If you run :tselect donut, Vim also prompts you to select which tag item to jump to, even though there is only one option to choose from. Is there a way for Vim to prompt the tag list only if there are multiple matches and to jump immediately if there is only one tag found?

Of course! Vim has a :tjump method. Run:

:tjump donut

Vim will immediately jump to the donut procedure in one.rb, much like running :tag donut. Now run:

:tjump pancake

Vim will prompt you tag options to choose from, much like running :tselect pancake. With tjump you get the best of both methods.

Vim has a normal mode key for tjump: g Ctrl-]. I personally like g Ctrl-] better than Ctrl-].

Autocompletion With Tags

Tags can assist autocompletions. Recall from chapter 6, Insert Mode, that you can use Ctrl-X sub-mode to do various autocompletions. One autocompletion sub-mode that I did not mention was Ctrl-]. If you do Ctrl-X Ctrl-] while in the insert mode, Vim will use the tag file for autocompletion.

If you go into the insert mode and type Ctrl-x Ctrl-], you will see:


Tag Stack

Vim keeps a list of all the tags you have jumped to and from in a tag stack. You can see this stack with :tags. If you had first tag-jumped to pancake, followed by donut, and run :tags, you will see:

# TO tag FROM line in file/text
1 1 pancake 10 ch16_tags/two.rb
2 1 donut 9 ch16_tags/two.rb

Note the > symbol above. It shows your current position in the stack. To "pop" the stack to go back to one previous stack, you can run :pop. Try it, then run :tags again:

# TO tag FROM line in file/text
1 1 pancake 10 puts pancake
> 2 1 donut 9 one.donut

Note that the > symbol is now on line two, where the donut is. pop one more time, then run :tags again:

# TO tag FROM line in file/text
> 1 1 pancake 10 puts pancake
2 1 donut 9 one.donut

In normal mode, you can run Ctrl-t to achieve the same effect as :pop.

Automatic Tag Generation

One of the biggest drawbacks of Vim tags is that each time you make a significant change, you have to regenerate the tag file. If you recently renamed the pancake procedure to the waffle procedure, the tag file did not know that the pancake procedure had been renamed. It still stored pancake in the list of tags. You have to run ctags -R . to create an updated tag file. Recreating a new tag file this way can be cumbersome.

Luckily there are several methods you can employ to generate tags automatically.

Generate A Tag On Save

Vim has an autocommand (autocmd) method to execute any command on an event trigger. You can use this to generate tags on each save. Run:

:autocmd BufWritePost *.rb silent !ctags -R .


  • autocmd is a command-line command. It accepts an event, file pattern, and a command.
  • BufWritePost is an event for saving a buffer. Each time you save a file, you trigger a BufWritePost event.
  • .rb is a file pattern for ruby files.
  • silent is actually part of the command you are passing. Without this, Vim will display press ENTER or type command to continue each time you trigger the autocommand.
  • !ctags -R . is the command to execute. Recall that !cmd from inside Vim executes terminal command.

Now each time you save from inside a ruby file, Vim will run ctags -R ..

Using Plugins

There are several plugins to generate ctags automatically:

I use vim-gutentags. It is simple to use and will work right out of the box.

Ctags And Git Hooks

Tim Pope, author of many great Vim plugins, wrote a blog suggesting to use git hooks. Check it out.

Learn Tags The Smart Way

A tag is useful once configured properly. Suppose you are faced with a new codebase and you want to understand what functionFood does, you can easily read it by jumping to its definition. Inside it, you learn that it also calls functionBreakfast. You follow it and you learn that it calls functionPancake. Your function call graph looks something like this:

functionFood -> functionBreakfast -> functionPancake

This gives you insight that this code flow is related to having a pancake for breakfast.

To learn more about tags, check out :h tags. Now that you know how to use tags, let's explore a different feature: folding.

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