Learn Vim

Ch26. Vimscript Variable Scopes

Before diving into Vimscript functions, let's learn about the different sources and scopes of Vim variables.

Mutable And Immutable Variables

You can assign a value to a variable in Vim with let:

let pancake = "pancake"

Later you can call that variable any time.

echo pancake
" returns "pancake"

let is mutable, meaning you can change the value at any time in the future.

let pancake = "pancake"
let pancake = "not waffles"
echo pancake
" returns "not waffles"

Notice that when you want to change the value of a set variable, you still need to use let.

let beverage = "milk"
beverage = "orange juice"
" throws an error

You can define an immutable variable with const. Being immutable, once a variable value is assigned, you cannot reassign it with a different value.

const waffle = "waffle"
const waffle = "pancake"
" throws an error

Variable Sources

There are three sources for variables: environment variable, option variable, and register variable.

Environment Variable

Vim can access your terminal environment variable. For example, if you have the SHELL environment variable available in your terminal, you can access it from Vim with:

echo $SHELL
" returns $SHELL value. In my case, it returns /bin/bash

Option Variable

You can access Vim options with & (these are the settings you access with set).

For example, to see what background Vim uses, you can run:

echo &background
" returns either "light" or "dark"

Alternatively, you can always run set background? to see the value of the background option.

Register Variable

You can access Vim registers (Ch. 08) with @.

Suppose the value "chocolate" is already saved in register a. To access it, you can use @a. You can also update it with let.

echo @a
" returns chocolate
let @a .= " donut"
echo @a
" returns "chocolate donut"

Now when you paste from register a ("ap), it will return "chocolate donut". The operator .= concatenates two strings. The expression let @a .= " donut" is the same as let @a = @a . " donut"

Variable Scopes

There are 9 different variable scopes in Vim. You can recognize them from their prepended letter:

g: Global variable
{nothing} Global variable
b: Buffer-local variable
w: Window-local variable
t: Tab-local variable
s: Sourced Vimscript variable
l: Function local variable
a: Function formal parameter variable
v: Built-in Vim variable

Global variable

When you are declaring a "regular" variable:

let pancake = "pancake"

pancake is actually a global variable. When you define a global variable, you can call them from anywhere.

Prepending g: to a variable also creates a global variable.

let g:waffle = "waffle"

In this case both pancake and g:waffle have the same scope. You can call each of them with or without g:.

echo pancake
" returns "pancake"
echo g:pancake
" returns "pancake"
echo waffle
" returns "waffle"
echo g:waffle
" returns "waffle"

Buffer Variable

A variable preceded with b: is a buffer variable. A buffer variable is a variable that is local to the current buffer (Ch. 02). If you have multiple buffers open, each buffer will have their own separate list of buffer variables.

In buffer 1:

const b:donut = "chocolate donut"

In buffer 2:

const b:donut = "blueberry donut"

If you run echo b:donut from buffer 1, it will return "chocolate donut". If you run it from buffer 2, it will return "blueberry donut".

On the side note, Vim has a special buffer variable b:changedtick that keeps track of all the changes done to the current buffer.

  1. Run echo b:changedtick and note the number it returns..
  2. Make changes in Vim.
  3. Run echo b:changedtick again and note the number it now returns.

Window Variable

A variable preceded with w: is a window variable. It exists only in that window.

In window 1:

const w:donut = "chocolate donut"

In window 2:

const w:donut = "raspberry donut"

On each window, you can call echo w:donut to get unique values.

Tab Variable

A variable preceded with t: is a tab variable. It exists only in that tab.

In tab 1:

const t:donut = "chocolate donut"

In tab 2:

const t:donut = "blackberry donut"

On each tab, you can call echo t:donut to get unique values.

Script variable

A variable preceded with s: is a script variable. These variables can only be accessed from inside that script.

If you have an arbitrary file dozen.vim and inside it you have:

let s:dozen = 12
function Consume()
let s:dozen -= 1
echo s:dozen " is left"

Source the file with :source dozen.vim. Now call the Consume function:

:call Consume()
" returns "11 is left"
:call Consume()
" returns "10 is left"
:echo s:dozen
" Undefined variable error

When you call Consume, you see it decrements the s:dozen value as expected. When you try to get s:dozen value directly, Vim won't find it because you are out of scope. s:dozen is only accessible from inside dozen.vim.

Each time you source the dozen.vim file, it resets the s:dozen counter. If you are in the middle of decrementing s:dozen value and you run :source dozen.vim, the counter resets back to 12. This can be a problem for unsuspecting users. To fix this issue, refactor the code:

if !exists("s:dozen")
let s:dozen = 12
function Consume()
let s:dozen -= 1
echo s:dozen

Now when you source dozen.vim while in the middle of decrementing, Vim reads !exists("s:dozen"), finds that it is true, and doesn't reset the value back to 12.

Function Local And Function Formal Parameter variable

Both the function local variable (l:) and the function formal variable (a:) will be covered in the next chapter.

Built-in Vim Variables

A variable prepended with v: is a special built-in Vim variable. You cannot define these variables. You have seen some of them already.

  • v:version tells you what Vim version you are using.
  • v:key contains the current item value when iterating through a dictionary.
  • v:val contains the current item value when running a map() or filter() operation.
  • v:true, v:false, v:null, and v:none are special data types.

There are other variables. For a list of Vim built-in variables, check out :h vim-variable or :h v:.

Using Vim Variable Scopes The Smart Way

Being able to quickly access environment, option, and register variables give you a broad flexibility to customize your editor and terminal environment. You also learned that Vim has 9 different variable scopes, each existing under a certain constraints. You can take advantage of these unique variable types to decouple your program.

You made it this far. You learned about data types, means of combinations, and variable scopes. Only one thing is left: functions.

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